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a band of gold (the dreams i hold)

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“In a parallel universe, it will always be you and I.”

In this universe, Elliot Stabler runs from the harmful hands of home and into the body of a beautiful blonde— his beautiful, blonde bride, with a baby in her belly, and his life encompassed by a ring of gold.

In this universe, Olivia Benson comes born from violence and grows up where bottles blur the line between a hand that’s harmful and one that seeks to hold her.

In this universe, Olivia Benson walks into the Manhattan Special Victims Unit fifteen years too late, and Elliot Stabler will spend the next twelve or thirteen some-odd years feeling his heart break free of the band of gold in search of a parallel place where they were both right on time.

In this universe, Elliot can pick out the exact point in time the cracks start to form in the band around his finger. It’s not the first year or two after Olivia becomes his partner, though he thinks the heat of that time may have put some pressure on the bonds given how free they were in their regard, how easily they fell in sync, side by side. It’s a few years on still when they slip out of their own skin and into those of others, and it’s then, Elliot realizes, that this is the beginning of the end: the point in time where it is far, far easier to lose himself in someone else for a little while— easier still, with Olivia at his side.

In this universe, Olivia calls him honey, positions herself off to his side and anchors her hand on his shoulder— always at his six.

Later, after he’s killed a man and found himself shackled to his desk, Elliot will retreat into the spray of his shower at home, silent and sullen. Later, Elliot will close his eyes and remember finding her eyes in that bar, smile bright and cheeks flushed with charm. Later, he’ll conjure up the memory of her in that sinful black dress, neckline dipping, curving tantalizingly along the swell of her breasts. Later, he’ll wrap his fist around his cock and jerk himself off in earnest, moans muffled against the rush-hiss of the water. Later, he’ll feel the phantom warmth of her hand on his shoulder, hear the lilting echo of honey, honey, honey until he spills over his fist, legs shaking with the effort to stay upright.

In that universe, Elliot imagines taking the seat next to her at the bar. In that universe, drinks lead to dinner. In that universe, she’d have followed him into that bathroom and let him sink his mouth over hers, hands dipping up beneath her dress while hers fumbled with his belt.

In that universe, she would be the one he’d come home to at night, the one who would join him for jogs in the morning. In that universe, they’d have dinner with friends down the street and share stories of their past. In that universe, he’d watch her from their bed, glasses perched on his nose while she slipped into silk and regarded their friends’ children with an affectionate, aching sort of warmth. In that universe, she’d set his glasses on the nightstand and sink into his lap, hands anchored on his shoulders.

In that universe, Olivia would be his, to have and to hold, back arching with a gasping staccato of honey, honey, honey, and his children would be hers.

In this universe, he slides under the sheets next to his beautiful, blonde bride.

In this universe, honey will fall from Kathy’s lips with a kiss that tastes bittersweet.

In this universe, he removes the band of gold and doesn’t answer his phone because Elliot is no longer home. Mike has no family to speak of, just a well-placed position and an itch for something more. Mike stumbles home to an empty house after a long, hard day at work and strips himself down, waiting for someone else to call to help him scratch that itch.

In this universe, Olivia knocks on Mike’s door, and Elliot answers. Kathy is livid, she tells him, on her own way out the door, and Elliot finds himself ghosting his thumb along the spot his ring usually resides. It’s already been fractured to the point of almost-broken before, years where the gold had lost its shine and the band had only clung on because the sharp fragments kept digging into his skin.

When love warps into hate, there’s nothing you won’t do.

Elliot had held the pieces, tender and damaged in his hands, in the hopes of not having to hold them alone. She had touched him, his beautiful, blonde half-bride, and not for the first time a baby had branded him gold once again.

It had been Olivia who had seeped into the cracks like glue— Olivia who had pieced them back together. From then on she had been inextricably bonded to them— the fragments that caught the light when the world felt too dark.

He had left his wife in that room with their son, and he followed the bleeding to where Olivia was waiting out in the hall. He’d pulled her into his embrace, and in that moment she became his— his Olivia, outside of the gold.

In this universe, Elliot shields her from the dark as Mike answers the door. But Olivia— bold, brave Olivia who was raised in the dark, emerges from the shelter he’d tried to provide in an effort to keep him safe, instead. She steps into his embrace, this nameless, half-naked woman who is pretty for a price, and touches him like she has the right. She presses her body against him like she belongs there— like she’s his, and he supposes, on Mike’s dime, for the next hour, she is.

In this universe, Elliot meets her eyes for a brief moment, her lips scarce a breath away, and he remembers the heat of those first couple of years of their partnership when they had been one and he hadn’t felt the cracks start to form just yet.

In this universe, Elliot Stabler has been absolutely fucking gone for Olivia Benson since day fucking one, and he is a fool for ever thinking otherwise.

In that universe, the guys would leave him alone until the morning. In that universe, Mike would have been left alone with a pretty woman he’d paid to scratch an itch of an entirely different kind. In that universe, she’d have enticed him with the sway of her hips and the bite of her lip and those unbearably pretty brown eyes. In that universe, he’d have been free, for a price, to reach out and touch her, strip her down bare and smooth his hands across her skin. In that universe, he would have chased the flush across her cheeks, along her neck, between her breasts. In that universe, he would have buried himself in her wet warmth and fucked her so hard the bed frame would shake. In that universe, he would have bruised a kiss against her lips and begged for her name just to cry it out.

