Elliot remembers long ago learning about the red thread of fate. The Chinese belief that two people connected by this red thread are destined lovers, regardless of place, time or circumstance.
He recalls a marine buddy of his bragging about seducing some girl with the romantic myth. Elliot had rolled his eyes, never one to get a girl into bed under false pretenses. Certainly not one to believe in such romantic notions.
But the thought drifts into his mind when he first shakes hands with Olivia Benson and for a moment he wonders if he had it all wrong.
He brings her a cup of coffee. It should be nothing. A simple gesture between partners. But when she looks up at him she sees possibility and she has to shake it off.
The noise in his head quiets when he looks at her. The worries, the cases, dim and he focuses on the way she bites her lip as she reads a file. She looks up sometimes and their eyes meet, but she doesn’t flinch away from his gaze, so he lingers there with her. They don’t have to speak in these moments. He knows she sees something in him that needs a soft place to land. In all her mercy, she’s willing to give it to him.
He smiles often, not sure later if he’s trying to temper the impending awkwardness that he expects, or if he’s trying to communicate the tenderness he feels. When she smiles back, he knows she’s ok. When she doesn’t, he knows she needs his comfort as much as he needs hers.
Olivia places the plastic bag on her counter and reaches inside for the tomato. As she lifts it out she feels the softness of the once firm vegetable and sighs. The feel of it in her hand takes her back to the image of Gretchen on top of the smashed car and any interest in dinner abates.
She thinks about Elliot in his full house and it stirs a longing in her for…something. Home, family, a man…she can’t quite put her finger on it.
She throws the tomato into the trash can, glad to have only bought the one. Olivia turns off the lights in her kitchen and moves to her bed in the dark.
Elliot can’t sleep. He stares up at the ceiling of his bedroom and sighs. Turning his head he stares at the red digits of the alarm clock: 3:14am. There’s a madman on the loose, after his partner. He gets up, showers, dresses. He drives uptown to the precinct, picks up a sedan. Drives downtown, parks. Elliot gets out of the car, stands on the sidewalk, leans against the hood of the car. He scans his perimeter then looks up at the window he knows is hers. He waits three hours before he goes up, knocks on her door and shares her glass of orange juice.
Olivia has hardly ever known real friendship, had always kept everyone at arms length. First there was her mother’s drinking, then the inadequacy of never feeling wanted. Then it just became habit; too difficult to trust people when she’s had so little practice.
But then there’s Elliot. Making himself accessible and available. Understanding and supporting her and expecting nothing in return. He makes it so simple to trust him, rely on him. So easy to open up, to be herself.
Even when there are things they don’t quite talk about, there’s so much more they do. Thoughts and feelings she’s never expressed to anyone else.
Sometimes on stakeouts they share a companionable silence. Sometimes they tease or joke. Sometimes they talk, eyes forward, voices low. Sometimes it’s innocuous; his kids, her academy days. Sometimes it’s more; her wishes, his hopes. Sometimes it’s everything: all her darkest fears, all his terrifying nightmares.
So somehow Elliot becomes her first real friend. Her best friend.
If she wishes for something more it's not a thought she allows herself to acknowledge.
It’s not their first argument, but it is their first fight. The first time she’s really angry with him. The first time he might have gone a little too far. The only time he’s gone near breaking their trust.
He doesn’t care if he did. As long as she’s safe, he’ll do whatever he needs to do. Even call the rat squad.
She once asked if he’d ever tried to protect someone he loved and he’d looked at her, the answer there in his eyes. He wanted her to understand then. Needs her to understand now.
Maybe she can’t see why he’s doing it. Maybe it makes her feel inadequate. But he knows he’s doing it for the right reasons. He knows she’ll come around eventually. And he’ll be waiting.
Sometimes he imagines a different life. One with different choices. One with Olivia. He loves his kids, his wife, his family. But sometimes he looks at Olivia and he wonders, what if? What if he hadn’t met Kathy, if they hadn’t had Maureen. Sometimes he swears she wonders too.
His son once asked him about alternate realities, parallel universes, and he likes the idea. Thinks about a different version of himself where he met Olivia first. A different universe where they might have had a chance. There’s something comforting in the idea. That some version of him is living in perfection.
