He’d resisted temptation for an entire decade.
No, that was a lie. Elliot Stabler had resisted temptation for much longer than that. For thirteen straight years, he’d roamed the streets with her and resisted the temptation that was as constant as his own shadow. He’d thought, at the time, that he was engaged in a noble act, exemplifying all the traits of a faithful man.
But that was shot to hell. Elliot’s loyalty had been devoted to the wrong person, a person whose accusations had covered up her own sins. Elliot couldn’t say anything about that now, of course. He couldn’t mention Kathy’s spree of fibs or the fact that he had never planned on traveling back to Rome. His five grieving children warranted better. They deserved to heal without their mother’s image being tainted.
What had Kathy honestly expected, though? Had she thought that Elliot could walk away a second time? That he’d agree to meet Olivia after all these years, only to jet back across the Atlantic Ocean? He’d composed that stupid letter to keep the peace on the lengthy flight, but he’d known that an explosion was imminent in New York.
He just had not anticipated the literal eruption. Elliot hadn’t predicted that he’d see his wife go up in flames or that he’d come face to face with her under the brilliance of police lights. He hadn’t expected a delayed hemorrhage of the spleen or that his transfer back to the states would happen within days.
Elliot had foreseen Olivia’s promotions. He’d heard that much from Fin when he was invited to her ceremony, and while Elliot was proud, he was not surprised. There was no one better served to lead the Special Victims Unit than the fearless, devoted Captain Olivia Benson. When he saw the photos of her in uniform, that’s when Elliot thought he might have made the right decision. Ed Tucker had been nipping at his heels, threatening to take down the two of them as a pair. Elliot was fucked, but Olivia was salvageable, so didn’t it make sense to separate himself from her?
Maybe it did, when it came to their careers, but Elliot knew that there was no excusing his disappearance. He’d heard the pain still lingering in her voice that night, and Elliot would never forgive himself for that. For inflicting that kind of hurt upon his partner.
You were the most…the single most important person in my life…and you just disappeared.
Until this moment, though, Elliot had been residing in a bubble, a sort of fantasy snow globe where the world was calm and blissful. In that snow globe, Elliot was under the impression that life had treated her well. That while she might have missed him, Olivia had flourished in his absence. She had been promoted. Several times. She had loved another man enough to have his child. She had settled down, potentially exchanged vows with someone, and Elliot knew that he should be happy for her.
He was happy for her.
But the old green monster inside of Elliot was also stirring, rearing its ugly head. He knew that he had no right to be jealous. Elliot knew that he had sacrificed that privilege when he hs evaporated like a phantom into mist. But the thought that he had missed her, glowing and tender? Her belly swollen with evolving human life?
It made Elliot sick. He hated himself for it, and regardless of the accumulating visits with his therapist, Elliot didn’t think that his regrets would disintegrate. That level of remorse couldn’t be counseled away.
Especially not now.
Not at midnight, when Elliot was perched at his desk, staring at a computer screen, avoiding restless slumber. Not when he’d googled her, purely out of boredom, and come across an article that made his blood run cold.
NYPD Detective Rescued After Four-Day Abduction.
Elliot scanned the ominous words twice, just to make sure that he’d comprehended them correctly. The date was May of 2013. Elliot hadn’t yet been stationed in Rome. He’d been undercover in Spain, helping to take down a human trafficking ring.
NYPD Detective Rescued After Four-Day Abduction.
It was impossible. Part of Elliot wanted to reach for the phone, to dial her number and demand an explanation. This was some kind of sick joke, right? There was a misunderstanding. Olivia wasn’t the one kidnapped by this madman. It was some rookie under her command. Olivia had simply accompanied her to the hospital.
But as Elliot clicked from one link to another, it became apparent that there was no mistake. Missing Olivia’s promotions was the least of his concerns.
She’d been taken. Tortured. Drugged and starved and…
No. Elliot could not allow his mind to go there. But there was no stopping it.
Images were abruptly flashing through his brain and for once, they did not include the car bomb that had stolen Kathy. Elliot’s chest was aching, his lungs were detonating, and he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t fucking breathe.
For better or worse, he’d promised her before, but Elliot had failed to show up for her worst.