In that universe, Mike would have answered, every time Bushido called, just to cushion his bank account with a little extra cash. In that universe, Mike would have booked her, Maggie with the pretty brown eyes, every last chance he could just to stave off the jealousy at the thought of anyone else’s hands on her.

In that universe, he would have been free of gold.

In this universe, they both stare down the barrel of a gun, and Elliot reaches for her after they pull her away.

In this universe, Mike wants Maggie so badly he gets shot for it.

In this universe, Elliot finds himself bleeding out on the pavement, halfway between heaven and hell when Olivia touches his face and says his name.

In this universe, his vision blurs until she is the only thing he can see, and Olivia becomes a beacon of gold, in the dark.

In this universe, they have less than twenty-four hours to get married.

In this universe, they sit together on Olivia’s couch the night before, half-empty boxes of Thai takeout left on the coffee table while they rummage through boxes and albums. She’s got both knees tucked up against the couch while they sort through photographs to frame and stage in the Butlers’ apartment, her face flushed with the heat of alcohol, laughter. There’s so much for them to choose from, a partnership eleven years or so long immortalized in moments in time. They’ve both had just enough beer to not think too hard about the underlying implications of this— the notion that the best of friends could provide ample evidence as proof that they could have been together all along, right from the start.

In this universe, they get to bring their shared history out into the open air, each picture frame a shining beacon of gold. Olivia anchors a hand against his thigh while they wait for their quarry in companionable silence, her fake wedding ring glittering in the morning light. Together, they give the open living area of the Butler’s apartment a once-over, searching for any details that might help them be more convincing. There’s a piano in the corner, next to the couch, and Olivia plays a phantom melody against his leg while they wait.

In this universe, Olivia adopts Beth’s strained, fragile longing once they’re forced to start answering questions. They’ve been very fortunate, she explains, except for the one thing they really want, but where Glenn and Beth had been able to say it out loud, Olivia falters, decidedly more shaken than they’d seen Beth the day before. Elliot can hear it in the way her voice quavers and pitches a little high, in the sudden sheen in her eyes, and he knows— he knows this isn’t just about helping the Butlers or even about getting Sophia and her baby out of this alive.

They didn’t see me as prime parent material is a haunting fucking echo in his head, a nail in a coffin containing confessions whispered in the car— I wanted to be part of a family so much.

I’ve been alone my whole life.

Glenn keeps talking, keeps asking questions, keeps working the case, but it’s Elliot who reaches out a hand to rub comfortingly at Olivia’s shoulder— Elliot who feels his heart swell at the way her whole face brightens when Brooks shows them the photograph of the baby, Elliot who pulls a knowing smile out of her with the name for the birth certificate.

It’s Beth who says she can’t wait to tell her mother, and it’s Glenn who smiles, but it’s Elliot who meets Olivia’s eyes and knows that she couldn’t even if this were real.

In that universe, the divorce would have stuck. In that universe, his second wife would have been his second chance. In that universe, he’d have been the one to pick out the ring on her finger. In that universe, he would have fucked her bare on every inch of that goddamn apartment: tangled up in sheets in their bed; half-breathless and dripping wet against the shower wall; still half-dressed and bent over the kitchen counter; wrapped up in each other on the couch right in plain view of all of those large picture windows upstairs.

In that universe, he would have happily bled every last penny he had to help his wife conceive a child. In that universe, his hand would have found her shoulder, time and time again, after every negative test. In that universe, he would have sat with her on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night while she wept, bleeding. In that universe, he wouldn’t be considered prime parent material because of a crime he did not commit. In that universe, his second wife suffers the sins of his first.

In that universe, he would have stood by her side through the worst until they were given a ray of hope— a second chance at the best.

In that universe, their whole world would have revolved around that beautiful baby boy, and just the one would have been more than enough.

In this universe, Elliot is five for five, and no one will touch Olivia simply for the crime of being alonehe cannot touch Olivia, but god fucking damn if he doesn’t want to.

Any way you want to do it, I’ll support you.

In this universe, there is a forty-eight hour window where Jo Marlowe lets them believe that Sophia and her infant son had died— had been blown up, and when Elliot turns to meet Olivia’s horrified expression with one of his own, he sees the light start to go out in her eyes.

In this universe, Elliot spends half the night curled around the toilet dry-heaving at the mere thought of it. Somewhere in the middle of the night, Kathy finds him there and lingers in the doorway, Eli hoisted up against her hip as he falls back asleep. “Stomach bug?”

“Something like that,” Elliot mutters, reaching up to squeeze affectionately at Eli’s foot.

The light dims in Kathy’s eyes at the lie, and this time she doesn’t ask the question he’s dreading— the question they both already know the answer to: you talk to Olivia about it?

In this universe, he doesn’t have to, because Olivia is his partner— for better or for worse.

In this universe, the question is never what are we to one another; it’s how do we get there, together?

In this universe, it has been over twelve years of partnership: twelve years at each other’s side; twelve years having each other’s six; twelve years of reaching for each other in the dark knowing the other is light.

In this universe, it’s nice to not be himself for a little while. The band of gold on his hand isn’t a shiny, new thing, but it has stood the test of time for twelve years. It’s suffered a few knicks and scratches over time, sure, but there are no cracks, no sharp edges. The weight of it doesn’t feel so heavy, the pressure not so tight. It is… comfortable, familiar, a shining beacon declaring him blissfully bound to one Olivia Benson.

