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tell you my sins, and you can sharpen your knife

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Therefore, put on the armour of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground.
So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace.
— Ephesians 6:13-15

/

The first time Elliot Stabler walks into a courtroom, he’s a uniform rookie, six weeks out of the academy. 

He and his partner caught a drug deal gone bad; it was shaping up to be a routine collar until the buyer pulled a knife and all hell broke loose. Now, there’s a six-foot-three dealer named Shorty with a stab wound five inches wide chained to a bed in Bellevue, and a buyer sitting in Rikers, biding his time. 

Elliot saw the play-by-play, saw the butterfly knife flip open, saw the angry red of freshly spilled blood dripping down Shorty’s leg. Shorty had screamed, high pitched and strangled, when Elliot and Mitch approached, guns drawn. The buyer started running, then, hightailing it out of the corner lot, Elliot’s partner hot on his heels, and Elliot had crouched down, trying his best to apply pressure to Shorty’s wound and radio for a bus at the same time.

“What you doin’ helpin’ me?” he remembers Shorty gritting out between clenched teeth, the disbelief evident in his tone. “You a cop, dude.”

Elliot had just shaken his head, pressed his hand down harder. “Pretty hard to arrest ya if you’re dead, man,” he’d said, and that was that, at least until the ambulance showed up, lights and sirens piercing the quiet of the afternoon, of the abandoned lot where Shorty lay bleeding and Elliot wondered what would happen if his hand were to slip. 

Now the ADA wants them to testify as part of a bigger trial, Elliot and his partner both. Mitch is an old hat but Elliot’s never done this before, so he gets called in on the Saturday before the trial; a dry run, the ADA says, to make sure Elliot doesn’t say anything stupid. 

He gets to the courthouse early, after kissing Kathy goodbye and hugging his daughter and taking a second to let his eyes settle on the barely-there swell of his wife’s stomach. Kid number two; they didn’t expect it to happen this fast, not after Elliot had just gotten back from the Marines and finished up night classes and the academy, too, but there they were, two pink lines on a pharmacy test and Kathy’s quiet insistence that they can do this, of course they can, because she has faith — in God, and in them. 

And so, Elliot does too.

The courthouse is all but deserted, and Elliot debates waiting on the ADA before he goes inside the courtroom but then decides against it, pushing open the heavy oak door. 

It’s empty inside, cold and half dark. The only light comes in slivers, filtering in through the panes of the far windows, and Elliot can see dust particles floating in the sunlight. He stops at the last row of benches, placing his hand on the worn wood as his eyes roam across the space and a familiar tightness builds in his chest. 

He can’t stop the parallels that start forming in his mind, between wooden seats and pews, witness stands and confessionals, judge’s benches and altars. Black robes instead of ornate ones, oaths that stand in for prayers. In God We Trust, here as in the nave, a room to bear witness and have faith — both in justice and the Lord. 

Elliot fights the urge to kneel as he approaches the bar, stopping instead to look at the jury box and the witness stand. He suddenly feels ten years old again, like he’s standing before the altar and waiting to ring the bells during consecration, brow furrowed in concentration as Father McCleary recites the anaphora. 

There are no bells here today, and there won’t be at the trial, either, but Elliot feels the old, well-worn pressure mounting nonetheless, and he grips the railing so tight his knuckles turn white. 

The creak of the courtroom door startles him; Elliot spins around and sees the ADA walk in, briefcase in hand, confident, like the room belongs to him. “Officer Stabler, thanks for coming in on a weekend,” he says in lieu of a greeting. “This should be quick.”

/

Kathy doesn’t understand why Elliot volunteered for SVU, why he’d want to expose himself to the worst of the world’s cruelty and depravity, day in and day out. 

To be fair, Elliot doesn’t quite know why he chose the unit either, except that he looks at his wife and his daughters and something clenches, deep in his gut, wraps itself around his heart with a vice-grip and holds on tight. It’s fear and fury in equal measure, fierce and white-hot, almost blinding. 

It’s the thought of Kathy walking home alone, hyper-alert, scared she’ll get accosted in an alleyway. It’s someone snatching Maureen from the park, shoving her into an unmarked van and disappearing, just like that. It’s the thought of someone covering Kathleen’s tiny body in purple bruises because she won’t stop crying. 

Elliot’s not one to catastrophize, not usually. But when it comes to his family, he can’t help it, can’t stop thinking of all the ways that people can hurt those they’re supposed to love the very most. He could go mad with it, with the nightmares that unfold in his own head, and while Elliot knows he can protect his own family, there are so many others out there living the very violence that keeps him up at night. 

So Elliot requests a transfer, from Homicide to SVU, and prays to God that the reality of it won’t break him.

The first time he sees the body of a six-year-old face down in a ditch, Elliot swallows, kneels and makes the sign of the cross. He can feel his new partner’s eyes on him from somewhere over his shoulder, but Elliot doesn’t have it in him to care.

On his first day at SVU, Elliot’s partner’s idea of a crash course had turned out to be a five-minute talk in the locker room about needing to stay objective and not letting the things they see every day mess with his head. Baker’s not much of a talker in general, Elliot has since learned, and he’d just nodded, holstered his gun and followed his partner to their first crime scene. He learns best by doing anyway.

Three months in, he realizes why the turnover rate is so goddamn high. 

There is nothing that’ll ever make him understand the violence he’s confronted with on a daily basis, how people can rape, torture, beat and maim. It’s incomprehensible, and Elliot stays back for a few moments, now, when he and Kathy take the girls to church on Sundays, kneels in a pew, clasps his hands together and asks God the age-old question: Why? He never does end up getting an answer. 

It turns out the six-year-old they found in the park had been sexually assaulted by his uncle, left for dead when the sick bastard went too far by mistake. 

Elliot’s practically twitching when he sits across from him in interrogation, listening to the guy go on about “special love” and a million other bullshit excuses until he can’t take it anymore. Suddenly, Elliot’s hands are around the prick’s neck and he’s pushing him up against the closest wall. 

“He was six, you bastard,” Elliot hisses, watching as the guy’s eyes widen in fear and his face turns redder by the second, his breath coming in short pants. There’s a sick sort of satisfaction in seeing him squirm, seeing him experience even a fraction of the pain he’d subjected his nephew to. “You’re lucky I’m a cop or—”

“Stabler, lay off.” Baker’s voice is even but hard, and Elliot can feel his partner’s arm on his shoulder. 

Elliot loosens his grip and the perp sags down into himself, heaving. He takes a step back, catches the look on Baker’s face and scrubs a hand over his jaw. 

“Take a minute, detective,” Baker says, not unkindly, and Elliot doesn’t need to be told twice. 

Baker tracks him down fifteen minutes later. Still keyed-up, Elliot is pummeling the punching bag in the precinct locker room. Baker clears his throat and Elliot stops hitting, takes a deep breath and turns toward his partner, who’s leaning against the row of lockers. 

“You gonna tell the Cap to write me up?” Elliot asks, wiping the sweat off his brow. There’s a challenge in his voice that he didn’t see coming, and he wonders how the fuck Baker is this calm right now.

Baker shakes his head. “Nah, kid. You can’t keep doin’ that, though.”

“He deserved it.”

“He did, the sick fuck. But what’s better? Makin’ him squirm in there for ten minutes and having our case thrown out or watching the bastard sit in prison for the rest of his miserable life?”