Why? Because no one had told him. Not Kathy. No one from the NYPD. Not even his children, who were living in Manhattan.
Elliot couldn’t place the blame on Kathy or the kids, though. He couldn’t place the blame on anyone except himself, and this William Lewis bastard who was fucking lucky he was dead. If he wasn’t, Elliot would atone for his sins now. He would drive to Rikers or wherever the beast was housed and beat him until he was pleading for death. But even then, Elliot wouldn’t grant it to him. He would let Lewis suffer, perish in slow motion, because no other fate was suitable for such a monster.
God, how had Olivia managed to trust again so easily? Elliot knew from experience that she was perpetually guarded, that her fear of abandonment had likely quadrupled after his departure. Somehow, though, Olivia must have found the strength to let somebody in because he knew from Fin that Noah was seven years of age…
He was seven years of age.
Suddenly, Elliot was doubled over in his seat, retching uselessly onto the floorboards of his condo. He’d woven together the strings that Fin had refused to unify.
She has a son now.
A son? Good for her. Who’s the guy?
You’re gonna have to ask her that yourself.
Olivia hadn’t loved someone enough to have their child. Fin wouldn’t state the truth because it wasn’t his to share. But even if his skills were trivial compared to Captain Benson, Elliot was still an experienced detective. He’d linked the clues, the evidence from Google, and Elliot could no longer resist his temptation.
He leapt up from his swivel chair and snatched his car keys from the table. Eli was left, sprawled out on the couch. Some conversations were too sacred to have virtually, so Elliot texted Jet en route to his vehicle.
I need a favor.
She shouldn’t have been awake.
For months now, it seemed, Olivia had been exhausted, her mind and body drained of anything resembling energy. She had dozed off in her office at the precinct and dreamt about her mattress while chasing suspects in the field. She had delegated certain supervisor roles to Fin for the chance to go home and rest for one more hour.
It was normal, according to her colleagues. Olivia tended to push herself too hard, and as she grew older, her joints and muscles protesting was not a revelation. It was just a sign that she needed to slow down.
Secretly, though, Olivia didn’t think her state had anything to do with aging. Four months ago, the captain had been feeling fine. It was his presence that had brought turmoil into her life, flipped her world upside down, and dug up fossilized emotions. It was the way he had reappeared just as quickly as he’d vanished and made Olivia wonder if no time had passed at all.
But time had passed. She’d lived through hell and come out the other side. Olivia’s existence was now divided into two segments and ever since it had been split, Elliot had merely dwelled in the prior chunk. Olivia didn’t know how to navigate him in the latter.
And so she slept. She slept and she worked and she focused on the victims because the victims were the consistent, never-changing variable. There were always going to be more victims. There were always going to be more scumbag rapists, more reasons for Olivia to report for duty.
Olivia took care of Noah and she evaded Dr. Lindstrom and on nights like these, she indulged in a glass of wine. Because trauma therapy was one thing, but Elliot therapy was a whole different journey. A journey that Olivia was not quite ready to embark on.
She swallowed another mouthful of the smooth, red elixir. It had taken weeks, months, years for her to feel comfortable drinking alcohol again, and Olivia still could not touch hard liquor. Red wine was safe, though. It was almost like a security blanket. It took away the doubt, the anxiety, the grief, and replaced all of that with a sensation of numbness. Borderline peace.
That peace was interrupted by five rapid thumps which vibrated the plaster of Olivia’s apartment.
She flinched, involuntarily. Olivia had not buzzed anyone into her building, so there were minimal allies capable of reaching her. There was Alice, her neighbor, who sometimes wished to borrow soap or sugar, but the odds of Alice being conscious at midnight were not substantial in Olivia’s opinion. There was security who could be conducting a standard wellness check, but if that was the case, then that meant there had been a threat.
Either way, Olivia felt her pupils travel to her Glock which was unloaded and secured in her holster. Her palms were becoming slick with perspiration and with quivering fingers, Olivia set her wine glass on the floor.
Another five thumps. And then…
“LIV! OLIVIA, IT’S ME! OPEN UP!”
The air rushed out of her thorax like lava. Olivia pounced to her feet and sprinted to the door, more relieved by the lack of danger than she was pissed at his arrival.
She swung the timber separating them ajar.
