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the worst thing you’ve ever heard

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Elliot’s hallway is lit with dim light, yellow-gold and spilling over the walls, across the carpet, the lettering on his apartment door reflective with it. Olivia stands in front of it and triple checks her phone. Kathleen’s text thread is pulled open, too bright and tellingly empty, the screen blank save a singular silver box, an apartment number written inside. He’s hurt, is what Kathleen had said on the call. Voice quiet but quick, the worry palpable even through the tinny speaker. I don’t know how. He won’t tell me the truth. There’d been irritation, then--frustration. Kathleen’s voice curling like it wanted to growl, a scream sitting somewhere in her throat, barely holding back. Olivia had felt a kinship with her; the sentiment is an age-old melody. If it hadn’t sent her back over a decade, the little, lost waiver in Kathleen’s voice when she added, I don’t know what to do would have.

Now, Olivia stands in this foreign hallway, in this foreign building, staring at a foreign door, and feels almost like an outsider looking in on herself. She isn’t entirely sure why she’d offered to do this. She knows it’s a bad idea--had known, even as Kathleen had thanked her, words ridden with a peculiar, pained relief, completely unaware that regret was already swirling around Olivia’s breastbone, sharp and poignant and setting solid. He’ll listen to you, Kathleen had said, and the worst part was that she’d sounded like she meant it. Like she thought Olivia was still the Olivia of her memory: some sort of Stabler whisperer with special powers, able to put the family back together even when no one else seemed to want to stay put. It was more than just ridiculous. It was insulting. Ten years without a word, and everyone seemed to think she was tripping over herself, impatient to fall back into a place that no longer felt like hers.

She wants to scream at anyone who will listen that she has no idea what she’s doing. That every second since Elliot’s return has felt as if she’s walking a tightrope, her body hovering so far above the ground that every step feels like it might send her pummelling toward disaster.

And yet, Olivia thinks. And yet, here she is. Standing in front of Elliot’s door. Her arm lifted, at the ready. Reporting for duty.

She has to knock three times, the space between each one filled with an almost overpowering urge to flee. Last chance, she tells herself after the third attempt. She’s learnt her lesson--she won’t chase him, not this time, no matter what she’d promised his daughter. But there’s the distinct patter of feet after the last knock, louder with every step, a body unmistakably moving toward her.

The sight that greets her is not one she is prepared for. Her breath hitches: inaudible, but she feels it. That tangible bit of shock. Kathleen had said he was hurt, yes, but Olivia had envisioned something different. Something less.

Elliot’s face is a mess. He greets her with one eye cracked open, the other bruised shut, black and blue and ugly, the surrounding skin red and angry. A gash runs down his forehead, the wound held together with little white butterfly stitches, and Olivia swallows as she stands, staring, her fingers twitching as she struggles under a wave of muscle memory, her gut clenching with an old, familiar protective instinct. How, she wants to ask. Who? Why? Where can I find them? But all that comes out is his name, the whisper woven with concern, the urge to reach out and touch a siren’s song. She balls her hands into fists instead.

Elliot, for his part, is simply staring at her. He looks stricken but not entirely surprised, and she wonders, distantly, if anyone had thought to warn him.

“What are you doing here?” he asks when the silence stretches. His hand is still on the door, obstructing the entrance, his body a barricade. Back off echoes in the space between them, the left corner of his mouth downturned with betrayal. It reverberates in all his hollow parts, his good eye a shadow in the low light, baby blue covered by black.

“Your daughter called me,” Olivia explains. She ignores the dull pain at her core, the fleeting, traitorous thought of, He isn’t even happy to see me. It’s a stepping stone to Pandora’s box, two decades’ worth of pain and doubt triple bolted and kept far away from her heart, the door criss-crossed with yellow-black police tape. DO NOT CROSS. The way the edges hang loose, adhesive worn from her compulsive struggle with temptation, also goes ignored. “She said you were hurt and wouldn’t say what happened. Thought that I could--I don’t know--” Help you.