Olivia makes all things possible. She is his saint, the one he turns to. The one who intercedes on his behalf. Even when he doesn’t tell her what he needs, she still always knows.
And yet, what he really needs, she won’t give him. What he really needs, he’ll never speak aloud. He prays for her sanction. The benediction of her mouth, her skin, her hands.
It’s all a contradiction. In truth she is his sin, the most potent and dangerous temptation he has ever known.
Still, he wants the sacrilege of worshiping at her altar. Down on his knees. The charity of his name on her lips.
It may be blasphemy, but Olivia is all things; his curse, his mercy, his crime, his absolution.
She wants to bury herself in the feel of him. Wrap herself in him like a warm cloak. And she knows she can't. She knows this longing is the closest she'll ever get. There's a safety in that. To love him from afar. To know he can never get close enough to hurt her. To let her down. Close enough that she can be found wanting, inadequate.
She wants to believe him when he tells her she’s more than enough. He’ll say Look how great you turned out . Or tell her For better or worse . And the words stay with her for weeks after. She’ll reach for them when she’s lonely, when she feels herself not worthy of love. His words like a cool balm on the hot burn of her psyche. She wants to believe him. But sometimes she thinks if he only knew . The voice in the back of her mind a reminder of all her faults and deficiencies. She will never be enough. Certainly not for him.
So it's easier to know that perfection is out of reach. That having everything she wants is impossible. To know it exists, to know the dimensions of it, and yet know it's not meant to be. To settle for something less or nothing at all.
So when he threatens that distance, when suddenly it seems like he might get too close, might find her unworthy, she leaves, she runs, before it’s too late.
There’s something tickling the back of his brain, a feeling like he’s missing something. And of course it’s Olivia that he thinks of, because he’s still missing her. It’s been six weeks and it hasn’t gotten any easier. He would swear even now that she’s looking at him, the weight of her gaze recognizable whenever they’re in a room together. But he’s kidding himself, because it’s just him and Dani in the dim precinct, Cragen shut in his office.
For years he'd taken for granted that they wanted the same thing, even if they couldn't have it. Even if she wasn't in love with him, that some part of her needed him. That she felt the pull to him he'd always felt towards her.
They don't talk about their feelings for each other, what their relationship is aside from partnership. If they even have one. All the time they spend together outside of work, not something they outright acknowledge to each other, no matter how he steps up for her, protects her at all costs.
So when Olivia left him, he had to wonder if he was wrong. If he'd chased her away with his intensity. If his admission that he couldn't lose her was just too much.
He’s sure, at least, that he’s taken her for granted. Assumed she would always be there at his side. The one he could lean on through anything.
He supposes he’s gotten used to Dani, has come to like her. But it’s still Olivia that he wants, needs. It’s still Olivia haunting his dreams.
Olivia expected that Elliot seeing her would reset things between them. That whatever she’d seen the other day in the bullpen between him and Dani Beck would prove inconsequential. Instead she feels like a fool. An absolute moron for thinking he’d missed her at all, had even thought of her while she’d been gone.
Whatever it was that made them so naturally them, is missing. He feels like a stranger.
She’d spent her time away at Computer Crimes, her time in Oregon, thinking of him, of them. Wondering what they were to each other. Finally admitting that her feelings for him went well past partnership, past friendship.
She decided it was just her, just something she’d have to get over. That it could never work and he’d never want her anyway.
He was important to her, loyal to her, cared for her. And that was more than enough. More than she’d ever had before. If she could just get it back.
They’re finally them again. She’d only been gone a few weeks, but they didn’t just settle back like he’d expected.
And when the dust finally cleared between them, they’d somehow gotten closer than before. After all, he’s lost her once, can’t fathom losing her again.
But their closeness scares him. He still wants her, still needs her. And the thought of risking what they have for more feels like scaling Mount Everest. He retreats to Kathy, to marriage and home and family, because it’s the safe play. The decision that is easy. Because what if he goes to Liv and he really loses her? Puts his heart on the line and she tells him no? How would they ever come back from it?
He’d already come so close to saying it and she’d up and disappeared on him. Hadn’t even told him she needed to go. It’s all the proof he needs that she doesn’t want him. That his feelings are unrequited. And it's better to at least make it work with his family, to be honorable, than to throw everything away.
