It’s quite possibly the best sleep she’s ever had, until of course, she wakes up.
Drenched in her own sweat.
Free of pain.
With one eye open, she rolls over to cuddle thin air. Consciously she is aware that last night happened, that Elliot wasn’t just another phantom thread of the forgotten. He was real, and he slept here and, she let him. But still, it throws her off when she rouses alone.
The hoodie she wore was hot and breathy on her skin, and what on earth possessed her to wear leggings to bed? They were nearing yet another tortuous summer in the city, and she can’t quite remember the weather ever being this bad.
She stretched out onto the space that rippled from his weight, stuffed her nose into the pillow. Sometimes when she’s lucid enough and the migraines are dormant, she can feel the scent of his body in the nape of her own neck, lingering there day and night.
Something in the room shifts, another presence enters, and she snaps her neck in time to find him again.
“Hey.” Elliot murmurs softly, standing at the door. He shifts closer and there’s that scent again, wharfing all around her like a faint shower in the rain. She could do with a shower right about now. She stinks of sweat and underarm odour and her hair is matted. She’s pretty sure he’s had a spa of his own, for he’s wearing a clean set of clothes, stepped out of something like a fucking television commercial.
“Hey.” She smiles sleepily, then digs her nose back into the pillow.
“You still tired?” she hears him ask.
She nods yes, but that’s not why she’s hiding.
“Liv. Talk to me.”
She pulls her face away from the cushion, feels like a damn fool. She’s known this man for twenty something years. He’s seen her in blood, sweat and tears, and she can remember, distinctly, the days when gazes were fleeting, touches easy, and he’d casually tell her she needed to hit a new deodorant. Not once did she care, nor did she ever feel as shy around him until now. The knowledge that he’s seen her unravel in the nude makes her want to crawl beneath the sheets and never come out again. Why couldn’t she remember that? And what did he care about her maimed hair anyway? She thought. It wasn’t like he had any to compete with.
“What time is it?” she croaks, Jesus, she even sounds like a mangled cat.
Elliot’s gaze trails her face, breaking away to glance at his watch “Almost school time.”
Christ, Noah! She’d almost forgotten about her own damn child –
“That’s actually why I came in here.” He reads her thoughts, “He’s been up since 6. Has the energy of an athlete… wants to know if he can go back to school?”
There’s not enough time though – “I can take him.” Elliot adds.
She scans him carefully, identifying the crisp white shirt and deep blue jeans found amidst the chaos of her wardrobe.
“Don’t you have a job or something?”
Elliot stifles a grin, “I’m sure they can do without me for a day, captain.”
Before she can protest, he interrupts. “So, may I take your lovely son to school now, or are you going to put up a fight?”
Olivia swallows thickly, the ease for which he clings to her sweet boy was still so new, and beautiful, and made her feel a lot of things once quelled by a rage that did not belong to her.
“Sure. But no private tutor at three. That’s my job, and I’ll be picking him up.” That was her job too, she reminded herself.
Elliot frowns, “Okay...? Uh look, I’ll be back soon. Try and get back to sleep, all right?”
There was no chance he was ever going to see her like this again, but she nodded anyway, smiling uncomfortably, and ignoring the perplexed look on his face as he closed the door.
Her nose stuffs itself back into the pillow once he’s gone, fisting at the disembodied woman she’s become. She can’t believe that just happened, or that she genuinely cares.
The shower was cool as it rained onto heated skin. She brushed her teeth, splashed bodywash everywhere and deliberately chose not to think about Elliot Stabler in her bathroom, naked and free while she slept so sloppily in the other room. She tied her hair into a bun afterward, jumped into a pair of linen pyjamas, touched her face up with skincare; and managed to look like a decent human being again.
She felt tired and groggy, and knew it had something to do with the opioids; or the euphoric absence of pain crushing the insides of her skull, or both. Whenever Elliot came near, there was a great silence that suffocated all the voices in her head, and this could be a little disconcerting, for he did have a decent reputation in abandonment, but who was she to mistrust when apparently he already had his own basket of clothes in her wardrobe?