Elliot hears the unspoken, because of course he does; this is the language they’ve cultivated, practiced, become fluent in. He hardens at what hangs between them, a familiar defensiveness seeping into all the lines of his body, straightening his spine, clenching his jaw. His resistance stirs something inside her: latent anger liquefies where it sits beneath her skin, hot and prickly as it slowly comes to life, simmers below the surface. Olivia had known this was coming; Elliot’s denial is all too familiar. Standing in his hallway, she wonders if it’s her presence that puts him off, or if it’s just his general disinclination to accepting help. She was the exception to the rule for so many years that standing on the other side is disconcerting.

“I’m fine,” Elliot says, and really, he’s nothing if not predictable. Deny, distract, deflect. “It’s nothing.”

Olivia tries not to roll her eyes and almost fails. “It’s not nothing.” She tries for understanding but doesn’t quite make it, tries to sound comforting but falls a little short. Her gaze drifts back to his face, bloody and broken as it is. Parking issue, my ass, she thinks. She knows what a pistol whip looks like. She’s had intimate experience.

“I’m fine,” Elliot says, again. There’s a hard edge this time, patience wearing thin. Like this, Elliot reminds her of a wild, wounded animal: skittish and guarded, uncertain, torn between a bone-deep distrust and the urge to give in, seek relief. The battle between fight or flight wages in the furrow of his forehead, the twitch of his fingertips, the way he shifts on his feet. In better lighting, Olivia’s sure she’d be able to see the struggle in his eyes, clear as crystal.

It hurts her in a way she hadn’t expected, to be on the receiving end of this. “Elliot,” she tries, but he only shakes his head. 

“I told you to back off,” he says, nine parts defensive anger, one part quiet, pleading desperation. All it does is send little, tingling pinpricks of fury down Olivia’s spine. She’d expected this, yes. Had prepared for it--as much as she could prepare for anything--but it still breaks something inside her. That rational, restrained part of her. The emergency responder. He’s hurting, she knows he’s hurting, and she’s tried to mask her own pain because of it, but she’s not super-human. She can’t hold back forever.

“Yeah, well,” Olivia starts, as anger boils over, bleeds out. She gathers it and holds on tight, her shoulders coiled with tension as she ducks beneath his arm and nudges her way inside, because fuck him, part of her is screaming. Surely it’s her turn to decide. “I think you did enough backing off for the both of us.”

Elliot says her name like he wants to stop her, a reprimand sitting awkward in his mouth, and Olivia looks over her shoulder as if to say, Go on. I dare you. It must convey, because whatever Elliot had wanted to say dies on his tongue, a fleeting, flickering look of resignation flashing across his features as he turns to shut the door behind her.

Olivia waits, eyes darting across the suite almost like she would a crime scene. Impersonal, she catalogues. Standard décor. Hastily put together. There is one outlier: the wall above the kitchen table jumps out at her, strings of evidence taking up the space where art should be, Elliot’s obsession spelled out in maps, sketches, snapshots, reports. It’s littered with post-it notes, Elliot’s familiar handwriting scrawled across the bursts of colour. Her gaze catches on where he’s written Kathy, and for a moment, she almost feels guilty, fingers twitching with the urge to wave a white flag.

The temptation disappears as Elliot opens his mouth again. “I don’t know what Kathleen told you,” he starts, turning round to face her, “but I got it under control.”

The lie is blatant; so obvious, really, that it’s insulting. Olivia arches an eyebrow and only just refrains from pointing to the kitchen wall. “Denial help you sleep at night?” she asks, unable to suppress the sharp spike of satisfaction she gets when Elliot’s jaw twitches.

“It was a parking issue,” Elliot tells her: his answer to the unasked question. Olivia snorts as she watches him cross the room and drop into a seat at the kitchen table.

“I’m not your daughter, Elliot,” is what she says. “Or your CO. You don’t have to lie to me.”

Elliot rolls his shoulders, torso leaning forward, his elbows planted on his knees. “Well, what do you want me to say?” he asks, but it’s clearly rhetorical. Borderline sarcastic. For the briefest second, she wants to slap him. “I didn’t ask you to be here.”

