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Never Without You

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Two weeks after Burton Lowe had found his way back into her life, she decided to invite Elliot over to meet Noah.  Something about that experience had changed her, and she had spent the two weeks following his departure processing the past and the emotions connected to it.

 

In hindsight, it was shocking how easily he had manipulated her at 16...even more so how easily he had manipulated her at 57.  But it wasn’t the manipulation that bothered her the most.  It was the fact that she had allowed it to happen.  No, not allowed...she had welcomed it.  He had walked into her office as if it was all coincidence and without any hesitation she had welcomed him back into her life.

 

Walking back home the night she confronted Burton, she found herself “time traveling” again.  In his bed, she had found herself thinking about a conversation about soulmates she had had with Elliot a lifetime ago.  If she was honest with herself, that memory was as much about Elliot as it was about Burton.  In the moment, wrapped up in old memories and hotel sheets, she had told herself the flashback was about the dialogue.  It was just another lie she told herself to avoid the truth.

 

The truth was that even as she lay in bed with her ex-fiance, she was thinking of her ex-partner.  At sixteen, she had thought that a soulmate was someone you shared things in common with...someone who completed you.  However, she had come to realize over the last two decades that a soulmate was so much more.  It was someone who saw all of you, the best and worst parts, and loved you anyway.  Someone who didn't complete you but complemented you, so that you were better together than apart.

 

A soulmate was someone that would always be a part of you, regardless of time or distance.

 

She texted him on that walk home.  Would you like to come over for dinner next Friday?  I’d like to introduce you to Noah.

 

Taking a deep breath, she waited for his reply.  She didn't have to wait long.  Minutes later she heard her phone ping.

 

I’d love that.

 

The knock on the door came five minutes early, just as she had expected.  It was nice to know he was still a creature of habit.  She walked slowly to the door, smoothing her sweater down, suddenly feeling very nervous for absolutely no reason.  Breathe , she reminded herself.  It’s just Elliot .  Except Elliot had never been just anything.

 

He was everything.

 

The man on the other side of the door wore dark wash jeans and a navy blue henley.  What he didn’t wear was the beard he had grown while undercover.  “You shaved.”  It wasn’t the greeting she had practiced, but she couldn’t help it.  The last time she had seen him, she had told him that she wanted Elliot to come home.  “It was time,” he said quietly.  “I didn’t want to come to your home as anyone other than me.  Not again.”  She smiled a warm, genuine smile at him as something like relief washed over her.  “Come in.  There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

 

Noah was watching TV when they entered the living room.  When she approached, he quietly turned off the TV and stood.  She motioned for him to come closer, and as he walked toward them she could feel Elliot tense behind her.  She knew he understood her reluctance, but she also knew he had been waiting patiently for her to let him in.  

 

Noah came to a stop next to her and she put her arm around him.  He was tense too, and she could feel it.  "Noah, this is my friend, Elliot.”  She watched her son as he took in the man in front of him.  Elliot smiled down at him as she rubbed his shoulder in small circles.  God, please let them like each other she thought to herself.  She could feel him relax a little, so she continued the introductions.  Reaching for Elliot with her free hand, she trailed her fingers down his forearm.  “El, this is my son, Noah”

 

She watched Elliot as he searched the young man’s eyes.  He had always been so protective of her, and she wondered if it was something he could tell he had in common with Noah, who was fiercely protective of her as well.  Reaching his hand out, he smiled and said, “It’s really nice to meet you, Noah.”  His voice betrayed him.  She could hear the emotion in his voice, and it made her heart ache.

 

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” her son replied as they shook hands.

 

It was in that moment, when Elliot’s hand was wrapped around her son’s, that she felt the lump rise in her throat.  One of the things that had made her fall in love with him was his love for his children.  But the journey to motherhood hadn’t been as easy for her...hadn’t been what she had thought it would be when she was younger.  And when it finally happened, he wasn’t there.  So to see the two men she loved most in this world face to face was almost more than she could take.  Needing a moment to compose herself, she turned toward the kitchen.  "Noah, why don't you give Elliot a tour while I finish up dinner?"

 

Noah led Elliot slowly through the apartment, stopping outside each door to indicate what lay beyond.  "This is the bathroom.  Down that hall is my mom's room.  And this is my room." He opened the door and walked inside, a silent invitation for Elliot to follow.  "So, you were my mom's partner before Uncle Nick," he said, more a statement than a question.  Elliot watched as the young man eyed him suspiciously.  It was a look he knew well.  He'd seen that look on his mom's face countless times while interrogating perps.  “Yeah, for 12 years.”  Noah thought about that before making his next statement.  

 

“She doesn't know that I know this, but she dreams about you.  I've heard her say your name in her sleep.  Sometimes she sounds happy, like it’s a good memory.”  He paused before looking straight into Elliot’s eyes.  “Sometimes she sounds like she’s in trouble.  Like she wants you to save her.”