As she fought off an uncommon urge to fall asleep again, she began to wonder if his closet looked the same, when she heard the door to her apartment open, and close, and he was in her room again.
“You’re supposed to be asleep. You're intolerable, you know that?” he grinned, leaning gracefully against the doorframe.
“Shut up. Get back in before I stay awake.”
His brows perk up, but he doesn’t make a thing of it.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Elliot questions, back perched against the headboard.
“Hmm? Oh, no. Not really. I guess I should be, shouldn’t I?” Her stomach has been rather silent since the accident. Sometimes she forgets to eat until Noah is bolting into the car mid-afternoon with an appetite of a grown ass man.
“Com’on, I’ll make you something.”
“No, don’t. Just.. another minute.” She longed for the peaceful lull he brought her. Reluctantly he shuffles back against her pillow, worry carved into every working muscle. His fingers find her hair, soothingly there.
“Thought you’d kick me out, y’know. The moment you woke up and all.”
“Oh?” she frowns. “Did the old Olivia ever kick you out?”
“No, not really. I just – you confuse me, woman.”
“I confuse me too.”
He chuckles. She isn’t sure what her face is doing, but Elliot can’t stop staring at it. She’s so glad she had that shower.
“How’d you sleep?”
“Like a drugged out maniac.”
“No. It was good. I haven’t slept that well in… a long time. I don’t think it had anything to do with the pills, either.”
“Good.” he inhaled, unevenly. “Cause ah… I have a favour to ask of you.”
He claws at the skin of his throat; memorising the ceiling. She hoists her elbow onto the pillow, jawline cradled, staring at him as he breathes too long.
“You want my drugs? They’re worth quite a lot of money, I hear.”
Elliot throws her a cold look that only makes her laugh again. “What – do you want my child now?”
He swallows loudly. She sits up straight, threatened. “You want my child.”
He is the one that laughs, this time.
“Move in with me.” Elliot whispers, softly. It knocks the wind out of her.
Whatever she expected of him, it wasn’t this. She looks to his chest and hurls herself into the abyss of memories from last night. She remembers every word spoken then, the unspoken too; every stolen glance and fleeting touch. The bee disappearing and the blind trust her body bestowed upon his care. What she doesn’t remember is playing cards of domesticity, or even remotely suggesting it.
“See before you say no, just listen alright? Move in with me, just until you get back on your feet. It doesn’t have to be for long, a week or two. For as long as you want.”
“Are you forgetting that you have a family?”
He groans. “Olivia, you are my family.”
“That’s nice, El. Really but I’m not sure. And I can look out for myself just fine.”
“S’ not about that. S’ not about nursing you, or controlling you, or whatever it is exploding in your head right now. I know you’re good at being alone; you prefer it most times. But this is about making sure you eat three meals a day, that you manage the pain instead of counting your steps. That you sleep through the night, and Noah doesn’t have to worry anymore.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He sighed, his hands looking for hers. “Just think about it. We could give it a trial. Start off slow. You’ll be alone most days. Eli’s off at school, my mother is here and there, all over the place, really.”
“Yea, maybe you should talk to Bernie before you invite a stranger into living with her.”
“It was her who suggested it.”
Olivia rubbed her forehead, how strange it was to be vacant of headaches, when now seemed most ideal. How strange it was also, to be loved by faces one hadn’t seen in a decade.
“How close am I exactly, to Bernie or the kids?”
His face drains of colour, a white dove dropping into ponds of blackness. She’s seen it so many times now. Everyone has that look; baby lambs trapped inside a lion’s cage.
“I’ve hurt you again.” she decides, flatly.
“No no no.” his head shakes. He pulls her legs onto his lap so that her ankles knock into either side of his ribs, long legs spread out, mirroring one another. It’s intimate and non-sexual, and for a moment it felt like they were the only living two in a world at war, braving the weather ahead with jaded acceptance.
“It’s just staggering sometimes – to remember that you have no recollection on being there for us, for the kids. You saved me.”
