She may be nowhere close to her normal capacity for processing information, but she is so focused on Elliot — clinging to his voice like it’s a life ring in the murky viscous depths of her panic — that the meaning of his words registers immediately.
He knows about Lewis. Olivia’s body seizes up again.
“Yeah. I… yeah,” Elliot confirms quietly. Voice laced with discomfort and remorse.
She is overcome with a new kind of terror. One she’s never before allowed to even begin to take root in her. Now she is petrified because Elliot knows and there is a very real possibility that he’s known all these years and just didn’t… Olivia can’t even think that thought to its completion.
She wants to unhand his jacket, distance herself from the man, from his face pressed to the side of her head, from the gentle slide of his hand up and down her back, from the scent of him in her nose. But she can’t seem to move.
“Found out several days ago,” Elliot says while she struggles to regain control over her limbs. His lips are almost touching her ear, and as the little blast waves created by these five words hit her hair and skin, Olivia feels some of the tension drain from her body. If she was a believer, she would be thanking a deity right now for sparing her more pain. Pain she is not sure she would be able to deal with.
As she relaxes a bit, he grows tense, stops the movement of his hand on her back.
“Liv, I didn’t know before. I swear to you,” Elliot says emphatically. Olivia realizes he must’ve identified her reaction for what it was. “I… I know you don’t trust me,” he utters dejectedly, “but, please, trust me when I say I only just found out.”
It’s funny, she thinks, because the reality is so much more complicated than her not trusting him.
“If I’d known, I would’ve been on the first plane home —”
“Stop,” she interrupts him firmly. “Just… stop.”
Olivia can’t listen to him spouting hypotheticals. She did enough of imagining alternative scenarios (with him in the picture) back in the day. It didn’t help her any. She is not about to go down that road again.
Elliot is impossibly still. Holding his breath, she thinks.
“It’s in the past,” Olivia tells him. Softer now. She is still shaky, and her voice is barely above a whisper, but she is able to string full sentences together. “I don’t want to talk about ‘what ifs’. I am fine, Elliot.”
He huffs at that, his hand resuming its soothing motions across her back.
“Of course you are,” the man mutters. His tone a mix of fondness and disbelief.
Olivia wants to hit him. Or hit something at least. She really was doing fine. Mostly. It’s just her luck to have this happen in front of him.
“I am fine,” she asserts. Although, Olivia supposes, the fact that she is still clinging to Elliot, nose buried in his shirt, fingers clutching his jacket, contradicts her statement somewhat. “This doesn’t really happen anymore. It’s just…” she doesn’t really want to explain what combination of factors led her to this moment.
“Something here triggered you.”
It’s not even a question. Just an observation. And he is not pressuring her, but Olivia decides she can give him something. Elliot hasn’t figured it out, so it’s clear he doesn’t know the details.
“Yes. The smell. Vodka and cigarettes.” She breathes in the comforting scent of his shirt. “Dark enclosed space. I… Let’s just say I don’t recommend taking a trip in the trunk of a car,” Olivia tries for levity but fails.
Elliot pulls her in closer. They just stand like this in the dim light of his phone for a few moments before he breaks the silence again.
“Let’s play a game,” her former partner proposes suddenly.
“A game?” Olivia asks incredulously.
“Yep. A game. I believe it is called ‘Twenty questions’. You ask me anything you want, and I ask you anything I want. You can choose not to answer, of course. But if you do answer, you have to tell the truth.”
“Are you serious?” Olivia is just flabbergasted.
“I am. I’ll go first. Tell me something about Noah.”
“That’s not a question,” she points out.
Elliot huffs out a little laugh. “Okay, you’re right. How about this then — what’s Noah’s favorite subject in school?”
“Social studies. At the moment,” she adds, because Noah’s preferences can be fleeting these days.
“Oh, really? I bet he is a smart boy.” Olivia can hear pride in his voice and it does things to her. “Your turn.”
She can ask him anything but she takes the simplest route first. “What’s Eli’s favorite subject?”
“He likes to read. Practically inhales books. And lemme tell you, he didn’t get that from me or Kathy. So I would say, Literature is his favorite. PE is a close second.”
Olivia smiles a little. She doesn’t really know Eli, but she can easily picture the boy with his nose in a good book.
“Does Noah like sports?”
“He used to like baseball when Pet—” Olivia catches herself. No need for extra details. “He used to like baseball, but now he likes dancing. He’s into ballet these days.”
She can feel Elliot grinning. “Is he any good?”
“I believe it’s my turn,” Olivia reminds him.
There are so many questions swirling around her brain. She is not ready to ask any of them, though. In fact, Olivia is not sure she will ever be ready. Articulating some of them would mean exposing her feelings, her pain. And she can’t do that. Asking the rest would mean hearing answers she is, frankly, afraid to hear. Olivia is half sure they will either reopen old wounds or create new ones.
She realizes she’s been quiet for far too long when Elliot’s voice jolts her out of her dark thoughts.
“You do know that this being ‘your turn’ means you actually have to ask the question out loud?” he jokes softly.
“How do you like Bell as a partner?” Olivia thinks it’s a safe enough topic. She hopes. Plus she is genuinely curious.
“She is not you,” Elliot tells her, his delivery steady and serious. Such a simple statement, yet it carries so much weight for Olivia. “But she’s got good instincts. I think I can trust her to have my back. And I don’t dislike working with her.”
She snorts. “What a glowing endorsement, Stabler.”
“Well, Benson, after over twelve years with the best partner in the world everyone else pales in comparison.”
“Yeah,” Olivia whispers because isn’t that just fucking true.
Elliot’s hand is no longer traversing the length of her back. Now his thumb is caressing the spot between her shoulder blades and Olivia feels those small tender movements echo in the bottom of her stomach.
“So… Is Noah any good?”
“You can ask me any question, and you keep asking about an eight year old boy?” she teases him. Olivia understands what Elliot is doing though. And it’s working. Thinking about her son grounds her like nothing else. “Yeah, he actually is quite good. I am told, if he sticks with it, he might go far. We’ll see, though. Might be just a phase.”
Before Olivia can think of another innocuous question for him, the lights in the elevator flicker back on. They slowly, reluctantly, move a bit further away from each other. He is still close, though, gently holding her upper arm.
“Liv. How about we go down and you let Fin take over?”
The elevator is not moving and it occurs to Olivia that they need to press the appropriate button again. Go up or go down — that’s the choice she has to make.
She finally looks at him. Elliot’s face is solemn, eyes concerned.
“No,” she shakes her head. “I am alright.”
Elliot looks like he wants to argue, but she stops him with her hand on his arm. “I really am okay,” Olivia assures her former partner. “Thank you,” she adds.
“Always,” he tells her and there is something in his gaze that makes her want to stay here in this moment forever.
But then the awful smell of alcohol and cigarettes hits her again. The sooner they get out of here, the better. Olivia squeezes his arm and let’s go.
“Press 9, will you,” she urges him.
Elliot just stares at her for a couple more seconds, before he reluctantly nods and turns around to do as she asked. Olivia thinks that he is her paradox. Even though he is the last person she wants to show her weaknesses to, he is, ironically, the only person in this universe in whose presence she can fall apart and not feel like she was weak afterwards.