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Some Assembly Required

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Some Assembly Required

Olivia helps him find an apartment in the city. It’s a practical two-bedroom apartment in Morningside Heights, and it suits him and Eli just fine. He has their personal items, and the couple of pieces of furniture that will suit their new home shipped from Italy, but they feel like relics from a life long past.

He needs furniture and other basic household items that he’s never had to think about, and has no idea where to even start. He’s just been buying stuff as he needed it in his temporary apartment, but that won’t do once Eli is back living with him full time. He has a couch, bedframes and mattresses, but that’s it.

Maureen takes a Friday afternoon and brings him to IKEA, and then to Target. She’s got a list with her that looks excessive to Elliot, but it turns out that it’s all stuff that was always just there in his home (batteries, plunger, can opener, hangers, Ziploc bags, flashlights, etc.), and he aches with the reminder of the things he took for granted with Kathy.

Maureen offers to stay and help him start assembling his furniture, but the truth is he’s exhausted and the idea of tediously putting furniture together right now nauseates him. He takes a shower and collapses onto the couch.

When he wakes the next morning  and the furniture hasn’t somehow been removed from its boxes and assembled itself, he can feel his blood pressure increase. Perhaps IKEA had been a bad idea, and he has half a mind to call Maureen, pack all of this stuff back into her car, and take it back to the store in Brooklyn.

His phone pings, and he feels some of the tension leave his body when he sees it’s a text from Liv.

How’s the moving going? It reads, and he can’t help the small smile that tugs at his mouth.

A couple of times a week she sends a message checking in on him, and they’ll chat back and forth for a little while. It’s never anything too deep or emotional, but their small conversations often leave him feeling elated. He’s so grateful that she’s talking to him at all; he’ll take whatever she chooses to give him. It wasn’t until he saw her again under the red-blue light of squad cars, her eyes wide with shock, that the pain of missing her had been thrown into stark relief. He’d normalized it to the point that he’d nearly become numb to it, but hearing his name on her tongue again had been like touching a live wire.

He snaps a picture of the boxes in his living room and sends it to her with a message reading simply wanna help?

Oh no that sucks! she writes back. Then, Noah’s with some friends this evening. I’ll see if I can drop by.

He meant it as a joke, figuring she’d say no, because her time with Noah is precious, and why would she want to spend her Saturday helping him put together his furniture.

You don’t have to, he replies. I was kidding. I’m sure Eli and I can figure it out.  

But she insists, so he relents and says he’ll see her later. Eli calls and says he’s spending playing video games on the internet with his friends in Italy and asks if he can stay at Kathleen’s for the day. Elliot, knowing very well that Eli desperately misses his friends can’t say no. He knows Eli misses Italy fiercely and on top of his grief is resentful that he was yanked out of the place he’d called home and plonked down in a city that felt foreign. Elliot tries to remember that it’s only been a couple of months and that Eli doesn’t have the same relationship to New York as his siblings, but he hopes that someday it will come to feel like home for him, too.

At around noon, after food, a workout, a shower, and a couple of cups of coffee, Elliot begins  assembling his first bit of furniture – a nightstand. He expected this process to be worse than it actually is, and once he gets used to the diagrams and numbers, he finds that it’s actually mildly pleasurable. The steps are clear and logical, the ordered sequences a welcome contrast to the chaos that’s been ravaging his mind for what feels like forever. It’s soothing to be able to put his mind to task on something that’s not catching murderers and psychopaths, or grief, even if that task is as tedious as this one.

He becomes so absorbed in his assembling that he starts when there’s a sudden knock on the door. He looks at his phone and is shocked to see that it’s already nearly five o’clock, and there’s an assortment of put-together furniture around him. He’d been so focused that he’d lost the entire afternoon. He climbs around all of the furniture cluttering his path and opens the door.

Olivia’s on the other side, her fist poised in mid air, ready to knock again. She’s dressed casually in coral capri pants, a lacy white blouse, and espadrilles. Her sunglasses are perched on top of her head, her hair is in a messy bun, and her makeup is minimal, but she’s beautiful.

“Hey,” he says, moving back to welcome her in. “I’m sorry. The afternoon kinda got away from me.”

“I can see that,” she replies, surveying the mess. “Is there even anything left for me to help with?”

“Um….” He surveys the mess. “Yes. There’s the kitchen set. I would’ve sent you a text and told you not to bother, but, uh, “ he looks around with an almost bewildered expression on his face. “It turns out that this was helpful at keeping my mind occupied for a little while and I didn’t realize how far along I’d gotten.”