Elliot knows the answer to that, doesn’t mean he has to like it. 

“Pick your battles, Stabler,” Baker says as he turns to leave. “And go home.” 

/

Baker transfers out two Januaries later, to Major Crimes. He lasted four and a half years. Elliot gets partnered with Jo Marlowe, who won’t take any of his bullshit, and he finds himself smiling when she ribs him, and expects him to rib her right back in return. 

Jo makes Lieutenant, everything goes to hell and she ends up retiring, starting law school. They lose touch after a while and Elliot doesn’t miss how Kathy relaxes just a fraction when he tells her his new partner’s name is Dave. 

“I swear nothing happened, Kath,” Elliot says, and Kathy kisses his cheek as she heads over to check on the twins.

“I know, El,” she says, “it wasn’t you I was worried about.”

Dave Rosetti comes in from the Robbery unit; he keeps going on about this girl he wants to marry one day, a secretary called Rose. Elliot tells him he should just go for it if they really love each other, that he should ask her and stop wasting time. 

The night they catch the Brotus case, Rosetti shows him the ring.

Not forty-eight hours later, everything that could have gone wrong has. The confession is tainted, the lab screws up with the evidence, the ADA almost loses his shit because suddenly everything could be fruit from the poisonous tree. Elliot and Rosetti work for days on end, and he doesn’t see Kathy and the kids for almost a week. 

In the end, it’s all useless. The defence lawyer argues reasonable doubt and the jury’s stupid enough to believe him; Matthew Brotus walks on all charges, and Elliot watches his victim’s mother sob. 

Cragen tells both of them to take a day, and Elliot goes home, utterly drained. It’s only Maureen’s stories about her science fair and Kathleen wanting to play dolls that keep him from drowning his sorrows in scotch that night, and Elliot finds himself hugging each of his children tight, clinging to them like they’re anchors and he’s a sailor drifting out at sea. 

Rosetti doesn’t come in the next morning, and Elliot’s immediately worried. Cragen hasn’t heard anything either, and when they finally track down Rose, she says she hasn’t seen him since last week. 

Six hours later, Elliot breaks down the door of Dave’s apartment and his blood runs cold. Rosetti ate his gun, and Elliot wants to weep.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

Since joining SVU, Elliot has found himself in church less and less, and in confession even more infrequently. Father O’Donnell gives him a kind look through the confessional’s grate, and Elliot takes a deep breath as he leans back in the seat. 

“We had him,” Elliot says, voice thick. “We had the son of a bitch on all counts and the system, it just failed. It failed that girl and it failed her mother and sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if I’d just shot the guy, myself.”

“Elliot,” Father O’Donnell says. “You know this isn’t your fault.”

“So it’s God’s plan, or what? Was it God’s plan too, to let my partner sin and take his own life? Because forgive me, Father, but that doesn’t sound like a plan I want to believe in.”

Father O’Donnell doesn’t have a good answer to that.

“Old Fatso” Alfonse shows up two weeks later with a boxful of doughnuts for the squad. The guy is infuriatingly cheery, and Elliot has half a mind to take one of the boston creams and shove it right in his face.

They’re called out to a scene before he gets a chance, and that’s probably for the better, since Alfonse spends the whole car ride talking about his six million grandkids and their piano recitals and soccer games. 

Elliot gets it, gets the need to talk about things that aren’t dark and twisted, but with Dave’s death still so fresh in his memory, Alfonse’s good humour does nothing but sting. 

With time, it becomes easier, to walk into the squad room each day and see someone other than Dave at the desk across from him, to not be haunted by his memory, by the black velvet ring box he’d so excitedly pulled out of his desk drawer, by the sight of Rosetti on the floor of his apartment, lying in a pool of his own blood, already gone dry and rusty. 

Elliot keeps going to church, keeps kneeling in pews and praying the rosary and telling himself that what they do in this job is worth something, even though it feels like he’s bailing water out of a leaky boat that’s sinking faster by the minute.

When Alfonse retires to Florida (his grandkids are down there, and his knees ache from the city’s bitter cold) leaving the desk across from Elliot empty once again, he spends a lot of time thinking about hail and locusts and world-engulfing floods, about how one act of sin, of harm to someone else, can bring the whole world crashing down, sweeping the innocent away with the guilty.

/

Olivia Benson arrives at the one-six when they’re knee-deep in a case.

The squad is trying to catch a serial; Munch is out digging up files from a cold case and Jeffries took Briscoe junior to talk to a victim’s neighbours one more time. Due diligence, she said, with a wink that Elliot knew meant she was gonna try and have the kid lead the conversations this time, see if he can hack it with the training wheels off.

It’s been over a month since Old Fatso left them for sunnier climes, and Elliot really can’t find it in himself to blame the guy for his choices right about now, when he’s six folders deep in this particular bastard’s financials, trying to figure out if they can tie him to the black Mercedes he likes to drive when he abducts his victims.

But Alfonse’s retirement means SVU is short-staffed, and Elliot’s going to have to break in a new partner, again. He can’t say he’s looking forward to it.

Cragen told him she’s due at nine sharp today, a transfer from the five-five in the Bronx who requested SVU as soon as she made detective. He wonders what led her to make that particular choice; then again, he wonders the same thing about himself on a near-weekly basis. All he knows is she’s bound to be green and he’s going to have to get her up to speed, and quick, no time for hand holding. Baptism by fire, as it were.

At ten to nine, Elliot looks up from his desk as a tall brunette makes her way over to Cragen’s office. She’s in a suit but he can tell she’s carrying underneath it; she crosses the bullpen with purpose, but it’s a confidence she’s forced herself into, and Elliot instinctively clocks it as first-day jitters.

That must be her.

As expected, Cragen waves Elliot over to his office not ten minutes later. The brunette smiles when he enters the room, holds out her hand for him to shake. “Olivia Benson,” she says, “I’m your new partner.”

“Elliot Stabler. Nice to meet you.”

Cragen looks from Olivia to Elliot and back again, and then nods, seemingly pleased with the situation. “Well,” he says, turning so he can grab his suit jacket from the back of his chair, “I hate to cut this short, but 1PP wants a status update, yesterday. Stabler, show Benson here the ropes. Benson, I realize this isn’t the first day you were probably expecting, but I trust you’ll let us know if there’s anything you need.”

“Thank you, captain.”

With that, Cragen’s out the door, leaving Elliot and Olivia in his office to size one another up.

“I hear we’ve got a case,” Olivia says, getting right down to business, and Elliot nods.

He appreciates that she cuts to the chase, and he starts filling her in on the way to their desks, promising to introduce her to everyone else as the day goes on. Olivia smiles and asks what she can get started on as soon as she sits down. Elliot hands her a stack of files, his gaze lingering for just a second as she reaches for a pen and notepad before flipping open the first folder, eyes already trained on the page.

There’s a small smile curling around Elliot’s lips when he returns to his own papers. Maybe, just maybe, this could work.

Later that day, Elliot walks back into the squad room after taking a half hour to check in with the ADA about testimony he’s supposed to be giving in three days, balancing two paper coffee cups in the crook of his arm, one for him, one for his new partner. 

He took a wild guess with her coffee order — milk, no sugar — and he finds himself inexplicably nervous about getting it right.