For a few nights, Elliot lets himself exist in the parallel universe where they were both right on time.

In this universe, he finds himself fidgeting anxiously with the box he’d been given while Olivia finishes getting ready in her bedroom— like he’s seventeen all over again and wanting to make sure he does this right. And that’s— it’s silly, because this isn’t real, but it’s the closest he’s ever going to get, in this universe. All the times they’d done this before, he’d never had the chance. It wasn’t required, or he wasn’t required for it to end up in her hands. And just in case this is the last time, if they never have the opportunity to do this again Elliot wants to give her this one thing— her own band to encompass her gold.

“I’m still not sure what to expect going into this place,” she calls as she starts to make her way out to the front of the apartment. “The pictures were all so… tame, but it’s not like they’re going to advertise by giving away all the goods. I mean, themed rooms? I’m all for spreading your wings, but that on top of being in front of other people is a little…”

If Olivia finishes that sentence, Elliot doesn’t hear it.

Fuck, she’s breathtaking in that dress that hugs all the right curves, her hair curled in loose waves and just barely brushing her shoulders. Elliot can barely find it in him to remember how to breathe, much less form articulate sentences, but Olivia’s distracted, setting her heels on top of the table behind the couch so she can fasten her earrings. “I don’t know, I just— it’s different,” she sighs. “I know what I’m comfortable with and I can set my own boundaries and I don’t have a problem saying no but…”

“But you think other people will?”

Olivia shrugs and opens up the little black clutch she’d brought out from the bedroom to start packing essentials. “I think I’m more concerned about the fact that I’m supposed to be interested. I’m supposed to want it.” She pauses, her eyes slipping shut as she exhales heavily and shakes her head. “I’m sorry, I’m whining.”

It’s that, interestingly enough, that pushes him forward, the sentiment pulling on a thread years old in the front seat of his car because family is everything, and tonight, she is his.

He reaches for her hand, smooths his thumb across her knuckles, and sinks down on one knee before she has the chance to do more than blink over at him in surprise. “Olivia Benson,” he says, mock-serious as he pulls out the ring he’d been given for their gig, “will you be my wife tonight?”

“Took you long enough to ask,” she teases with a roll of her eyes, but she lets him slip the ring on anyway, and the stones within have nothing on the brilliant smile she flashes him.

In this universe, Olivia laces her fingers with his and clings tight to him as they enter The Swing Set, and Elliot allows himself this one indulgence, to lean in and brush his lips against her ear. “I’m with you,” he promises, “for better or for worse.”

“Really taking those vows seriously, aren’t you Stabler?” she murmurs, shaking her head in bemusement, but there’s a pretty flush to her cheeks, a warmth to her eyes that wasn’t there before, and for tonight, at least, Elliot finds himself grateful to be able to disappear into a version of the man he’s wanted to be for over a decade.

In this universe, he can only pretend.

Cassandra tries baiting him and is clearly putting out feelers to find out what type of man this Elliot is when she says, “Olivia is lovely. I’m a little surprised you’re willing to, uh, share her with anyone else.”

Dutifully, he plays the part: Olivia’s earlier trepidation over I’m supposed to want it is almost too-loud in his head, but in this universe Elliot— any Elliot swallows the possessive, jealous streak Cassandra praises him for lacking down because yes, and no.

Yes, Olivia is lovely, his three-time beautiful, brown-eyed not-bride, and no, Elliot is not willing to share.

In that universe, Elliot has been the kind, faithful, devoted man Olivia Benson deserves. In that universe, they have been happy for twelve good, long years— partners in every sense of the world. In that universe, they are allowed to own their jealousy if only because they trust one another to never stray. In that universe, they are referred to The Swing Set as a place to spread their wings, and they hold onto each other, tight and strong, and take flight the same way they always do— together.

In that universe, their eyes seek one another out all night long, smiles tentative and nervous as they entertain the affections of others. In that universe, Elliot watches her flirt, his stomach twisting pleasantly at the way the couple fawns over her, all light touches and low voices that never cross a line she’s not comfortable with. In that universe, he recognizes the familiar flush that creeps up along the column of Olivia’s throat, feels heat jolt straight down to his cock when her gaze flicks up and finds his with indecent intention.

In that universe, they cannot leave the club fast enough, and they’re all groping hands, tongue and teeth in the back of the taxi on the way home. In that universe, he can’t get her out of this magnificent fucking dress quickly enough once the front door locks behind them, can’t be bothered to care when she all but rips his shirt off of him in her haste to get him undressed on their way to the bedroom. In that universe, his voice is filthy, low in her ear: Mrs. Stabler has her keening, desperate as he curls his hands around her hips and pulls her flush against him. In that universe, she is revered by all, and only Elliot is allowed to lay himself down at her altar.

In that universe, Olivia loses herself in the blue of his eyes and agrees to return to the club on the condition that the others can look but not touch— that she’s willing to really give them a show. In that universe, they simply will never want anyone else.

In that universe, it will always be them, together.

In this universe, Cassandra flings herself at Doug’s bloodied, breathless body and weeps, heartbroken and utterly lost. “Please,” she begs, face tucked against his neck, “don’t leave me. I can’t do this without you.”