“Always a good thing,” Liv says, with a playful smile and tilt of her head. She turns her attention to the furniture. “Tell me where everything’s going and I’ll start making room.”

He does so, and very soon they’re sitting on the floor, working together to build the kitchen set. She works on the chairs while he works on the table.

There is only the sounds of their tinkering and the random Spotify playlist Elliot had chosen earlier.

Eventually, they finish and put everything where it’s supposed to be.

Olivia stands in the middle of the room with her hands on her hips, looking at the apartment. “It’s a nice place,” she says. “You need a rug and some paint, and when all of your personal stuff is here, and there are some pictures on the wall it’ll feel…better,” she finishes lamely. Elliot can practically hear the “like home”  that nearly fell from her lips, but she probably figured it would sound trite and hollow.

Elliot doesn’t say anything. Right now he can’t really envision any place as home, but he has to admit that the furniture and fixtures (and maybe the woman standing in the middle of it all) have opened him to its potential. But the idea of getting used to a life without Kathy is still fucking terrifying and he doesn’t know how to help Eli cope when he mostly feels like he’s barely coping himself.

Though, he hadn’t had any nightmares last night, and today has been a good day overall. He doesn’t want to feel guilty for it, but it’s seeping in anyway, and suddenly his progress feels fragile and fraudulent. He feels even worse that a big part of his relatively peaceful day had to do with the promise of spending time with Olivia.  Olivia calms and centers him without even trying, and he’s a son of a bitch for relying on her when he left her behind without a word, but here they are; ten years later and she is as giving and kind and compassionate as ever, and he’s still the greedy bastard who doesn’t want to let her go.

She senses the change in the air and the tension in him and lets her hands fall to her sides. “Well, I guess I should….”

Don’t go. Don’t go I’m not ready, he thinks, so he blurts out the first thing that pops into his head. “You wanna stay for dinner? My treat.”

He really is ravenous. He hasn’t eaten since noon. But equally, he doesn’t want her to leave. He’s afraid that when she goes out the door she’ll take every bit of calm he’s feeling with her and leave him unequipped to deal with the demons haunting his mind.

She hesitates for a second, but eventually says “Yeah, I guess I could eat.”

“What do you want?”

“Uh….you pick,” she replies, as she unlocks her phone and starts dialing, “I’m going to check in on Noah.” She moves into the kitchen and Elliot orders food from some Thai place nearby that he’s not familiar with. It’s as good a time as any to scope out where the good food in the neighborhood is; he suspects there will be many nights of takeout in his future.

He  confirms their order and  sets his phone aside in time to hear her saying goodbye to Noah. “ I’ll see you tomorrow. Be good for Aunt Amanda, okay?  Okay. Good night, sweetheart. I love you. Bye.”

Though he can’t see her face, he hears the smile in her voice.  Her joy fills him with warmth and with a stinging sense of longing and regret. That she became a mother and he wasn’t there to witness it is one regret of many on a list too long to fathom when it comes to her. He has no idea how he’ll ever make up for the ways he’s hurt her, but he’ll spend the rest of his life trying if she’ll let him.

“Noah with a sitter tonight?” he asks as she comes around the corner and joins him on the opposite end of the couch.

“Ah, no. He’s with Rollins. You met her at Fin’s wedding, right?”

He nods.

“He spends the night with her on occasion. That wasn’t the plan tonight, but Rollins’ daughters pleaded with him to have a sleepover. He just adores them, so they didn’t exactly have to twist his arm.” She smiles. “It’s really sweet, actually. He assumes the role of a big brother and takes it very seriously. I return the favor and take the girls for a night when I can.”

“Are you and Rollins close?”

“We are now.” She laughs quietly, exhales. “Wasn’t always like that though. It took a few years, and there were some bumps along the way, especially when I first took command of the squad, but….now she’s family.” He looks at her as she says this, and he knows she doesn’t mean for it to hurt, but it does, because he knows that though she never said it to his face, she once considered him to be her family and he’d let her down.

He wishes the suffocating storm of grief inside of him would quiet long enough for him to get his bearings and tell her that he wants to be her family again, that she’s always been part of his, even when they were apart, but it’s not the right time, and he’s sure that the words would get stuck in his throat anyway.

Instead, he offers rather lamely “I’m glad you have people to rely on for support.”