It’s almost too much. There is a part of her--the sane part, maybe--that wishes she’d given in to the urge to flee. That wishes she’d left after the first knock went unanswered, consoled by the fact that she’d at least tried. The other part--the part of her that curled into the corner of an interrogation room and sobbed, chest tight like it was trying and failing to contain the implosion of her very soul--itches for a fight. She wants to ask how he can do this. How he can leave her then come back and be mad she won’t leave him. Wants to ask him if he knows that he’s lucky--if he realises that her kindness is not owed. That there is only so much she can take.

But she keeps the queries to herself. They are little more than stepping stones to further pain, she thinks--to more hurt, more confusion, more anger--and she already feels like she’s buckling under the pressure. For once, she will spare herself.

Olivia squares her shoulders, back straight. “No, you didn’t,” she agrees, her voice level. Hard. “Kathleen did.” She stays standing. Feels too jittery to sit, her body thrumming with a restless energy. It doesn’t matter either way, she thinks. Wouldn’t make a difference. Elliot isn’t looking at her--his face is cradled in his hands, forehead resting against his palm, careful not to agitate his injuries. “She called me in tears, Elliot. Because she’s worried about you--they all are. You being secretive is only making it worse.”

Elliot sighs, the sound loud in the otherwise quiet apartment. Olivia watches as the tension in his shoulders eases slowly, that hard line of defence dissipating. “I know you’re trying to help,” he says, “I know that. But you need to let me handle it. I can’t--”

His head jerks, like a nervous tick, his voice breaking off into abrupt silence. Olivia blinks.

“Can’t what?”

Elliot drags his hand across his face and looks up at her, his palm still held near his mouth, cradling his own chin. “I am trying,” he says, slow, each word enunciated with care, “to keep you safe.” His arm drops, hands hanging loose between his legs. His eyes don’t stray from hers. “All of you. Do you understand that?”

Olivia shakes her head. “I can handle myself,” she says, and once more, she can feel her anger rising like a crescendo. Elliot’s audacity never ceases to amaze her--that secure streak of entitlement. Even now, he tries to interrupt, a quiet, That’s not what I meant going ignored as Olivia talks over him. “God. Do you really think I need you to protect me?”

“Liv--”

“Because it’s been ten years, Elliot, and I’ve done just fine on my own.”

The silence that follows is heavy. It crackles with tension, thick and uncomfortable, the weight of the last twenty-three years tangible in the space that surrounds them. Elliot’s jaw twitches again, and Olivia has to look away as regret flashes across his features, her own throat burning with a sudden, uncomfortable tightness. Memories are flashing through her mind in quick succession, more feeling than thought. At first, they’re simple. Titbits of suppressed memories, never quite forgotten: The dirt and dust of an abandoned warehouse, concrete cold beneath her body, her heartbeat in her throat. Hard gravel and gunshots. The rattle of her apartment door. Blood on her hands, under her nails, warm and sticky and aromatic. Blinking lights. A hand on her neck, her back, cradling her face. Elliot’s voice: whispered, choked, loud, dangerous, panicked, soft, gentle, soothing, safe.

But they don’t stay simple. They morph too quickly: The putrid, pungent stench of burnt flesh. A gun pressed to her temple, her cheek, her mouth, her throat. Cold, icy panic. Dry mouth, chapped lips; the sticky tear of duct tape. Burnt flesh. Nails, bloody and broken and grappling. Metal cuffs and chafed skin. Pained cries, eyes dry, wide open. The red-hot tips of cigarettes, keys, coat hangers. Burnt flesh. Hands clawing at her stomach, her chest, her legs. Warm breath. A whisper in her ear. What’s that look? Are you feeling sad? Her own voice, raw with disuse. Defensive, even then.

You don’t get to talk about him.

