As Olivia was reaching up to get the box of old tapes a few nights ago she had glanced, not once, but twice, at that familiar old wicker basket. Truth be told, she hadn’t been able to get it out of her mind since.
She keeps his momentos in a nice container she probably paid too much for at a home goods store, because she goes through them more often than most of the things in the other boxes. It’s not on the top shelf, because she’s never really wanted to hide it. She keeps the letter in there too, not wanting to give up a single piece of him, even the ones that hurt, because she has so few and she never knows when he might leave again, or when he might leave for good.
Olivia runs her hands along the shelf, prolonging the process, letting herself savour the moment. She’s gone through it so many times. It’s not wedged into the closet like most of the stuff stored in there. There’s a nice little space where she can set her wine glass down next to it, and still have room to fit her fingers into the handles and pull it down.
Carefully she brings it over to the living room and sets it on the coffee table. She sits on the couch and stares at it, hesitating, questioning herself. Does she want to open up this can of feelings right now? She’s done it so many times before. She knows she’ll get lost in memories for hours. She takes another sip of her heady red wine while she turns it over in her mind. She lets her gaze fall upon its contents - remembering old photographs in frames, stacked side-by-side, a few papers and folders, but she knows there’s more in there that can’t be seen with a quick glance.
She sets her glass down and pushes the sleeves of her sweatshirt up to her elbows. Olivia reaches in, knowing exactly what she’s looking for right from the beginning. She fishes around the bottom of the box without even looking in, and her fingers find the long chain, pulling it out slowly. The satisfying weight of the necklace in her hand, the cool metal against her palm. How many times has she sat with his Marine Corps medallion, wondering why he’d given it to her with the badge she no longer has. “Semper Fi” rings in her head, the edges of her vision go fuzzy, and she sits back into the corner of the couch, pulling her knees up to her chest.
Olivia’s fingers slip over the edge of the medallion. She rubs her thumb over the raised figure on the front as she holds it close. Without thinking, she lets herself touch it with abandon. All her inhibitions melting into thin air and evaporating somewhere far, far away. She’s lost in thought, comforted by memory. Her eyes close and she can smell his scent surrounding her. She can hear his voice in the squad room that first day, like it was yesterday. If she works really hard at it, she can almost feel his hand on the small of her back.
Before she knows it, she’s picked up her phone and listens to it ring distantly on the other end. It rings over and over, and she half zones out, having flashbacks to that bar so many years ago, then to the courthouse steps, ringing, ringing, and ringing. It’s not that she hasn’t given up yet, just that she can’t let go of her lifeline. She never will; at least one of them always has to be holding onto it. Just before it’s about to go to voicemail for the fourth time, he picks up.
“Hello?” He must be somewhere in a hurry, must have not seen who’s calling.
“El?” She croaks out, sounding more desperate than she meant to. “It’s me,” Olivia tries to correct the strength in her voice.
“Is now a bad time?” She’s already rubbing her cuticles unkindly.
“No, it’s all good. I’m just getting in. Are you okay? What’s up?” She can hear the door in the background, his keys on the counter, rustling of papers, and the tap being flicked on to fill a glass. She shakes her head to clear her thoughts. Why did she call?
She’s called him so many times, just to hear his voicemail recording. She was so sad when it switched to a pre-recorded system greeting. She isn’t used to him being back. If she’s honest with herself, it’s easier that he’s been under cover these last few months and had long stretches where they couldn’t communicate.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” She starts, holding her hand shakily over her lips, clearly not fine.
She shakes her head, and starts again. “Listen, do you remember when you left, you gave me... something?”
“Of course, I remember it well,” He says without pause. “My commemorative badge and the medallion of St. Christopher. And a note…” He trails off, not quite able to explain that one yet.
Olivia readjusts herself and her finger traces that outline of the figure on the medallion as he speaks. It hurts and comforts her at the same time. “El, why? Why did you give me these things?”
Once it’s out of her mouth there is a pregnant pause in the air and she knows she can’t take it back, nor would she want to, but she’s nervous. She’s had ten years to build up her expectations, and she’s had a lot of mixed messages since his return. It could be nothing, or it could mean everything.
“Liv…” She can hear him let out a rough sigh, air audibly pushing out over rough lips and bristling hairs. “I meant my badge as a promise-- that I’d never have another partner like you--” He closes his eyes and brushes his hands down his face, trying to rid himself of the guilt and confusion he’s always felt, before continuing. “And my medallion for protection. I wanted to be there, to protect you myself, but I couldn’t--”
She thinks about how she could never wear another necklace after-- after she feared for her life and left her necklace in that trunk, asked herself “What would Elliot do?” Her hand slides across her bare chest above her tank top, the zipper to her hoodie undone, its grey fabric hanging at her sides. She’s still holding the medallion, rubbing it on her skin now, remembering.
“I always wished it could be different--” He’s still talking. She’s trying to hold onto his voice, and not slip further into her memories. She swallows hard, trying to rid her mouth of the taste of vodka. Holds her wrists; she can still feel the cuffs digging into her skin.
“Why’re you asking about those now?” He wonders out loud, and it brings her back.
“I, uh--” She stumbles over her words. Why didn’t she know to expect this question? She suddenly feels unprepared to have this conversation. She looks toward the box and catches sight of the top of an envelope peeking out from between the picture frames.