Olivia stiffens, but only hums in acknowledgement, and he knows she’s not saying whatever she’s thinking.

Mercifully, the buzzer rings at that moment, and Elliot all but jumps to let the delivery person in.               

Shortly after, they’re sitting on his brand new couch eating Thai food off his brand new coffee table, foregoing the kitchen set altogether, which he thinks suits them better anyhow.

The conversation is safe. “Have you spoken to Eli about what colour he wants to paint his room?”

“Yeah. He wants to paint it savoy blue.”

“Ah. For the azzuri,” she says.

Elliot nods. “I keep thinking about how much Kathy would hate it,” he chuckles, exhaling. He looks over at her, and her expression is so damn soft that he thinks the ache in her eyes might kill him. “But it doesn’t matter. Whatever he wants, especially if it makes him feel more comfortable at home.”

It’s been ten years but sharing a take-out meal with Liv feels like the most natural thing in the world; the familiarity of it soothes him in a way he hasn’t felt since Kathy died, and he feels like a bastard for relishing and reveling in that comfort.

They eat silently while The Eagles sing about taking it easy, but eventually Liv stills beside him. He looks over to find her holding her chopsticks, staring out the window, unseeing.

“What’re you thinkin’ about, Liv?”

“What?” She says, snapping out of her trance and retuning her attention to her food.

“What’re you thinking about? You okay?” He wants to sound light-hearted so she won’t shut down. How did the mood change so quickly?

Olivia finishes chewing the bit of food in her mouth, and swallowing thickly. She grabs a napkin, wipes her mouth then takes a deep breath and looks at him. She’s very clearly not okay. Her warm brown eyes are pained, though she’s trying to hide it.

“I…” she begins, then trails off, sighing heavily. “I don’t think I should tell you right now.” She smiles sadly at him. “You’ve got enough to deal with.”

He’s confused. He’s annoyed. He thought they’d been doing okay. That they were in sync. But then again, even though he’s working hard on it, his perceptions are still distorted by grief and PTSD and heartache. She’s probably right, but he doesn’t care.

“Try me,” he insists. Sitting up and twisting to face her.

“Elliot,” she warns.

“Please.” He doesn’t care that he’s begging. “You’ve been so, so  supportive since Kathy died, even though I didn’t deserve it – I still don’t deserve it. I wouldn’t have gotten through these past few months without you. Just…” He huffs, running his hands over his scalp.

He doesn’t know how to tell her not to treat him like he’s fragile – he really is doing much better – while also acknowledging that he sees that she’s protecting herself. How does he tell her that she doesn’t need to hold back? That she doesn’t need to protect herself from him? He craves the push and pull, the give and take between them that always felt central to their relationship.

“I want to be here for you, and I can tell that something’s buggin’ you.” he finishes lamely. I want you to trust me.

“Okay,” she replies after a moment. She takes a deep breath, clears her throat and gives him a look as if to say you asked for this.

“I just….Sometimes I feel like I’m in the goddamn Twilight Zone.”

Well, that’s something he can relate to, though probably not for the same reasons. Everything feels surreal to him nowadays. Everything except maybe her. “How so?”

“Sometimes it doesn’t feel real to me that you’re here. We’re sitting on a couch, eating Thai food together in 2021 like it’s 2006 and I’m afraid to enjoy it because up to a couple of months ago I had convinced myself that I was never going to see you again.”

“Liv…” He doesn’t know what to say to her that won’t sound hollow, but she ignores him.

“And then all of a sudden, out of the fucking blue, you’re back in my life during what’s presumably the worst thing you’ve ever been through, and I’m feeling all of the feelings I thought I’d already processed on top of the devastation of watching people I never stopped caring about but haven’t seen in a decade lose someone integral to them.”

She breathes for a moment. She hasn’t raised her voice at all, but he thinks that might have been easier than the gravelly acceptance in her voice.

“So I prioritized making sure you and your family were ok. I know you didn’t ask that of me, but Elliot…how could I do anything else? You might have disappeared for a decade, but I’ve come to realize that a partnership like ours, for me at least, doesn’t end because one person put in their papers.”

Elliot flinches at that, but stays silent. He deserved that, and more.

“I didn’t really realize it until you came back, but part of me never let go of the idea that…” she shrugs her shoulders, almost helplessly, “we were partners, for better or worse. So if you ever needed my help I’d be there.”

