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The Forgotten

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They’re on the road again when he knows what he wants.

He wants her. Of course, he wants her.

He has never wanted anything more, and he’s never been so scared in his goddamn life at the same time. His father’s fists. Yea. The birth of his children, sure. Kathy’s death, maybe. But never this. Never this all-consuming fear that has grown in unshakeable size and shifted things so profoundly, so tenderly, that he can’t seem to see anything else except for what he wants.

And he wants her.

It was a little too much, he knew this. It was when she repacked her bags an hour ago. When she straightened the apartment and made coffee for the road. When her chin tilted on Eli’s shoulder as they greeted one another in awkward arms. When she met Connor’s father on his front doorstep and laughed to a joke that wasn’t even funny. When she swapped places with Eli and snuggled in with her son on the backseat. When she chanced a glance in the rearview mirror, caught Elliot staring, and darted her tongue out to make fun of him.

He was staring a lot, and he was worried a lot, and she was… well, the happiest he had ever seen her.

He doesn’t quite know what to make of that, either.

The sea was loud upon their arrival.

Elliot could hear the cracks of the waves bashing against the shore as he stepped out of the car. The air pregnant with the smell of salt and a distinct earthy must that made things pretty clear. They weren’t in the city anymore.

Eli met him at the boot of the SUV, his young face contorted with worry as he helped with the bags. “Dad, why are we here?”

He means the beach house, but he also means everything else. And Elliot doesn’t quite know how to tell Eli about any of it, either. Instead, he ruffles his short black hair with a doting hand, grateful for the son that doesn’t hate, doesn't despise the prodigal son’s true heart.

“Soon. We’ll tell you soon.”

It’s a miracle that Eli seems to understand by way of nodding. That he seems to enjoy Olivia’s company even as she wears his dad’s sweatshirts and drinks his grandmother’s tea and wonders too long if Eli is okay with it all.

Noah makes a comment about the huge holiday home. While Olivia is quiet beside him, he knows she is thinking intently. Planning some witty joke to a never-ending endeavor of Elliot Stabler trying to impress her. It’s an old dance of theirs and Elliot knows all the steps, knows a moment later that it’s worked some magic in her footing.

The boys are out of sight when she crawls up from behind, arms enveloping his torso as she leans into the length of his back. Her warm breaths were wonderfully soft and even against his shoulder. Steady to the pace of those birds swinging in white kites above the torrential sea. He counted her breaths like he counted the navigation of the tide, knew it would be gone very soon.

“Thank you.” Olivia whispers into his ear.

Goosebumps break out over his skin despite the perpetual furnace of his body heat. Ever since they started doing this thing again, his body was unable to retain any semblance of control at any moment she touched him. Breathed on him, fucked him, or called his name and made him want to hyphenate her own to his.

“I love it here.” she whispers again.

“Yeah? It’s not too much?”

“It is too much.” She muses, smiling into his shoulder blade. “How many rooms does this place have anyway, Stabler?”

“Five I think.”

“You shouldn’t have, El.”

“Would you at least let me spoil you just this once, woman?” he teased.

She untangled her arms from his waist and stepped around so they stood face to face. The muscles on his breastbone spasming as she rested her hand there. Her touch soothing and lacking in plight, her thumb rubbing soft crescent moons into the fabric of his Henley shirt. His gaze plummeted to where her fingers pressed right into his heart. He thought he would like to take a picture, just to preserve the memory of it.

“Don’t do that.” Olivia whispered, her breath suddenly thin and right there. “Don’t think of this as our last time together.”

He couldn’t help himself. Everything was beginning to feel as though they were standing at the edge of a freight train, waiting to be ripped apart from one another again. Never to see or hold or touch her anymore. She was off to the cold-cold war and why could she go and he not follow? Why why why?

“I’m sorry.” He said, reaching out. “But when are we gonna tell the kids, Liv?” he asked, softly.

She blinked, surprised.

“I mean, if you wanna tell Noah on your own, I understand..”

“No. No.” she shook her head, “I want you there.”

He breathed deeply. Tension leaving him like the tide that dried outside. For as long as Olivia knew that Olivia did not have to do this alone, the sea seemed to behave, and he behaved with it.

They tell the kids after dinner.

Olivia centers the conversation around both, for this was going to flip Eli’s life southside too, and Elliot could see that she felt a little guilty about that. But Eli sat perched on the arm of the sofa, watching her intently, unfiltered.