Olivia shuts her eyes, her breath shallow, shaky. She wills the memories away, but they cling to her like blood to cuticles: her psyche stained. For a moment, she feels almost like a child again--her knees pulled to her chest as she listens to her mother read, Serena’s voice sharp, booming. Out, damned spot! Out, I say! The memory brings no comfort; she opens her eyes and finds Elliot’s.

“Honestly,” Olivia says, and it just sounds sad. Brittle. She doesn’t have the energy to hide it. Doesn’t want to. “You--you have no idea--”

Both hands lift to her face, the balls of her palms rubbing at her eyes in a futile attempt to ground herself. Old wounds have ripped at the seams, and she feels raw, splayed open, phantom pain rattling around in her chest, a pressure chamber around her heart. If she’d known this conversation is where coming here would lead, she never would have answered Kathleen’s call.

Elliot is watching her, his gaze cautious, careful--his earlier standoffishness replaced by something quieter. An almost hesitant concern.

“You left me on my own,” Olivia reminds him, and though she tries to keep her voice level, she can’t quite help the little waiver, the way her voice breaks at the end. “And I swear, at the start, I thought--”

She breaks off with a shake of her head. I thought it was going to break me, is what she’d wanted to say, but it feels inadequate. There is nothing, she thinks, that can encapsulate how she felt in the aftermath of Elliot’s departure. How does one begin to describe that specific sting of betrayal? How is she to explain that she’d spent weeks--months--in a hazy, endless anger, her hurt morphing into fury because at least that was familiar. Because it was easier to be angry at everything, everyone, than it was to confront the fact that the man she’d dared to bare her soul to had just up and left, gone without so much as a goodbye--

She shakes her head again, as if it’ll banish the thought from her brain. “But I got over it,” she says. It starts out as a whisper but solidifies mid-way, and when she speaks again, her voice continues to grow stronger. “It wasn’t easy, Elliot, but I did. I learnt to live without you.” She turns to him just in time to see the flinch, that earlier regret making another appearance. The satisfaction isn’t nearly as potent as she wishes it would be. “I made Captain on my own. I’ve raised a child on my own. I saved myself from my abductor. So if you think--”

I need you, is the intended end of her sentence, but it dies in her mouth as Elliot opens his, his voice cutting through hers like a guillotine.

“What?” he asks, his voice sharp, body suddenly tense. There’s a beat of silence as Olivia stares at him, not quite understanding the question, but then he follows it with: “What do you mean, abductor?”

Her immediate thought is that he has to be bluffing. That there is no possible way he doesn’t know what she’s referencing. What, she thinks. And then, how. And then, how could you. But Elliot’s voice is low and flat, familiar: like something dangerous brews underneath. It’s the voice of his protective instinct. That part of him she’s seen time and time again--the man who would, quite literally, kill to keep her safe. You must have seen it, she thinks, almost desperate. Someone must have told you. But in the same breath, she realises Elliot’s ignorance is sincere. It’s his eyes--always his eyes, clear blue and bright, sharp, wet--that give him away. Even with the bruised, swollen face, Olivia can make out the genuine, startled surprise.

Nausea seeps into the pit of her stomach, sharp and acidic, its burn trailing all the way up her insides and wreaking havoc in her throat like fire following an accelerant. “What?” she asks, and she’s still now. Paralysed. Her voice barely more than breath.

Elliot is out of his seat in an instant.

“Liv,” he says, soft, as he steps into her personal space. His hands hover between them, hesitant. Like he wants to touch her--to reach out and hold her--but isn’t sure if he’s allowed. “Olivia. What do you mean, abductor?”

There’s no anger this time, just an overwhelming wave of concern. It’s as if the earlier tension vanishes; Olivia opens her mouth and shuts it, shock keeping her frozen in place, her eyes unblinking as she stares, not daring to believe that he really doesn’t know. That the pain she’s carried all these years has all been for nothing.