“You saved yourself, Elliot.”
He blinks, startled.
“You’re stronger than you think. All of you.”
His shoulders sag just a little, pride dropping into the ground like the night before.
“Move in with me.” Elliot mouthed, silent, no noise whatsoever. He could’ve been talking to thin air.
“You’re never gunna drop this are you?”
An invisible tent shrouded over their heads as he inched closer, and she let him, their voices reduced to secrecy.
“Move in with me.” He mouthed again.
“No.” her smile betrayed her, terribly.
His fingers curled underneath her chin, and she searched and searched the pit of her stomach for fear, or panic, but found only harmony. She searched deeper, harmony again.
“Move in with me, Liv.”
She scouted hungrily for the barest hint of a migraine; nothing.
“We haven’t even gotten to first base and yet you’re asking me to move in with you, Elliot.”
“Oh trust me. We’ve done all the bases.”
“Stop it.” she groaned, then laughed, and blushed so violently she hid her face in her hands.
“You’re cute when you have amnesia. Have I ever told you that?”
“I thought I was intolerable.”
She let out a strange chuckle, breath had somehow escaped her. “Okay; hypothetically, if Noah and I moved in temporarily, where would I sleep?”
His gaze roamed over her body greedily, as though it feasted right through her clothes, and then he snapped out of it, and she glared at him so strongly it would put lesser men in place.
“Elliot… stop being so smug.”
“Auff, I’ll sleep on the sofa. It’s no problem. And Eli will be happy to share a room with Noah.”
“You can’t guarantee that.”
Elliot found a lock of her hair in his fingers, “Liv, it worries me how little you think we all care for that kid. Trust me, Eli is good with it.”
The sudden speck of light in his eyes made her feel better about herself. His blatant pleasure seemed so infectious, and so out of the blue. Once again, Olivia found herself wondering how it could be that she’d awoken to this life, on a fine evening in April, with no fucking recollection of the last year.
“Hey..” Elliot tugged conservatively on her thigh, where his hand lay, “Where’d you go just then?”
“Sorry.” She mumbled, shaking her thoughts. “If it doesn’t work, then what?”
“I bring you back home, and we figure out a different plan. Together.”
She inhaled again, he was saying all the right things, doing all the right things, it felt so right she had no choice but to toss fear outside their billowing hut. She imagined a former Olivia waving out, goodbye pain, previous Liv would say. Goodbye sanity; hello crazy.
“Okay. Yes.” How bad could it be?
Elliot lifted her chin, “You trust me, real or not real?”
Olivia blinks, once, twice.
“Real. Except, why do you keep asking me that?”
Elliot’s fallen expression reminded her of the collapsing dove again. It’s wings sinking deep-deep down with all her feathers still in place. He holds back, but Olivia’s hardened stare forces a jump. His landing reminds her of glass shattering
“Because the other Olivia didn’t.”
This is where it gets hard; watching the forgotten drain out of everyone except her has become an ever-chronic, ever-unpleasant experience. She feels deeply for that woman they all adore.
“Don’t leave.” She bites.
There’s that dove again; disintegrating.
“She’s said that to you once before, hasn’t she?” Olivia says.
“I love how we’re talking about you in third person.” He tries to tease, but her eyes flash.
“Yes she – you did. Not so blatantly, but yes.”
“Well..” she squeezed his knee. “I trust you.”
And that must count for something, it has to. He’s been so wonderful and patient and taking care of her son. She doesn’t quite know what happened to that woman who loathed him; who awoke from 10 years of solitude simply repulsed by his reappearance. She’d love to find her one day, ask where it is she got off to.
“That means a lot to me, Liv.” Elliot tells her.
The lids of her eyes close. His mouth soft against her forehead.
A day later
His fingers weave through hers as they key the front door. The place is eerily quiet, save for a neglected television droning on in the background. Elliot’s phone rings for the second time in less than a minute, and he fights a sigh as he answers, leading her down a moonlit hallway.
