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.
Thanks for waiting. I've been in it.
Hope you like where I leave them here. And, I love you guys.
Olivia can’t say yes.
But she also can’t say no. So, she settles on saying everything else.
Fortunately after their late night conversation, Elliot stopped asking. She had tried and tried to brush off the topic, hoped it was just a phase, but she knows him. Traditional and possessive and of course he would want to get married. And it hurts that he ever thought it’s about not wanting that, not wanting him. Having a life with him is her most treasured, private hope come true. But Olivia had accepted not marrying long ago. Sure, it sounded vaguely nice when she was young. When having it all felt like a given. But life surprises us. Gives us things we never thought we’d have, takes away other fantasies in return. Elliot is one of those things. Taken and given and taken and given. Now he is hers. It’s the opposite of waking up from a dream each day.
And yet, the role of Elliot’s wife is held. It always has been. So when Olivia finds the ring she says nothing.
It’s November and they’re still half moved into their new place. She’s running late and her laundry is still in the dryer so she digs through his sock drawer to borrow a pair when something solid thuds against the wood and she just knows. Tucked into an old tube sock is a blue velvet box.
It’s clear there is a before and after to this moment. She could stop here, put it back and play pretend. But she is who she is.
Olivia opens the lid to discover a gold band with a single pearl. Unworn. Their eight letter title is written inside and she traces the delicate cursive inscription. Her throat closes up as she pictures Elliot picking it out, this just-in case ring. Taking it home and considering a hiding place before landing on the most traditional. How easily she can see it all. Her eyes are filling when the cling of keys are in the door and she shoves the box back in it’s sock. Goes to the bathroom to collect herself before greeting him.
Two weeks later their new home is filled for their non-housewarming. Elliot crosses the room, takes her hand. Tangles their fingers together. They stand in a dim corner as night unspools, the kids dancing along to music she’s never heard. Carisi pulls in a reluctant Amanda. Fin rolls his eyes from a barstool. Olivia and Elliot stay put and observe. She has never danced in front of these people and has no plans to, ever. But Elliot drapes his arms around her waist and sways in the dark, just barely. Unnoticed.
Lowering his head, he trails kisses down the slope of her shoulder. As he turns her in his arms panic circles above. She sees…something in him and without thinking warns, “I’ll kill you, El.”
His eyes widen, rake over her in question.
“If you propose to me at this party, in front of everyone we know, I will kill you.”
Amused, his mouth twitches into a crooked grin. “Liv. You think I don’t know you at all?”
“You just — had that look…”
“Well," he slides his palm to her nape, pulling her head onto his shoulder. Buries his nose into her hair and breathes her in before whispering, “Am I not allowed to think it?”
She presses her lips to his neck.
After that she starts recognizing all the times he wants to ask. Sitting across from her in the garden with their morning cup, his eyes casting over. The infinitesimal hesitation before introducing her as his girlfriend or partner. How, hands knit in the dark, he strokes her bare ring finger subconsciously. Elliot, impulsive and only ever sincere, taken over by the need before catching himself. Pulling back. The sadness that washes over his handsome face. All of it aches.
Because the thing is, Elliot has no idea there are so many times Olivia wants to say yes.
Like when she wakes up to coffee next to her bed and he doesn’t try to talk. Or when she wakes up screaming and sweating and he holds her and murmurs until his voice gives her roots to now. When she overhears him on the phone with Noah, ending the call with the same “love you” he uses with his five kids. When she catches him already looking at her, unguarded and reverent. Its continuity ties the Elliot back then with this Elliot, broader and harder and tailored. Because Olivia recognizes that look. Knows it from all the times it was passed between their desks and city streets. Except now he doesn’t hide it anymore. It holds.
But laying with him at night, feeling his chest rise and fall, she tells herself not to be greedy. This has to be enough.
When Elliot becomes sergeant he all but demands no party. Claims he’s still recovering from their housewarming even though it was over a year ago. And while Olivia has no objections, Kathleen can’t help herself. Calls her up to have everyone over for dinner at her place. She promises that it’ll be low-key. No balloons, no Paperless Post. Only family, she stresses, and Olivia smiles into the phone.
