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everlasting gladness of the heart

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Elliot would never, not even if they both lived to be 200, get used to waking up each morning and seeing Olivia curled inside his embrace. Even if they didn’t start out the night cuddling, for whatever reason, by morning, they’ve sought each other out for security, solace and affection.

He looks at her, so at peace, her eyes fluttered closed; freckles dance across her nose and cheeks, and her long brown locks cascade in a tumble over his arm. The early morning sun’s rays streak through the window and dapple her skin in luscious light, making her look like an ethereal angel only wrapped in a white bedsheet.

How did I get so lucky?

With the hand that isn’t holding her flush against his body, he trails down and gently clasps her left hand. The novelty of the new ring she’s wearing, the one that says for richer or poorer, for better or worse, partners for life, will never wear off either, no matter how many mornings he woke up and saw it.

She hums, smiles, looks up at him with slowly blinking brown eyes. “G’morning,” she murmurs, pressing a soft kiss against his jaw, before tucking her face into the crook of his neck. “Pleasant dreams?”

“I think I’m still having one,” he says, threading his fingers loosely through her hair. “Olivia Benson, in my arms.”

“Wearing your ring, hyphenating your name,” she continues, sighing happily. “Our kids are back in New York, and I know the girls are taking great care of Eli and Noah.”

Our kids.

He’s known for years how much Olivia cares about all of his children; she’s always had a special connection to Kathleen. Once he’d come home from his final undercover gig - unless the Sanrio store becomes a front for something slightly more sinister than Hello Kitty and her friends, then he thinks he’d be game – things had eventually smoothed out with Eli’s nascent pill addiction, and although his youngest was still the wariest of his new stepmother and stepbrother, he’d at least begrudgingly accepted them.

Eventually.

Before the wedding day, at least.

Our kids are doing great,” he says, and he loves the serene smile he sees on her face when he refers to them as theirs – not his, not hers, but theirs. “Rich was going to show Noah how to throw a perfect spiral, and I know Liz and Kathleen were psyched about the excuse to watch all their old favorite movies from when they were kids. They’re going to be half popcorn by the time we get back with them.”

She snorts, buries her face in his neck. “He’s really not going to know what’s hit him, is he? Going from being the only child of a single mother, who was also basically an only child, to all of you in the crazy Stabler clan?”

“Yeah, but you know what, Liv?” He allows his hand to dip, tracing every curve and swell he finds along the way, and he feels her sharp intake of breath as he skims one of her most responsive spots. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. You’ve always been my family, and now it’s official.” He leans down and rubs his nose against hers in an affectionate gesture. “You’re not getting rid of me now, Benson. Not that easily.”

“Benson-Stabler,” she amends, and hearing her refer to herself by her new legal name does the same thing for him that hearing him refer to their kids as our kids had done for her; he has a grin from ear to ear, because he’s finally gotten what he’s always wanted. “And good. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The laughter that rings out in their hotel room echoes from the ceiling, as his lips descend down the column of her neck, and she reaches between them, and all other thoughts are temporarily discarded.

--

“So, what do we want to do today?” Elliot asks, pulling out the traveler’s guide to London they’d purchased at the airport. They’d finally managed to get dressed, after very thoroughly testing the water pressure in the en-suite shower. “I know you said you wanted tomorrow to be Stratford-upon-Avon day, so I think today should be something a little closer to the hotel.” Go figure, he ends up married to the daughter of an English professor – first time she sets foot in the UK, she wants to retrace as many of Shakespeare’s footsteps as she can.

Not that he’s complaining. At all.

It’s charming, actually, and he hadn’t fully realized how many books were written by British authors until Olivia had pulled up a list of literary tourism sites in the UK and it was quite extensive. They’d narrowed it down to the most important ones, but Shakespeare was always the top priority. “I was named for a Shakespeare play,” she’d said. “I think my mother was reading me Ophelia and Lady MacBeth’s monologues in the womb. It’s my heritage.”

He’d go anywhere if she leads the way; the difference between her and Kathy – one of the multitude, not that he wants to think about his ex-wife when he’s on his honeymoon with the love of his life, which still boggles him to think – is that Olivia’s always going to make sure they’re walking side-by-side and that he wants to do it as much as she does.