Her voice was steady. Unwavering, even as the tears rolled down Noah’s cheeks.

Noah was so smart and so raised that Elliot had to remember he was only just a child, after all. A child who’d been taught the seeds of good men flowered only in the shedding of a boy’s brave tears. Unlike others, whose pain had been dried by shame, Noah’s face would never know of what it meant to go without water.

“You’re gonna forget some of me again?” his lips quivered.

“I could do.” She answered, softly.

“But that’s not fair!”.

“That’s right. It’s not fair.” She agreed, nodding.

“I’m gonna be all alone again.” Noah sobbed.

Someone sniffed and someone cleared their throat. Eli spoke first, “No you won’t. It’ll be okay. You can come live with us, permanently.”

Elliot ran a hand over his face, unsure as to whether he should agree without consulting her first. Olivia’s breath hitched, and she was staring at his son as though he hung the moon and all the stars around it.

Elliot still doesn’t understand the lessons he is supposed to be learning, but this, he understands. All of his children were selfless in their own way, Eli the most selfless of them all, he thought, and they all seemed to love Olivia not because she was Olivia, but because she made their father a better human being.

Liv reached out to kiss Noah’s wet face. Wiping at his nose, she said, “Eli is right. You’re going to stay with El until mom gets better. And I promise, you will never be alone. Okay? Is that okay?”

“Are you going to stop talking to Elliot like you did before?”

“No.”

“But how do you know?”

“Because I wrote myself letters. The letters will make me understand.”

It is the first time Elliot has heard of this, these letters.

No longer the pillar of strength he had silently promised to be in the wings of her bedroom as the walls and clothes piled down on him, Elliot looked her over as if she had grown two heads. He felt his knees want to give out, yet by some grace of god they remained intact.

Olivia had gone out of her way to make sure he remained the only man in her heart. And she may wake up hating him again, but at least she would hate knowing that he loved her.

Holy fucking hell, he thought. She wrote him love letters.

“Elliot is my best friend in the entire world. I trust him with your life more than I trust anybody else, and you know how big a deal that is to me, don’t you baby?”

“Yea.” Noah nodded, wiping his eyelids with the back of his sleeve. “I do.”  

Behind Olivia and through the window, clouds had moved up in the center dome of the sky, splitting the sun into rays that splayed in different directions across the living room floor. The shimmers of late sunlight danced across her entire body and made strange prisms from his unshed tears.

Elliot blinked once. Twice. Salt spilling free.  

He felt profoundly humble that she’d dove that deep, for him. That she’d given him her child and with it the key to her mind and body and soul.

Elliot moved closer, noting how Noah’s shoulders straightened like a veteran as he neared. Noah was only trying to put up a brave face, yet Elliot could see it wasn’t the same valor to which spurred the salt on his cheeks. This bravery was inherited, he thought. This need to put up a false front was a carbon copy of the person who’d raised him up on her own.

“Hey,” Elliot’s big hand came to the nape of Noah’s neck. He relaxed at the familiarity of the touch, melting right into Elliot’s big warmth.

“You remember that day in the hospital? After the incident at the park?”

Noah nodded. It was their secret, their story.

“What did I promise you that day?” he asked.

Noah shrugged.

“Buddy, I really need you to remember.”

“You..” he sniffed. “You promised you’d never let anyone hurt me. That you’d always have my back.”

“Hey, look at me.” He heard himself saying, softly. Noah was still memorizing the floor.

His blue orbs climbed along the wet sheen of Elliot’s cheeks, and Noah’s eyes widened at the vulnerability placed there.

“Do you have any idea how strong you are?” Elliot whispered.

Noah kept his gaze trained on his, unblinking. A small lion’s cub held steady by Olivia Benson’s touch. Elliot could relate, could see the way her thumb rubbed the palm of her little cubs skin.

“How important you are to us? To me.” He added. Every bit of it true.

Noah rubbed his eye, glanced over at Olivia.

“What is it?” she whispered, faintly. Her voice was ghostly to him.

Noah sucked in sucked in all the breath his little lungs could take, and said, nervously.

“I’m tired of you always leaving Elliot, mom.”

“Noah.” Liv shuddered.

“It’s not fair on me. S’not fair on anyone.”

She covered her face. “I know baby, I know. I’m sorry.”