In this universe, Elliot does the leaving— and Olivia, the breaking.

In this universe, the cracks are blown wide open with the blast of a bomb, and in the side-view mirror, Elliot watches a parallel universe take a hard left turn until it becomes perpendicular.

In this universe, Elliot looks at the life Olivia has built without him: a man she loved enough to consider coming home to every night; her name engraved in gold and a title to match; a beautiful boy who was chosen for her because they’d both been alone, with eyes blue enough to get lost in; a line Elliot cannot cross for making her do it without him.

In this universe, Elliot takes the truth of Kathy’s words and immortalizes them as his own lies.

In this universe, he finds himself lost, drugged and disoriented, and his heart breaks free of Eddie Wagner in search of the only real, true thing Elliot Stabler has ever known.

In this universe, Elliot Stabler stumbles through Olivia Benson’s front door ten years too late and confesses, with startling clarity, “In a parallel universe, it will always be you and I.”

This universe collides with that one, and somewhere in Olivia’s eyes Elliot can see the whole world tilt and spin on its axis.

What we were to each other was never always real.

We got in the way of each other being who and where we needed to be— but we’re here now, and I don’t want to be anywhere else.

If there’s a man in your life, I hope he’s the kind, faithful, and devoted man you deserve me.

In a parallel this universe, it will always be you and I.

That universe becomes this one, instead, and for the first time, Elliot steps into the shoes of the man he’s always wanted to be and finds that it’s… nice, at long last, to be himself for a little while.

In this universe, they are finally right on time.

In this universe, Olivia Benson is going to be the death of him.

In this universe, Elliot loves Olivia so much he gets shot for it.

It has been less than twenty-four hours since everything fell apart and came together all at once. It has been less than twenty-four hours since exactly three things converged on a single point in time in this universe: Olivia staring down the barrel of a gun, and Elliot stepping in the way of a bullet, and the resulting firefight effectively putting an end to his soul-draining undercover stint.

Draining didn’t even begin to cover how the hours had stretched long into the evening yesterday between the hospital and IAB and Moennig’s litany of questions. Elliot had been beyond exhausted by the time Bell let him leave, to the point that when he arrived at his run-down RV to collect the rest of his personal effects, all he’d had the energy to do was lock the door behind him and fall face-first onto the mattress.

Waking up clutching his pistol had been jarring— proof positive that Eddie Wagner would not be so easily shaken, in this universe.

It’s why, when he walks through the front door of his new place mid-morning, Elliot finds himself grasping for fragments of himself wherever he can find them. It’s easily the longest UC gig he’s ever done, and the hardest; anything he can do to shock himself back into his own skin more quickly, he will. Being alone, strangely enough, actually makes it easier to try. He knows Eli’s at school for the day, and Kathleen had texted him about an hour ago to let him know she was driving his mother to an appointment with one of her specialists. He has time, in this universe, to become the man he’s supposed to be.

The trouble is… in this universe, he’s not really sure he knows quite who that is, anymore.

Still, he tries and goes through his old morning routine: a double-set of push-ups on the floor; a steaming shower to loosen up his muscles (and… an extra few minutes to clean out the wound on his arm); a steady hand grooming, shaving until his face is bare again (he wonders, idly, if his hair will grow back at this point, what little was left of it); a selection of finer fabrics over short-sleeves and jeans; a piping hot cup of the good stuff from the kitchen. It’s not much, just a messy, hasty gathering of fragments labeled mine, but for now, at least— for just this morning, it’s enough.

At least until someone starts pounding incessantly on the front door, and Elliot is setting down his coffee on the kitchen island so quickly it splashes over the rim.

It’s Mike who shows up first — he lives alone, no one should be here — but it’s Eddie who reaches for the pistol.

It’s Elliot who had looked over his shoulder the whole way home to ensure no one followed him here.

In this universe, it is Olivia who makes him lay his weapons down.

She’s breezing past him the second he opens the door to her, doesn’t even look at him, and Elliot knows before he’s even shut and locked the door behind her that she is livid. “Where the fuck,” she seethes, spinning on her heel, “have you been? I went to the hospital after IAB was done putting me through the ringer and they told me you’d been discharged. I went back to IAB to wait for you until you were done, and you had already left by the time I got there. I called Ayanna. I called Kathleen. No one knew where the fuck you were, Elliot. You weren’t answering anyone’s calls and I knew— I knew,” she grits out, eyes growing dark and voice dipping down low, “that you wouldn’t dare fucking ghost me again. I knew that there was no way, in this universe, Elliot Stabler, that you would have the fucking balls to walk away from me again— especially after you got shot.”

“It was a long fucking day. I needed to sleep it off,” he sighs, brushing past her on his way back to the kitchen to put his pistol away. “Where’d you go, after IAB the second time around?”

If looks could fucking kill, christ.

“I went home, Elliot,” she spits darkly. “I cooked dinner for my son. I went through two extra books at bedtime. I stayed up half the night checking my phone to see if anyone had heard from you. I dropped Noah off at school this morning, and then I realized something.”

“Which was what?”

“Every time you’ve walked away from me before, I didn’t have much of a choice but to let you go. But this time? This time, I realized I could follow you,” she says, hands anchored at her hips as she starts to close the distance across the kitchen, “and make you tell me what the fuck happened out there yesterday.”