Her weight is leaned against the cool marble and she thinks that's the only reason she's still upright. She feels the shock she sees on Elliot's face. And when she asks him what he's going to do, she already knows the answer. But she needs to say something so she doesn't say what about me ? So she doesn't tell him not to go back.
He's always been a father first, a husband second, a partner third. And she respects him for it, truly. But right now she can't find the logic in this. She can’t take comfort in the righteousness. She only feels the gaping maw of loneliness. The tantalizing temptation of something just out of reach, slipping through her fingers like fine sand.
He feels her pulling away from him and he doesn’t know how to stop it. The tectonic plates of their once solid partnership are shifting yet again, dividing them, creating a chasm. It’s been years of this earthquake, the tumult of his marriage ending before they decided to put the pieces back together. The rift of her departure and her weeks undercover and the tension between them when she’d finally come back to him.
But this is different, and he knows it. This is a line drawn between them. This is the moment when he needs to make a choice, and he chooses his unborn child. He wants to choose her. But he wouldn’t be the man she deserves if he did the thing he wanted the most.
She sinks into his embrace. The surprise of his grasp giving way to a relief. It's only been a decade of longing. Only 10 years of wondering what it would be like to be wrapped in his arms. It only takes saving the life of his wife and newborn.
But it’s more than just a hug. It feels like a goodbye. It feels like the last contact now that everything is different. He’s been leaving for months, but now it’s real, it’s done.
She wraps her arms around him and then she lets go.
He’s sick of babies, has children coming out of his ears. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t love his kids, nothing could be further from the truth. But he thinks he’d be happy to take a long, childless vacation and not worry about them once.
And yet, the thought of Olivia holding her child makes him undeniably happy. He would do anything to support her. Anything. He means that in ways he’s scared to voice, but he hopes Liv knows that his offer has no limits.
If anyone would be a wonderful mother, it would be Olivia. If anyone deserves happiness, it would be Olivia. If he could give her any of these things he would do so without question.
It's just Elliot, she tells herself as she lays awake in bed. Just Elliot half naked in her arms. Just Elliot bleeding out on the pavement. She’s been promising herself she has had this under control for years. Knows where the boundaries and the limits are. Knows to never go too far, to never cross lines, because he’s her partner, he’s married, he has a family. She won’t be that person.
But she’s lying awake and thinking of the muscles flexing in his back, the blush creeping up his chest, the fire in his eyes when she sidled up to him, half naked. She’s lying awake and pretending she doesn’t want to touch herself as she thinks of him. She’s lying awake and telling herself she feels nothing.
He wants to know the contours of her mouth. Unravel her like the mystery she’s been for nearly 13 years. It gets harder every day to deny the temptation that is Olivia.
He wonders if she sees the hunger when he looks at her. Wonders if she realizes he’s starving for her.
He’s spent years in the shadows, getting as close as he dares. Ghosts his hand over her back, grips her arm beneath his fingers. He looks in her eyes and leans into her ear. He shares her coffee and stares at her mouth. He does all of these things because he’ll never dare to have more. Will never know the tender skin of her inner thigh, the sound of her breathless moan, the look of her coming apart.
He thinks of her like the loss of a limb. He can feel her there still, though she’s no longer attached. He feels the ghost of her, the sensation. He thinks if he turns quickly, if he closes his eyes and reaches, she’d be there, suddenly under his grasp. Though she’s an ocean away, an entire lifetime, she lingers, haunts.
He’s the one who made the amputation. The one who could no longer bear the pain of wanting more from her than he was allowed to have. But there was nothing surgical about the way he ripped her away. The trauma of it leaves him with continuing pain. And it’s all his fault.
He doesn’t expect her to understand or accept it. And maybe that’s why he never calls, never goes to see her. He doesn’t even try, because it’s already like ripping out his own still-beating heart. And if he even saw her, he knows he could never go through with it.
The world of literature belonged to Olivia’s mother. And maybe that’s why Olivia had always preferred poetry. Dickinson, Poe, Angelou, Brooks. These were companions in her loneliness. When she was 15 and in that depressive funk of teenage melancholia that only exacerbated her solitude, she’d discovered Tennyson and In Memoriam. The long poem written as the poet mourned the death of his best friend and maybe lover. At that time she’d experienced it less as a touchstone for grieving something lost but more for what she’d never had. Somehow loneliness was akin to this depression.