It was more complicated than this, Elliot knew. Yet he couldn’t tell the boy the truth. Couldn’t unfurl their past like a pillaged city whilst casually detailing the complexities of his legendary abandonment, to a nine year old of all. He’s pretty sure that Noah would slam the door in his face, throwing away the key, anyway.

He wanted to reach out and grab Liv’s hand just to feel her closer. Connected. To know that she felt safe having him here, an intruder interfering on the two-part Benson duo. Yet as soon as the thought arrived, he felt her warmth gravitate to his knee, her fingers sifting through his so seamlessly the spirit of it felt almost bridal.

Elliot moved, then.

“I’m gonna tell you what I told Eli when he was little. What I told Katie and the others.” He said.

“Okay.”

“No matter what happens, you gotta have your moms back. Even when you think you should disagree with her. You respect her move, look out for her, have her back. She is always right, you know.”

“Always?”

“Com’on,” Elliot teased, lightly. “You already know this.”

Noah blushed; head bowed down introvertedly, which was a first. Elliot always felt that Noah had a level up on him. That he was the most confident man to ever walk around Olivia, aside from Elliot himself. Elliot found himself smiling, pressing his lips to the crown of Noah’s head, kissing him with all the love he felt for five children bottled in one. It was an unconscious kiss, a kiss that demanded no kiss back, but as he pulled apart, instantly he felt the hot coals of Olivia’s attention raking him over. When he looked her over, he sat frozen in time.

Her almond-colored eyes were wide and watered and petrified from all these different changes but jesus – he thought.

Jesus fucking christ.

She was in love with him.

She hid it well of course, up until now.

Elliot knew the signs. Knew what it was to ruin oneself with fear. To love a soul who felt out of a reach at the best of days. He knew that she loved him, for she admitted this under the storm that raged against them. Yet now. Now the orange sun had come out of hiding, its voyage of earth dead and lonely until it rotated to her place again. Elliot knew the feeling.

It was so quiet in here that he could hear the rainwater in the gutters tapping just off the rooftop, spilling onto the panels of the outdoor balcony, and making the silence here more prominent.

But he was still drawn to her more than usual. Even when she looked away to escape the pull of wanting him, in front of his kid. He was drawn to her then too. Glancing up at Eli, Olivia offered his son a wary but warm smile.

Eli smiled back.

And just like that, they were okay. The world hadn’t tipped and its people did not fall through the sky like he thought they would and they were okay.

“I love you mom.” Noah whispered.

Olivia’s eyes welled. She took Noah’s face in her hands, kissed his wet cheeks. “I love you baby. So much.”

***

It was long after twilight when she suggested they go for a walk.

Olivia yelled out for Noah to stay clear of the sea as she laced up her shoes. The boy pretended to listen, and yet even Elliot knew this was hopeless as he watched him chase after Eli.

The beach was calm and steady, different from their arrival earlier that day. He didn’t realize until now how far the tide had travelled out to sea, leaving fields of space to inhabit in the dark night.

Across the shoreline, the surf tumbled about with such peaceful ripples that its solitude could’ve been mistaken for a lake. Its gown of sleepy black water glistening from a raw power only the full moon could bestow.

He’d booked the house through one of Bell’s realty friends. He had never visited this side of the city before, but the reviews said the neighbors were polite, minus the retired democrats yapping after their dogs at ungodly hours of the day. It was something different and something new.

He spotted her figure 30 feet away from the gate and treaded carefully in its direction. She stood watching the boys pick out seashells across the shoreline, using the torch on their phones as if looking for diamonds in the rough.

Minutes away from the brooding sea with the moon kissing Olivia’s face, the world was quiet, and if the sea held much emotion, tonight it would be calm.

Elliot Stabler was a marine guy. Growing up, he often looked to the steadiness of sky and its reflection of the sea to make up for what stability he lacked here, inland.

He was of course, on the run from feelings that had put too many hunters in the field against him. He swam to the marines one decade, and then swam for Europe in the next.

He felt that now. He felt it more because he’d never been so at ease, so at peace in his entire lifetime than here on mainland, with her.

Elliot wrapped a thin blanket around her shoulders and together they sat down, letting the dry sand soften between his toes as he felt her adjust next to him. Her elbow knocked his just lightly as he raised his knees to his chest. An electric current coursing through Elliot just by the sheer contact of her skin against his. He thought about what it would taste like, feel like, to breach over and kiss her on the beach. To kiss her beneath a belt of glossy stars and a low seated moon.