So they trudge through dead-of-winter slush to eat chicken pot pie in her walkup. Kathleen set the table with tulle and colorful flowers. Candles that smell like dessert are lit throughout the small apartment as she pours champagne. No toast though…she knows her dad.
Afterwards, Olivia helps her finish cleaning up. Elliot and the other kids have squeezed onto the couch to argue over which Christmas movie to rewatch. Kathleen looks oddly domestic in her apron, like she’s playing a part, washing dishes as they chat over the sink. “Thanks for indulging me, Liv. I hope it wasn’t too much. It’s just nice to have something to celebrate, you know?”
“It was perfect. And yeah…I do.”
“Speaking of — “ She looks over expectantly, blue eyes sparkling with mischief. But Olivia isn’t getting it. “Should I be, y’know, getting ready for a bigger celebration?”
And then it clicks. The wedding question. She eyes Elliot across the room, being shouted over between Dickie and Noah. “Oh sweetheart, you don’t have to worry about that.”
Kathleen features turn to concern and confusion. “Worry?”
Something trapped claws at Olivia’s skin, her mouth hanging open stupidly. It’s silly. She should have expected this question at some point, but she honestly wasn’t prepared and she definitely doesn’t know what to make of Kathleen’s open face and casual tone. Sighing, she scratches her forehead with her thumb.
“Liv. I know it hasn’t been simple. But we all love you. Noah too. Eli even lives with you and sure he can be a little asshole but I actually think this is the closest to thing to a home he’s had since Rome. And that — that’s you.”
It’s a kind sentiment and she knows the girl means it, but it still makes her stomach twist with guilt. Kathy, so desperate to keep her family that she fled the country. So certain of impending betrayal that she put words in Elliot’s print to be hand delivered after a decade of silence.
And it worked. Because reading that letter left Olivia stranded. Echoed all her worst fears while also giving voice to the hope she never said out loud. It answered nothing and proved her right. Twelve years of turning down invitations to backyard barbecues and christenings and Sunday night suppers — it wasn’t in her head after all. She had her place in his life and it wasn’t there.
Kathleen is half-focused on scrubbing a crusted pan. She looks so much like her mom that Olivia has to blink herself back to the present. “I mean, I don’t know what would’ve happened if you weren’t around — after. I know we never thanked you in the way we should have but — you saved Dad’s life. And not just then but — so many times…”
She’s heard it before, mostly from Elliot. And it’s correct in the sense that he gets himself hurt a whole lot. But the truth is, surviving wasn’t something Olivia ever needed much help with. When they became partners she was a twenty-something with a full suit of armor nicked and grooved from battling the front lines on her own. But it had been just that: survival. All of the embellishments and seasons that come with being a complete person — she hadn’t known the fullness of it. Then Elliot arrived and took care of her just because. He was the first. To stop by her place and make sure she was safe, to drop food on her desk when she was stressed, to drape a blanket over her tired body. It was a kinder way to exist and in that sense, he saved her too.
Lost in thought, Olivia hasn’t said a word and Kathleen does a double take before turning the tap off. “Ugh God, sorry sorry — none of my business — “
“Sweetie, really, it’s fine — “
“No it’s not, I’m being nosy. Dad would kill me. Can’t help it I guess. Whatever you guys want is great. Seriously."
What she wants. Olivia would laugh if the idea weren’t so foreign. It strikes her that she hadn’t thought about what she wants. She's thought about Noah and Elliot and all the kids. Kathy. She's thought about their long knotted history and her past that came before him. But what she wants?
"Just…don’t hold back on account of us, ‘kay?”
Kathleen gives her a shoulder a squeeze before joining everyone in front of the TV. Olivia stays standing in the kitchen. After a minute Elliot twists back with an brow raised, tilting his head to beckon her over. Olivia pads over and they all make room.
The snow melts. The lights come down. It’s a rainy Friday afternoon when he swings by the precinct with two bodega sandwiches. They switch halves and he perches his feet on the desk. As they fill each other in on their mornings, Chief McGrath appears in the doorway. Olivia loses her appetite.
“Knock knock. Captain Benson. And look, Sergeant Stabler is here too — what a treat.”