Now Olivia sits with it again. And she thinks of Elliot. He might as well be dead with the suddenness of his departure, the lack of closure or goodbye.
Tennnyson talks about being behind the veil and that’s how Olivia feels. In a fog, in the dark, all alone. Some days she wants to dwell on it, succumb to it, sit within the sorrow and let the ache overtake her. Other days she wants to rage against it, tear it all down.
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all
But was it? Olivia wondered. Because she was drowning in this loss, pulling under. Losing herself to the rotating wheel of numbness and rage.
Tennyson mourned his friend for 17 years. It was only at the end of that period that he emerged, poem in hand. The poem that became his most celebrated work. Olivia wonders if it will take her 17 years to recover from the loss of Elliot. And what will emerge from the grief when she finally finishes mourning.
When he’d left he didn’t know how to survive it. Had forced himself to put one foot in front of the other. Go through the motions, mimic and mime to form some semblance of a life without her. Kathy would look at him with a knowing that they would both ignore. But he’d made his choice, had chosen his marriage and his family because it was the right thing to do, and if nothing else he had to try to do the right thing. It’s what Olivia would expect. Even if it meant leaving behind everything else that was important to him. Even if it meant losing the one he loved most.
Olivia has long expected to die alone. After all, who would be at her bedside in the end? Who would hold her hand as she took her last breath? For a time she had Elliot. But he’s long gone now. For a moment she’d thought Calvin would stay. But that’s over too.
But she hadn’t quite expected to go like this. Hadn’t thought her end would be filled with pain, the taunting of the monster responsible. She hates him for knowing that it is Elliot on her mind. She hates that Elliot’s not there, watching her six as he’d done for so long. She tries not to wonder if this would have happened under his watch.
Sometimes when things feel bleak, Olivia thinks about legacy. She wonders how long she’ll be remembered, without the blessing of family and children to carry her on. She doesn’t consider herself sentimental, isn’t sure she feels the pull of continuing the family line. She certainly isn’t proud to come from a rapist and an abusive drunk, doesn’t need to pass on those genes. But still she wonders who will mourn her, who will miss her when she’s gone. If she’s cut down in the line of duty, how long before she’s forgotten?
This day is his son’s. Yet it’s another he thinks of, without fail.
He thinks of her often, constantly. But there’s something about this day. And even though he notes her birthday, the anniversary of their partnership, when the calendar turns to fall, the air crisp like biting into an apple, it’s the image of her in a hospital corridor that haunts him.
He walks the streets of Rome, alone. Kathy doesn’t ask why, but he suspects she knows anyway. If he closes his eyes, he can hear New York. Just for a moment the rustle of dry fall leaves fills his ears, the bustle of traffic. And she’s there then beside him, her hands wrapped around a deli cup, her scarf tucked around her neck. He wonders if she’s standing on some New York street right now, sipping a coffee, looking at a crime scene. That’s how he thinks of her, even after all this time: working. Though the fantasy of her outside of work takes hold soon after and he wonders about how she spends her downtime now.
He remembers how he couldn’t stop himself from touching her that day, though he’d had enough practice. Even as he’d raced towards Kathy and the baby he’d had to pause and make certain that the blood on Liv wasn’t hers.
And when he’d returned later and she’d looked at him, he had to hold her. Had to be sure that she was ok. Breathe her in, fold her into his body, know what it was to feel her weight pressed into him.
So even though it’s Eli’s day, his sixth, their second year in Rome, it’s Olivia on his mind. Even in the chaos of the birthday party and cake and presents, he thinks of her and longs for the sound of her voice, the feel of her hands on his back, the look in her eyes.
She thinks of Elliot like a sacrifice. The Lakota tribe perform flesh offerings, gouging skin out with the swipe of a blade. Offering this in support of loved ones, to help them strengthen, endure the trials ahead. She thinks of Elliot like that. A piece of her cut away. An offering to the nothingness.
She tells herself she needed to give him up in order to gain more, to be stronger, to live longer. When she thinks of all the ways her life has changed since he left, she tells herself it was only possible because he’s gone. That his leaving made room for her rise in the department, for Noah. But she’s not sure if it’s just a story or the truth. She’s not sure if framing it as something she gave up helps when she knows damn well he walked away without her approval.
