Olivia won’t say yes.
They are together-together just over a year the first time Elliot brings it up. Waiting for Noah to get out of school, they sit in the front seat of her van like so many times before. Sipping coffee in comfortable silence, windows down and heater on as the winter air creeps in crisp and awake. Olivia warms her gloved hands around the paper cup. He looks over at her and the need washes over him entirely.
“What do you think about marriage?”
Her head snaps over, brow arched over the rim of her cup. “Like. As a concept?”
“I mean you and I. Getting married. Eventually.”
She stares at him, mouth parted, when the car door swings open. Noah clambers in already halfway through a story and, for now, that's that.
While Elliot wants to believe he’d just caught her off guard, he knows better. Knows her better. Is too familiar with her clouded stare, the shadow of fear cast across all her lovely features. Olivia isn’t afraid of much. She is, indisputably, the bravest person he has ever known. But he had scared her.
The second time he approaches it differently. He waits four days: enough time to let her initial panic settle, but not too much where she'll fall into a spiral. It’s not that he has a grand plan. He knows the simpler the better. It just needs to be deliberate. And on home turf.
It’s a Thursday night when he walks in her kitchen to find her stirring a pot of spaghetti, barefoot and bobbing along to Noah’s music as it drifts from his room. It’s a kind sight. One with no match to their previous life. Stepping up behind her, he wraps his arms around her waist and she melts into him. Brings one hand back to cup his face and hums out of tune, her touch soothing his nerves like a balm.
“Liv. I love you, but if we ever get married you are not allowed to sing at the wedding.”
She stops swaying. Elliot feels the tension take her spine as she nearly turns to stone. “You don’t think were a little old for all that?”
Lips against his ear, he is careful to keep his voice light. “Who you calling old?”
Turning in his hold, Olivia studies him for a moment. Stares at his lips before giving him a quick kiss and pulling away. Heading towards the bathroom, she yells over her shoulder, “We’re eating dinner at 5:30. That answer your question?”
It definitely doesn’t.
Months later, Elliot is walking Noah home from school. Spring is flickering in and he’s thrown the kid’s jacket over his shoulder, his own tucked under his arm.
“Are you gonna marry my Mom?”
His step falters as he looks over to the boy. The question dropped casually, a sharp pivot from long division to holy matrimony, and Elliot wonders if this is how caught of guard Olivia felt. It's unchartered territory for them and there are a lot of ways to get it wrong. She’s protective of her son. Not only of his physical safety and his heart, but of her own bond with him. She and Noah have been a team from day one. To her, that is sacred.
Elliot had crossed so many lines, too many, but not this one. Never this one.
That being said, Noah got his bullshit-detector from his mom. So, he goes with saying it plain. “I’m not sure, kid.”
“Do you want to?”
“Yeah,” Elliot holds his breath, “Yeah, I want to.”
“Well have you asked her?”
This is where he has to pause. Honesty is important, but he can’t throw this all on her tween when he has yet to have a real conversation with Olivia. And frankly the idea of revealing her doubt, where it comes from and Elliot’s own responsibility for it, doesn't thrill him. He gives Noah a sidelong glance, “You talk to your mom about any of this?”
“Kinda. She doesn’t really answer me.” Well at least Elliot isn’t alone there.
For a few blocks the pair don't speak. Neither pushing as they listen to the afternoon rush. It‘s funny, all these years later, strolling the streets with her son. Elliot and Noah walking the same avenues Elliot and Olivia had walked. Retracing their winding, worn path as partners. It’s sifting through old photographs with a friend. Telling stories, remembering small details as you said them out loud. It never loses its effect.
For so long New York haunted Elliot. It was the people he couldn’t save, the lives he chose to take. It was missed chances and what-could-have-beens. It was leaving Olivia. But each block with her son breathes life back into the city. They fall in step and Noah looks up and points and Elliot is back right there with her, in full color. All those buried moments given sunlight. All those ghosts laid to rest, one by one.