Elliot spots her out of the corner of his eye, hunched over a new stack of files, brow furrowed in concentration. Olivia scrunches up her nose and tucks an errant strand of hair behind her ear, and Elliot’s first thought is cute, and his second thought is shit, because that’s not a word he’s supposed to use when he thinks about his partner, now is it?

“Here,” he says, handing over the coffee, which Olivia accepts with a grateful smile. “Much better than the battery acid Munch likes to make.” 

“I heard that!” someone yells from across the bullpen. Elliot turns around to see none other than Munch, making a beeline for his own desk with a cardboard box that Elliot’s sure he got from somewhere deep in the cold case warehouse. “He who declines to actually make coffee around here doesn’t get a say about the supposed quality of the end product.” With a huff, Munch deposits his box on the tabletop before turning to greet Olivia.

Elliot catches her gaze and grins, rolling his eyes. Olivia stifles a chuckle.

“Word to the wise,” Munch says when he shakes Olivia’s hand, “ignore about half of what Stabler says on a daily basis, especially when it comes to coffee. And don’t be fooled by the brute physique, the guy’s got four kids, three of them daughters, and they’ve all got Dad wrapped around their little fingers.”

Olivia laughs, and it’s a rich thing, deep and full. Elliot wants to hear the sound over and over again. “Noted.” She turns to Elliot, cocks a brow. “Anything else I should know about my new partner?”

Munch grins.

/

The first time Elliot sees Olivia interact with a victim, he thinks there’s something sacred about it, something holy, about the way she connects and reassures and instinctively knows what to say, how to put the woman at ease.

He’s never seen a rookie like this before, who’s calm and self-assured but eager to learn all at the same time — aware of her limitations, sure, but of her skills too. She’s green but she’s got all the right instincts, and Elliot wonders if Olivia was always meant to do this, called to SVU like others are called to the priesthood, to the monastery.

Two months into their fledgling partnership, and they’re in a shitty cop bar a few blocks from the precinct, nursing beers after a long day and an even longer week. Munch, Jeffries and Briscoe junior all declined when Elliot suggested a round, so it’s just him and Olivia, side-by-side on stools, elbows resting on the worn wood of the bartop. 

He realizes that it’s the first time it’s just the two of them, sitting like this. Sure, they’ve been on their fair share of stakeouts, spent late nights in the squad room digging through files and boxes of takeout, but they’ve never really had a chance to talk, not like this, without work hanging over their heads like a dagger.

And Elliot wants to — talk, that is.

Olivia knows plenty about him already, about the wife and kids — she met Maureen once, last week, when Kathy dropped her at the precinct so Elliot could bring her to volleyball practice — and the little house in Queens. About his undying love for the Mets, and Coney Island in the summer. 

But Elliot knows far too little about her, besides the fact that she studied history even though she knew she wanted to be a cop, eventually, that she’s an only child, that she doesn’t really care about baseball, but if pressed, would probably root for the Yankees. (They’ve agreed to disagree on that one.) 

And he wants that to change. 

He has an inexplicable urge to get to know her, to understand her, to connect with her in ways he never felt before, with any partner he had. Elliot always knew he had to trust his partner, to be able to rely on them, but trust and connection aren’t always the same thing. And you don’t necessarily need one to have the other. 

But he wants both with Olivia, and he doesn’t really want to examine the why, so he pushes that thought to the back of his mind and instead shreds the wet label of his beer bottle with his thumb. 

“First two months go how you expected?” he asks, turning his head so he’s facing her. 

Olivia shrugs, takes a sip of her beer. “I don’t know if you can ever expect anything, in a job like this. The squad is nice, though, good people. I’m glad I’m here.” 

Elliot smiles. He’s glad she’s here too. “And that partner of yours,” he can’t help but ask, a teasing lilt to his tone, “he as stubborn and bull-headed as they say he is?”

Olivia snorts. “Hmm.” She pauses like she needs a minute to consider the question. “More.”

Elliot laughs and bumps his elbow with hers, grateful for the easy banter they fell into, right from the jump. Sometimes it feels like they’ve known each other for years, not weeks.

They lapse into comfortable silence, for a while there, until Elliot speaks again. “Why SVU?”

Olivia looks up from her beer, and he can see the way the question startles her, forces her to weigh her words.

“My mother,” she says eventually.

“She want you to become a cop?”

Olivia snorts. “Not at all. She’s an English professor, a cop’s the last thing she ever wanted me to be.” She pauses, then, takes a minute, and Elliot sees her expression change into something serious, something cautious, like she’s deciding whether or not to keep talking. “When she was in college,” Olivia says, quiet, “my mother was raped in an alley. A stranger. Nine months later, she had me.”

Shit, he can’t help but think, shit.

“Olivia—” he starts, stops himself again when he realizes he has no fucking clue what to say here, how to respond. 

He doesn’t have to, turns out, because Olivia barrels on like she needs to get this out of her system before she loses her nerve. “She, uh. It’s hard, living with the constant reminder of the worst day of your life, you know?” Olivia lets out a laugh, a cracked, raw thing, and Elliot feels his heart breaking when he realizes she’s talking about herself. “Especially because they never found him. And I guess, I guess I want to make sure that other people don’t have to live with that. The not knowing. The lack of justice.” 

She shrugs, and there’s a sad little smile tugging at the corner of her lips, and Elliot still doesn’t know what to say. “You’re doing a hell of a job,” is what he eventually settles on, and he knows it’s pathetic, but Olivia cracks a smile that’s a little more genuine, and Elliot gives her forearm a squeeze. “You’re better at this already than some cops are after years. I mean it.” 

“Thanks, Elliot,” she says. Her voice is quiet, a little shy. It’s a far cry from the Olivia who stares down perps in interrogation with an air of utter defiance, the hellcat in a fight, and Elliot can’t help but feel honoured that she’s letting him in like this. That she trusts him with this. 

Later that night, when Elliot is lying in bed next to his wife, restless, listening to her steady breathing, he can’t stop thinking about atonement, about original sins, about loving in spite of it all. 

He thinks about Olivia, who works day in and day out to rid the world of the same wrongs that led to her creation, shouldering the burden of a sin she didn’t commit, and answering its calling. He closes his eyes and sends up a little prayer, thanking God for letting something — someone — this good, this righteous, come from something that terrible.

/

Peccavisti.

You have sinned. 

It’s scrawled across a confessional, brazen and defiant. An accusation and a desecration all in one. 

Elliot lies, when he tells Cragen there won’t be a problem, with him and this case. There’s always a problem, with every case. It’s a woman discarded or a child abused and every single case is a problem, because if it weren’t, to him, well, then Elliot wouldn’t have a soul left. Wouldn’t have a heart left.

Still. 

Some cases hit harder than others. Cragen’s right, this does shake his faith, but probably not in the way he thinks it will. It’s less of a question of believing in God and more of a sense of righteous fury at the men who hide behind the word of the Lord and twist it to fit their own sick will.

“If I didn’t see through this guy, how could a fourteen-year-old? How could an eight-year-old?” 

Father McCleary’s face flashes before Elliot’s eyes, then, the old man with the gentle smile and the kind words to spare when Elliot needed them most. The sanctuary, the structure, of church and Mass and knowing his place, in Sunday school and at the altar, carrying the cross during the procession or kneeling to ring the bells.

Knowing, above all, that he was loved, and protected, by God.

Not every child is so lucky, and it eats at him from the inside out, robs him of sleep night after night. Kathy notices his tossing and turning, but Elliot just shrugs it off, blames the long hours. 

