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Someone to Fall Back On

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He finds a parking spot two blocks from her building, and notices a pizzeria across the street, so he stops for a couple of slices. Knowing her, she hasn’t eaten yet. He gets them two each—a white slice and a veggie for her, pepperoni with mushrooms and a chicken cutlet for him. (There’s a lot of things he’ll agree are better in Rome—coffee, pasta, cheese—but there’s just something about a New York slice. And the fact that it’s not at all out of place to find a giant pie topped with chunks of breaded chicken.)

And then he remembers Noah. Elliot has no idea if he’s home (on the one hand, where else would he be? But on the other, she’s been working for the last 48 hours and Elliot knows her son was somewhere), and has even less of a clue what toppings he likes. He goes for the safe bets, adding one pepperoni and one plain slice to his order, finishing it off with two Cokes and a Diet.

They pack it all into one big box for him, a makeshift pie that’s a few pieces short. He’s juggling that and the bag of sodas as he walks into her lobby and nods his head at the doorman.

He’s only been here once before, and he was high as a fuckin’ kite, but they’d still let him get on the elevator and make it all the way up to her floor, so Elliot doesn’t expect a whole lot of questions.

He’s surprised to hear the man call out, “Mr. Stabler!” and wave him over toward the desk.

“Yeah?” he asks, wondering how the guy even knows his name. Liv must have let him know he was coming.

Or maybe not, because the next thing the guy says is, “Can I see some ID?”

Elliot’s brow furrows. “You just called me by name and you want to see ID?”

“Ms. Benson insisted,” the man explains, holding up an envelope. Elliot wonders if he’s about to be sent packing back to Queens with a boatload of pizza. “She left her key for you, but was very clear that I had to verify your ID before I gave it out.”

“Oh,” he says, sliding the pizza box onto the desk and reaching for his wallet. That makes sense.

Maybe she isn’t home yet—she’d told him to come, but Elliot knows all too well the mountain of paperwork that comes with a shooting. He hadn’t asked if she was here, he’d just assumed.

He thumbs his ID out and hands it over to the doorman, who inspects it closely (props to him for safety, but really?), then gives it back to Elliot.

“She said you should knock first, but if she doesn’t answer, you can let yourself in.”

“So she’s home?”

“Yep,” the guy nods, spotting the pizza box as Elliot hefts it again. “Looks like she’s had a rough day, though.”

Understatement, Elliot thinks, but he wishes the doorman a Merry Christmas anyway, and heads for the elevators.

.::.

When he knocks on Olivia’s door, there’s no answer. He gives her a solid thirty seconds, plus a second knock for good measure, and then he slips the key from the envelope and lets himself in.

Her apartment is dim and quiet. There’s a light on in the door by the hall, but other than that, the only light is coming from the back of the apartment, where her bedroom door stands half open. Elliot calls her name, once, but there’s no answer. And definitely no nine-year-old in sight.

As Elliot heads toward the kitchen to free himself of the pizza, he discovers the reason for her silence (and for leaving her key)—the shower is running.

He drops the box on the island, stashes the sodas in the fridge (he’s pleased to see she’s finally become a person who buys groceries, but then, motherhood will do that, he supposes), and walks down the hall toward the sound of running water. He raps his knuckles against the bathroom door, calling, “Hey, Liv?” loud enough for her to hear over the spray. “Just telling you know I’m here.”

“I’ll be out in a minute,” she calls back, and he thinks she sounds weary.

He knows the restorative power of a long, hot shower after a shitty day, so he insists, “No rush, I just didn’t want you to be surprised.”

A beat, and then, “You don’t mind waiting?”

“Take your time,” he calls to her. “I’ll be here when you’re done.”

She doesn’t answer him again, so Elliot heads back toward the kitchen and busies himself by turning the oven on low and searching her cabinets for a baking sheet. He discovers a pizza stone in his hunt (even better) and arranges all the slices on top of it, popping them into the oven to keep warm until she’s ready.