She looks down at the guide and thumbs through it briefly. “Well, yesterday, we did the Victoria & Albert, so no museums today, unless you really want to?”

“Nah, let’s do something outdoors. The employee at the front desk said it should be a nice day, by London standards, anyway.”

She pages through the book. “What about Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park? They’re right next to each other, not too far from where we were yesterday, and we can also see Kensington Palace where Princess Diana lived and Queen Victoria grew up, if we want.”

“Let’s do that, then.” He knows no natural sight is going to be as pretty as the woman sitting next to him; after years of loving her in secret, he wants to luxuriate in the blissfulness of being able to walk arm-in-arm with her in the sunlight, knowing they are secure in their love for each other. He doesn’t have to hide his love in shame anymore, not when they’ve made those sacred vows to each other.

The smile on her face and the light in her eyes as she gazes at him is all the answer he needs. He’d do anything to see that smile, that relaxed look on her face, every day.

--

A few hours later, they’re strolling at a leisurely pace around Kensington Gardens; each of them has an arm tucked around the other’s waist, and they’re not communicating much with words, but they never really have had to.

Being allowed to be this close to each other, after all this time, is a joy, one that neither of them wants to take for granted.

From overhead, a bird caws as it flies from tree to tree; in the distance, ducks in the pond quack, and there’s laughter from the other people who are enjoying the park as they are. He’s never felt so at peace as he does at that moment, with her leaning into his side, and the world feels right in a way it only ever has when he’s with her.

And then, he hears an excited voice call out, “Officer Monte Cristo!” and he sees a young woman holding a boy’s hand, pushing a stroller with a baby inside, making her way toward him with a bounce in her step. “Officer Monte Cristo! Eddie Wagner! Do you remember me?”

He stops dead in his tracks, and Olivia stutters to a stop as well. Only one person in the entire world has ever called him that, and only two people ever knew about the nickname – and the other is looking at him with wide, confused eyes.

He takes a good look at the young woman. Her hair is shorter than the last time he’d seen her, almost two years before, cut into a stylish bob. She walks with more confidence than she ever had when she was slinging sandwiches in a dingy diner, but most importantly, she seems happy. Despite all that, he’d recognize her anywhere. “Rita?”

“The waitress you saved,” Olivia says, a knowing smile creeping over her features. He’s told her the stories, how his instincts both as a father and as a former SVU detective had taken over when Rita was involved, how he risked blowing his entire cover to ensure her and her son’s safety here in another country. The picture he’d saved from her book – “I wish I could have gotten it back to her, but that would have been way too risky” – is on a magnet on their refrigerator, next to Noah’s spelling test and Eli’s soccer schedule, as a reminder of what they do and why they do it.

“Yes, yes!” She joyously throws her arms around Elliot’s neck without warning, and gives him a hug, before turning to Olivia. “And you must be the woman he loves.”

Elliot looks between the two women and smiles. “Yeah, she’s beautiful, isn’t she? Meet my wife, Olivia.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you.” Rita extends her hand for a handshake, but instead, Olivia pulls her in for a hug as well. “I think you saved him as much as he saved you that night, Rita.”

“You do?” She cocks her head slightly. “That is not possible, because Officer Monte Cristo saved my life, and my son’s life. Because of him, we are safe here. No one can hurt us, not anymore. I did nothing. I was me.”

“You helped him remember who he is,” Olivia says, squeezing Elliot’s hand. “And without realizing it, you helped him finally come home. To his family, and to me.”

It’s as if something from a long time ago has clicked inside Rita’s head, and she covers her mouth. “You are his heart,” she says softly.

“And this must be your treasure,” Elliot says, stooping down to shake Gabriel’s hand. “I recognize him from your photo and from the video Interpol sent me.”

“Yes, this is Gabriel.” The young boy, with a shy smile, extends his hand to shake Elliot’s with a surprisingly firm grip. “He is normally much more of a – what do they call that? – a chatterbox, but sometimes, with strangers.” She turns to the stroller, and with a serene smile, looks down at the sleeping baby in it. “And this is Edward, my other treasure.”

“He’s beautiful, Rita,” Olivia says, kneeling down. “May I?”

“Please.”

Olivia gently strokes baby Edward’s cheek with the slightest touch of her finger, cooing slightly as he blinks at her with sleepy hazel eyes before falling back asleep. He reaches out his tiny fingers and wraps them around her finger.