Pretty soon, Dickie will be old enough to be an altar boy himself, if he so chooses, and Elliot knows he will have to send his son into the sanctuary not only with a blessing, but a warning. No sacred space should require those.

Now, though, Elliot’s got Father Sweeney trapped, pressed up against the DOC bus, and he’s willing to throw away his life to pay penance for a sin he did not commit. Willing to take the fall for an institution with rot at its very core, a lamb offered up for slaughter. 

But Elliot won’t have it, not one second of it.

“C’mon, Father, you and me,” he says, almost taunting. “No badge, no collar.” Not his faith and the law, at odds once again, but two men with their souls still intact, searching for justice, not absolution.

But Sweeney sees himself as Isaac, up on that hill with a knife to his throat, no divine intervention to save him.

It’s his own conscience that saves him, after all, that compels him to break his vows and the sacrament too and choose the faithful, the innocent, the children. Silence is the bigger sin, but the Father’s words come at a price. Absolution for the sinner and damnation for the one who had the courage, the conviction, to demand justice of a different kind.

Peccavisti, Elliot can’t help but think, as he fastens the bishop’s handcuffs tight enough to make him wince.

/

Kathy tells Elliot she’s leaving him over breakfast one morning, casual, like she’s not tearing his whole universe apart at the seams. 

“Elliot,” she reasons, entirely too calm in between spoonfuls of Raisin Bran, “this marriage hasn’t been working for years.” She says she’s talked to a lawyer, to her mother, that she and the kids can stay at her parents’, for a while. While she and Elliot figure this out. 

Is there even anything left to figure out?

“Fucking hell, Kath,” he finally sputters out, only barely managing to swallow his coffee. “Were you even gonna talk to me about this?”

Both Kathy and Elliot are cradle Catholics from Queens, raised in families with gaggles of children and parents who were married for decades and would have never so much as contemplated divorce. But Kathy and Elliot are not their parents — and didn’t they make that abundantly clear when they were both seventeen, stupid and foolish and reckless, as their families wouldn’t let them forget, thrust into adulthood and parenthood and a marriage in one fell swoop. 

Divorce is a sin, this Elliot knows, but so are lying and lust and contraception and Lord knows Elliot’s guilty of all three of those and plenty others, to varying levels of contrition. 

But, shit. Divorce. 

The word sits heavy in his mouth, bitter and acidic. Kathy stands up to clear her bowl and mug, leaving Elliot at the kitchen table, frozen. “We’ll talk about this tonight,” she says, glancing over her shoulder as she heads for the staircase. “I promise.”

Well, fuck. 

The sound of the bedroom door — their bedroom door — swinging closed is what finally snaps Elliot out of it, and he grabs his keys and jacket, heading for his car and the station and anyplace that isn’t this house, this life, this marriage (or whatever the fuck might be left of it). 

He cranks the radio on the way to the precinct, desperate to drown out the voices inside his own head, telling him this is all your fault and serves you right for working this much and never getting home and just one more thing for you to fuck up, eh, Stabler? That one sounds suspiciously like his father.

When he gets into the squad room, Olivia is already there, sipping coffee, entirely too chipper. She takes one look at him and grimaces. “Rough night?” she asks, concern lacing her tone, and Elliot just shakes his head. 

“Don’t wanna talk about it,” he mutters, and Olivia raises her hands in mock-surrender.

“Okay then.”

He makes it three hours. They’ve got a perp sitting in interrogation, a shoe-in for a string of groping incidents on the F train, and the guy’s got the audacity to say the women wanted it, that they chose to be felt up by some creep on the subway.

The next thing he knows, Elliot’s got the guy pinned, one hand around his throat as his breathing goes shallow and his eyes nearly bug out of his head. It lasts for maybe a second, and then there’s a hand on Elliot’s shoulder, yanking him backwards. 

“Let go, Elliot. Now.” Olivia’s voice is sharp as flint and she looks about ready to sock him herself. Elliot loosens his grip and the perp sags into himself, wheezing. Olivia helps him back into his chair, but her eyes stay trained on Elliot, gaze narrow and unflinching.

When the creep’s sitting again, still gasping, Olivia drags Elliot out of the room by his bicep. She whirls around to face him as soon as the door swings shut, all righteous fury. “What the fuck do you call that, in there?” 

“Olivia—” he starts, scrubbing a hand over his face, but she’s not having it. 

“Christ, El, he’s a garden-variety groper, not our next sadist.”

“I know.”

She scoffs. “Yeah, and that conviction was gonna be textbook but now look where we are.” Elliot can’t bring himself to meet her eyes, but from her soft exhale he can picture the concern that’s taken up residence in her features. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on with you today, and you clearly don’t wanna talk, but just, take a minute. Punch a bag, take a walk. I’ll finish this.” 

Utterly defeated, Elliot just nods. Olivia spares him another glance, squeezes his arm and heads back into the box. 

Elliot doesn’t know what propelled him to the rooftop, but it’s here, with the wind whipping at his face, that he starts pacing, relentless, trying to escape his own thoughts. He knows things haven’t been easy with him and Kathy these past few years, that he works too late and misses too many piano recitals and soccer games but god damn it, they were making it work, and their kids had a stable home with two parents and now… now he has no idea what to think, anymore.

Ever since Kathy told him about two lines on a pregnancy test when they were seventeen, Elliot has been devoted to creating stability, safety, for his wife, for their children. He bought a ring, enlisted when their parents threatened to cut them off, went to night school so Kathy could take her nursing exams, graduated the academy in record time and worked his ass off to make detective because it was the right thing to do. So he could provide his family with the steadiness he never had as a kid. 

And now, none of that matters, now does it.

Elliot’s fist collides with the solid brick of the chimney, and he winces at the impact. “Fuck.”

/

In a bus station, Elliot is faced with the impossible, and he chooses Olivia. A child dies because of it. In a warehouse, Olivia is faced with the impossible, and a sniper makes the choice for her. This time, the right person suffers, but the hurt, the guilt, the feeling of fault, doesn’t lessen.

It’s not until after, when he and Olivia are sitting side-by-side on a hospital sofa, that he lets it all sink in, that he allows himself to think — about why he yelled at her in the precinct hallway, throwing barbs at her that he meant for himself, ultimatums and conditions he would never really want to impose on her, on them.

He chose his partner over the job, and she almost chose him right back, and that’s not supposed to happen, now is it?

But Elliot’s always been hot-headed, prone to speaking before he thinks, and today was no different, is no different, when he tells her: “You and this job are about the only things I’ve got anymore. I don’t want to wreck that.” and doesn’t consider the consequences. 

Doesn’t consider how he is ripping them apart at their very seams, creating fault lines too jagged to mend, canyons too cavernous to bridge.

And isn’t it really fucking ironic, he thinks, later, much later, after Olivia has left for Computer Crimes and Elliot’s gone to confession for the first time in years. All he wanted to do was tell her how much she means to him, and how much the mere thought of it scares him absolutely shitless, but he ended up pushing her away, instead. 

She tells him it’s too complicated, as he’s buttoning his shirt in the locker room, with tears in her eyes and the saddest little smile on her face. 

Elliot wants to scream. 

Wants to yell that yes, it’s fucking complicated, but only because at some point in the past eight years, she started invading all his thoughts, that she wormed her way under his skin and took up residence in the bone marrow, chronic, inescapable. Elliot closes his eyes and sees her on the backs of his eyelids and damn him if he doesn’t know what to do with that, with any of it. 