His words from nearly 23 years ago slam into him and steal his breath. What is he supposed to say to that? How was he supposed to swallow past the tightness in his throat to tell her that he never deserved her devotion.

“I know,” he croaks.

“Do you? ‘Cause-“  A dark look passes over her face, and his stomach drops. He watches her take a couple of deep, deliberate breaths with her hand covering half of her face. Suddenly he feels like he’s in free-fall. There’s something big and terrible that he’s missing, and it fills him with dread.

When she looks at him again, her eyes are shining, and it pushes him closer to the brink of full-blown panic.

“After you left, I spent so much time going over everything I might’ve said or done over the course of our partnership that could cause you to leave me without so much as a text message goodbye. I replayed every significant moment over nearly thirteen years wondering if I’d misinterpreted everything… ‘Cause I know we weren’t always good at communicating about our partnership, but I thought it was a given that our partnership, no matter what happened on the job, was for life.”

She laughs quietly, sniffs, wipes away a tear.

“Liv, it was.” Tears sting his eyes and he tries to hold them back in the face of her pain. If he starts crying now, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to stop. He’d literally crossed oceans to leave her behind, but no amount of physical distance could ever remove her from the beat of his heart.

“Yeah. I’m coming to the realization now that I don’t think we could change that even if we wanted to. But you have to realize how it felt at the time. It was like you’d died, Elliot, and no medallions sent in the mail, or pledges of Semper Fi could fix how that made me feel.”

“I’m so sorry, Liv.” He’s so deeply ashamed that he can’t think of anything else to say.

“I know you are. But I need you to hear me.”

He gets it, he does, and he knows she’s not doing this to punish him. But that doesn’t make it any easier. He breathes, and reminds himself that he’s lucky that she’s even speaking to him, and no matter how much it hurts it is the least he can do for her.

“After you left, after my anger cooled and I came to accept that you weren’t coming back…I thought about our relationship and how it was where I felt safest. Safer than I’d ever felt in my life. Before or since.”

She says it like it’s a simple matter of fact. Like he hadn’t left the earth quaking beneath her feet when he left. Elliot bites the inside of his cheek, hoping physical ache will dull the excruciating pain of her words.

She continues, her voice tremulous with tears that she’s trying and failing to contain. “Elliot, I would have spent the rest of my career by your side, just waiting for you. Hoping for something that would never be, no matter how much I told myself that I had long ago given up on that particular dream.”

It’s the first time she’s ever explicitly acknowledged that she ever had romantic feelings for him, and it sets the tears in his eyes flowing freely and silently down his cheeks. He knew it, of course, or inferred it, just like she must have, in the silences between the words all those years ago.

“I was stagnant, settling for contentment, and I couldn’t see it until after you left.”

“Liv I never wanted to hold you back,” he chokes. “I’m so sorry that I ever did.”

“I know.” Her compassion makes him feel shame. Her kindness makes him feel small. And beneath that, there is only powerful surges of gratitude.   “I don’t blame you. I made my own choices and I own them. It took me ages to move on, but I did. I had a relationship, and finally felt like I was on solid footing.”

She pauses, and he can see her steeling herself for what she’s about to say next, so he does the same, but accepts that it’s probably an exercise in futility.  

“In May of 2013, we caught a case that started out as some pervert exposing himself to tourists in Central Park. His name was William Lewis. Turns out that this guy was a real sexual sadist who had escaped justice a bunch of times before. Rollins had a gut feeling about him, so she brought him in. We couldn’t hold him on a class B misdemeanor, so he went free and found the woman who caught him exposing himself in the park and assaulted her. Raped and tortured her for 18 hours. It was so bad that she later died of a heart attack from the trauma. The DNA evidence was mishandled, and he was released on that technicality.”

She pauses, self-soothes, fidgets with the blanket on the back of the couch. The pressure trapped in his chest feels enormous, like if he coaxes it up and out of his mouth he will start screaming and it won’t ever stop. It’s taking everything in him not to reach out and touch her, comfort her somehow.

“He had fixated on me.” The hair on the back of Elliot’s neck stands up. Chills cascade the full length of his body. He knows she’s about to confirm one of his worst fears, and he can’t do anything to stop it. “Cragen sent me home. Knew how upset I was. And he was waiting for me at home. I still don’t know how he got in.”

A sound escapes him that he tries to cover by clearing his throat, but it sounds more like a pained grunt. He doesn’t know what to say, but it doesn’t matter, because she continues, looking him in the eye.