His perceived betrayal--his silence in the aftermath of the worst experience of her life--had been enough to make her question everything, doubt like a parasite in the part of her brain she reserved for Elliot, and Elliot alone. It is the one thing she has never forgiven him for. Even his abandonment does not compare: For all that she’d hated him in the weeks after he’d left, she’d thought she understood why it was he’d felt the need to go. Somewhere past the grief, she’d had an inkling--a half-formed thought that he’d done it as a favour to them both. That he had seen what they were doing, had sensed where they were going, and had decided to cut them off before they crossed the inevitable threshold and fell into disaster. It hadn’t made it hurt any less; it’d just helped her come to peace with it.

Elliot had confirmed that inkling in a waiting room at Mercy Hospital, eyes red-rimmed and teary as he whispered an admission that broke their long-standing unspoken accord: If I heard your voice, I wouldn’t have been able to leave. It was an honest confession. Raw. So telling that Olivia had barely been able to look at him, her chest constricting with inexplicable, illegible emotion, so strong she’d ached with it. Even if Garland hadn’t called, she’s sure she would have found another excuse to leave; there was no way she could have stayed there, like that, the both of them cut open and laid bare.

Olivia has tried lying to herself, and she finds she rarely gets away with it. It is easy to hide behind euphemisms. Too close. Tighter than married couples. A complicated relationship. But careful language only goes so far. Retrospect shines a light on every crack in their cover, every too-long touch and inappropriate glance pulled out and put forcibly on display. Olivia can no longer deny what she knows--what she’d known then, and what she knows now.

The truth of it is that she had loved Elliot--so wholly, so completely--and she thinks, she knows, that Elliot had loved her back.

But Elliot is an honourable man. A devoted man. Bound by obligation and duty. It is one of the first things Olivia had ever loved about him--that dedication, that loyalty. She understands that when he says, If I heard your voice... what he means is this: The break needed to be clean. Anything less, and he wouldn’t have been able to walk away from her. Anything less, and he would have stayed there, stuck between desire and duty--between his love for her and his love for his family--until it destroyed him. A final choice was inevitable, and even if a tiny, buried part of her wishes he’d chosen her instead, she can’t begrudge him his decision. Her whole life, she has wanted to be part of a family; no matter how much she may have wanted him, there is no part of Olivia that would have allowed Elliot to ruin his own for her.

So, yes. She can forgive him for leaving, because leaving is the decision the man she fell in love with would have made. But Elliot’s silence is something she has always struggled with. A wound like no other--perpetually open, even when untouched for years. She can feel the crater it makes in the very core of her being, the pain dulled but constant. Never ending.

And now she’s realising it doesn’t need to be there at all.

“Oh my god,” Olivia says, which isn’t an answer to Elliot’s question, but is as much as she can manage.

Elliot’s face falls. “Fuck,” he says. A broken, brittle whisper. “Olivia--” His gaze flicks down to where her hands hang at her sides, her fingers shaking with the slightest tremor. It seems to be what does him in: after a moment of contemplation, he acquiesces to his urges and reaches for her, his hand closing around her elbow, fingers warm where they curl into her jacket. Olivia returns the touch on instinct, her hand clutching at his forearm, brain still playing catch-up as Elliot starts to ramble. “Liv, I--I know I’ve been an asshole,” he says. “I know I’m still being an asshole. I’ve given you every reason to hate me, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do. But, Liv--“

He breaks off, shifts to catch her eye, and Olivia blinks, her lashes wet, tears pooling but refusing to fall as she swallows around the lump in her throat. Elliot’s face is open, unguarded, his eyes bright with a tell-tale sheen. She can see him thinking, his brain conjuring its own answers to the questions he so clearly wants to ask. She’s not sure if the scenarios filtering through his head are better or worse than the truth.

She still can’t find it in her to speak.

The last of Elliot’s restraint seems to break. Another hand reaches for her, Elliot’s palm falling into the junction between her neck and shoulder, his thumb brushing over bare skin in a steady, soothing rhythm. Olivia struggles not to melt under it, the touch a forgotten familiar. It reminds her of all the times he’s ever done this, Elliot’s inclination toward tactile comfort no more apparent than when he’s faced with her upset. She leans into the touch, the tight, coiled tension in her chest easing slowly.