He let the thought slide for now.

Off in the distance, Noah’s foot tangled harmlessly through a wave that rose barely above the ankle. Olivia twitched and fought against her natural urge to run off and grab him.

“He’s okay.” Elliot assured. “The kid can swim better than all three of us. Eli won’t let anything happen to him, either.”

She breathed aloud.

Then averted her gaze to find his in the stillness of the night. Her dimples climbed slightly, hovering there as she pulled him in with a soft smile on her face. For a moment they lingered, just staring at one another, quieting the ghosts of recent months as they worked to enjoy the peace that this beach had brought them. He looked into her face a little more deeper, a little more fuller, drinking in the way her hair billowed behind to the tune of springs late breeze. The way the dark waves of her hair kindled beneath the electric light was enthralling, and if she shook it with her head tilted toward the moon, he thought it would probably shimmer and roil like something half silver, half river.

Gods he needs to stop staring.

But the pupils in her eyes melted in pure unadulterated lust as they continued drowning in his. He has seen this look several times, mostly when buried deep inside of her. And he tried to think of literally anything else, but not even the crash of the sea at their bedside could distract Elliot from her centered wanting of him. It felt as though a mountain were trying to rise up and separate them, giving him no choice but to reel her into his arms.

He doesn’t pull. He will never force her into something that she is not ready for.

He leaned in quietly, softly, so that their noses brushed in time with the broken surf, waiting, he always waited. Olivia tilted her head, eyes open and confident despite the novelty of this.

They have never kissed in front of any living soul before, let alone their children, who were fields apart but still right there.  

He lingered over her mouth to make sure she wanted him, not quite touching her lips just yet, not quite sure he could muster the strength to stop if she asked him to. The surf kept in time to her light breathing in an almost perfect synch, he thought, it was all he could focus on as his gaze finally fell to the curve in her lips. She was smiling.

“Hey you.” She whispered, nose chafing. The pad of her finger slipped over his cheek, thumb touching his thin lips.

“Hi.” He whispered back, mesmerized.

She tilted her head a little further as her eyes sought his. Elliot’s skin was aching all over just by the sheer way she drank him in, hungrily. Not for the first time did he think she looked completely famished, and it had nothing to do with her lack of apetite.

She was right in front of him. Wrapped snug in his hoodie and less than two seconds away from touching his lips on the beach in the beat of midnight. He has wanted this for so long and he wishes to tell her so, but Olivia suddenly dragged some of his breath away as she braced herself for the sensation, as she leaned in with no sense of restraint except to devour him whole. Elliot closed his eyes and felt her breath right inside of his throat like she was living inside of him. His lips hovered over hers as they each embraced the falling, the – the -

“MOM!” Noah’s voice howled by in rebellion. He stood with at least a football field of distance between them, yet he cried as if he and Eli had been forced into watching. “That’s gross!” he yelled.

Elliot laughed.

The moment was spoiled, but Elliot did not care. He would risk losing a dozen different kisses if it meant fighting over Olivia with her nine year old son.

“Sorry,” she muttered, more disappointed than he was. “S’all a little new to him. He loves you, but he doesn’t like watching other men kiss or fondle his mom.”

“Has he seen other men kiss or fondle his mom?”

Olivia rolled her eyes, swatting him playfully. “I jumped right into that one didn’t I?”

Grinning, Elliot wiped his brow and shifted closer so that his shoulder brushed with hers. “I love him too, you know.” He answered, earnestly.

“I can see that.” she spoke in a breathless manner that made his own skip in beats. He kept his gaze on the steady ocean ahead, on the boys who moved as shadows inside the ring of a diamond colored moon. He could feel her heavy lidded eyes raking him over, willing Elliot to try at luck and kiss her again, but he kept his gaze ahead. Thinking of the tide, of what should come next and whether she was ready for it.

“I meant what I said back there, Liv. I’ll have his back forever.”

Olivia inhaled. He knew this was scary for her, even if she had practically signed Noah over to him legally. But he needed to tell her.

“You could leave me tomorrow, but I’d still have him, if you let me.”

“I know.” She said softly. “But I won’t leave you, not voluntarily anyway.”

Elliot inhaled sharply. He made the monumental effort of looking Olivia directly in the eye, allowing her to finally see the last fragments of a soul gone unbared.