And then he’s alone in Olivia’s apartment.

The urge to snoop is strong, but he resists. Instead, he locks the front door, toes off his shoes and hangs his coat. Turns the light off there, but on in the living room, bending to plug in the Christmas tree and give the room a festive glow. Her remote is on the coffee table so he plops down on the sofa, figuring out how her TV works, and pulling up Netflix. She has three profiles to choose from—Mom, Noah, Lucy. Elliot selects Mom with a little smile.

He loves that she’s a mom now. Loves watching her with her kid, knowing how badly she’d wanted it for so long, how worried she’d been that it wouldn’t happen for her. Leaving the way he had had been a mistake, he knows that—has always known it—but he’s so damn proud of the woman she became in his absence and there’s a part of him that thinks Kathy might have been right about that one thing: he’d held her back. With him out of the way, without their partnership to preserve, she’s thrived. Blossomed. Grown.

He should have handled things differently with Liv, no question, but leaving SVU? That had probably been the right move for everyone, in hindsight. She deserves every damn thing she’s achieved without him here, and he’d hate to think she might have missed out on any of it because he was staining her reputation with his own messes or holding her in place with their excess of loyalty.

They should probably talk about all of it again, more in depth, now that his wife isn’t dying down the hall and her living room isn’t spinning like a Tilt-A-Whirl.

But not tonight. Tonight, she doesn’t need anything heavy. Tonight, he’s going to get some food in her, and give her a big bear hug, and drag her over to this couch to watch Netflix. Speaking of…

He does snoop a bit, here, going immediately to the Watch It Again section and flipping through it to see what Olivia Benson winds down with at the end of the day. There’s a few comedies (Grace and Frankie, and The Good Place, and Schitt’s Creek), a couple of dramas (she’d watched The Queen’s Gambit, and Pose, and Madam Secretary), a few documentaries, and a disproportionate number of shows about food (The Great British Baking Show, and Somebody Feed Phil, and Chef’s Table, and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and Cooked).

Either she’s gotten really into cooking over the last decade, or they serve the same purpose as the Mythbusters and No Reservations on his: neutral territory for the end of a long, exhausting day full of crime and death. Nobody dies in a show about food, he imagines. No kids get snatched and no women are violated. They’re comfort food, metaphorically and literally.

He flips right through the list until he ends up right where he’d begun, then taps more carefully, looking for something to settle on. He ends up with Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, if for no reason other than the first episode (fat, even though it’s second in the title, which makes no sense to him, but whatever) takes place in Italy, and he misses it, sometimes. Has been thinking of it—of Kathy—the last few days.

They’ve tried not to be sad on this first Christmas without her. She wouldn’t have wanted them to be sad. But he misses her, knows the kids do, too, and there’s something comforting about sitting here and listening to the familiar cadence of Italian. Five minutes in, he hears the shower cut off. Ten minutes after that, Olivia still hasn’t emerged (he’d heard the bathroom door open and the bedroom door shut, and then nothing), but Elliot is fucking starving, his mouth watering for foccacia, for the homemade pesto being hand-ground on the screen. If she doesn’t make her appearance soon, he’s going to eat one of those extra slices—there’s plenty now, without Noah here.

Just when he’s starting to wonder if maybe she fell asleep on him, he hears the bedroom door click open again, one of the floorboards creaking quietly as she walks down the hall and into the kitchen. He hears the lid of the pizza box lift and fall, hears the dull clink of a heavy glass bottle settling on the island, the lighter impact of two glasses after that. Wine, he thinks, and he turns to watch her grab one of those fancy bottle openers before he rises to his feet, and insists, “Let me.”

She just smiles at him, clamps the thing around the neck of the bottle, pulls the lever one way, then back, and the bottle is open before he’s made it halfway to her.

“Too late,” she tells him, as he bypasses the breakfast bar and heads into the kitchen to stand next to her.