“What the hell are you doing here?! How the fuck do you know where I live?!”
Well, maybe there was an element of Olivia that was pissed. However, those remnants hastily dissolved into nothingness when she witnessed the creature that was standing before her.
Elliot Stabler was pale, pasty, with dark, pink rims coating his eyelids. He was dressed in Adidas sweatpants and an oversized blue hoodie; it was the most casual that Olivia had seen him since his return. He reached forwards with two trembling palms and Olivia gasped as her chin was cupped on either side.
“I…Elliot?! What…what are you doing?!”
He responded by wrapping his arms around Olivia, who gave another brief shudder of bewilderment. He was touching her. Hugging her. When had Elliot Stabler ever touched her like this? A portion of Olivia wondered if she should be objecting but no complaints made their way to her lips.
“I’m so sorry,” he choked out in a strangled whisper. “God, I…I’m so sorry, Olivia.”
She resisted the urge to question him, for what? There was no arguing that Elliot had reasons to apologize. But something felt off. Wrong. Elliot had also had opportunities to apologize. He had apologized, on countless occasions.
Why now? What could he have learned that prompted this discussion?
The answer hit Olivia with such force that she stumbled backwards from Elliot. Her pulse was accelerating, her hands clamming up again; sweat was emerging on Olivia’s neck and hairline.
No. God, no.
He wasn’t ready. She wasn’t ready.
“Look, I…I don’t know what you’re doing here, but it’s late and my son is asleep,” Olivia claimed. She hoped that her assertive phrasing would drive the anxiety from her tone. “Whatever’s going on, can it wait until tomorrow?”
The marble expression carved in Elliot’s face spoke more than a hundred thousand syllables. Deep inside, Olivia was aware of that. She crossed her arms across her torso, as if doing so would keep her scars safely hidden. She stepped aside in the doorway, permitting Elliot Stabler to infiltrate her sanctuary.
It still felt surreal. On how many nights had Olivia wished for him to be here? On how many nights had she lurched awake in terror, praying to the God that she had long-since lost faith in that a miracle would occur and he’d materialize by her side?
And now he was here. Standing in her kitchen, with a crease between his eyebrows, gazing at Olivia with pity in his irises. Ogling at her as if she’d shatter with the slightest contact.
“Stop looking at me like that, Stabler.”
“Like everyone looked at me when I walked out of that beach house.”
Olivia watched as the remaining blood drained from Elliot’s flesh, as he gripped the nearest wall so that he wouldn’t topple over. She watched as the theory that had likely lodged itself in Elliot’s psyche was confirmed to be unequivocally true.
“Liv…” he sighed.
“What? Spit it out, Stabler. I don’t have all night.”
“Liv, you…you’ve got to know…if I had any idea, any in the world, I would have been on the first plane home. I would have fucking slaughtered him. Ripped him apart, limb by limb.”
Before Olivia could help it, a smile was threatening her rigid exterior; she spun around swiftly so Elliot would not see. She had assumed, since the trauma, that his reaction would be similar. She had told Lewis as much in the midst of her battle.
My old partner, he’d know what to do. He wouldn’t question himself after what you’ve done. He would kick your teeth in…break your legs, break your arms, break your back, break your face.
In hindsight, though, Olivia speculated whether she’d believed that, or if the monologue had been directed at herself as much as Lewis. She pondered if perhaps she was trying to convince herself that it was real—the love and protection that Elliot had offered her for a decade.
It was nice—more than nice—to know that she’d been correct. That Elliot’s willingness to kill for Olivia wasn’t a product of her imagination.
Yet one inquiry remained—how hadn’t he known? The abduction of an NYPD detective had made national news. Olivia knew that, and she knew that regardless of her promotions and accomplishments that followed, she would never fully outlive her reputation. Her reputation as the one who let herself get kidnapped.
As the days had morphed into weeks and the weeks into months, Olivia had found herself lying next to Brian Cassidy in bed but moaning out a different name when the flashbacks overwhelmed her. Pride was not a factor; Olivia’s dignity had been completely stripped away. She had fantasized about whether the headlines had reached Elliot, whether he cared enough to even pick up the damn phone.
Still unable to look him in the eye, Olivia kept her arms crossed and paced across her kitchen, into the living room where a window was more accessible. She squinted out into the starless, Manhattan haze, observed as two rain pellets raced each other down the architecture.