“Do you see forever with me?”

Olivia didn’t move, didn’t even blink. The surf was suddenly so loud in his ears that it was almost as though their feet were swimming in its brine. But they weren’t drowning yet, he remembered. They were safe and she was warm and despite her silence, this was what mattered most.

“Elliot…” she started, then stopped.

“Nah. I need to know Liv. I need to know if you see forever.”

“Yes, I do.” She admitted, inaudibly.

“But I know you, Elliot. You move so fast. So fast sometimes I look at you and I get scared, just by the way you look at me.”

His body sunk.

“Scared?”

“Not in a bad way.” She rushed, “It’s not uncomfortable. It’s the opposite of that, actually. I love feeling your eyes on me. I love everything about you. But it can be overwhelming you know. For a long time I buried that yearning, we both buried it. But now it’s there and you’re very unapologetic about it. It’s scary for me because… well, s’so intense sometimes. Like you might just drop to the ground and ask me to marry you.”

Well.

“And I’m not asking you to stop. I’m just telling you that we are forever, but forever on my pace. Because forever for you means buying me a house and putting some outrageous rock on my finger and telling the whole damn world about it.”

His smile builds slowly, languidly. He is amazed most times how well she truly knows him, it was almost as though she had pulled out a magnifying glass and looked straight into his skull.

In the background he could hear the voices of crickets and beetles singing in the grass behind, telling him that this was his fucking moment. The moment of truth. The calm before the storm. The moment of his life. Perhaps it was the beginning of the end too, but he didn’t care. Olivia Benson could wake with his ring on her finger and no recollection of how it got there but this. This he would love to see.

He’s wanted her for half his age and he’s not afraid to admit it, anymore. He wanted her before he even knew who Olivia Benson was. He wanted her in the life before life, in the breathless womb of his mother and the darkness before light and the light of her arrival. He wanted her.

“And what if I did?” Elliot heard himself saying, his throat suddenly sore.

“What?” she whispered.

His hand reached out below his thigh and grabbed a fistful of white sand. He held on tight as he raised bits of earth and grit higher for them to see. Held safe in this clutch of awareness that he thought he’d like to keep forever, and yet he could never hold something or someone against their will. Never.

His fist loosened until the palm of it lay flat for the stars to see.

Together, they watched as the sand slipped through his fingers into a shower of dust that kissed back its earth. His palm was empty now, but small specks of sand danced into the creases there, a reminder of what he’d let go.

He knew this woman was more than a match for him. He knew that everything had to be on her terms, and that was okay with him. That was more than okay, really. But he would never forgive himself if he allowed this moment to slip through his fingers, too.

“What if I asked you to marry me?” He braved. “What would you say?”

“Don’t,” she warned, but she was smiling so wide and so full and it did nothing to stop him from shaking.

This was all so surreal.

“Don’t you dare fucking make me cry right now, Stabler.”

He laughed, holding his chest in so tight it forgot to expand.

He lifted the curtain of hair behind her shoulder so that his hand buried itself into the nape of her neck. His thumb traced the shell of her ear. His head swam, muddled with the heat of her skin and a lifetime of desire coming to the full.

“I mean it.” He said, “You know I’d marry you tomorrow if you’d just let me.”

“It’s been only two days since I let you into my bed, Elliot.” She argued.

“It’s been twenty-three years, Olivia Benson.”

She tilted her head to the side. Hair spilling as the breeze of twilight billowed its waves behind her ear. Those big brown eyes so dark and unearthly in the moonlit night that he could almost see himself in them. Could see the crash of briny waves reflected in her irises. Could see the silhouette of his body as it shifted to align with her own. Could see the deep blue of his own staring back at her, timeless as anything, he saw it all play out like a slow-motioned movie.

And he saw her realize the truth of it. Right there in between the subtitles and the flashbacks and the end credits. He saw it in her eyes as they widened, as her smile faded just in time for his thumb to catch it, and some of its color drained right out of her face.

Elliot searched her properly. He would have backed off, he’d have pulled away if he sensed at least an ounce of fear in her breathing, except all he saw was Olivia standing in white at the end of an aisle, her big smile breathtaking and beautiful and knowing

He reached for her hand, pressed his thumb against her wrist, and felt the blood pulsing through her veins as he kissed the beat. His breath was jagged as he whispered, very carefully –

“Will you marry me?”