They reach a crosswalk and he holds out an arm in front of Noah, making sure he stops. Looking down at his messy head of curls something obvious occurs to him. “What would you think about that?”
The boy lifts a shoulder, mouth turned thought. “It’d be cool.”
It is so straightforward Elliot has no reason not to buy it.
It gives him a push.
So he keeps on. Tries to get Olivia used to hearing it out loud. He drops the m-word over mid-day coffee or while sprawled out on the couch at the end of a long day. In her office as they scarf down lunch with the door closed. The first few times she laughs, forced and breathy, like it's a joke. Kinda gets to him. Or she changes the subject with near violence. Once she even says it’s too soon. That’s rich and he tells her as much, which doesn’t go over well. He would at least appreciate a formal rejection. Well, no he wouldn’t. But right now Elliot can only guess what Olivia is thinking and he is going mad. Because he has plenty of ideas and none of them are good.
It’s the middle of August and they’re laying in bed. The days are shrinking and the heat is sleep-drunk. The humidity seems to follow them into the apartment. Olivia’s leg is draped over his and her glasses are perched on the end of her nose as she sifts through a book that’s been on her nightstand since the first time they slept together. There are no distractions. Nothing for her to hide behind. Elliot almost hates to ruin it.
“Marry me, Liv.”
It’s direct this time. There’s no stepping around it. Brows furrowed, she shoots him a quick look over the lenses and keeps reading. It’s not lost on him that his very real desire is now considered a schtick.
“C’mon. I’m serious here.”
She sighs, folds the book up on her lap. “I thought we talked about this, El.”
“Nah, we haven’t. You laughed at me a bunch, but —
“I did not laugh at you.”
“Uh, yeah y’have. A few times. I distinctly remember.”
Elliot can see her windows boarding up and drags her body close, settles himself between her legs. Slips a hand up her t-shirt. Kissing the soft skin of her belly, he trails up to the dip of her waist. When he reaches her ribcage her hands slip to the back of his skull. Olivia closes her eyes and relaxes under his touch.
He takes it as his cue to go on. “Why don’t you don’t wanna marry me?” He tries to sound playful but fails, his hurt at the idea bleeding through.
“That’s not — I never said that.”
“Do you still not trust me?” It would hurt like a motherfucker but he wouldn’t, couldn’t, blame her for it. There’s no forgiving what he did and how he left and all he missed. He certainly won’t forgive himself. They’ve talked about it, still do. But that part of their past may be too cruel to defeat. Elliot has to accept that. He has no idea how.
“No, no. Of course I do.”
“Alright. Then what?”
Olivia stares at him for a few moments before tossing her glasses onto the bed and running a hand through her hair. “I — it’s hard to explain. I don’t even understand it all the way.”
“Try”, he pouts playfully, “For me.”
Olivia fiddles with the blanket. When she speaks it’s dipped and measured, “If we got married…you’d be my husband.”
“Yeah, Liv, that’s the idea.”
She huffs, “And I’d be your wife.”
It’s so sad, so resolute. Elliot’s heart plummets down down down. He can barely get the words out. “You wouldn’t wanna be my wife?”
She dips to find his eyes. Taking both of his shoulders in comfort, she gives them a squeeze. Holds his stare with a fierceness. “El. I would be proud to be your wife. “
Swallowing, he tries to keep it together. “But…?”
“But…you had a wife.”
He freezes. “Yeah…”
“For a long time.”
“Kathy, me, you — it was all so…complicated,” she rolls her eyes at the word, “And now she’s just…gone.”
“Widowers get married all the time.”
“That’s not what I’m saying. You know that’s not what I’m saying.” Finger pointed, her calm is waning. “I mean. What you wrote in that letter…what she wanted you write...” Olivia shakes her head at the memory and it makes his chest clench, “She must have hated me…”
Elliot and Olivia have talked about it. Why he put pen to paper and signed his name and handed it over that day in the snow. But only in terms of the two of them. What the fuck he was thinking and how it made her feel. What they don’t talk about is Kathy’s place in that story. Not fully, not independent of Elliot. Maybe that’s unfair to his late wife. But she’s not here to defend herself and that’s even more unfair.