Their relationship has escaped definition, over and over again. They have always been family, but never siblings, always best friends, but sometimes not friendly, always partners, but sometimes only at work, always together, but never together.

And he can’t articulate it. 

Because doing so would be admitting to everything. To late nights imagining his lips on hers, trailing kisses up and down the column of her throat, the shell of her ear. To visions of her writhing beneath him, face flushed and panting. To watching her come apart in his embrace and being there to help her put herself back together again.

And Elliot knows that he’s a bastard, and God knows that he’s a sinner, too, but right in this moment he’s a coward most of all, so he watches her walk away without a word and wonders where the fuck that leaves them. 

He lies awake for hours that night, tossing and turning, unable to quiet his mind. The walls of his apartment are paper, and he can hear his neighbours next door, can hear muffled moans and gasps and creaks and shouts that haunt his very dreams. He shouldn’t, he knows this, but he doesn’t stop himself when his hand drifts toward the drawstring of his sweats, and then lower still. 

Elliot closes his eyes and lets the sensation take over, chases a high and a fantasy. 

Lust is a cardinal sin, but that doesn’t matter tonight, not when Olivia’s name on his lips and the vision of her hands wrapped around him are the purest benediction he can think of.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Amen.

Olivia comes back to him only to leave again weeks later, dropping off the face of the earth entirely, erased like she was never there to begin with.

A staticky recording alerts him to her disconnected phone number and Elliot shoves the receiver back into its cradle like it burned him. Maybe it did. 

They have to give him a new partner, with Olivia god-knows-where, and Elliot can’t help but feel like all of this is wrong. He keeps looking over his shoulder, expecting Olivia to fall into lockstep beside him, expecting her to finish his sentences, to read his thoughts from a single glance, to anticipate his next move from a mile away. 

He doesn’t like to think about the moment when he stops.

Dani’s tall and she’s blonde and she’s jagged in all the ways Olivia was soft. She’s hard and jaded, and Elliot doesn’t blame her for it, after the fate she’s been dealt. He can relate, somewhat, to the loss that’s left her hollow inside, raw and constantly on edge. 

He doesn’t know if it’s his marriage he’s grieving, or his partnership. Maybe it’s both.

He kisses her up against his Jeep, hot and desperate, all fumbling hands and clumsy movements. Elliot doesn’t know why he does it, but he’s just a little bit buzzed and he wants to feel something, after Olivia’s disappearance left a gaping hole in the middle of his heart. Dani slips her tongue in his mouth and presses herself against his chest, but nothing quite fits; her knee digs into his thigh and her elbow grinds uncomfortably against his ribcage. 

They’re saved by a phone call, and Elliot’s never been gladder for the interruption of a case.

In the end, Dani leaves just as quickly as she arrived, and Elliot begins to think he might be cursed. But then Olivia walks into the hospital break room like no time has passed at all, and it just about renders him speechless. She’s cut her hair, he notices. It makes her look younger.

They’re awkward, at first, cordial and careful, strangers in a hotel lobby. It feels like they’re just a few degrees off-kilter, the two of them, trapped on a high wire and risking free-fall.

He told her in a hospital hallway that their partnership is sacred to him, holy. She tells him as much in her own words, thigh-to-thigh on his stoop in the wee hours. “Who else would put up with me?” she asks.

Elliot secretly hopes he never has to find out.

/

Kathy’s pregnant. Kathy’s pregnant and he tells Olivia at the courthouse, watches the shock of it flash across her features, a mirror image of his own reaction when he found out a few days ago.

He should’ve seen this coming.

If there’s one thing God is damn good at, it’s throwing a curveball into Elliot’s life when he needs it the very least. It’s letting him finally sign his divorce papers only to send him tumbling back into bed with his ex-wife just a short while later, and knocking her up, just like that. 

Sometimes, Elliot wonders if He is just sitting there, somewhere in Heaven, laughing. 

There’s no question about what needs to happen, now. Elliot cancels the lease on his apartment, moves back home, calls the lawyer and stops the divorce proceedings. He and Kathy go to doctors’ appointments, learn about the risks of pregnancies after forty. 

Elliot starts commuting to and from Queens again, mowing the lawn on the weekends. He and Kathy schedule themselves two nights a month to have dinner, get to know each other again. They don’t always make it, but they’re trying. That has to be worth something, right? 

Olivia, well, Olivia does what she’s always done. She works through stacks of paperwork for them, shoos him out of the squadroom when it gets too late and she knows he hasn’t been home for dinner in a while, and pretends that the past few years — where Elliot was single, and the air between them felt charged, crackling like a live wire — never happened. 

(If Olivia can forget, or pretend to, it’s Elliot’s penance to remember every second, every fleeting touch and lingering glance, to sit in a purgatory of his own making.)

It astonishes him, the sheer grace of her, putting his family’s needs before his own and making sure, in that quiet way of hers, that the house and life he comes home to are whole. She is a blessing, and he thanks God for it, for her, for the fact that she came back and they’re not broken.

Bruised, yes, and battered too, marred by sins of their own and the injustices of the world, but always standing up against them, together. 

So it’s no surprise when Olivia volunteers to drive Kathy to the doctor’s appointment, and Elliot heads up to North Forks to save Jake from himself — and for his son.

When Fin shows up, sirens blazing, Elliot’s heart nearly stops. “There’s been an accident,” Fin says, and that’s all it takes for him to break into a sprint. It’s only the roar of the chopper that finally allows Elliot’s mind to focus, assess the situation, think through eventualities, as all his old Marine instincts kick back in. 

Kathy and Olivia, the baby. Three parts of his heart nearly torn to pieces in an intersection, and Elliot can’t do anything but pray. 

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.
Amen.

When he gets to the hospital and everyone is fine, the relief of it crashes over him like a tidal wave. 

Kathy is sitting up in the delivery room bed, banged-up but alive, holding their son — their son — and smiling. She is a miracle, they are a miracle, and Elliot is awed, all over again, by this little life before him, small and precious and innocent. 

“Look at him,” he whispers, hushed and reverent, as he takes him from Kathy’s arms and holds him for the first time. “He’s perfect.”

Kathy traces a finger over their sleeping son’s tiny cheek. “He is.”

Twenty minutes later, he leaves Kathy and the baby to rest, and goes out searching for Olivia. Olivia, who stayed by their sides, unflinching, a guardian angel in every sense of the word. He spots her in the hallway, blood on her shirt, but smiling, eyes alight with anticipation, with hope. 

“How’s the baby?” she asks, and Elliot feels the gratitude bubble up inside him again. I’m your partner, for better or worse, he’d said to her, once, what feels like a million years ago. She’s his too. 

Before he knows it, he’s pulled Olivia flush against him, arms wrapped around her in a hug, fierce and tight and all-encompassing. With his embrace, he tells her all the things that words aren’t enough for — that he’s so fucking grateful, that he was so goddamn scared, that she saved them all, and did it without being asked to. That he doesn’t know what his life looks like without her in it, anymore, that he hopes he never has to find out. That she is his family. That he never wants to let go. 

They don’t touch, like this, ever. Of all the unspoken lines between them, this is one of the clearest. But Elliot doesn’t have it in him to care, so he savours every stolen second in this damn hospital hallway, memorizing the feel of her, the way he could tuck his head into the crook of her neck if he moved just an inch, the perfume she wears, something floral and expensive. 