She saw his reflection approach from behind her own.
“What, Elliot?” Olivia’s pitch was tired. Weary. Finished with this conversation, even though it hadn’t legitimately started.
“I…I don’t know how I can express this to you enough, but I need you to know that you are the strongest person I have ever or will ever know. You’re incredible and…and I will never stop saying that, not for the rest of my life.”
Olivia’s scoff intercepted Elliot.
Did he think that he was telling her something new? If Olivia had a dollar for every moment she’d been called strong, she could have retired from the force before she ever met Elliot. Olivia was sick of being deemed strong. Why was she so goddamn strong anyway? Because she’d survived? Lots of victims survived. Not all of them, but Olivia had survived because she had to, because she got lucky. The people that praised her for being brave and fearless didn’t see Olivia when she wept into her pillow. When she wanted to subdue her anxiety with Ativan but gagged as she attempted to force the pill down her constricted throat.
The individuals that told Olivia she was strong had no clue about the thoughts that ravaged her post-Lewis. They had no idea that Noah had been her savior, that if it hadn’t been for him, Lewis probably would have succeeded in his quest to kill Olivia.
“What?” Elliot asked in reply to his partner’s scowl. “You are…I don’t know how you do it but…”
“I don’t do it, Elliot!” The storm clouds had been building, billowing inside her and now there was no holding back the rain. The thunder cracked and lightning flashed and Olivia’s breath was coming out in sharp, ragged gasps. “I hate to disappoint you, but I am not the same person you walked away from ten years ago. You don’t know me anymore! You don’t know what I can or can’t handle!”
“I know that you’ve been through more than any one person should ever have to go through,” Elliot countered. “I know that I was probably a big part of the hell you went through and trust me, I won’t ever forgive myself for that but I know that you’re still here, being a badass captain and an incredible mother and…”
“Yeah, I have everything I ever wanted,” Olivia quipped and chose not to mention how half the time, all she craved was to rewind the clock. To be a rookie in the squadroom, the old squadroom at the old precinct, being taught the ropes by her smug, handsome, kindhearted partner.
She sauntered away from the foggy window, past Elliot and to the refuge of her sofa. Olivia picked up her goblet and lifted it to her lips but when she tried to drain the residual liquid, her system reminded her that alcohol could be a trigger, that it was only sometimes accepted in her bloodstream.
She was instantly choking, sputtering wine onto herself, and within seconds, Elliot was there. He was gathering Olivia’s hair into a makeshift ponytail, patting her back, murmuring in her ear.
“Shh, you’re alright. You’re alright, Liv…I’ve got you, okay? I promise, I’ve got you. I’m right here.”
Her coughs eventually tapered, but Elliot’s abiding presence had sent Olivia over the edge. She could not inhale enough air into her lungs and she was twitching, hyperventilating, desperate to escape from the cage that was her body.
“Liv,” Elliot repeated. “Liv, I need you to try and breathe for me, okay? Just breathe. You’re scaring me.”
“F-Fuck you, Stabler!”
“Yeah, okay. I probably deserve that but I still need you to try and breathe, okay? I don’t want to have to call a bus.”
Olivia barely had the chance to send Elliot a glare of daggers before there was a gentle creaking from elsewhere in the apartment. The soft padding of a child’s footsteps came next, and then a curly-haired boy of seven peeked around the corner.
“Mom?” Noah whimpered. “Mom, are you okay?”
Olivia had solidified like an ice statue on the couch. Her respirations had quieted, but she was unable to get up and pacify her son. How could she, when there was moisture in her eyes, wine splattered on her oatmeal cardigan? Ever since Olivia had become a mother, she had sworn to herself that she would break the cycle. That she wouldn’t let Noah see her drunk or crying. Olivia was not precisely intoxicated, but it was a stretch to say that she was capable of soothing anyone.
Elliot glanced in her trajectory. “Do you want me to…do something?”
“No. No, Elliot, I’m fine.”
She rose from her seat, blinking the tears away simultaneously. Olivia pulled her sweater over her head, leaving just a cream-colored tank top underneath. She rushed to Noah, assured him that all was well, and then ushered the child back into his bedroom.