He can smell her when he’s still several steps away, clean and fragrant. It’s not her perfume—different from the one she used to wear, something warm and inviting that makes him want to bury his nose in her neck and breathe deep. Right now, she smells like a mix of shampoo, and soap, and whatever she’d slathered herself with after her shower. It’s a heady mix, aromatic and floral and fresh. She makes his mouth water from two feet away.

She’s dressed in sweatpants and a cream-colored long-sleeved top that looks soft to the touch. Her hair is damp, and down, and there’s a spot near her shoulder where a little bit of the water has soaked into the thin material of her shirt and turned it almost see-through; he can see the edge of a wide strap beneath it. He’s spent enough of his life surrounded by wife and daughters to feel a pang of sympathy that she’d had to put a bra back on just for him, but he hopes she at least chose the most comfortable one she owns.

She’s filled both glasses of wine while he was taking her in, turns and hands one to him with a small smile that doesn’t come anywhere near reaching her eyes. She looks tired, he thinks, as he studies her face. There are dark circles under her eyes, and her skin is a little pale, the pink flush of that long, hot shower starting to fade. He hasn’t seen her like this (sober enough to appreciate, anyway) since he’s been back—barefaced, scrubbed clean, without a drop of makeup. There are freckles he doesn’t remember, on her brow, her cheeks, fine lines around her eyes that she hadn’t had a decade ago. Her skin is dewy; he can tell she’d slathered it with skincare products and he’s glad she’d taken his assurances to heart and not rushed through her routine.

She lifts her wine to her lips and takes a deep swallow, closing her eyes with a soft sigh. Elliot sips from his glass, too, and is unsurprised to find she has great taste in wine.

“Brushing up on your Italian?” she asks, eyes opening again. Elliot’s brow furrows in question, and she tilts her head toward the TV.

“Oh,” he says, and, “Right. Yeah. It’s making me homesick and hungry.”

He smirks, and she smiles, and just as Elliot turns to free their pizza slices from the oven he hears her mutter quietly, “Just don’t go running off to Europe again,” and stills.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he assures her, and she jumps a little, like she’d thought maybe he wouldn’t have heard her. “Never again.”

She’s facing away from him, toward the TV, but he sees her nod slightly before he turns back to the oven and pulls the pizza stone out, setting it on top of the stove.

“C’mon, have some pizza,” he urges, utterly unsurprised when she tells him she’s not all that hungry. “When was the last time you ate?”

She doesn’t answer, but she does turn toward him and peer around his shoulder at the selection. “You get us a whole pie?” she questions, almost managing a teasing tone but she’s just too weary to really sell it.

“I thought Noah might be here,” he explains, finding the cabinet with her plates on the first try and pulling down one for each of them.

“He’s still with Amanda’s parents,” she tells him, reaching for the white slice. Some things never change. “They offered to keep the kids for another night so we could get some sleep.”

“Good people,” Elliot tells her, shifting the veggie slice to her plate, too. She scowls, but he’s going to get two pieces of pizza into her if he has to bribe her. She needs to eat, and breathe, and rest. Get her feet back under her after the couple of days she’s had. If she scowls at him over it, so be it.

“They’re alright,” Liv answers, and it takes him a second to remember what he’d said a moment ago. Rollins’ parents. Right. “Not my first choice, but I’m not calling my nanny on Christmas and Noah likes Amanda’s girls. So.”

She shrugs a shoulder then slides her plate and glass across the island, toward the stools on the other side.

Elliot reaches for her as she moves to step past him, taking advantage of her empty hands to catch her by the elbow and urge softly, “Hey, come here.”

He draws her in, turns his body toward hers and gathers her in against his chest, winding his arms around her shoulders. He feels them sink, dropping on a heavy relieved exhale as she wraps her arms around his waist and leans in. Her nose presses into his shoulder, and then she turns her head to rest her cheek against him. Elliot runs one palm up and down her spine, keeping his other arm locked snugly around her shoulders as he murmurs, “I’m sorry.”