He goes to New York, his first visit alone since his departure. The place that was once theirs, but is now hers. He’s left Kathy and Eli in Rome and he wanders a city both familiar and new before his interview at 1PP. He fantasizes about running into her there. Stumbling upon her so he has no choice but to see her, can’t run away, like he did before.
In the meantime his feet have found their way to the 1-6 and he looks up at the old familiar facade and thinks about going inside. He wonders what he’d find after 4 years away, if Liv would be there at her desk, her dark hair curling around her shoulders. If she’d look up at him and smile, or if she’d curse him and walk away.
He can picture her in his mind, the woman he left behind, and for the first time he realizes he’s frozen her in time. He’s assumed that everything would be the same. That she’d be in some sort of stasis while he was gone. And now he has to confront the idea that maybe she’s changed in his absence. Not the essence of her, her righteousness, her bravery. But the rest of it, the things that were about them. Because how could they stay the same when he’s been gone so long, when he left like he did. He thinks about seeing her with a new partner and he shies away from the image in his mind. He’s still jealous, territorial, after all this time.
So he thinks about going up, but he knows he’ll just have to leave again and the selfish part of him wants to lock Liv in his memory and not replace her. Because the woman he left was full of whispered promise, unmatched potential, all the years of ‘could have been’ between them. And after what he’s done, that no longer feels true.
Sometimes she swears she sees him, rounding a corner, crossing a street. Her breath will catch in her throat and she’ll stop abruptly. She’ll come up short, thought lost mid sentence, foot hovering in the air and she’ll stare.
Like now. She looks down through the window, watches the man in the beanie walking away. And for a moment she sees his walk, that swagger, the very Elliotness of the way his legs move, how he tucks his hands into his pockets.
In a city of 8 million people you’re bound to run into your ex, or so they say. And for a long time she expected it. Kept her eyes open to the possibility that luck would cross her path with his. That she’d happen upon him when she looked her best, looked happy. He was her ex partner not her ex lover. But she still hoped she looked damn good if it ever happened.
But no, it can’t be him, because Elliot is somewhere that’s not here. Elliot’s living his life while she lives hers, separate, apart. Elliot never called or came by. So that’s not him. He’s somewhere that’s not here and he’ll never be here again.
He’s not thinking of her. And she thinks of him less and less.
Or so she promises herself.
He returns to her on a rainy Thursday night, staring at her as his wife’s ambulance pulls away. The rain misted over them, the kind that you don’t really register until you touch your skin and find it soaked. Strange how it echoes his feelings for her; how they’d built up over time. How he had known he was falling, but he hadn’t realized how far until he was already at the bottom of it.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. But he supposes he should never have left to begin with, so the story of his return was wrong from the start.
But he’s here now, looking at her. And she’s just the same, though 10 years have passed and they’re older. She’s the sweetest sight his eyes have seen in a long time.
Her voice, after so long away, makes him ache. The pain in the three syllables of his name is too much and he freezes for a moment, feeling the hurt he’d inflicted boomerang back to him.
Olivia is a language he no longer speaks but has not forgotten and every microexpression on her face stirs up a wealth of history that bridges the years between them, bringing him back to who they were.
When he came back to her it wasn’t what she expected. Then again, nothing about Elliot was ever what she would have expected in her life, their connection something she never could have predicted.
In truth, she couldn’t foresee his return. Had long ago given up on him and whatever they were to each other. Not that she could quite put it into words. What they were was both something so colossal that her myopic view couldn’t encompass it, and so minute as to slip under the radar of her daily life. She had stopped trying to define it around the time she’d pointed a gun at his head. Had sunk into the idea that she’d never really be able to understand it.
For a long time she’d thought that if he ever came back she’d never forgive him. She’d never allow him to become important to her again. But the problem was that he’d never stopped being important to her, had never stopped mattering. So when he’d come back and his wife was dying in a hospital bed and he’d looked up at her, eyes bloodshot, she’d done the easy thing and she’d been there for him.
It was so much simpler to ignore the pain it caused her, to tell her therapist and everyone else that she was just fine. So easy to just trust him again, because he was still Elliot, still the person she knew better than she knew herself.