“I was reading your letter again--” This wasn’t too far from the truth, since she had read the letter alone many nights after Noah had gone to bed over these last few months. Eventually she’d tucked it away with everything else in her Elliot Stabler Box.
“Oh Liv,” He sighs again. “I hope you know I didn’t mean any of that. I meant it when I said I love you. You’re my rock. I’d be nothing without you. I’d be nowhere.” All he can do is hope that someday she’ll trust him again like she once did.
She sighs and takes another sip of her wine, before sitting back and tugging down her sleeves, curling her fingers into the inside edge of the cuffs. She stares at the box on her coffee table, thinking of the photos - him with baby Eli - and how she had to pack up his desk, crying in the stairwell. The loneliness she felt then was not unlike what she felt so long ago, when she was young and naive and her mother made her write a letter to the man she thought was her soulmate, the man she thought would take her away from the hell she had been living in. She could understand why Elliot had done what he did; could see why he’d think he had no other option. She also knew she wasn’t naive anymore. Though she wished against it, Olivia wouldn’t be reduced to nothing if he left her again. She knew by now, she was her own rock.
“Elliot, I kept your medallion. I know you used to wear it in the Marines. I understand you wanted to keep me safe. You thought leaving might keep us both safe, somehow.” She takes a breath to steady her words before continuing on. “I had your badge for a long time too. I put it on the bottom of my gun. I thought if I kept a piece of you near me, I wouldn’t have to go it alone. You were with me every time I walked into harm’s way.”
He shuffles in his chair and looks up, straining to keep the tears out of his eyes, but not interrupting her, giving her space to say whatever it is she has to say.
“But I lost it. Your badge. My gun is in evidence,” Olivia makes herself say the words, though her cheeks feel bruised and puffy and her eyes are starting to spill over. “It’s been there since I was kidnapped by William Lewis.”
“What do you mean kidnapped?” He blurts out. Elliot is pacing back and forth on the patio now. He barely thinks before he goes out the gate and starts walking, hailing a cab at the main street.
“I’m okay now,” She says, reminding herself just as much as him. “I wasn’t okay for a long time. He did things to me-- You know what, I still can’t talk about most of it. I had a lot of trauma. But I’m okay now.” Olivia downs the rest of her wine and slips the necklace over her head.
Elliot starts to swear, telling the cabbie to go faster, his knee jack-hammering away in the back seat, ready to jump out of the car as soon as he screeches to a stop in front of Olivia’s building.
“Elliot, I need you to know you couldn’t protect me, but it’s okay.” She lays back on the couch, feeling catatonic.
“It damn well is not,” He’s yelling now, in the elevator on the way up to her apartment. He doesn’t care that it’s 11pm, or where either of them has to be in a few hours.
“It is okay. It is okay.” She hears herself saying it from somewhere far outside of herself, like she’s dissociating, but she keeps going. “I can protect myself. I don’t need anyone.”
Her hands are both crossed over the medallion on her chest, and she’s looking up at the ceiling. Her whole body is so still, like she’s about to be put in the ground. She whispers it again slowly, “I can protect myself.”
Elliot is banging on her door now. “Olivia, open up. It’s me.”
The phone line has gone silent. Olivia stares straight ahead; her face blank, her mind empty.
Her eyes don’t even blink.
Elliot knows it’s late and this time he’s not inebriated, so he refrains from banging down her door or yelling her name. Eventually he picks the lock.
He finds her on the couch, barely responsive. His arms are around her before he knows what he’s doing, pulling her up to his body, his face buried in her hair. Her weight collapses against him.
He chokes out, “Liv, I’m here.”
She doesn’t say anything, just lets herself be held.
“I’m so sorry.” He’s crying now, tears rolling off his cheeks and into her hair. “I wish I could take it all back. Make a different choice. God, I’m so sorry.” He shudders with sobs. He doesn’t even need to hear what happened to her; he can imagine the worst.
The feeling of his thumb on her cheek brings her back to the current moment, and they lock eyes.
She slowly regains control of her body and her mind.
He continues to rub her cheek soothingly, just holding her, not looking away. Neither of them really knows how he pulls her back to herself.
She thinks, I didn’t even ask him to apologize. She’s not sure why that sticks in her mind, but it’s playing in a loop.
Finally she speaks, “El...what we had?”
“It was real. It was always there.” He nods almost imperceptibly.
She places her hand over his on her face.
“I love you,” He confesses. “I’ve always loved you. It’s always been you.”
When they kiss, Olivia sees him over the years, through every age, like all of the versions of him that ever were have come back to her. She feels his skin under hers like she always dreamed it would feel. She remembers what they’ve lost too though - each of them have lost many people they cared for, and time, it hurts to admit. But like she wants to give him the freedom from the burden of protecting her, she wants to wash herself clean of regrets. She wants this to be a new chapter, a place where they can both put their pasts behind them and move forward.
She pulls him closer. Knowing they don’t need to be anything for each other, but that they want to be, is so freeing. When their lips finally part, their fingers still entangled, they both can’t stop staring into each other’s eyes, as if they were a mirror to their own soul, as if they each might find the answer to everything there.
They are both caught in the stillness of remembering what they had, what they lost, and what they have again.