Olivia returned to Elliot five minutes later, both of her arms wrapped tightly around herself. The tank top that she donned wasn’t particularly revealing but its cut was low enough that a few scars were visible. Eight years had faded them marginally, but there was no reversing the permanent tattoos from Lewis. Not the ones on her skin or the blemishes on Olivia’s brain.
She collapsed back onto the sofa and positioned her figure away from Elliot. He had probably hoped to be introduced to Noah. And perhaps Olivia should have taken that plunge. He was right here, in close proximity to her son; Noah had, in all likelihood, heard Elliot’s voice.
There was something holding Olivia back, though, and she could not accurately define that something.
All she knew was that she should have retreated to her bedroom, grabbed a new blouse to conceal her wounds. She didn’t want to dive deeper into hell tonight, end up consoling Elliot about her own abduction. Olivia had insured others of her safety for decades and she just didn’t have the mental stamina tonight.
But maybe it was pointless. It seemed that Elliot knew the details of her trauma. Despite the jagged line that had been forged between the partners, there was no one that Olivia trusted more than Elliot. His face had been the only one she’d really yearned to see when she had stumbled out of that satanic beach house.
“Liv,” Elliot said. “Liv, do you wanna know how I know you’re strong?”
He didn’t wait for an answer before proceeding, “I know you’re strong because…because you just proved it to me. I mean, you didn’t have to, I already knew, but the way you treat Noah…let’s just say, you don’t ever have to worry about being like your mom.”
“My mom?” Olivia peered weakly around her shoulder. She’d been thrown for a loop. Did Elliot honestly think there was an inkling of possibility that Olivia would mimic her mother’s style of parenting?
“Yeah. I mean, we both know it’s not Noah’s fault. I just…if it was me, I don’t know if I could…”
“Oh, God, Elliot.”
Halfway through his statement, Olivia had realized what Elliot believed. The horror that he thought Olivia had endured, the ceaseless reminder that she lived with on a daily basis. It must have been conflicting, because back when they were colleagues, Olivia had always insisted that she couldn’t do it. That in a hypothetical, worst-case scenario, she would book an appointment at the local clinic.
Then again, a lot had changed in the ten years since they’d been colleagues. Olivia wasn’t sure if she was familiar with this Elliot and she had told him blatantly that he didn’t know her anymore. There was no method for him to understand the Olivia that had been conceived after those four days with Lewis.
Ever since he’d reemerged, though, there had been a spark that reignited in Olivia. She had the epiphany that there was still a chance for them…a chance, if nothing else, for her to get her best friend back. The more time that she spent building walls around herself, the less odds she had of regaining that dynamic.
So Olivia turned around. She allowed Elliot to take in her flawed anatomy; she didn’t cringe away when shock registered on his features. Olivia resisted the temptation to cover up her skin and told herself that tonight, she didn’t have to be the strong one.
“Elliot…El, Noah’s adopted.”
She woke up the following morning cradled in his wings.
After spilling the truth about Noah and her scars, Olivia had been told by Elliot that she shouldn’t be alone. She had started to protest, using resentment as her weapon, spitting pent-up frustration at Elliot in rage.
I’ve been alone long enough; I think I can handle this!
But Olivia didn’t have to be solitary anymore, and that was still a concept to which she was adjusting. She wasn’t certain whether she’d ever fully adapt; in the meantime, though, Olivia could take baby steps. She could invite Elliot Stabler to stay the night at her apartment. She could consent to him lying beneath the covers with her.
It hadn’t gone any further than that. As much as Olivia had desired it for years, she knew that this wasn’t the time or the place, not with Noah sleeping innocently in the room next door. What Olivia needed more than sex was intimacy, to be held by someone with whom she felt secure. Someone who provided better comfort than impulsive haircuts or red wine.
She blinked away the rays of light that were filtering through her window, signs of a new dawn rising in Manhattan. She felt Elliot’s protective biceps tighten around her abdomen. Normally, Olivia would have flinched away, because no one had permission to touch her in that area. Not Brian, not Ed, not anyone who had temporarily borrowed her battered soul.
But the sun was signifying a new era in New York and the jagged line between the partners was gradually being mended.
The temptation to let him in was too strong, and she decided to finally give in.