Letting go is torture, but a necessary one, and they both fall into lockstep again, instinctual, cracking jokes and faking normalcy until it doesn’t feel like a farce anymore. 

A week later, Elliot stops Olivia at her desk before she heads home for the night. 

“Kathy and I were thinking about godparents, for Eli,” he says, and he watches Olivia’s eyes go wide. “Her brother, and you.” 

“Elliot,” she whispers, “I— I’m not Catholic, I’m not even family.”

“Like hell you are.” The fierceness of his tone surprises even him, and he can see Olivia swallow thickly. “You saved his life, Liv. Both their lives. That — you — is more than enough.”

/

It takes IAB six hours to release them all from the precinct, to let them out of the interrogation rooms and break room they’d been shoved in, individually, so they wouldn’t “coordinate.” 

The squad room is still a crime scene, chairs in disarray and pools of blood drying on the linoleum floor. Caution tape cordons off the main area, and Elliot has to wait for a uni to hand him his things before he can leave the building. 

He’s the last of them to go, and the chill of the night air hits him as soon as he steps out on the street, sending a shiver up his spine. 

As Elliot gets into his car, he dimly registers that he probably shouldn’t be driving, right now, not when he’s still in shock and keyed up with adrenaline and Jenna Fox’s lifeless body is all he can see in his mind’s eye. A child, dead on the precinct floor after she pulled out a gun and went on a rampage, righteous fury turned ugly and dark.

Sister Peg, too, dead and surely awaiting the gates of Heaven. And the look of anguish on Olivia’s face as their eyes locked across the squadroom, as she saw just what he’d done — killed a child — and how it was bound to tear him to pieces. 

Cragen calls him early the next morning; Elliot hasn’t slept a wink. “It was a good shooting,” he says, and Elliot can already hear the but his captain is about to tack onto that particular sentence. Elliot knows what his jacket looks like, from the shootings to the excessive force complaints to that time the Morris Commission wanted to pin him as a loose cannon with a penchant for murder. 

He doesn’t expect this — doesn’t want this — to be easy. He killed a child, for God’s sake, and he will never, ever forgive himself for it. 

But what Cragen is describing to him, in detail, cold and emotionless, like he would present the facts of a case? It feels like IAB has found an opportunity, with him, and are ready to sink their teeth into the soft flesh of any perceived vulnerabilities, or liabilities, they come across. 

A witch hunt, of his own making. 

“Thanks, cap,” he says, after Cragen has talked him through next steps: the IAB interviews he’ll have to sit for, the psych evals, the countless questions, the investigation into the past two decades of his life. Twenty years on the force and this is what he’s faced with — an inquisition with an agenda, pre-set and inescapable. 

Every little thing he’s ever done, put under the rat squad’s microscope, and fuck, if the thought of it doesn’t make him want to punch a wall. (He knows Olivia won’t fare any better: they’ve always been Cragen’s problem children, where the brass is concerned, and their captain cannot shield them from this. Neither of them.)

“You talked to Liv yet?” Cragen asks, like he’s reading Elliot’s mind. He winces. 

“No.”

Elliot’s confirmation saint is Peter, patron saint of fishermen. His father scoffed, when his youngest glossed right over Saint Michael, patron of policemen, and settled on the thrice denier of Jesus Christ. But to Elliot, fourteen and rife with teenage defiance, Peter felt right.

Saint Michael, the Archangel, defender of the Church and opponent of Satan, who assists people at their hour of death? A lot of pressure, for a teenager with a hot temper and no idea what he wanted to do in life. 

Of course, Elliot didn’t think about that back then, just that choosing Peter, with all his flaws and all his doubts, felt like one of the few things that made sense. But over time, Elliot has wondered, often, if Peter didn’t choose him right back.

“O ye of little faith,” Jesus told Peter the Apostle, as he was walking on water and starting to drown, shaken and doubting. 

Elliot feels himself drowning, too, every damn day in this job. For all the faith he has, all the ways he believes, in the Lord and Lady Justice both, there is always, always a price. He sees it everywhere: in the rapists found not guilty, the abusers who cut deals, the victims who will suffer, long after “justice” is served. 

There is no justice, not in SVU, and it’s slowly eating Elliot alive. 

And in the end, just as Jesus foretold Peter’s denials during the Last Supper, Elliot’s betrayal was foretold too, the second his bullet pierced Jenna Fox’s skin and sunk itself into her flesh, the second she dropped to the floor and Elliot saw not justice, not an end to her violence, but suffering, wrought by his own hand, unforgivable.

He can’t tell Olivia any of that, though.

Elliot can’t tell her that he can’t face his own reflection in the mirror, anymore. That the mandatory IAB interviews are akin to torture, that if he has to see the sergeant in charge break into another smug grin he might just sock the guy, hard.

That he cannot bear to set a foot back in the precinct, the squadroom, the crime scene.

That he’s going to leave the force. 

That it will break his heart.

Olivia keeps leaving him messages, sending him texts, asking him where the fuck he is and why he won’t talk to her. Elliot listens to the first handful and then stops altogether, watching as the missed messages pile up, one after the other.

He can’t bring himself to hear her voice anymore, a siren’s call for a weary sailor, desperate for any piece of her, oblivious to the cost. 

At some point in the past thirteen years, the job stopped being Elliot’s tether to SVU. At some point, his reason for staying became her.

Weeks pass and with IAB still smelling blood, Elliot knows they’re nowhere close to finished. Someone has to end this. He puts his papers in when Olivia is off-duty. Cragen raises a brow but doesn’t comment further. 

“I just, I can’t,” Elliot confesses, voice low and cracked. “I can’t say goodbye to her.”

That doesn’t mean he will ever forget. 

He slips his courtesy shield into an envelope, along with a medal. Saint Peter, who denied Jesus three times and lost his faith, but found it again in the end. 

Semper fi, he writes to her, always faithful.

In this, he is unwavering.

/

The job in Rome comes at just the right time. Elliot, Kathy and Eli got to Europe a little over five years before, when the offers for private security gigs overseas started getting more lucrative and Elliot asked Kathy if she’d be up for an adventure. 

Two years in London had helped them ease in, and Eli got to start school there, before the three of them packed up again for Brussels with its plethora of international schools. Three years later, Elliot’s work on the task force opened up the opportunity in Rome, and for some reason, the NYPD brass had decided he was no longer damaged goods. 

Why, Elliot has no idea, but he’s not about to question it. 

So they move again, find an apartment in the city centre with a terrace that overlooks a palazzo, and Elliot sees Kathy’s eyes light up as she takes in the view. 

These past few years have been good to her, good to them. Elliot’s schedule is still erratic, but this time there are breaks between gigs, where he can spend time with his wife and son, uninterrupted by cases and trials.

It feels good, being able to be the kind of father to Eli that Elliot couldn’t be for his siblings, and he will feel the sting of that regret for the rest of his life. He’s a better husband to Kathy, too, attentive and present, not distracted, by work and a whole other life, outside his family.

It’s better this way. 

(Or at least he keeps telling himself that. Maybe at some point he’ll actually start believing it.)

Their second weekend in Rome, after most of the boxes are unpacked, Elliot’s figured out his commute and Kathy’s sorted out everything with Eli’s new school, the three of them head to the Vatican for the first time. 