“It was bad, El. He had me for four days, drugged me, h-hurt me…” He watches as she rolls the sleeve of her blouse up to her elbow and extends her forearm to him. He sees two overlapping scars of what are clearly cigarette burns and feels as though he might be sick. Every cell in his body is screaming at him to run, but he can’t do that to Liv, who is looking at him with tears in her eyes, and so much hurt. Instead, he swallows the nausea and scoots closer to her, gently taking her forearm and running his thumbs tenderly over the scars there. She doesn’t say it, but he knows these aren’t the worst of it.  

“He locked me in the trunk of a car, made me watch while he tortured and raped others, and then took me to an empty beach house on Long Island. He had me handcuffed to a bed and was just about to burn my clothes off to rape me when I managed to get one of the iron bars on the bed loose and knocked him out.”

Elliot is thankful that she hasn’t pulled away from him, because he thinks at this point he’s touching her more to hold on to his own sanity rather than to bring her any comfort.

She pauses, takes more deliberate breaths, and Elliot tries to match her breathing.

“He tried to goad me into killing him. And it worked.” She sobs. “I beat him so badly with that iron bar that when they told me he was still alive I didn’t understand how. And somehow, the fact that he was able to get to me that way was just as traumatic as everything else.”

Her voice, from a lifetime ago, fills his head. Half of my genes are drunk, and the other half are violent and cruel, and then he knows the agonizing pain she must have caused herself over it.

Elliot moves his hands from where they’d been on her forearm, and envelopes her hand in  both of his. He squeezes her hand and is relieved when she responds in kind. “I would’ve killed him,” he says. He’s never been more sure of anything in his life. “I would’ve killed him.”

She smiles, sadly. “I know. I said that to him. Told him you would have broken every bone in his body.”

The admission that she’d thought of him, that she’d wanted him to save her, stole his breath. Where had he been in May of 2013? How did he not know? “Liv, if I’d known –“

She interrupts him. “When they pulled me from that beach house, all I wanted to see was you.” She wipes tears from her cheeks, though it doesn’t do much to stem their flow. “And I hated myself for it. Just when I thought I’d moved on, gotten over you, here I was hoping for the one person who made me feel safest. The one person who had hurt me like no one else ever had.

“When I was cuffed to that bed, before I managed to get the bar loose, I was beginning to accept it, about to numb out and let it happen. He, uh, saw it. Asked me who I was thinking about. Somehow knew it wasn’t a mom, or a dad, or a boyfriend. Someone I’d give anything to see one more time. I didn’t say anything, but he said it didn’t matter. I’d scream his name at some point.  And El, it would’ve been you. Even after all that time. And it was your voice I heard in my head telling me to fight back.”

Elliot lets go of her hand and cradles his head in his hands. He’s sobbing before he can try to contain it. His tears are plentiful, but they offer no catharsis. If there had ever been any doubt that leaving her had been the worst decision he ever made, it has evaporated in the past few minutes.

  Eventually, he calms himself enough to speak.

“If I’d known I woulda been on the first plane here.” She appraises him, and nods slowly, but doesn’t say anything.

Eventually, Elliot asks, “Where was your partner?”

“Cragen sent me home for two days, remember?” 

“So? After seeing how Lewis had fixated on you, no way I would’ve let you go home alone. I would’ve walked you to your door. Would’ve made sure it was clear myself. No way I wouldn’t have called you to make sure you were safe. No way I wouldn’t have come after you if you didn’t answer your phone.”

Liv nods, smiles sympathetically with sad, sad eyes. “Yeah. But if you’d walked me to my apartment he would’ve killed you, or tortured us both.”

He’s still at a loss. How could two days pass before anyone figured something was up?

“But how could they not know? I can’t imagine I wouldn’t have known. I would have known.” He feels sure of it, though it’s not rational.

She sighs. “Nick was a good partner, Elliot, but he wasn’t you. I didn’t have the connection with him that I had with you. He had my back, and didn’t rest until he found me, but he didn’t go above and beyond the way you did.”

He can only imagine what his face looks like right now, but it’s a safe bet that the devastation he’s feeling is plain for her to see.

“Did he-” he begins, but she saves him from having to complete the sentence, knowing just what he was going to ask.

“No,” she says firmly. “It was a sexual assault, but not a rape.”

There is a split second of relief, followed by a wave of pain knowing that she’d been terrorized and he’d been an ocean away.