Elliot shifts ever closer, his voice dropping to something gentle. Tender. “You gotta know--” he says. “It doesn’t matter where I was--what I was doing. If I thought you were in danger--” His head jerks: a quick, twitchy snap to the side. Not the new-found nervous tick, but something else. Like an attempt to dispel an unwanted thought. His hand tightens around her elbow. “If I knew someone was trying to hurt you--I would have done everything in my power to stop it. I wouldn’t have stopped until--”

You were safe, Olivia hears, in their shared, unspoken language. Until whoever dared to hurt you was dead. It’s clear in her brain, loud and booming, and she feels dizzy with it. Isn’t that exactly what she’d wanted? Tied to that bed, half-convinced she was going to die--hadn’t she thought of him? In her weakest moments, had she not ached for the surety of his protection? The security of his care for her? It doesn’t matter that she didn’t need him; part of her had wanted him. And that want--that traitorous, desperate want--is why it had hurt so much in the end. Because she had thought that he would care, and then he’d gone and proved that he didn’t.

Or so she’d assumed.

“El,” Olivia breathes. It’s a name she hasn’t used in a long time, but it feels right. Rolls off her tongue like it’s meant to be there. Elliot’s face softens: indiscernible with his injuries, but she still knows him well enough to see it. “I…”

She trails off, unsure of what to say. She has no desire to go divulging the details of her assault; in her current state, she doubts that she could handle it. But she feels like she has to say something. She can see Elliot misinterpreting her silence, his pleading, desperate panic more obvious with every new word that comes out of his mouth.

“You have to at least know that I’d never--” he starts to say. “That I’d never--”

The words are thick, choked, the hand at her elbow tightening momentarily before it pulls away, his arm dropping to wrap around her waist. It’s a loose hold--she can pull away if she wants to, but she doesn’t want to. She wants to pull him closer, tighter. To have him hold her, her pain--her anger--momentarily forgotten while she buries her face against his neck and simply breathes. It’s what she had wanted then, in the aftermath, under the bright white light of the hospital, and it’s something she’d wanted before that, too. Something she had rarely ever been allowed to indulge in.

But she holds herself back. She allows her arm to mirror his hold, her hand curled around his waist, her fingers twisted in the soft cotton of his grey hoodie, but she goes no further. Clings to the thin threads of her restraint. If she gives in, she thinks, she doubts she’ll be able to pull away again, to disentangle herself from him, and that isn’t something she thinks she can afford. Not now. Not yet.

“Liv,” Elliot says. “Please tell me you don’t think I could just let you be--”

He chokes around the last word, unsure of what should be in its place. Hurt, is what Olivia assumes he means. Abducted, kidnapped, tortured, raped. They all hang there, in the silence, within reach. Her eyes shut momentarily, pillars of her resolve breaking down to dust as she reaches up with her free hand, her palm covering the wrist that still rests near her neck, her fingers sliding upwards to slot against his as she shakes her head.

“I didn’t,” Olivia admits, and she almost feels guilty when a relieved sigh tumbles out of Elliot’s mouth, because she follows it with, “Not at first.”

His relief vanishes, the look replaced by a silent question, and Olivia smiles, but there’s nothing happy about it.

“It was all over the news,” she explains. She still remembers the broadcast, the video that had seemed to repeat over and over: her face bloody, expression dazed, Nick at her side as she walked toward the ambulance, each step careful, almost stilted, her body a hotspot of pain. “I thought you must have seen it,” she tells Elliot, and then realises she feels better that he hasn’t. It isn’t something she wants shared--isn’t something she wants to remember. “And then--” She shrugs, one-shouldered, as if to say, Well. You know. “You didn’t call.”

“I didn’t know,” Elliot says, the response immediate, and Olivia nods. Minuscule.