Elliot is awed, stepping onto St. Peter’s Square and then into the Basilica, by the sheer grandeur of it all. He looks over at Kathy, sees the same look of wonder in her eyes, and suddenly feels very, very small. 

The rays of sunlight filtering in through the windows bathe the nave in a golden glow, and Elliot can feel a shiver spread across his skin, registering the familiar tightness in his chest that he’s missed, lately, when he’s stepped foot in church. It’s all magnified, here, more intense and more important, and when Elliot kneels and makes the sign of the cross as he approaches the altar, he sends up a little prayer of thanks, as well.

Thanks for this life, for time with his family, thanks that he gets to bear witness.

And hope. Hope that thousands of miles and an ocean away, there’s thankfulness and joy, too. That she is happy, and healthy, that life has given her all the things he never could. 

God, bless Olivia, and bless all those who surround her, Elliot prays, quiet and fervent. Keep her safe, and show her happiness. Amen.

/

The blast is so loud that for a split-second, Elliot thinks the whole world is ending. 

His awareness comes back in pieces: the pavement, slick from the rain that stopped just hours ago, the bright lights of Manhattan, harsh and unfamiliar after so many years away, the acrid smell that permeates the air, the flames and smoke engulfing the rental car, the explosion that sent Kathy flying. 

Kathy. 

She’s lying on the sidewalk, battered and bruised and crying out in pain, and Elliot’s focus narrows to one single point — his wife, who has to survive this. He makes the radio call on autopilot from his phone, cradles Kathy’s head and whispers “It’ll be alright, sweetheart” so many times that he’s half-fooled himself, too, by the time the EMTs show up, lights and sirens breaking through the eerie quiet of the street and the sound of Kathy’s soft whimpers. 

The squad cars aren’t far behind, and Elliot kisses Kathy’s temple and whispers one more “I love you” before tearing his eyes from his wife for just a second to check in with the responding units. 

He spots her then, not twenty feet away, standing amidst the chaos and the rubble, framed by a halo of hazy lights — reds and blues and whites bleeding together in the cloud of smoke that the explosion left in its wake. 

Olivia.

It’s utterly surreal, seeing her there, in the middle of Manhattan, until he shouts her name and she spins around and they are face-to-face for the first time in a decade. She is looking at him like he is a crime scene, like she cannot believe they are sharing the same pavement.

“Elliot,” Olivia whispers. It’s the first word he’s heard from her lips in ten years and it damn near breaks him.

He was supposed to see her, tonight, at her award ceremony, dressed up and smiling and accepting the honour she so richly deserves. He was going to spot her, from somewhere in the back of the room, pluck up his courage and face her again — congratulate her, tell her how proud he is of her, and hope she wasn’t going to throw a drink in his face. 

Instead, they’re heading for the hospital, and there is no time, for explanations or justifications or anything in between, not when his universe is spinning out of control and he doesn’t know how to stop it. 

So Olivia steps in, does what she always does; she summons her squad and focuses on the job and keeps everyone calm while Elliot is dying by inches, moving on autopilot and praying to God.

In the end, there’s nothing to be done. 

Kathy’s injuries were too extensive, her body too weakened from the blast. Elliot listens to the doctor explain what happened in surgery, what went wrong, but he doesn’t process a word, just stares at the surgeon blankly, completely in shock. 

It’s only when he sees Kathy’s empty ICU bed that it sinks in; his wife of nearly four decades, the mother of his children, the girl he was too nervous to kiss at Jimmy Marks’ party all those years ago, is dead and gone from this world forever. The kindest soul, who never hurt a person in her life, killed by a bomb, a hit meant for a police officer. A hit meant for him.

What kind of divine bullshit is that? 

Elliot doesn’t pretend to understand predestination, or fate, or any of the like. God works in mysterious ways, his mother had always said, but this? This is cruelty to an unnecessary degree. Kathy, loyal and sweet and innocent to the very end, dying because someone wanted Elliot dead. 

His children’s mother, gone from the face of the earth. The ugly, twisting feeling of guilt, of fault, of grief, wraps itself around his heart and squeezes tight, and Elliot can’t breathe. 

It all happened so fast, and Elliot didn’t even get to say goodbye. Didn’t get to hold Kathy’s hand in her final moments. No quiet whispers of devotion at her bedside, no last rites. Just a sterile operating table, a surgeon who tried her best, and a fucking global pandemic. 

Elliot senses Olivia’s approach before he even sees her; somehow, his sixth sense where it concerns her hasn’t waned over the course of a decade. 

Her eyes are glassy and he knows his are too but it doesn’t matter, because he pulls her into him and buries his face in the crook of her neck and their breathing syncs like it always does and she smells like her floral shampoo, the same kind she wore a decade ago. They cling to one another, desperate, and it’s the most steady Elliot has felt in hours. 

Olivia is steadfast and strong, the anchor Elliot needs as he’s floating in a sea of his own grief, emotions swirling and threatening to pull him under. It’s what she always does, Olivia the protector, Olivia the supporter, giving to everyone else and never taking for herself. In a matter of seconds, Elliot’s heart rate has calmed down somewhat, and fuck, if that isn’t just proof, right there.

It’s like he told her earlier, hushed in the waiting lounge: If he’d heard her voice, he’d never have been able to leave. 

She’s his reason for staying, always.

/

The first year after Kathy dies feels like a carousel that never stops spinning.

There’s Wheatley, and Angela and the intervention and the trial and six weeks undercover with the Albanians. There’s PTSD, and eventually therapy, working to earn his kids’ trust again. Working to earn Olivia’s trust again.  

She has no reason to forgive him, to let him back in, this he’s acutely aware of. If he’s forced to pay penance for that particular sin for the rest of his mortal life, Elliot knows he deserves it. 

But Olivia has always been full of grace, more than anyone he’s ever known. 

Elliot sees it in the little things: how she starts texting him again, about innocuous parts of her day. How she agrees to get coffee with him, or lunch sometimes, and smiles softly when he pulls back her chair. 

How she read his letter and didn’t flinch. 

(He wrote it back in Rome, when he thought he’d be going to her ceremony, thought he’d try and slip it to her if she’d let him. He never expected to give it to her like this, while he picked up files for Kathy’s case.)

How she introduces him to Noah, one afternoon, when he meets her at school pickup with two coffees from the Italian café he found a few weeks ago. “This is my friend Elliot,” Olivia tells the little boy, who cocks his head to the side and gives Elliot a once-over, observant and discerning just like his mother is. 

His mother. It still makes Elliot’s breath catch in his throat, the thought of Olivia finally getting to be a parent, getting to have a family of her very own. One she built for herself, one she chose.  

She’d told him, recently, that Noah is adopted, that she found him while she was working a case. A rapist father and an addict mother, both long dead and buried. But that little boy will only ever know love, from a mother with unflinching devotion, who would run to the ends of the earth for him, die for him, and do it gladly.

“You’re a good mom,” he tells Olivia, and she smiles softly. It’s the truest statement there is.

In addition to Noah, Elliot gets to know Olivia’s squad, too. It’s rocky, at the start, and he doesn’t blame them. They don’t know him from Adam, and the last thing he did was leave their captain without a word. 

Their captain. Elliot has known for years, even before he left, that Olivia was destined, for something more than just being a detective. But Elliot, the selfish bastard, was well aware that any promotion, on her part, would mean the end of their partnership. And that was unthinkable, to him. 

