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you took it all but I'm still breathing (I'm alive)

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What we were to each other was never real.

It is a double-sided knife, in the end, slicing her to ribbons with each inhale and exhale.

What we were to each other - she reads that first, again and again, startled at the bluntness of what they had spent a dozen years furiously trying to not look too closely at. What were we? she wants to demand, wants to fist the paper in her palm and shake it in his face until the words fall off the page. What were we? There is a part of her that aches for him to say it, finally say it, and a part of her that recoils at the thought, that is still too afraid to touch that live wire and let the current run through them both.

But then she remembers the rest of that sentence - it was never real and she cannot catch her breath. In an instant she sees a dozen years – perhaps the most formative of her life – and thousands of moments, big and small, grainy like the film of an old movie, tucked away at the corners of her mind. Hours in the cabin of the sedan, the soft rumble of their voices while their eyes were fixed on the streets of New York. The way Elliot would swipe her coffee from the corner of her desk, take a long drag, or the way he would complain that she stole his fries at the diner, yet always seemed to order extra.

Sonya’s blood hot on her hands, the way he had held her tight, the selfish words that had gone unspoken but hung in his exhale against her ear, thank god it wasn’t you. The way she had thought it in return, her temple pressed to his cheek.

The sting of the blade against her throat, the way her head had rung when she had hit the concrete. Elliot’s eyes, panicked, wild, as he shouts her name, his voice strained in a way she had never heard before, laced with the manifestation of their worst fears. The gun cold and solid in her hands, the tears in Elliot’s eyes, the shape of his lips when he had mouthed, it’s okay, the sting of salt on her face.

You and this job are about the only things I’ve got anymore. I don’t want to wreck that.

Blink your lights when you get inside.

It had been real, whatever it had been. She had lived it; he doesn’t get to unilaterally decide what is real and what isn’t real, doesn’t get to manipulate reality to make it comfortable for him. She has spent a decade putting Elliot Stabler behind her, but he does not get to declare that the dozen years preceding did not matter, did not count. She has tolerated a lot from him, since he came back, but not this. Never this.

If they had never been real, her pain at his loss, the gaping chasm of his absence – that, too, would not have been real, and that is simply a bridge too far for her to bear.

We got in the way of each other being who and where we needed to be.

There are times, when she lies awake in her bed and counts the words as though they are sheep, traces their outlines in the cracks of her ceiling, that she wonders if maybe Elliot had a point, there.

They are the words that had cut the deepest, the first time she had read them, her deepest fears put to paper – that she had hindered Elliot in being the husband, the father, the man he needed to be for his family, the family that she had equally envied and tried to protect as though they were her own, that her mere existence left a trail of destruction and distress across the Stabler household. She had swallowed once, twice, closing her mouth around the words, feeling that familiar guilty burn in her chest, a regret that she can’t put a name to. I’m sorry, she thinks in her mind, to Kathy and Maureen, Kathleen and the twins, and to Eli, the baby she had held first, now a boy who until a few months ago didn’t even know of a world where she existed – the collateral damage left in their wake. I didn’t mean to.

But then at night she tucks Noah in, wraps the blanket tight around him, and he wrinkles his nose when she kisses his curly mop of hair and tells her with his lips that he’s too old to be tucked in, too old for the nightlight that she leaves switched on, but tells her with his eyes that he is still secretly pleased. In that moment of easy domestic bliss, of uncomplicated and all-consuming love, she can’t help but wonder if she would have found herself here, in this life she is living, if Elliot hadn’t gone.

Would she have made lieutenant, never mind captain? Or would she still be languishing as a junior detective, one half of an unruly, untrustworthy pair? You’re a dirty cop and your partner is dirty, too, Ed had snarled at her, so long ago and dripping with so much venom that it could have come from a different man entirely than the one she had grown to know. That suspicion had clung to them through the years, through IAB investigations and psych evals, and though it hadn’t been true, what is true is that they fed each other’s rages, their worst impulses, their impotent rage at the injustice and pain they faced every day. In her mind’s eye she sees Cragen watching them from the doorway with a doubtful, torn look on his face, as he calculated the danger of keeping them together versus the danger of breaking them apart. They had dragged each other down, wordlessly egged each other on, kept secrets and told lies and held hands as they leapt across every line and boundary.

Well. Not every line and boundary, and she can console herself with that, at least.

And would she have found Noah, would she have become his mother, if she hadn’t realized that family did not necessarily have to be two parents and four children in a brownstone in Queens? She had applied for adoption before but been rejected, and hadn’t she thought, deep down, that she deserved to be turned down, that she could not possibly provide the sort of home that a child deserved? Hadn’t she feared that perhaps a family, a real family, would always be out of reach for her – hadn’t Elliot looked at her with years alternately sympathetic and patronizing, you wouldn’t understand, Liv.