She nods, presses impossibly closer, her voice small and tired when tells him, “I had a really crappy Christmas.” He tells her he knows, presses his cheek against her damp hair (the scent of her shampoo is even stronger like this and he breathes deep) and fights the urge to press soft kisses to the top of her head. They’re not there yet; that’s not what friends do.

He feels her fingers close around the fabric of his shirt, fisting it loosely, and he lets them rock ever so gently back and forth, back and forth. She sighs again, deep, settling. He can barely hear her whisper over the murmur of the TV when she says, “Thank you for coming.”

“Anytime,” he tells her, and he means it. Any time. Day or night. Hell or high water. He’ll be there for her. She was right two weeks ago, standing outside the courthouse. He’s been selfish, been leaning on her again and again without thinking about whether she might need him to be a pillar for her, too, and he wants to make up for it. Starting now. Tonight.

They stand there for several long minutes, Elliot content to hold her for as long as she needs. Eventually, she sniffles softly, her next deep breath a little shaky and Elliot turns his face to press his mouth against the top of her skull. It’s not a kiss, he tells himself. He doesn't purse his lips, just drops his head there and feels the subtle warmth radiating from her, strokes her spine again. “S’okay,” he murmurs into her hair. “It’s over now.”

She sniffles again, and nods, and his stomach chooses that exact moment to gurgle loudly.

He winces, but it breaks the moment, makes her laugh softly and lift her head, her hands leaving his back to brush away the couple of tears she’d let fall. He’s reluctant to let her go, but she murmurs something about how the pizza is probably getting cold, so he lets his arms slide away, their fingers brushing and squeezing before she finally steps back and makes her way to the stools on the far side of the island.

Elliot grabs his slices and follows, settling in beside her just as she takes her first bite. She moans as soon as the flavor hits her tongue, chewing, and nodding, and then telling him, “Okay, this was a good idea. I’m starving.” Like all her body needed was a hit of carbs, and salt, and cheese to wake up and realize it still had needs.

Elliot grins, nudges her with his knee, and teases, “Told you.”

.::.

They eat mostly in silence, both of them hungrier than they’d realized and inhaling everything on their plates. Elliot even goes back for a third slice, grabbing the plain when she asks him to save her the pepperoni.

She doesn’t have the appetite for it just then, but she stashes it in the fridge before they refill their wine and take it to the couch.

He’d asked her as she’d hefted her second slice if she wanted to talk about what happened, but she'd shaken her head.

“It was a good shoot, he was a bad guy,” she’d sighed, resigned. “Had to be done.”

“Still sucks,” he’d said, and she’d nodded, echoing, Still sucks.

“I don’t need to talk it out, I just… wanted you here,” she’d admitted, quietly, clearing her throat softly and amending, “Wanted company.”

He’s pretty sure the former had been the truth, so he’d given her a warm, lopsided smile, and dropped his hand to her knee, giving it a squeeze.

She’d narrowed her eyes and told him, “You better not be getting pizza grease on my pants,” and he’d grinned, drawing his hand back and shaking his head.

They hadn’t spoken much after that, so when they sink into the sofa cushions side-by-side, he doesn’t say anything. Just punches the volume up a few spaces on the TV (they’ve moved onto salt, and Japan) and slings an arm across the back of the couch, leaving himself open for her if she wants to move in closer.

She doesn’t, right away. She curls one knee up in front of her, sips her wine slowly, and stares at the TV like she hasn’t seen all this before. Elliot splits his attention between the documentary and her, noticing the way she’s looking but not really watching. She seems far away, deep in thought; he doesn’t want to push her, but he wants her to know he’s right here, so he finds her shoulder with his thumb and strokes back and forth slowly, gently.

Olivia sighs, her eyes drifting shut for a moment, then snapping open again as she sucks in a breath. She’s tired. Bone-exhausted, probably. He can’t imagine she got much sleep over the last two days.