 

Neither of them look away, waves of blue crashing against each other, before Elliot found the words to speak.  “Your mom and I were best friends.  We do have a lot of good memories.  But you know enough about her job to know that sometimes we saw some scary things.  When we were partners, we always tried to make each other laugh...but when things were serious, there’s nothing I wouldn’t have done to protect her.”  Noah nodded in acceptance before leading Elliot back to the kitchen.

 

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her son head back to the living room, but she was aware of Elliot in her periphery.  He moved cautiously, taking slow, deliberate steps until she could feel him behind her.  Leaning close, she could feel his breath warm on her skin as he asked if she needed any help. "No," she breathed. "It's almost ready."

 

She was at once grateful and disappointed when he took a step back.  Learning to share this closeness with him without the safety of his marriage or their partnership was unnerving. It meant no more excuses.  

 

Dinner went well.  Whatever had happened on the apartment tour had broken the wall down between them.  She had told Noah about Elliot even before he returned to New York, but lately she found herself sharing more stories with him.  Elliot had heard stories as well, about how Noah came into her life, how he was doing in school, and what sort of things he was into.  She realized she was grinning from ear to ear when Elliot began asking Noah about his ballet class, because Noah always lit up when he talked about dance, but also because she knew Elliot had absolutely no prior knowledge of ballet.  That meant that at some point he had researched the topic just so he could talk to Noah about it, and that filled her heart with a different type of love for this man.

 

“Noah seems like a great kid,” he said as she sat down on the couch next to him after dinner.  "I always knew you'd be a good mom, but seeing you in action...it suits you, Liv."  Those words from his lips were so bittersweet. She had just returned from tucking her son in and was looking forward to spending some time with him, just talking.

 

She curled her feet up under her and turned to face him.  “He said he likes you,” she told him, and she could see the relief she felt reflected back in his expression.  “It was important to me that the two of you hit it off,” she said without further explanation.  She knew he didn’t need her to spell it out.  Since his return, he had been the one making his feelings clear.  It was her turn to figure out what she wanted...her turn to say the words out loud.  

 

"What did you two discuss during the tour?" She wasn’t sure what sort of answer she was expecting, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking.  Elliot looked thoughtful, as if he was weighing just how much he should tell her.  "Well, he showed me around, asked some questions about when we were partners.  He worries about you, Liv.  I think he just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to be another thing for him to be concerned about.”  He grinned then, and damn it she had missed this.  That smirk he made when he was holding something back.  The way her name sounded on his lips.  This familiarity and comfort that she had never felt with anyone else...not even Burton.

 

But ten years is a long time, and she was still worried, too.  The first time he left had just about broken her.  His arm was resting on the back of the couch next to her, and she lazily ran her hand along his forearm, an unconscious need to touch him.  “ Are you something to be concerned about?” she asked, a multitude of questions within a question.  “No,” he said with quiet conviction.  “In that case, I have something to show you.”

 

She walked to the closet where she had confronted her past weeks earlier.  Her eyes glanced over the box of cassettes before landing on a wicker-type basket on the middle shelf.  Running her fingers along its edges, she took a moment to breathe.  When he had told her he loved her during the intervention, she had balked at his choice of time and place, but maybe he had just needed to rip the bandaid off.  Maybe it was time for her to rip the bandaid off as well.

 

She set the basket down on the coffee table in front of him.  His eyes scanned the contents of the box before turning to study her face.  “What’s this?” he asked her.  “This is two decades of us,” she said quietly.  “This was on my desk,” he said as he lifted the photo of himself and Eli out of the basket.  “Cragen made me clean your desk out for you.  I didn’t know where to send it, so I kept it.”  She looked into his eyes.  “I always hoped I’d be able to give it back to you someday.”

 

The next thing he noticed was the photo of them that used to be in her living room.  There had been an identical one in his house that was now tucked away in a box as well.  The glass in the frame was broken, and he wondered if she had picked it up and hurled it at the wall after yet another unanswered call.  She took the picture from his hands, running her finger down the cracked glass.  “A story for another night,” she said, putting the frame back into the basket next to her old badge.  

 

His hands disappeared into the basket again and returned with a delicate chain wrapped around his strong hands and a note that read Semper Fi, El .  “I always wondered if you got this,” he said sadly.  She could hear it in his voice, the unspoken regrets of years of silence.  “I did.  I wore that for quite a while...but then it got too hard to put it on every morning knowing it was the only piece of you I would get to see that day.”  He ran his thumb over the medallion.  “What about the mini-badge?”  A sigh escaped her lips and he looked up at her.  “That’s also a story for another night,” she said simply.

 

Finally he picked up a small, leatherbound notebook wrapped in cord, and she blushed at the sight of it in his hands.  He touched it with a sort of reverence, and she had no doubt that his detective brain was working to put the pieces together before he asked her anything about this book.