She’s been here before, once or twice, maybe even longer if she had could remember. It was currently mid-afternoon, Noah stuck in dance, Eli at soccer practice, Bernie…
“Yea just hold on a second – Mama?” Elliot shouted into the void; hand still tight in hers.
They passed the bathroom where she took a quick glance. Clean and orchestral with black and grey tiled walls. Nice.
Industrial-like designs exploded in sight as they moved further into the apartment. Raw brick walls grew some more with exposed beams and pipes. Shiny hardwood floors lauded the ricochet of her heels.
She heard Elliot sigh into his phone. “Yea I can maybe reschedule for tomorrow. I’ll need to speak with my sergeant.”
Across the room, Bernie Stabler bolted from outside the garden patio, stomping violently on a wasted cigarette; a failed attempt to hide her truth. In this flattering hazy light, the dimpled pink and white face beneath the short silver hair was almost cherubic, a crowned halo bobbing just over her head. Elliot seemed to relax beneath Olivia’s fingers at the sight of his mother, the feeling mutual.
“Just give me a moment.” An apologetic frown tightened his face.
“Ima take your bags to my room just over there and then I needa take this call. I’ll be like 2 minutes, tops.” He gestured with his fingers.
“Go.” She waved him away, watching him saunter off into the room that would now be hers, she turned loosely to find Bernie with her arms wide open, skipping in her direction. Run, a voice yelled in her ear. Fucking run now.
“Olivia!” she exclaimed. Bernie’s arms suffocated Liv by the waist. It felt oddly comforting.
“Bernie… Hey.” She smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and fresh top notes of patchouli oil; warm and fixed to earth.
“Thanks for… taking us in.” she shrugged, unable to think of anything else. She had a perfectly fine apartment back in the city, yet it was rooted in memories rendered redundant; and she’d been searching aimlessly for the ones that weren’t, coming up empty every-time.
“Don’t be silly. You’re welcome here anytime. This place misses you, terribly.”
Olivia flashed a weary smile.
“Come on. Let me make you some tea, I just needa find the drainer. I had some matcha ordered in from overseas, Katie says it’s more effective if you get it from the proper place, though I’m not even sure what the difference is. Tis all the same to me, those young ones think they know it all. Are you okay, sweetheart?”
She had dozed off into the other direction mid Bernie-rambling. Absorbing all the curves and wrinkles and pulses of Elliot’s new home. She’d forgotten that it was often expected of her to sit still and listen, and not run around the place like an impolite idiot. The other Olivia was apparently far better off at table manners.
“Yes, sorry. Just taking it all in.”
Her arms folded themselves as she skimmed through the walls, stopping at photos.
“Ah yes. My apologies.” She heard Bernie say, “Elliot did mention more than once that you were new to a lot of things."
She fetched a photo of a much younger Elliot, alone and holding two small dumplings only known as his twins. The next stop was a recent one of all five tribal members, the two grandkids, the husband. Elliot and his mother absent. The last stop was Kathy, Elliot and Eli in Rome. The three of them seemed so content, giving Olivia a window into some sort of happiness pre-amnesia, a window she felt unable to open herself or ever climb through.
Heavy melancholy misted inside her head, not her eyes, but she could taste its raw metallic flavour nonetheless. Kathy’s death was so beyond her, so gruesome and recent. Practically yesterday. A contributing factor to calling it off weeks ago, why she refused to accept the illusion of Elliot being anything more than what Elliot was always supposed to be.
But Kathy dead was like a word read so many times it made no sense anymore. Sometimes she’d look into each of her children’s faces, or the barrenness on Elliot’s fingers, and feel totally empty inside. Unwilling to swallow death’s last act, a heroic gesture to gift Olivia the only thing she’s ever, truly wanted.
“My son is crazy about you.”
Bernie comes out of nowhere, and startles Olivia so abruptly that her feet practically leap into the air.
“I’ve never seen him this way before, around anyone. Certainly not her.”
Bernie had that same sad look in her eye, another dove falling to dust.
“I loved my daughter in-law. We had a lot in common, sadly, but I always knew.. I always knew that he – my boy – would go on married to her while loving another.”