And hadn’t she remembered Serena, remembered Simon, the dark past that had left them all shattered and unwhole, and thought, really, that he was probably right?

It is only when she is adrift on her own that she realized that a family can be a lonely woman and a lost little boy and a patchwork of faux aunties and uncles in their police blues, bound by something more powerful than blood – by choice.

She kisses her son’s brow, and the taste of the words - who and where we needed to be - do not taste so bitter when she whispers them against his forehead.

If there is a man in your life, I hope he is the kind, faithful, devoted man that you deserve.

Later, she will wonder how she ever thought Elliot penned those words. Elliot has never been that generous, that magnanimous. You were the single most important person in my life, she had told him beneath the harsh fluorescents of the hospital waiting room, barely able to meet his eye. And you wanted it that way, is what she did not add, what she had left unspoken.

She thinks he had heard them, anyway.

Maybe he had not wanted that at the beginning, when things weren’t so heavy and fraught between them, when there had been room for teasing, for light-hearted flirting and banter with no weight behind it. Can you blame him? he had asked her of Cassidy, a thousand years ago, his eyes gentle and full of the wisdom of the happily wed.

But even then, there had been no real threat to his position - she had been young and uninterested in settling down. And when she had started thinking of those things, started thinking she might want them, with some nameless faceless man that she purposefully did not spend too long imagining…by then, they were so tightly bound that it felt there was no space for even their petty disagreements, and every argument had felt seismic and world-changing.

Elliot’s jealousy then had been easily stoked, and utterly unfair. Is he your partner, or am I? he had demanded when she had worked with Ash – handsome, intelligent Ash with his beautiful eyes, a man who could have maybe been something to her, in a different life – and that had always been his way, in those days. Choose, he would demand, if not in so many words. You have to choose, Olivia, as though there were ever truly a choice to be made.

Time and time again, he forced her to look at the naked truth that there simply hadn’t been room in her life for any other man, that Elliot took up all available space, took everything so that she had nothing else to offer.

She should have hated him for it, the way he delighted in derailing her romantic life and then went contentedly home to his wife and children while she went to her single bedroom apartment alone, but even in her angriest days, she knows that she had been complicit the entire time, had maybe even enjoyed stoking his jealousy at times, just as a reminder that he cared.

Jesus, they had both been so fucked.

And now, even a decade later, with all the distance time brings as its companion - Elliot Stabler, writing that he hopes she has met an ideal man, a perfect match? Elliot standing aside, indulgent and passively, uncomplicatedly happy for her?

Laughable.

But in a parallel universe, it will always be you and I.

Olivia does not believe in parallel universes, does not believe in fate or destiny. She can’t, working the job that she does – it is too much, to think that all that pain, that the worst of humanity, could all somehow be preordained. It feels like a cop-out, an excuse, a reason to throw one’s hands up and say, there was nothing we could do, it was meant to be. There is only one universe, only one life and the choices a person makes, and then living with those choices. It could probably be counted as yet another reason she is not religious; she does not like the idea of turning her life over to some sort of higher power, and she reminds herself of this when Elliot falls to his knees before her the way she has seen him kneel before the alter, head bowed and hand making the sign of the cross.

She reminds herself of this, when he gazes up at her with pupils blown wide with drugs, when he reaches with trembling fingers for her face, when she finds herself spiraling again into his vortex, the irresistible pull like a riptide pulling her under. It would be so easy to drown – in his eyes, his touch, in the churning black ocean of their partnership, of their connection, dark and dangerous and beautiful and intoxicating.

All she has ever wanted, and all she should run from.

She reminds herself of it, when she feels the inevitability of it all pushing down on her, careening toward her like an out of control train – of this man, here, of all that he is to her and all that he could be.

She reminds herself to breathe. Breathe.

It’s difficult, nearly impossible, because Elliot has always had a way of eating all the oxygen in a room, stealing it from her lungs, like an out of control flame, an inferno. They have always burned together, that way.

“Liv,” he whispers her name, like a prayer, a benediction, and she thinks he won’t remember a word of this tomorrow.

Choose, his voice rings in her ear, the words he had never spoken but had nevertheless made clear as day. Choose, Olivia.

His head falls, as though it is simply too heavy to hold, landing against her stomach, and he groans softly, whatever more he wants to say lost against the fabric of her shirt, though she can feel his mouth move, the tracing of his lips, and it makes her skin prickle.

Choose. You have to choose, Olivia.

She puts her hands to his shoulders, bent over him like a sheltering tree, keeping him from slipping away entirely.