“I’m not telling you this to hurt you, Elliot, though I can see you’re hurting” This time, she’s the one who reaches for his hand. “I’m trying to tell you that I’m not the same person you knew ten years ago.”

“But you are,” he insists. “In all the ways that matter, you are.” The things that he’d always admired and envied in her – her compassion, her dedication,  her determination, and a million other things that made her Liv – hadn’t changed.

“That’s sweet of you to say,” and Elliot takes it for the placation it is. He goes to challenge her on it, but she’s not done talking.

“I’m not the same person, but sometimes when I’m with you, and we’re so in sync and it feels like second nature, I feel like her again. And it’s scary as hell, because you left her behind without a word and she was never the same for it. I know I’m running a little hot and cold, Elliot, but can you understand why?”

He nods slowly. What can he say to her?

“I mean, you give me this letter, filled with words I never would have thought you capable of, that wiped out virtually every doubt I ever had about how you felt for me, a beautiful apology and the grace to let me go if I didn’t want to hear from you. The closure I waited ten years for.”

It's the first time they’ve talked about the letter he wrote, and he’s relieved to know that it’s brought her closure, but he knows the circumstances under which he wrote the letter, and the circumstances in which he gave it to her were wholly different and changed the meaning of the letter itself. He’d written it to tell her that he was proud of her, that there wasn’t a day when he didn’t think of her, that he was sorry for any and all pain he’d ever caused her, and that leaving her behind was one of the greatest regrets of his life. He’d left the ball in her court in terms of where she wanted the relationship to go. But then Kathy had died, and she was suddenly the only thing keeping him afloat, and there was an opportunity, eventually, for what should have been between them the first time he left Kathy.

“But El, you were married when you wrote that letter, and I  know things changed so quickly, and so tragically, but if they hadn’t….Were you just going to drop that letter on me and fly back to Italy? Tell me you loved me for nearly the entirety of our partnership, that those feelings were so overwhelming that you couldn’t face me, that it was ultimately the reason you put your papers in, and go back to your wife and child in Rome like that wouldn’t have wrecked me all over again?”

He doesn’t say anything. Because the ugly truth of it was that he would have. He would have gone back to Rome with Kathy. He and Olivia might’ve stayed connected, and who knows what would’ve happened from there, but he’d made a life in Rome, and he had a duty to his wife and son that he couldn’t forsake.

She sighs heavily. She looks exhausted, Elliot notes; the bright and happy Liv from only a couple of hours ago seems lightyears away now.

She lets go of his hand, and turns so that she’s facing straight ahead, her head resting on the back of the couch, her eyes closed.

Elliot mirrors her, thinking that maybe it will be easier to give voice to his deepest truths if he’s not at risk of falling into the warmth of her eyes.

“Liv, what I said in the letter, and what I said at the intervention….I meant it.”

She hums, nods. “I believe that you believe that,” she says, not unkindly.  

“What do I have to do to make you believe it?” 

She’s silent for a little while, but then she says, “Give me time. You just lost Kathy. You’re still grieving. I’m scared that I’m just something familiar that you’re clinging to for support.” 

"That’s not true.”  

"Maybe. But how do I know that? How do I know that once you’re back on your feet, you won’t decide to leave me again?” 

“I won’t.” 

“Ok, but how do I know that, Elliot?”

He almost says because I’m telling you I won’t, but the truth is, she can’t. She can’t, because he left her.

 So he makes a new vow to himself, and to her, a vow that he knows he’ll take as seriously as his marriage vow. He’ll do whatever it takes, wait as long as she needs, but he will make sure that she is certain of his love for her. 

“Okay. Time. I can give you that.” Then, “Liv, I’m so sorry.” 

She reaches out, turns her head towards him and gropes for his hand. He takes it, focuses on how warm and real she feels.  

“I know. I don’t need you to be sorry, I just need you to be here, El. I just need you to stay.” 

Tears fill his eyes once more. He won’t leave her again. He doesn’t think it’s possible, in any case. He wouldn’t survive it. They’re quiet for several minutes, but there’s no tension in the silence anymore. He rubs his thumb over her hand soothingly.

He thinks over what she’s told him, the gift of her vulnerability that she’s given him tonight. Thinks about the horror she went through hell and eventually came out the other side fortified by the flames. She was so much more than he deserved, but if she let him, he’d spend the rest of his life trying to be worthy of her.

Then, he frowns. She hadn’t finished her story. “Liv, what happened to him?”