What he knows is Kathy’s pain. How she watched him mourn a love he never had after giving Elliot a family. The silent grief of sharing her husband with another woman. A woman who routinely led him home, who fought for his marriage. And the more time and distance Elliot put between him and Olivia, the more clear it became she would follow him everywhere. His longing was loud and devoted and absolute.
And he knows Kathy. Knew. And though she could be resentful, she wasn’t cruel. In her mind that letter was a solution. Both practical and sentimental in it’s communication. Years later, they could meet face-to-face and close the book on their untold story. Move on as former friends and go back to their separate lives in separate harmony. She was wrong, of course. But she believed this because she never knew the kind of love Elliot has for Olivia. One that that has nothing to do with oceans and words and touch.
But, how the hell could he have said that to his own wife?
“Kathy didn’t hate you.”
“No. Elliot, please don’t. There’s no point in doing this. I can’t sit here and have you stand up for your wife — “
“I’m not —“
“Because at the end of the day she’s the only one with answers and I can’t ever talk to her about it. I’ll never know. I’ll never have closure with her. What happened will always be unfinished. I can’t even be mad because she’s gone and — well, here I am!” Olivia gestures to the two of them wrapped in the sheets like it’s damning evidence.
Elliot pushes himself off of her then. Perching on the end of the bed, he rubs a palm across the back of his neck. “What d’you want me to say to that, Liv?”
“Nothing. I don’t want you to say anything. I’m not the one who keeps bringing this up!”
“Right right. I’m a jackass for wanting to marry you, that’s on me — “
“You’re not being fair here, Elliot.” Her voice is low now and it surprises him. He expected a fight. Instead Olivia licks her lips, sensing he needs a beat. “You were married the day I met you. It’s how I knew you every day for thirty years — as someone else’s husband, as the father of someone else’s children. And, you wanna know something? Watching you be those things is one of the reasons I fell in love with you.” His head shoots up at this. “I’m not trying to be bitter here. Just realistic. Kathy will always be your wife. It would be like…I’m a replacement.”
“You’re wrong, Olivia.”
“This isn’t about right or wrong. It’s about how I feel.”
There’s nothing he can say to that and he knows it. Hates it.
Seeing his anger wane to sadness, Olivia scoots closer and slips her hand around his neck. Turns his face towards her own. “I want to be with you forever, El. I do. There is no one else for me…this is it. I’m so happy we got here. Waking up to you, falling asleep next to you. It’s enough for me. Is it enough for you?”
She’s watching him warily, like he may pull away again, and Elliot for the thousandth and first time feels like he’s failed her irreparably. Enough. How ridiculous. Enough is a nap in the crib or burnt cart coffee. Enough is not Olivia.
Sometimes he looks at her and it takes his breath. Not just her beauty, that’s not new, but that they made it. That he almost didn’t have this. There is a world, a very real world, where he and Olivia never get their chance. Never become an Us. And all those versions of their story pulse through his veins because they cut it so close. He’ll never take it for granted. Ending the day tangled up in her, laughing and fighting and fucking and dreaming, is the closest Elliot has ever felt to whole. She is his good heart. And it's his fault she doubts this, still.
“Of course. God, ‘course it’s enough. It’s everything to me, Liv. C’mere.” Pulling her into his arms, he holds her to the cavern of his chest. Twists his hands into her hair and before finding her lips. They release a breath.
After that, Elliot lets it go.