“I know,” she says. “I know that now.” Her eyes sting, but she doesn’t try to fight it this time. Stray tears slide down her cheeks, days, weeks, months, years of pent up emotion shoehorned into little, salty drops of liquid. She makes no move to wipe at them. “But what was I supposed to think, Elliot?” she asks, her voice strained. She has to blink in quick succession, her sight blurry, obscured as more teardrops try and fight their way to freedom. “I thought someone would have told you.”

I thought you would have cared enough to call.

Elliot opens his mouth and then closes it again, the look on his face lost. Heartbroken. When he still can’t articulate a response, his hand slips away from hers and wraps around her shoulders instead. He makes the decision for her: within the next second, Olivia is nestled against his chest, her breath hitching in her throat as he holds her tight, his arms a warm, secure weight. She's still for a moment, spine ramrod straight, but then her other arm reaches to hug him back, the tension draining from her body as she slowly but surely succumbs to the embrace.

“I’m sorry,” Elliot says, his voice just above her ear. His breath is wet--unsteady: upset even without knowing what had happened to her. She feels him press his mouth against the side of her head, his next words murmured, muffled. “Liv, I’m so fucking sorry.”

Olivia shuts her eyes, her forehead pressed to his chest, her mouth open, breath damp. She breathes him in, the scent from her memory tainted by traces of antiseptic and blood, but no less comforting. “I know,” she tells him, because she does. Even if she hasn’t quite forgiven him, even if anger still swirls around inside of her, waiting for the right time to strike, she believes him. She’s believed he was sorry since he’d told her in the hospital, since he’d handed her a letter wrought with heartfelt apology, his affection spelled out for her to read and trace and mull over. “I know,” she says again, simply because she can. Because she wants him to know she knows.

His cheek brushes against the side of her head as he nods, his arms squeezing her in unspoken acknowledgment. “I just--” he starts to say, but it breaks into a sigh, the huff of air rippling through her hair as he settles into silence. He’s quiet for a moment, but then: “All I ever wanted was for you to be okay,” Elliot tells her, so soft she doubts she’d be able to hear it if he wasn't talking into her ear. “That’s why…”

There is another deep breath, slow and near silent. Elliot twitches as if to pull away, but then thinks better of it; his chin settles atop her head, the pressure against his throat making his voice sound deeper. Rumbly. “A couple of guys went after Eli,” he says, and Olivia can sense the restrained anger. Can feel what’s left of his panic: cold and vast and not yet healed. “I got him inside before they could hurt him, but…”

“Your face,” Olivia finishes, confident that she’s right. She pulls back as Elliot hums his confirmation, eyes once more trailing over the wounds to Elliot’s head. They’re worse up close, his skin blotchy with evidence of an attack, the details harsh and ugly; it only makes her earlier urge to reach out and touch him stronger. She’d be careful--the press of her fingers feather light, curious. Caring. She wants to clean away the blood that has risen to the surface, little dark red drops clinging to the corners of his cuts, seeping into the edges of his stitches. She thinks he would let her. Now that he has discarded the unsociable persona, all traces of his earlier harshness vanished, she thinks he would let her. 

He had before. 

“I don’t know who it was,” Elliot tells her. “I don’t know if it’s connected--” His fingers press against the small of her back; a touch, she thinks, that’s meant to ground him. “All I know is that people I love are being targeted,” he says, and his gaze holds hers, intense and unblinking. Olivia knows what he’s going to say before he says it. “And that includes you.”

It is, she thinks, the closest either of them have ever come to saying it outright. For a moment, she wants to return her face to his chest, wants to bury herself there, her eyes shut, ear pressed to his heart, her attention focused on the steady thump, thump, thump as she wills her own emotions back into something neutral. The other part of her is glad that she can see him. That this is something she will remember, something that’s hers to keep.

Elliot smiles at her, small and lopsided. It’s more than a little sad. “It’s always included you,” he confesses, open and honest. Vulnerable. His smile fades as he swallows, his voice cracking when he adds, “And it’s why I can’t. I can’t let you get involved in this,” he says. “I can’t risk it.”