Elliot pauses, halfway to a sip of his coffee, and narrows his eyes over the rim of his mug. “I’m not going to apologize for trying to protect you.”

“Is that what we’re calling it?” Olivia laughs, but there’s no warmth to it. “You jeopardizing your unit’s entire investigation just because some son of a bitch got a little trigger-happy—”

“Oh fuck you,” Elliot bites out, setting his mug down too-hard again. “CSU said if I hadn’t gotten in the way, you’d probably be fucking dead right now—”

“You think I don’t know that?” she asks, incredulous as she comes to a stop a few feet away from him. “Why do you think I went home last night, Elliot, instead of driving all over the city looking for you?”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem,” she says, voice pitching a little higher as she clearly fights to control her temper, “is that for someone who’s so quick to choose me over the job every fucking time, you seem to not be choosing me at all, Elliot.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Elliot throws back, closing the rest of the distance between them.

“It means we’re not in a parallel fucking universe anymore, Elliot,” Olivia says bluntly, unyielding. “It means I lost you once, and I’m not doing it again. It means that universe is now this one, and we’re both right here, right now.”

It’s almost as good as if she slapped him, that, and Elliot stumbles back a few steps, reeling. “What do you want from me?” he breathes, hands flexing anxiously at his sides in an effort to keep his temper in check.

In this universe, Olivia is the one to step out of the shadows of the past— out of the dark she knows all too well.

In this universe, she presses herself against him like she belongs there— like she’s his, and for one wild moment Elliot almost believes it.


“I want you to stop being so fucking afraid to love me,” she confesses, whisper-soft, and for all that she’s pressed herself against him, it doesn’t escape his notice that her hands haven’t reached out to touch— to lay claim to him in all the ways that have been out of reach for them both for over twenty-two fucking years.

In this universe, all he had to do was be ready for her. In this universe, he’s not sure he ever could be.

In this universe, time finally stands still.

“I’m standing right here, Captain,” he says, hands flexing for reasons of an entirely different kind now. “It’s your call.”

In this universe, all he had to do was answer.

Olivia curls her hand roughly around the back of his neck and pulls him to her for a bruising, biting kiss, and there is not one single universe— not a damn fucking one where Elliot is anything but hers.

In that universe, not one of his children — these five fragments who had branded him gold — can help him, in the end. In that universe, his beautiful, blonde bride paces the length of his hospital room ten times over and talks on the phone until her voice goes sore. In that universe, he has had enough good years to render him inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

In that universe, he is the single most important person to someone who doesn’t exist anymore.

In that universe, he cannot bring himself to pick up the phone.

In that universe, Kathy dials for him and puts words to the feelings Elliot has never been able to express. In that universe, it takes thirteen tries — one for every year he’s existed in the margins, hovering like a ghost — before he agrees to pick up the phone himself.

In that universe, Elliot calls when he needs her the most, and Olivia does not answer.

In that universe, his kidneys fail.

In that universe, Olivia Benson is the death of him.

In this universe, he is free to reach out and touch her, strip her down bare and smooth his hands across her skin. In this universe, he chases the flush across her cheeks, along her neck, between her breasts. In this universe, he buries himself in her wet warmth and bruises a kiss against her lips, submitting to her embrace. In this universe, he loses himself in those unbearably pretty brown eyes. In this universe, she is all golden against his sheets in the mid-morning light— a beacon guiding him home.

In this universe, she is honey, honey, honey in his hands.

In this universe, of course it would come to this: Elliot bleeding out his love from whatever fragments he has left, and Olivia seeping into the cracks with gold.

In this universe, he is unbound, by gold.

In this universe, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Their second Christmas together is marked by melancholy and joy alike: melancholy, for Mama this year and for Kathy last year; joy, for Maureen now and the approaching arrival of her first child— Elliot’s first grandchild, finally, against impossible odds. It’s not something he would have anticipated for his own kids — he and Kathy had gone five for five with relative ease whether or not they were actively trying — but it had hardly mattered when his eldest daughter had come to him months ago with the news, excited and anxious and on the verge of tears. Six years of trying, Maureen had confessed, and she’d lost a few — the most recent had been early last summer, mere months after her own mother had passed — but this time felt different.

This time, she carries a ray of hope.

In this universe, the Stablers decide what changes and what stays the same. Holidays in general, Christmas in particular, are adorned with traditions new and old. Elliot has very few he’s carried this far from his childhood, although Mama’s passing has made him cling to the few that were left— warm chestnuts at night and an old turntable spinning softly in the corner and a walk by Rockefeller Center to put picture to the feelings that were sometimes too much to put into words.

In this universe, Elliot is so much more like his mother than he ever thought he would be, and for the first time, he finds he doesn’t mind so much.

In this universe, there are a few traditions he and Kathy had developed on their own over the years that remained relatively consistent. After she’d died, he’d found himself faced with five kids who missed their mother so much they wanted to keep whatever pieces of her they had around, and Elliot hadn’t had the heart to refuse them— had even found comfort in the familiar, even with the wound still somewhat fresh. The old traditions had been rolled into the new ones his kids insisted they make, and the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s now holds its own lighthouse to lead them all home— a beacon golden and grounding to make sure they don’t go too long without seeing each other, these days.