Olivia fought to keep the frame in hand as it leapt out of her quaking fingers, making loud clatter against the shelf. She breathed a sigh of relief when it landed in one piece. Bernie’s heated stare made her neck feel hot and blotchy.
“Did you two ever – you know – when Kathy was alive..?”
It’s supposed to be gentle, yet it comes out like snap of the head, a lion testing out the first of her prey. Olivia feels horrible all at once.
“I’m sorry. I meant, no. no, Never, ever. I loved Kathy.” Her voice chokes. God, this is only day one.
“I know, dear. I know.” Bernie’s hand is gentle on her shoulder. “She loved you too. Even though she was threatened, had so many insecurities. She did love you in her own way. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked, specially cause I already knew the answer. I just wanted to make sure it was the real you.”
Bernie smiled, Olivia blinked, then wiped something under her eye. She was crying. Nobody had ever checked to see if she was real before.
Bernie whipped out a tissue, glancing behind her shoulder to make sure her son wasn't a witness to this latest crime scene.
“Quickly! Before he comes out and rips my head off.”
Olivia chuckled, dabbing. “He wouldn’t..”
“Oh trust me, he would. The man goes all looney when you’re hurt. Com’n dear, forget the tea. You need food, and you need it now!” She motioned toward the kitchen.
“Food!” Elliot reappeared very loudly, making a thundering clap with his hands. “What are we eating?”
His mother makes a comment about ordering takeout, and he motions towards the menu pamphlets on the dining table. Next sits the puzzle Olivia had brought the twin boys for their birthday, hopelessly unfinished, even traces of adult fingerprints cannot see an end.
“You feel like Italian?” she hears Elliot say.
Her gaze filters back to Kathy’s photo in the background, unable to escape the debris of fear and guilt raining upon her.
She looked back at him, and with one glance he hurried in her direction.
“What’s wrong?” he whispered, though she could still feel his mother staring from afar. It was going to be like this, wasn’t? The staring, the questions, the topic of death, of loss and living, war and famine.
So much fucking loss.
“Com’n, les get some air.” He pulled her in the direction of the garden. “Mama, order whatever!”
“How about Tacos?”
“Perfect!” they both yelled in unison. Elliot closed the door, and she stopped like they were in the middle of a worn-out road, bowled over by the memory of her last time here. The breakup, the letter, the nights after.
“Liv, you look like you’re about to pass out.”
She opened her eyes to find him sitting on the edge of an outdoor table, one leg hoisted above the nearby chair. He had an aura of confidence that belied the truth of the moment.
So much loss.
“Talk to me.” He said.
“Have you ever asked yourself, do people make war, or does war make people? Isn’t it an endless cycle?”
Elliot just stares.
“Sometimes we’re just collateral damage in someone else’s war against themselves.”
It sounded like a line she’d read somewhere, before. “That’s… wise.”
He smirked, “You told me that, once before. I never forget it. It’s my mantra.”
She swallowed. Unable to silence another trembling epiphany, maybe she had come not to bring peace but a sword. Maybe his family were her next collateral damage.
So much loss.
Elliot’s hand reached out amid thin air. “Stop catastrophizing. Stop thinking. Just breathe.”
In and out.
Her feet inched on their own accord, hands tangling with his, traitorous limbs unwilling to obey the voices inside her head. He pulled her between his legs, palms full of her hips, nose drifting into the ends of her hair. So confident within himself.
Her slim arms journeyed the dips of his broad shoulders, she clutched.
“I don’t wanna hurt you, El.”
“You’re not a hurtful person.” He rumbled into her shoulder. “Where is this even coming from?”
“I hurt you last week.”
“Let’s not talk about that.”
Long green vines erupted from out of the Stabler garden. Creeping across the concrete like some dark magic. Coiling around her ankles. Fighting for every inch of skin they could possess. You should’ve run, a voice told her.
“I hurt you more.” He tried to sympathise.
She closed her eyes, “Let’s not talk about that.”