She had to take a backseat to his pain, to their past. And maybe in a way she was grateful for it. Because fighting for others was always easier than fighting for herself.
Ten years of absence and yet it’s still part of their story. Every day he was gone, still one he counted as part of the way he loved her.
Their love story should never have happened. Yet in spite of the odds and the barricades and the distance it did, it has, it continues. He’s loved her for so long it’s become a part of who he is, a piece of his soul.
The plan had been to let her go. He’d tried ten years earlier, but never figured out how. But seeing her again only confirmed that she was better off without him. And now, in his current state, he can’t imagine being any good for anyone. So he’d handed her the letter that should have driven her away. But she’s there still, trying to save him, though he doesn’t deserve it. And those three little words spill out of him though he’s told himself not to say them for so long now.
He goes undercover to escape all of it. Running away from the guilt of Kathy’s death, the sadness in his children’s eyes. He runs from Liv because he’s not equipped to deal with the way he feels for her, he never was.
He wonders if any human would be. Because what he feels for her is too much. Overwhelming, overpowering. She has always occupied a space within him reserved only for her. And over time that space grew, pushed out other things. It didn’t just survive his departure, it expanded and cascaded. A river cutting a new canyon. Tree roots claiming an abandoned building.
Olivia can barely muster surprise when he leaves again. She’d maybe expected it, maybe counted on it. So tired of the mixed signals and the whiplash and the return of the questions that had always surrounded her feelings for him. Did he feel anything for her? Was she alone in it?
It’s maybe a relief to stop wondering how he feels about her and to go back to the life she’s built without him. It’s maybe just so much easier to not spend her time and her energy worrying about him.
But she can’t pretend she doesn’t miss him all over again.
Olivia is his home. When she touches him, he knows with a blinding clarity that running is pointless. That he’s spent a decade turning away and it has never worked, has never been possible.
The root of him is her and when his defenses are down, she is where he turns.
So when she tells him to come home, he listens. Does whatever it takes to return to her, because she’s never asked before and now that she has, he can’t deny her.
For the first time he thinks that maybe it’s not just him, loving her in the dark. Maybe she’s been there too, all along.
He’d told her ‘in a parallel universe’ because he wanted her to know that he loved her. He wanted her to know that he cared. That maybe it couldn’t happen for them, maybe she wasn’t interested, but it didn’t mean he didn’t want it.
But now things are different. There’s hope. They’re living in a parallel universe and she’s the only thing he’s ever needed. And he just wants to be worthy of her.
He whispers in her ear that it’s always been her and she closes her eyes against the idea of it. All the years of doubt, all the confusion after he left, all the time she spent wondering if he felt anything deeper for her.
There’s still that voice inside her that doesn’t want her to believe it. It attempts to counter the notion, remind her that he left her once, twice, will likely do it again. That part of that is his shortcomings but a lot of it is hers. That she can never be enough for him or anyone else. That so few have ever loved her, ever put up with her. That her life has always been about loss, abandonment, loneliness.
But she’s tired of that voice. She shoves it out, not just locking it in a dark room, not just taping its mouth, but truly ridding it from her entire being. She won’t punish herself for the past she couldn’t control, the choices of others.
He’s here now. And yes, maybe he will leave again. Maybe that’s just her life, her karma, her fate. Maybe happiness is only fleeting. But if that is the case she will enjoy it when she has it. She will hold on to it with both hands. And if it goes sideways, well she’s always been a survivor. If it goes sideways, it doesn’t make it her fault, her inadequacy. Maybe it’s just in the cards. And maybe she’s learned to roll with the punches.
He tells her he always loved her and she knows. She knows. She’s sure he always has, always will, come what may.
He kisses her for the first time when he comes home to her. When Eddie Ashes disappears and Elliot Stabler returns. Twenty plus years he’s thought of it, fantasized, dreamed. And yet he couldn’t imagine the reality of it. How much sweeter it would feel. Couldn’t understand how much he needed her until he finally had her.
She trembles against him and he knows she feels it too. Feels the bone deep longing finally quelled. The ache of it leaves and the heat usurps it. And then he’s lost to it. Lost to her body, her soul. Awash in everything that is Olivia. Her flesh and her fire, her breath and her heartbeat.