“Hmm?” He looks over to see her eyelids drooping, half-asleep. “Who?” Blinking the sleep from her eyes she sits up a little straighter. “I’m sorry. I feel exhausted all of a sudden.”

“Lewis. What happened to him?”

She grimaces. “He represented himself at trial. It was really, really ugly.”

“They let him cross-examine you?”

Olivia shrugs. “It was his right. He wanted to plead guilty to rape and allocute in court.”

“Which would have spared you the pain of testifying, but he didn’t rape you, so you couldn’t let him do that.”

She nods. “And he knew it.”

“So he traumatized you all over again.”

“Yeah.”

“Fuck,” he swears, and feels her squeeze his hand in reassurance.

“It’s a long story, and I don’t want to get into the details, but they found him guilty of kidnapping and assault of a police officer, and he was sentenced to 25 to life, but he escaped 4 months later and came after me again.”

How?, he wants to ask, but he can see the toll this discussion has taken on her, so he stays quiet.

“He killed himself and tried to frame me for his murder.”

“What?”

“Yeah. It didn’t stick in the end, but they did convene a grand jury.”

“Jesus.”

She nods, then yawns. “I’ll tell you more about it another time, El, but right now I’m tired.”

“Of course,” he says. He lets go of her hand and begins to clear away their leftover takeout. He throws the dishes in the dishwasher and shoves the containers into the fridge. When he returns to the living room he expects her to be gathering her things, getting ready to leave, but she’s curled further into the sofa with closed eyes.

“Liv,” he says softly, lowering himself to sit beside her. They’re breaking new ground, and it feels so right to him that he doesn’t want her to leave and shatter the peace of this space between old and new, past and present. “Stay.”

Slowly, her eyelids lift and their eyes meet. Nodding silently, she sits up, toes off her shoes and pulls her legs up on to the couch, settling.

Not sure what she expects of him, she rescues him by extending her hand to him once again. Her touch gives him goosebumps, and he knows he’ll never tire of the privilege of holding her hand. She tugs him down beside her. He reaches behind her and grabs the throw blanket there, pulling it over her, but she stops him and spreads it over them both. Then, tentatively, she moves so that his arm is around her shoulders and her head is resting on his chest.

“I might have a nightmare,” she says, and all he can do is pull her closer. Then, a realization that sucker punches the wind from his lungs.

“Liv, is that how you knew I had PTSD? ‘Cause you have it too, and recognized it?”

She nods against his chest, fists the fabric of the blanket covering them.

He’d laughed at her. He’d laughed at her, and said that he’d been a cop for 30 years as though that mattered.

“It’s okay, El,” she says, preempting his apology. “You couldn’t have known.”

It’s true, of course. He couldn’t have known she had PTSD, and he’ll never let himself forget that she had helped him through his darkest hours, and he’d been nowhere to be found during hers.

Then, where could he have been found in May of 2013? There’s no way an NYPD detective could be kidnapped and it wouldn’t make the news, so why hadn’t his children called him? Kathleen especially, he knows, would have called him. She would have urged him to get on the first flight to New York.

Elliot’s never been good with dates, but he concentrates hard and thinks over his life from May of 2011, to May of 2013. When he puts everything in order, he’s pretty sure he was undercover at the time -  his first undercover overseas – and they wouldn’t have been able to reach him.

“Liv,” he whispers, suddenly more energetic.

“Yeah?” She murmurs.

“I was undercover in May of 2013. My kids wouldn’t have been able to reach me to tell me you were missing. I don’t know why they wouldn’t have called Kathy, or maybe they did and Kathy didn’t tell me, though I don’t know why that would be the case. Tomorrow, I’ll talk to Kathleen and-“

She pulls back from his slightly and hushes him with her fingers on his mouth.

“Elliot,” she whispers. “Rest.” It’s only one word, but it absolves him more than any prayer every could, and he breathes.

He takes her hand in his and pulls her knuckles to his mouth in a kiss, then moves his lips down to rest on the pulse point on the inside of her wrist.

“Liv, I love you,” he murmurs, feeling the beat of her heart beneath his lips.

She smiles, and pulls her wrist from his mouth to rest her hand tenderly against his cheek. “Talk to me in six months, okay Stabler?”

With that, she cuddles back into him and closes her eyes.

He smiles a smile that glows so bright it might drown the demons inside him in light.

“I’ll be here,” he says, and closes his eyes to follow her into slumber.

End.