In this universe, the second year Elliot and Olivia are together is marked by an invitation extended to the Bensons to join the Stablers in said traditions. In this universe, Elliot’s new home is hallmarked by the fragments of gold gleaming, twinkling in the winter light. The night of Christmas Eve encompasses the trimmings and trappings of the holidays in lieu of midnight mass. Traditions are woven together, old and new: a dinner table long and full; the sharing of panettone Eli had learned to make back in Rome; the last of the ornaments hooked onto branches; the hanging of stockings over the fireplace; a single present apiece tonight to tease the rest to follow.

In this universe, Elliot nurses what’s left of his last glass of wine for the night and watches Olivia pry open her gift for the night, heart flipping at the way her hands reach out, fingers smoothing over the embroidery. “Tradition,” Lizzie says, leaning over the back of the couch to rest her chin against Olivia’s shoulder. “Mom always made a point to hand make our stockings— even when they started to fall apart and needed to be replaced. We thought…” Here, she hesitates, meets Elliot’s eyes, and softens. “We all pitched in to help make yours and Noah’s this year.”

“I love it,” Noah gushes, half-launching himself into Lizzie’s side from the other side of the room and nearly sending her tumbling. “The Snoopy dancing pattern is so fun! Will you help me hang it up?”

“That’s why we saved the stockings for last,” Kathleen explains, hand squeezing Olivia’s shoulder briefly before moving to hang up her own stocking over the fireplace.

In this universe, Olivia is slow, quiet to follow him to the fireplace to claim her place, her fingers still tracing the lettering of her name even after she’s done. In this universe, Karl loops a miniature stocking on the hook with Maureen’s, a name still-absent. In this universe, Elliot’s eldest daughter laughs, beaming as her husband wraps his arms around her and settles his hands over the still-growing swell of her belly. In this universe, the memory of six years becomes eight in the cobwebbed corners of Elliot’s mind, and the sudden sheen in Olivia’s eyes is startlingly, achingly familiar to the point where he forgets how to breathe.

I wanted to be part of a family so much. I’ve been alone my whole life, Olivia had confessed so many years ago, soft and yearning, and for as long as Olivia has been his, he thinks he understands the reverence in her touch, now.

In this universe, she has become theirs, too.

In that universe, the Stablers return Stateside once every few years. In that universe, Elliot makes a point to spend time with each of his kids one-on-one. In that universe he picks up Lizzie for lunch, leaning against the wall of her dance studio while she waits for her last appointment of the morning to arrive. In that universe, a young boy who can’t be more than ten or eleven comes bustling into the room, half-breathless and apologetic for being late. In that universe, Elliot busies himself on his phone while Lizzie assesses his skills to try and determine where to place him.

In that universe, the boy’s mother slips quietly in the door, and Elliot’s heart stops beating.

In that universe, he has not seen or spoken to Olivia Benson in over twelve years, and somewhere in Olivia’s eyes Elliot can see the whole world tilt and spin on its axis.

In that universe, she hesitates, surveying her options before taking up a vigil next to him— a couple of regular fucking wallflowers. In that universe, Elliot finds his gaze flitting between greedily catching glimpses of her profile and following her own gaze to where her son— her son is dancing circles around his daughter, his curls bouncing with every twirl.

In that universe, her whole world revolves around her beautiful baby boy, and just the one is more than enough.

In that universe, it turns out she didn’t need him for this, after all.

In this universe, Olivia retreats into the dark.

They’ve all started to wind down for the evening, their combined veritable gaggle of children young and old. The kitchen’s been cleaned up, the hide-a-bed’s been pulled out in the living room, and down the hall Elliot can hear the metaphorical turnstile in both bathrooms at maximum capacity, conversations muffled by toothbrushes and sinks running a bit too long. He’s lost track of her for a bit, and he has to do a full lap around the place before he finally spots her out on the terrace. She’s still in the cardigan she’d worn all through dinner which, while adequate for indoors at this time of year with the heat on, is too-thin on its own when it’s this fucking cold outside.

In this universe, the old turntable spins softly in the corner with the melancholic musings of Joni Mitchell — because nothing says Happy Holidays like the saddest fucking Christmas song of all time — as Elliot opens up the door to the terrace. The music turns muffled, muted when he closes the door behind him to keep the heat inside, but it could be playing so loud people three blocks down could hear it, and he doesn’t think Olivia would notice. He doesn’t even realize it’s started snowing, just lightly, until he steps out onto the terrace with her, finds flakes catching in her hair. Her cheeks, her nose are flushed with the cold, and still, Elliot thinks she wouldn’t notice if not for the way he unfolds the blanket he’d brought out with him and drapes it around her shoulders, arms wrapping around her from behind in kind.

Her eyes slip shut as soon as he presses a warm kiss to her cheek, and she surprises him by getting straight to the heart of the matter first, rather than have him help her work her way around to it. “Things weren’t always— I didn’t have a lot of… stability at home, growing up. My mother’s addiction took priority over upholding traditions. This was… nice.” A beat, and then, “It’s nice for Noah. We have a few of our own traditions we’ve started together, but it’s been just the two of us for so long. It’s nice to get to see him… spread his wings a little, I guess.”

In a parallel universe, Glenn Butler would have done everything he could to give his wife a child. In a parallel universe, Beth Butler would have had a mother to help her learn how to be one. In a parallel universe, they would have centered their whole world around a beautiful baby boy who gave them a second chance.

Any way you want to do it, I’ll support you.