She leads him to bed, isn’t shy when he pulls away her clothes, when he kisses and worships her naked body.
It’s everything and more and he’ll never have enough.
Sometimes when he kisses her, time slows between them. He hovers over her lips and their eyes meet. It’s like they’re making up for the decades of waiting. The time when they couldn’t touch, breathe the same air, wrap their bodies together.
His breath touches her lips as his hands skim her body.
It turns to something melancholic, trying to grasp at the years gone by, the years they missed. And his kiss will be slow and sensual, his hand cupping her face, thumb stroking her cheek.
Sometimes his hand will move, down her neck, over her shoulder. He’ll push aside her shirt and his thumb will brush the scars. She wants to weep, the comfort he provides no matter the lateness of its arrival. He worships her scars with his fingers, his mouth, his tongue. Caressing and tasting until they feel less like a disfigurement and more like an embellishment. Until she doesn’t think of the pain of that memory but the pleasure of Elliot.
It’s overwhelming to be touched like this, to be worshipped. And sometimes she wants to stop him. But she thinks she needs this healing, that’s she’s put it off for too long. She needs him to be the one to tend to it because he wasn’t there at the start. And she thinks he needs it too. Needs to do what he can to make it up to her.
She carried a fear that they would never work. That a real relationship, the pressures of combining their lives, might be impossible. That the what if’s of them, the imagination, would always be better than the reality. The chase better than the capture.
She is glad to be wrong. Glad to find herself happy and smiling and content and actually damn near giddy and ridiculous. They'd waited so long, thought for years it would never happen. So to be together, to experience the joy of it is such a sweet relief.
He used to think of her laughter as a fleeting thing. More used to her serious and intimidating than her smiling and carefree. Had always sought for ways to bring a true grin to her face and had felt immensely proud when he'd achieve it.
So to see her so easily happy now is a joyful surprise. To think that he has any part in it makes him eager to bring that smile to her face, hear her laughter again and again.
He stops counting the number of times he asks her to marry him. Is sure he’ll be asking until the end of his days and will keep hearing no. But one day she finally agrees. Not enthusiastically. Just out of exasperation.
Elliot can see the fear in her, understands that the thought of changing anything between them makes her wonder if they’ll make it.
If anything, it just makes him want to marry her more. Just makes him want to reassure her that he’s not going anywhere. That this is forever.
He plans the wedding and she laughs at him, can’t understand why he’s so keen. But she agrees, finally, to the white dress, to the guest list. And when she walks down the aisle it completes the picture he’s carried in his head for so long.
After the ceremony, Noah gives her the paperwork in a gilded envelope. He sees the tears in her eyes when she reads the adoption forms. And he realizes that’s all she ever needed; not the band on her finger, but her child becoming his.
When he finally convinces her to retire, she thinks she’ll be bored. She doesn’t know who she is without her badge, without the survivors and the caseload. But then she wonders why she resisted it for so long, why she didn’t do it earlier.
They start to do so many things that she had thought she would never do. Traveling and museums and cooking classes, just because. And then there’s the advocacy work and the time spent with the kids and the grandkids that are now theirs.
There’s a peace in it that she never expected and she begins to realize that fearing retirement was one of those old pieces of baggage from the days when she was so lonely. But she’s not alone anymore. There’s Elliot and their family and a circle of friends and she is sometimes so happy that it frightens her.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon when Elliot leaves her for the third and final time. He falls asleep on the couch in the middle of winter and doesn’t wake up.
She’s not ready for it, of course. But they’ve had so many more years than she’d ever planned for that it’s easy to make peace with it. And even though he’s gone, he leaves behind all that they’ve become together. This time when he goes, he doesn’t leave her alone.
Time marches on, but their story isn’t over, because she carries him with her, always.
She dreams of him often. Remembering the day they met, the way his eyes locked with hers with a surprising vulnerability. Recalling the moment she knew she loved him and how much it had scared her. Revisiting the first time he’d kissed her and she’d thought finally .
But this dream is different. His hand outstretched to her, his smile beckoning her with him. She never really believed in heaven or hell. Wasn’t really sure where he’d gone to and what might lay beyond for her. But he’s here now and wherever she’s following him, she’s ready.