God, how he wishes he could have given Olivia a child. If these feelings are stirring strong in his gut watching her with another baby, one they’d never met before, he could only imagine the feelings he would have felt watching her with a child that was half-hers and half-his. He hadn’t even gotten to see her with Noah when he was small, watch her fall in love with a boy that captured her heart.

Olivia looks up at Elliot, silently motioning to him to look at the two of them. She doesn’t realize he can’t take his eyes away from them, even if he tries.

“I named him after you, Eddie Wagner,” Rita says, beaming. “My boyfriend, Phillip, said we should name him Edward and call him Eddie. He is a police officer, like you. He makes Gabriel and I feel safer than we have ever been.”

He feels tears welling inside him. His emotions have been raw lately; realizing that this, the woman I’ve been in love with for over a quarter-century, is the woman I’m going to spend the rest of my life with tends to have that effect, but to also realize the impact he’s had on other people. He’s gone between the military and law enforcement since he was old enough to enlist in the Marines, and he’s helped thousands of victims over the years, but only precious few times has he been able to see the positive effect his work has had firsthand.

“Eddie was my undercover name,” he says, fighting back tears as he kneels next to Olivia to look at his namesake a little closer; Edward lays next to his teddy bear in the stroller, a green knit blanket tucked up around his chin. “My name’s Elliot, but we didn’t want the people who were hurting you to know my real name. So, I called myself Eddie.”

Elliot.” Rita says the name softly, turning it over in her mouth, before looking at the woman next to him. “Olivia.” It’s as if she’s putting names with faces with concepts. “Oh, Phillip will be so happy to know I saw you. He is at work all day and he often works late, or I know he would want to meet both of you.”

Olivia stands, reaches into her tote bag, and takes out her phone. “Let’s take a few pictures, so you can show Phillip later,” she says, and Elliot grins. Olivia always knows the best angles for taking selfies, and the three of them crowd into the picture, smiling broadly for the click. “What’s your number, so I can text these to you?”

Rita gives her a mobile number, and she ruffles Gabriel’s hair affectionately. “Can you take a picture of my boys and I?”

“Sure,” Olivia says, grinning as she gets in a good angle to take the picture. “Smile and say Elliot.” Elliot sees her lips curve into a smile as she says his name. He’s lost count of how many times today he’s thought I’m so in love with her and I’m so lucky that she loves me, and that we’re here together but he won’t stop thinking it. “C’mon, Elliot, get in the picture now too.”

He steps in, and before she can take the picture, he grabs her free hand and tugs her into the frame too. “Not without you.”

He may have been the one to save Rita and Gabriel, but Olivia’s saved him over and again, and without her, he shudders to think of where anyone else in this picture would be.

Not here, he knows that. And here, with Olivia, is where he wants to be, today, tomorrow – forever.

Click.

--

Almost a year later, an inter-department envelope arrives at the Organized Crime task force headquarters, with a smaller cream envelope addressed to an “Officer Elliot Eddie Wagner Monte Cristo and Olivia” with a London postmark tucked inside.

Elliot looks at the note on official NYPD stationery: This came to 1 Police Plaza, and we believe it’s intended for you. If we’ve made this conclusion in error, return it to us, and we will take care of it.

He smiles. No, this is me. Slicing it open with his finger, he pulls out a wedding invitation, for Rita Lasku and a Phillip Toller.

There’s another note inside, scrawled on a simple post-it that’s affixed to the inside of the card. Thank you for giving me my love and my family. Let me thank you in person. – Phillip xx

Looking down at his desk, he sees the picture of Olivia and him on their wedding day that he has in a frame next to his computer, and his smile becomes a broad grin. Knowing that Rita may have found her future, only a few years removed from the horrible situation that had brought them into each other’s lives, he knows how much she deserves this.

Guys like us, Phillip, if we find true love, we have to hold on with both hands and don’t let go.

He sees his phone light up with a message from Olivia, and, not breaking his grin, he looks at it. Love you, see you at home soon? It says, and it’s so simple and stark in its domesticity, but it’s enough to take his breath away. Just a little.

Knowing that he has Olivia waiting for him at home makes it all – every struggle, every difficult moment, all of it - worthwhile.

On my way. Love you too. See you soon.

-fini-