In this universe, Elliot Stabler has a second, third, impossible chance to get this right. “Hey,” he murmurs gently, tucking his face against her neck. “Listen, I know— I know I wasn’t here for the start. I wasn’t here for some of the bigger milestones. I wasn’t here for some of the best— or for some of the worst. And I’m not— I’m not asking to be anything more to him than any of us are ready for,” he insists, not missing the way her breath catches, holds in her chest at the implication. “But I’m here now, and I promise you,” he says, emphatic to the last, “that kid’s as good as gold to me.”

He feels her smile against him, lifts his head when she turns into him in order to meet her eyes. “For better or for worse, yeah?”


Olivia pulls back a little, just enough for her gaze to sweep over his face curiously, and the sudden spark of light in her eyes is enough to have his heart flipping, falling all over again. “You ready to make good on those vows, Stabler?” she muses, arching an eyebrow at him and oh, oh.


In this universe, Elliot is hers too— her partner, and her family.

In this universe, Olivia offers him gold, and Elliot would be a fool not to choose it, this time around.

In this universe, Elliot has a second chance to be a father in all the ways his own wasn’t. In so many ways it’s not all that different than it was the first four kids around: science projects and soccer practice; dance recitals and biology lessons; infuriating math equations and books at bedtime. In so many ways, it’s more different than it’s ever been: casual conversations about therapy and grief; dedicated dinners that (almost) always take priority over the job; a boy who doesn’t bear his name but still very much belongs to him; and a woman who is not quite yet his wife.

In this universe, he slides into the passenger seat of Olivia’s SUV right on time, leans across the console to kiss her hello, and turns to greet their two youngest as he buckles himself in. The car ride over is the same as it always is: Eli’s knee bounces in anticipation, soccer ball set dutifully at his feet as he contemplates his chances of being scouted; Noah catches the rest of them up on what’s happened in the book his class is reading; Olivia offers up options for dinner after the game, and Elliot—

In this universe, Elliot’s hand finds her shoulder at every red light, a warm, familiar weight to ground her and remind her what’s real.

We’re here now, and this is true.

In this universe, he mingles with some of the other parents at the field, trying to get a better sense of who his kid is really spending his time with. It’s a partial hazard of the job, he knows, but in this too, Elliot has the chance to make sure the circle stays unbroken. His father had cared right up until the point he didn’t— about who Elliot was, how he spent his time, who he was with and, well.

There’s a reason Elliot ended up bound by gold.

In this universe, Olivia’s hand finds his shoulder, weighted and warm as she sidles up next to him. “Honey?” she prompts, the badge at her belt reflecting against the floodlights in tandem with his. “Game’s about to start. We should find some seats.”

In this universe, Noah settles between them on the bleachers, encompassed by their gold.

In this universe, one of the parents in the row behind them leans down to Olivia and asks over the din of the crowd and the game, “Which one’s yours?” Olivia smiles and gestures out toward the field, answers with a simple number twenty-three, and Elliot hears the man chuckle in response. “Stabler, huh? Kid’s so good it’s almost scary sometimes.”

“Yeah, well,” Olivia laughs, glancing sidelong in Elliot’s direction, “he did spend half of his childhood in Italy. I think it’d be more disconcerting if he left Rome and he wasn’t this good.”

In that universe, Eli calls for Elliot from his room on a warm summer night in Italy. In that universe, Elliot’s son is sitting cross-legged on his bedroom floor surrounded by boxes and albums and photographs alike. In that universe, Eli holds up a picture for Elliot to view and asks, “Who is this?”

In that universe, it’s the first time Elliot’s seen Olivia’s face in years, and in the thick heat of summer his heart aches with cold. “That’s my old partner,” he explains, voice more than a little rough around the edges. “She was with you and your mom when you were born.”

In that universe, Eli looks down at the picture again and frowns. “I don’t remember her.”

In that universe, Elliot says, “It’s okay that you don’t,” but he thinks to himself, I always will.

In this universe, after they’ve returned home and the boys have gone to bed, Elliot slides under the sheets next to his beautiful, brown-eyed almost-bride while she reviews reporting statistics on her tablet, teeth chewing at her lower lip while she mulls the data over. “How are the numbers looking?”

“Better in some ways, worse in others,” she sighs, fingers stilling in their scrolling for a second before moving on. There’s a wrinkle above her nose he wants to kiss away, a tension in her shoulders he wants to melt with his touch.

In this universe, he’s free to reach out and touch her and so he does, hand skimming along the width of her belly, fingertips toying with the hem of her sleep shirt, lips grazing soft, wet kisses along her jaw, the column of her throat. He can feel the shift in her: the push-pull of releasing one type of tension only to let another take its place; the slight hitch in her breath the more skin he touches. “Y’know,” she murmurs, eyes still trained on the tablet in front of her even though she’s clearly not reading anymore, “if you want to have sex, El, all you have to do is ask or make a move.”

“What d’you think I’m doing?” he laughs, dropping a kiss behind her ear as his hands slips up and under her sleep shirt, thumb teasing along the underside of her breast.

In this universe, she takes off her reading glasses and sets them on the nightstand with her tablet next to the half-full mug of tepid tea she’s yet to finish. In this universe, he tugs her into his lap and curls his hands up and around to settle on her shoulders to match the way she anchors herself against his own.

In this universe, Olivia arches her back with a gasping staccato of Elliot, Elliot, Elliot, and her kiss tastes like honey.