So, seeing her now, in charge of the unit she helped build? Pride swells deep in his chest at the thought and he hates that he missed all the in-betweens, all the steps it took her to get where she is now. 

He wanted to be there, by her side, more than anything. But Elliot knew he was holding her back — even before IAB started to turn their jackets inside out — and he’d had to set her free.

Coffees and lunches and meetings in the squadroom have slowly turned more frequent, and now it’s not uncommon for Olivia and Elliot to spend nights at each others’ apartments, with takeout and a bottle of wine. Sometimes, Elliot will cook, and Eli and Noah will join them for dinner, and he can’t help but think of how right this feels, sitting there, the four of them, laughing and talking and building a little routine of their own. 

Tonight, though, it’s just the two of them. Olivia’s been jumpy all evening, eyes averted when he tries to ask her what’s wrong. She brushes it off, but he can see right through her. 

“What’s going on?” he asks her, when she sits down on her sofa, tucking her legs up under her and setting her wine glass on the coffee table. “Talk to me, Liv.”

“I, uh,” she starts, stopping herself again. She runs a hand through her hair, lets out a little, self-deprecating chuckle and shakes her head. “You know, I never thought we’d actually be having this conversation. Not that I owe it to you. But you should know.”

“Know what?” Elliot has no idea where she’s going with this, but he’s getting more nervous by the second. What could she possibly want him to be aware of?

“Why I could guess, about your PTSD. It’s similar to mine.”

By the time she’s done, by the time she’s told him about how she walked into the depths of Hell twice, and made it back out again, by the time he’s learned that she stared the Devil in the face and didn’t let him break her, Elliot is sure that his heart has cracked clean in two. 

“Olivia,” he rasps, voice low and utterly wrecked, “I didn’t— I swear I didn’t know.”

There are tears pressing at the corners of his eyes and hers are glassy too, but she’s sitting on the sofa, back ramrod straight, like the steel of her spine is the only thing keeping her upright. 

“I know,” she says, quiet. 

“You are the strongest person I have ever known,” he says, hard and insistent all of a sudden. He needs her to understand this, more than he needs air. “You are a warrior, and I am so fucking proud of you.”

“El.” It’s the last thing she says before he sees the armour chip, and then Olivia crumbles. He’s gathered her up in his arms in seconds, and he settles them into the corner of the couch as he rubs soothing circles on her back, holding her close as her body shakes with the intensity of her sobs. 

“Shh,” he whispers, “shh. I’m right here, Liv, right here.”

The next thing she says shatters him into a thousand pieces.

“When he had me, all I wanted was you,” she manages, her voice hoarse and cracked. “But you never came, Elliot.”

/

Richard Wheatley might’ve been a bastard, and a sick one too, but he wasn’t a liar when he said there was someone else in Elliot’s life — who wasn’t his wife, or Angela — someone who sits at the centre of his whole universe. 

The one true love of his life, he’d said, eyes alight with glee.

Olivia.

It’s always been her, from the moment she walked into the one-six, green and bright-eyed. Elliot didn’t know it then, of course, didn’t know it for years, but by the time they stood in a warehouse and it wasn’t the gun trained at his head that scared him shitless, it was the thought of Olivia having to live with pulling the trigger of hers? Well, for all of God’s tendency toward mystery, that sign had been damn obvious. 

What he feels for Olivia went well beyond friendship, beyond even the closest partnership. He loved her, loves her, and that will never change. 

It’s the truest thing about him. Elliot Stabler loves Olivia Benson, no matter the circumstance, no matter the distance between them. She holds his heart in her hands, whether she knows it or not, and it’s at her mercy that his world keeps on spinning. 

Back when Kathy left him and he was single, Elliot was too much of a coward to do anything about it. Too terrified she didn’t feel the same way, too scared to jeopardize their partnership, the very thing that kept him hanging on by a thread. 

Then came Eli, and he and Kathy gave their marriage another shot, and it’s not like Elliot was ever lying when he told his wife he loved her. He did, but it was a love forged by time and vows and five children between them, solid and secure but so very different from the love he feels for Olivia. 

That love is all-encompassing, sacrosanct, and he can’t put it into words.

It just is.

It’s as much a part of him as his faith, as his children. It’s not something he could ever stop. 

And in the end, it’s that certainty, that surety, that pays off. He stayed in New York to be closer to his children, to give Eli stability. But he also stayed in New York for her, because he left her once and it damn near broke him (and it broke her too) and he will never, ever do that again.

Proving it is a different matter altogether. Patience is not Elliot’s strong suit, but he would wait until the ends of the earth, for her. 

They build up trust again, slowly, step by step, falling back into the old synchronicity they’d both yearned for, over the course of the last decade — chronic, like they were both missing a limb. It’s familiar but it’s new at the very same time, because this time, there are no barriers left between them. 

It’s just Elliot and Olivia, and the ties that bind them to one another.

She kisses him first. Of course she does.

It’s late, and Fin had texted Elliot that Olivia was close to pulling yet another all-nighter, asking if he could come to the precinct and see that she gets some sleep. Elliot had just shaken his head, the smile on his face entirely too fond, and driven to the one-six to pry her away from her desk. 

She’d rolled her eyes when he stepped foot in her office, but he’d managed to get her to pack her bag not ten minutes later, and he didn’t miss the glare she directed at Fin when they made their way to the elevators. 

“You gotta rest, Liv,” he’d chided, on the way downstairs. 

“I rest,” she’d said, defiant til the very end, and Elliot had laughed.

“Sure you do.”

He pulls up in front of her building not fifteen minutes later, stops the car and reaches back to grab a paper bag from the backseat. “I know Noah’s at camp, so I figured your fridge is a wasteland.” Her eyes narrow and Elliot just grins. “Picked up dinner for you. Unless you’ve already eaten?”

Her eye roll is all the answer he needs. Still, her eyes soften when she catches the label on the bag; her favourite Thai place. “Thank you, El. And thanks for driving.”

“Always. Blink your lights when you get up?”

Olivia goes very still at that, eyes wide, and Elliot briefly wonders if he said something wrong. He doesn’t get a chance to ask, though, because she pushes herself forward, across the centre console, and presses her lips to his.

Elliot freezes for just a split second but then his instincts kick in; one hand threads itself through Olivia's hair as the other cups her jaw. Her hands find purchase on the lapels of his jacket and she pulls him closer still.

Kissing Olivia is like everything he’s ever dreamed of and nothing like it at all. He drinks her in hungrily, and she’s holy, to him, sacred like communion wine. Olivia gives as good as she gets; she’s fierce, all teeth and tongue, and the little keening noise she makes in the back of her throat when he licks into her mouth nearly flays him open right then and there. 

They break apart only for oxygen, and Elliot rests his forehead against hers, trying in vain to regulate his breathing. “Jesus,” he says, and the rest of his words are lost in a laugh when his brain finally catches up to what just happened. 

Olivia is grinning too, and there’s a pretty pink flush creeping up her cheeks. Her eyes are hooded and impossibly dark, her hair’s a mess and her lips are plush and swollen. In the soft glow of the streetlight, she looks ethereal. 

She leans in for one more kiss, soft and slow and languid. When she pulls back, this time, her voice is low as sin.

“How ‘bout you come up, instead?”

Elliot’s heart stutters in his chest. He grins, and kisses her once more — quick, like it’s a habit. 

“Always.”