 

“My mother always used to say that writing things down has a way of getting the thoughts out of your head.  Giving them another place to live.”  He looked from her to the book in his hands   “So it’s a journal?” he asked, beginning to place it back in the box.  Taking it from him instead, she unwrapped the cord carefully, gathering her courage as she did.  “No, it’s letters.  To you.  Nine actually.  I wrote to you every year on your birthday.”  She saw the breath catch in his chest but she couldn’t quite read his expression.          

 

She took his hand, placing the book in it.  “These are yours if you want them. Take them. Read them. Don't read them. Whatever you decide, I'll understand.” 

 

Months ago he had said these same words as he placed a letter in her hands.  A letter that she had read and reread and agonized over for months.  A letter that she still didn’t fully understand, except the last line.  For now, knowing that those words were his had to be enough.  They could sort the rest out later.

 

He flipped through the pages, noting the dates in the top right hand corner.  October 20, 2011 through October 20, 2021.  She saw him flip through again, paying close attention between the letters for 2012 and 2014, noting that 2013 was missing.  When his eyes found hers again, he was wearing that same expression that she had seen earlier...the one she couldn’t quite read.  “A story for another night?” he asked cautiously, and she answered with a weak smile and a nod.

 

"Liv...why tonight?" On the surface it was a simple question, but she could read the many thoughts behind it. Why did you decide to let me meet Noah?  Why are you giving me these letters now?

 

"Do you remember when I told you about the man I was engaged to when I was 16?" She watched him trace his memories back to a moment early in their partnership.  She knew when he arrived at the memory she was referring to, because his body language shifted.  "Your soulmate. Yeah, I remember," he replied.  Almost unconsciously, she inched closer to him.  "He showed up a couple of weeks ago."

 

"Oh," he said quietly.  She watched his face fall, his hands ghost over the letters, and his shoulders slump.  "So this is the end of a chapter."  She hated the look of defeat on his face, but it also confirmed that he really was in this. He was serious about whatever was happening between them...and the thought of it being finished crushed him.

 

"It is the end of a chapter," she started.  "Elliot...when Burton proposed to me a lifetime ago, I did think he was my soulmate.  I think a part of me still wondered the day we had that conversation.  And when he walked back into my office, that same part of me wanted to believe that maybe we could pick up where we left off."

 

He looked up, the pain evident in his face.  "And did you? Pick up where you left off?"

 

"I tried.  But it turns out that he's not the man I thought I knew.  He never was." His gaze was still trained on her and she saw something like hope floating beneath the icy blue.  "I found myself thinking about soulmates...reevaluating whether I still believed in the idea.  Remembering that you didn't."

 

The hope turned to confusion as he listened to her speak. "Liv...is...is that what you thought? What you think?  That was the case with the travel writer right?”  He paused and she nodded.  “Liv, when we had that conversation, I was thinking about my daughter...about Virginia...about you.  I was questioning how a man my age could even think...well, you know.  I wasn’t dismissing the idea of soulmates.”

 

“So you do believe in the idea that there is one right person for everyone?”  She watched as a small grin, barely noticeable, formed on his handsome face and she was once again grateful that the beard was gone so she could see it.

 

“Of course I do, Liv.  How could I not believe it when you exist?”

 

A tear rolled down her cheek as she took in what he was saying.  Putting her hand on his face, she smiled back at him.  Her thumb traced his cheekbone as his hand found her knee, giving it a small squeeze of reassurance.  “When did you know?” she asked him quietly.  He closed his eyes briefly before looking back at her again.  “The first year.”

 

“El,” she started.  There were so many thoughts going through her mind, but she looked down at his hand resting gently on her leg and tried to focus her thoughts.  “Before, when you told me you loved me, I didn’t know what to say.  How to admit it after pushing those feelings aside for so long.  I’m still so hurt and confused that you left, but…”  She took a breath, willing whatever courage she had to show itself.  “...but for the ten years you were gone, you were everywhere.  There wasn’t a corner of this city that didn’t hold a memory of you.  Burton coming back made me realize that I had survived just fine without him for years.  But you?  Even when you were gone, I was never without you.”

 

“Olivia, when I said I love you...I meant that with my whole heart.  It’s always been you.”  She wondered how he had gone from bottling up all of his emotions to sharing them so freely, and she felt slightly envious of the ease with which he said these things to her.

 

Then she swallowed her fear, looked him in the eyes, and finally gave words to the feelings she had had for him for so long.  “I love you, too, El.”

 

He smiled then, leaning in close to her and placing a gentle kiss on her lips.  “Where do we go from here?” he asked tentatively.

 

Smiling back at him, she returned his kiss.  “Honestly, I have no idea.  I just know that wherever I go, I want to go with you.”