In this universe, Olivia is his, to have and to hold, and his children are hers, too.

In this universe, Olivia spreads her wings and flies.

In this universe, it has been a quarter of a fucking century of partnership: a quarter of a century Olivia has dedicated to SVU; a quarter of a century in which they have learned to live without each other and chosen not to; a quarter of a century they have navigated through the cracks of light between this universe and that one until they’d been inextricably woven together— bonded in a way that could never be broken.

In this universe, his band of gold is still fairly new, but Elliot can see what so many others can not: the knicks and scratches; the cracks filled. The weight of every last one of those twenty-five years is as heavy as it is light— the pressure grounding, real, true. It is… comfortable, familiar, a shining beacon declaring him blissfully bound to one Olivia Benson.

Tonight, Elliot exists in the universe in which they are both exactly who and where they need to be.

In this universe, Elliot finally makes it to her awards ceremony.

He is asked to speak again, but Olivia spares him the trouble of public speaking this time around— even if his words would be his own. How Fin gets roped into being the one to present her with the award, Elliot will never know; it’s not like Fin is all that big on speeches either. Still, between them, Fin has… technically known her longer, stuck by her side and watched her six as best he could. In the end, it works out for the best: Fin has a knack for breaking tension and making people laugh, and it’s exactly the right touch Olivia needs, in the end, to feel… not comfortable, exactly, but appreciative of the recognition.

In this universe, Olivia steps onto the stage in that sophisticated little black dress with her elegantly swept ponytail and stands center spotlight, a veritable golden beacon— a lighthouse guiding victims back to shore.

Her speech is short and sweet — she’d denied Elliot this, too, the chance to read over it or hear her practice ahead of time — but no less impactful, and there is no one better, really, to light the way forward for those who will take up the crusade once she’s ready to lay her weapons down. There is power in this, she insists, the notion that each of them has the power to effect change simply by showing up— by reminding victims they are not alone. There is power, she explains, in someone seeing you when you might otherwise feel invisible.

“There is strength,” Olivia says, voice pitching a little softer as she finds Elliot’s eyes across the hall, “in having a partner you trust to stand with you in the fight.”

In that universe, the car doesn’t blow up across the street. In that universe, he slides into the passenger seat across from Kathy and buries his face in his hands.

In that universe, he confesses, barely above a whisper, “I can’t do this.”

In that universe, Kathy pushes back. “This is a big night for her,” she reminds him needlessly.

In that universe, Elliot shakes his head and fumbles blindly for the water bottle in the console between them. “That’s exactly why I shouldn’t be there,” he insists. “Everything she’s accomplished, she did that without me. She did that after I left. I don’t deserve—” He stops, chews at his lip for a second. “I don’t have a place here anymore, Kathy. I’d just ruin the night for her.”

In that universe, Kathy hesitates before reaching into the console after him. “What about the letter?” she asks, holding it out in offering. “You could still leave this for her— or I could take it in for you, if you want.”

In that universe, Elliot’s no is visceral, immediate. “I made a clean break, Kathy. This would just complicate things. She’s moved on.”

“And what about you?” Kathy asks, tossing the letter and all of Elliot’s parallel universes back into the console. “You’ve spent ten years trying to move on, Elliot.”

In that universe, Elliot takes the envelope from the center console and tucks it into his jacket pocket for safe-keeping— a veritable diffusing, he comes to realize, of what might be the worst of bombshells. “Maybe that’s my cross to bear,” he says, leaning against the headrest and closing his eyes, “so she can.”

In this universe, Elliot retreats to the fringes of the crowd as the hour grows late, leaning against the wall with the glass of water he’d opted for in lieu of another glass of wine. He’d hardly call himself a wallflower tonight — he still knows a fair amount of people at this thing, and it’s his wife who’s the guest of honor — but there’s something altogether comforting in being able to lean against the back wall and simply… observe toward the end of the event. Maybe it’s just a hazard of the job at this point, but Elliot’s never been one for schmoozing or sycophants.

Olivia finds him just as she finishes her last glass of wine, cheeks flushed and eyes warm as she leans in to drop a kiss to his cheek. “There you are,” she laughs, half-breathless. “I was beginning to think you’d ghosted me.”

It’s a joke— almost entirely a joke, with only the most miniscule underpinnings of genuine anxiety. He should let it go — that’s what she wants him to do, he knows this — but he can’t, not when he knows just how easily they could very well not be here at all. Gently, he reaches out to take her left hand in his, thumb running across her knuckles until it lands, lingers at her wedding band. “I’m with you,” he murmurs, returning the kiss in kind as his thumb traces the grooves of woven diamonds and gold, “for better or for worse.”

Olivia smiles crookedly at him and doesn’t pull her hand away. “Really taking those vows seriously, aren’t you Stabler?” she teases, but it’s soft, almost sleepy, and Elliot knows they’re both feeling every last one of those twenty-five years tonight.

In this universe, Elliot holds fast to all that is real: to the kind, faithful, devoted man he has striven to be his whole life; to his beautiful, brown-eyed bride and the band of gold encompassing his love for her; to every last one of the years that have led them here; to partners, and always.

In this universe, they move forward the only way they know how— together. “C’mon,” Elliot says, lacing their fingers together and clinging tight. “Let’s go home, Olivia.”

In this universe, they are finally right on time.