But then, like clockwork, everyone in their life starts to ask. His kids. Her kid, again. Mama. Bell. Even Fin, who cancelled his own wedding when the guests were seated and the gifts were wrapped, has the balls to ask. Though none of them ask Olivia. Never would. They probably assume it’s Elliot holding things up. That once again he is keeping her at arms length, preoccupied with his Catholic guilt and rage and really why should they think otherwise? And while he hates hates the idea of anyone believing that he wants anything less than everything from Olivia, she would kill him if he clarified otherwise.
So he puts up with it.
The leaves turn gold and they move in together. Pack up their separate apartments and find a place on the Upper West Side with a postage stamp courtyard and lots of light. They paint the walls blue and let the boys pick their bedrooms and each time someone asks Elliot if he’s gonna make it official or when he’s going to pop the question, it hurts a little less.
The two of them are not party people. They’re barely people-people. But the kids want a housewarming and their squads have brought it up so they order pizza and string lights outside. And though they both grumbled about doing any of it it’s…surprisingly pleasant. Having all these people they’ve collected under their shared roof. Having them witness the life he’s building with Olivia, finally.
Elliot is leaning against the kitchen island when Nick sidles up next to him. Hands over a fresh beer and pops open his own. The stand side by side, taking in the small party.
“Liv seems good,” Nick says.
Elliot doesn’t miss that he says Liv. Not you two or you guys. The men get along now, just barely. Have reached a place of reluctant understanding for what they each mean to Olivia. Also, she didn’t really give them a choice. But while they are by no means pals, Elliot knows this tone. Like it’s being cast out far into still waters, baiting. He’s heard this tone a lot lately. “Not you too, Amaro.”
He grits his teeth and takes a swig, “You’re gonna ask me if I’m gonna propose. Everyone is. ‘Cause no one around here can mind their own goddamned business.”
Amaro barks out a laugh in surprise. It’s boyish and annoying and not at all what he expected. “C’mon, Stabler. You want me to pretend I think you’re the one who’s pumping the breaks?” Elliot does a double take, “I know you think you know Liv better than anyone, and yeah I guess you do, but…gimme a little credit here, man.”
Straightening his shoulders, Elliot picks at the label of his beer.
“You don’t have to say anything. We both know I’m right. And that she’d kick our asses if she knew we were talking about this.”
A very real chuckle escapes at this, and the two of them sip in silence. “I bought a ring.” Elliot blurts out. As small as the admission makes him feel, the look of shock on Amaro’s face brings him some satisfaction. “I got her a ring and she’s never gonna let me give it to her.”
He doesn’t expect the younger man to say anything, isn’t even sure what he thought he’d gain from it, but Elliot hadn’t told anyone until now. It was an impulsive purchase. A rare moment of hope after they put the topic to bed in bed and that gold ring has mocked him from their dresser ever since. It does feel good to admit it out loud - even if it’s to fucking Amaro.
“Liv ever tell you she hated me when I first started? Have you to blame for that.” Nick glances at him with an arched brow, some flash of Benson in there. “She didn’t wanna work with me, train me, look at me. Definitely wouldn’t call me her partner. I was barely allowed to touch your desk….well, my desk. And let me tell you, I tried. She just wouldn’t have it.”
Elliot can’t look at him. While Olivia has referenced what she was like in those first months of his absence, it’s somehow worse hearing it from others. Even from his replacement. Especially.
“But you know what? She was my partner. So after a while I stopped trying and just did the work. Showed up and stood next to her and acted like I had no idea she wished I was another man. And even though she made it pretty damn clear she didn’t want me around I was anyways. Had her back. Followed her lead. Got on her nerves. Tried not to push her. Didn’t give up. Stayed.”
Elliot looks up at that and right away, his sees Olivia. She’s chatting with Amanda and catches him staring. Smiles. Small and sweet and secretive and for him. He smiles back.
Amaro’s not done though, “Then one day after a tough case she just…called me her partner. Just like that. Like it had been the truth all along." Nick finishes off his beer and sets the empty bottle on the counter. Slaps him on the back as he walks away.
Eyes still holding Elliot’s, Olivia reaches out. He crosses the room to take her hand.