Back to the door, Elliot rolls his eyes at Olivia. She shoots him a look in return. Behave yourself.
“Chief McGrath, what brings you by?”
“Was in your neighborhood, thought I’d stop over. I want to make sure we’re still on to meet with Carisi tomorrow morning.”
Gaze flicking down and back up, she has to bite back the urge to groan with dread. “Yeah, we’re still on.”
He stuffs his hands into his pockets and puffs out his chest, “Alright, good then. I’ll leave you to it. And Stabler, sorry for interrupting your little lunch date.” His mouth stretches into a smirk, “I expect you to put a ring on this one soon...think she's waited long enough, yeah?" It’s rhetorical and he throws Elliot a slimy wink for good measure.
Olivia braces herself. Expects words like daggers or at the very least a glare that turns the man to ash. But Elliot just smiles, blue and small, eyes hooded as he focuses on his hands. Broad shoulders deflated. He looks…unsurprised by the question.
McGrath is about to say something else and she’s certain she doesn’t want to hear it. “Chief. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Squinting, he studies her for a moment, bemused and a little annoyed. She gives him a curt nod that pushes him out the door.
Later that night they’re getting ready for bed, their room bathed in quiet yellow. Olivia rubs lotion on her neck and arms, lost in thought, when she begins the conversation in the middle.
“Does that happen a lot?”
Elliot’s sits on the edge of the mattress, peeling off his shoes, and halts. He’s rightfully confused. “Does what happen?”
“When Chief McGrath —“
Eyes darkening at the name, he groans, “McGrath is an jackass.”
“Oh I know. But that wasn’t my question. I mean in general, have people been asking you…that?”
Hands on her hips, she waits. Ignores the call of the ring in the dresser, a third presence between them. Beating and alive. Elliot massages his neck as he figures out how to answer. She knows what that means.
“El. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“’S not a big deal —”
“It’s a big deal to me!”
He huffs, “Well...maybe that’s why I didn’t tell you.”
She flinches, takes a step back. “What the hell does that mean?”
Jaw moving side to side, Elliot stares at the floor before letting out a sigh. “It means I knew it’d upset you and I didn’t want that.” He finally looks up, “It really doesn’t happen that much, Liv. McGrath just caught me off guard. And it doesn't help that I hate the guy.”
Head tilted, Olivia tries to gage just how much she believes him. He seems both wilted and sure. Closing in, she straddles his lap. Holds his face in her hands and holds his eyes.
“You know, you could tell people it’s my fault.”
While it was meant as a half-joke, it’s as though she slapped him. “Your fault?”
“I’m just saying El, I’m the one —“
“Don’t. Liv, you didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t wanna get married — you have your reasons. Yeah I’d like to and yeah I was bummed at first but…I get it. I do. And I’m good with it. I want whatever you want.”
Olivia hates this feeling, hates being this woman, but something ugly coils around her heart and she has to ask. “You’re happy?”
Shaking his head, he’s staring at her like she’s lost it. “Yeah. Jesus, yes, I’m happy. Look at me. I've got you, don’t I?” His thumb makes lazy circles along her neck and her pulse steadies. “People have got nothing better going on. I don’t give a shit. To be honest, I hardly even notice anymore”
“Ah, so it does happen a lot then…”
The corner of his mouth tugs, “Always a detective, huh?” She rolls her eyes as he tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “Liv. Stop thinking about it. Please. I can take ‘em. You know I have a way with words —“
Olivia snorts at this, laughing into his mouth as he leans in for a kiss.
And that’s that.
But a funny thing starts to happen. Checking her go-to list of doubts and reasons, she finds they carry less danger. They're more instinct now than truth. Sure, she’s scared — aren’t we always, a little? — but now it was fear of the unknown, not fear for her life.
Brick by brick her fortress dismantles. Months pass with him in her arms and bed and body and they endure with ease. Olivia is surprised that it’s all, almost entirely, good. And what really surprises her, what she could never have been prepared for, is the peace in it. Not only because nothing has been lost, or because she doesn’t have to mourn and get to work re-building, but because we want to be right about what we love.