“El--” Olivia tries, but even as she does, she knows it’s futile. She can see Elliot regressing--can see him crawling back inside his own head, deep diving into that sea of unfathomable emotion: grief and pain and rage and yes, Olivia thinks, fear. Not just for him, not just for his family, but for her. For everything he dares to hold dear. It’s inexplicably hurtful to watch; she can feel her own heart crawling up her throat, too-big and beating rapidly.

“I can’t,” Elliot repeats. His head jerks again, his whole body twitching with it. He breaks free of their embrace, stepping back to drag a hand over his mouth, his breath louder, harsher than it had been a minute ago. It’s a sign of rising panic, Olivia thinks. Sudden but strong, swallowing him like a fog. She reaches out and curls her hand around his elbow, her touch harsh this time. Sharp and painful, the dig of her fingers meant to draw his attention before she loses him completely.

“Elliot,” she says, and it’s her Captain’s voice this time, loud, clear, commanding. It has the desired effect: Elliot’s attention snaps toward her, his eyes not wholly focused, but not drowning, either. Treading water, Olivia thinks, as she steps toward him. She can deal with that.

“Elliot, listen to me,” she says. She waits for him to focus, waits until more of that panicked haze has dissipated. “Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re thinking of doing--it’s more of a risk to do it on your own,” she tells him. The reaction is expected. The way the muscles in his jaw flutter. There is, she thinks, a defence sitting on his tongue: I’m fine. It’s fine. I can handle it. She continues talking before he can start. “You can't--you need to think about the bigger picture. You need to think about who you’ll end up hurting.” She lets her hand slip away, settle back at her side. “You need to think about your kids.”

It is unkind, she thinks, maybe. But it’s what she had come here to say. Is what she had thought when on the phone with his daughter, Kathleen’s panic not so different from her father’s, her frustration--her worry--underpinned by a very real fear.

Elliot’s expression flickers; wounded confusion flashes across his features, like he can’t believe she’d say that. Like he’s hurt she even thinks it. “I am,” he says, and Olivia swallows around a sigh.

She doesn’t mean it like that. She has no doubt that Elliot is thinking of his kids, that he wants nothing more than to keep them safe--his face is a testament to that. But he has blind spots, she thinks. Things he doesn’t consider. Things that get shadowed by his instinct to protect.

“Hiding things helps no one,” Olivia says. “Your kids aren’t stupid, El. If you think they’re being targeted, they should know about it.” She does sigh, now. More tired than anything else, the emotional rollercoaster finally catching up with her. “You need to reconsider your approach to this,” she tells him. “All of this. If you go rogue, if you get hurt--what happens then? What happens if something goes wrong?”

The reaction is almost instant: that hard edge of defence returns, Elliot bracing himself the way he always does when forced to listen to something he does not want to hear. He is predictable, Olivia thinks, but then she thinks, No. Thinks, is it that he is predictable, or is it that she knows him too well, even now, even here, when her own brain feels muddled and overwrought, a headache gathering at her temple. Is it that they have not changed in ten years, or is it that it wouldn’t matter if they had. That change is inconsequential compared to the way they are woven into each other; that change, time, distance, circumstance has no bearing on the bond they’ve forged. On what they are to each other.

She thinks, maybe, that it is the latter.

“You need to consider your health, Elliot,” Olivia continues. “Your children can’t afford to lose you.”

In the silence, she can hear the unspoken. Can feel it in her mouth, as if the words are engraved on the backs of her teeth, her tongue trailing over bone to spell out, And neither can I. She knows Elliot can hear it, too. Sees it in the way he deflates, his resolve crumbling like a landslide: slowly, then all at once.

“Alright,” he says, little more than a murmur. “Okay.” His eyes find hers, and all signs of his earlier panic have disappeared. He looks earnest, Olivia thinks. Determined. Looks almost like himself again. “They won’t,” he tells her, with all the conviction of a man making a promise--a vow--and Olivia feels her mouth twitch with the faintest hint of a smile as she hears the rest of it. The part he doesn’t say.

And neither will you.

It is, she thinks, a good place to start.