All those years she spent defending her faith in Elliot, the unlearning she desperately attempted, how quickly it crumbled when he walked back into her life — it wasn’t for nothing. It wasn’t weakness. Who she loves is worthy and that makes them worthy of each other. Each night they fall asleep side by side proves that. It never gets old. It never stops mattering. So each morning she wakes up tangled in him she pulls a brick, tosses it in the rubble. Lets a little more light in.
And then, just as the walls are down to their bones, Elliot gets hurt.
Bell gives Olivia some details over the phone but all she can focus on is the pounding in her ears and the taunting voice in her head that says of course. Taken and given and taken and given and taken.
When she finds his room the doctor is about to click the door shut and she nearly runs into him.
“Sorry I — “
“Ah excuse me, are you Detective Stabler’s wife?”
“Sergeant Stabler and yeah, yeah — how is he? Is he alright?”
“Yes, he’s going to be fine. The bullet ricocheted and just grazed the skin. A couple of stitches but he was quite lucky. He can go home with you today.”
She barely lets the man finish, pushing past him to burst through the door. Elliot opens his arms on sight, knowing she needs it more than him, and she nearly dives into him. When she lets out a ragged sob he draws her impossibly closer, murmuring in her ear.
Swallowing the lump her throat, she finds her voice. It croaks, “You good?”
“Yeah, ‘m okay. I hate to scare you, I’m sorry.”
Olivia pulls away but she can’t stop touching him, running her hands down his shoulders and chest. Needing to feel his blood course beneath her palm. She touches two fingers to the bandage on his shoulder for proof. Elliot keeps his gaze trained on her as she licks the salt from her lips.
“Liv. I’m okay. I’m here.” It’s worth repeating and she’s glad he does. But her lungs still swell so she just bobs her head, mouth pressed in a tight smile. He pulls her back and her breathing evens.
Minutes pass, the only thing between them the sound of the evening news. He breaks the quiet, “So…you’re my wife, huh?”
It takes her a moment to put it together. She had been so desperate to see him, to feel him, she honestly didn’t think twice about what that doctor had said. That title hadn’t thrown her off. If anything, it was a tether.
But Elliot mistakes her contemplation for sadness and grabs her hand, wincing. “Ah Liv, I’m sorry. Was just, I don’t know, trying to lighten the mood. Bad joke.”
Still at a loss for words she gives him a squeeze and changes the subject
That night Elliot's in the shower when she goes to the dresser. Pulls out that velvet box for the first time since they moved in years ago. It’s just where she left it, tucked in the same worn gym sock.
Olivia flips the lid open and there it is. A single pearl, once hidden in layers of living darkness, now held up proudly by gold. She traces the ring with a shaking finger. Mouths their old eight letter title that's preserved in careful cursive. It’s simple and lovely and a little odd. It’s hers.
She considers how it felt to be called that new name. It wasn’t a knife to the gut. That phantom pain of being the other woman — the second choice, the one left behind — has faded to the chorus of the life they now share.
Olivia has been so many things. Daughter. Detective. Captain. Godmother. Victim. Survivor. Partner. Mother. Closing her eyes, she gives herself permission to imagine this one, without weight. Not a second wife, not Kathy’s replacement. Just a wife.
No, not just a wife, Elliot’s wife.
The shower shuts off and Olivia hurries to put the box away.
A few days later they’re both set to be in court so they ride over together, stopping for coffee on the way. Olivia waits in the van as he runs in. Windows down, heater on. No gloves. Light flurries have started floating to the pavement but she doesn’t mind.
Elliot slips back into the driver’s seat. For a detective of almost forty years, he isn’t always observant. In his day to day he thinks big picture. Point A to point B. Still, she’s been wearing the ring — the ring he bought — all morning long and he hasn’t noticed. It isn’t until he passes her cup and their fingers brush that his eyes fall to her left hand.
Hope flickers across his features, his mouth opening and closing. Something brand new blossoms wild between them. “Olivia — is that — ?“
Smiling behind the rim, she takes a slow sip with a hum as silent tears slip down her cheeks. Elliot’s own eyes fill as they bore into her in question.
She knows he needs to hear it. And truthfully, so does she.
It comes easy. “Yes.”