He’s about to ask if she wants him to go so she can get some rest when she tips her wine back, downing the rest of it in one big gulp and then leaning forward to set the glass on her coffee table. When she sits back, she slides in close against his side, wrapping one arm around his middle as she tries to find a comfortable place to rest her head on his chest. Elliot brings his arm down to drape across her shoulders, holding her close.

It’s new, holding her like this. They’ve hugged before, sure, but they hadn’t spent a lot of time cuddling. There’d been a few times where they’d hung out at her place, watching old movies on TV and sitting a little too close. Her head had dropped onto his shoulder as she’d nodded off and he hadn’t stopped her, hadn’t woken her, until the movie was over and it was time for him to head home. But that had been different. Accidental.

It wasn’t this conscious choice to be close, to hold, and cradle, and comfort.

Olivia shifts against him, adjusting her head to and fro.

She’s not comfortable, and that just won’t do.

“Hey,” Elliot coaxes softly, sitting forward and urging her to lift her head. She frowns up at him as he turns toward her, scooting down a little and drawing her back in. “Lay down with me.”

Olivia’s brows lift, more surprise than protest, so he nods, and reasons, “You’re tired. Let’s just stretch out for a little while.”

“I’m gonna fall asleep,” she argues, and Elliot just shrugs.

“So you fall asleep.”

She looks at him for another long moment, her eyes dark, and deep, and melancholy. And then she nods, shifting back to make room for him. Elliot takes another swallow of wine, then sets his glass on the coffee table, too, grabbing the remote and making sure it’s within reach as they resituate themselves. He stretches out, reaching for her and tucking her into the gap between his body and the back of the sofa, snug and safe with her head pillowed on his chest, her arm slung over his belly. Her knee slips between his, and she reaches back, snagging the blanket from the back of the sofa and covering them with it.

It’s cozy, and warm, and definitely something they’ve never done before. Olivia sighs heavily, her weight sinking into him, her head nuzzling just a little as she finds her sweet spot. Elliot drops one arm along her back, his hand coming to rest against her hip, fingers opening and closing lazily over her blanket-clad curves. The arm she has over his belly rises to curl against his chest, her fingers tracing idle patterns over the cotton of his shirt.

“Thank you,” she breathes again, so quiet he only hears her because there’s been a break in the dialogue.

“Nowhere I’d rather be,” he answers, just as gently, turning his head and pressing a soft kiss to her brow before he realizes he’s done it. He freezes, waiting for her to say something, or pull back, or stop those lazy trails of her fingertips over his pecs.

But she doesn’t. Nothing happens, nothing changes.

So he does it again, once more, then exhales slowly and turns his head back toward the TV.

He’s not tired—it’s still relatively early, and he’d slept in this morning—but he’s content and cozy. He’d meant what he’d said—there was nowhere in the world he’d rather be than exactly here, with the scent of her shampoo filling his nose and her warm body pressed along his, the caress of her fingertip starting to slow. He thinks back to what Kathleen had told him, how she’d said the kids were fine with all of this, how the writing was on the wall.

He wants more nights like this with Olivia (without the death and despondence), wants to fall asleep next to her, and wake up next to her, and eat meals with her and sit on her couch and watch TV and just be with her. Wants to be the person she turns to at the end of a hard day, and wants to lean on her just the same. She settles something in him, always has. A restlessness and agitation that rises up and gnashes its teeth at him more often than he’d like to admit. It feels a million miles away, now, with her in his arms, her breathing slow and even, her hand finally still.

He tunes out the TV for a little while and just marvels in her. All he can see is the top of her head, the curve of her shoulder, the bend of her arm, but he doesn’t need to see her to appreciate her. He’s seen her plenty, but he’s never had such uninterrupted time to absorb the steady cadence of her breathing, the way it stills sometimes for just a moment as she empties out. He focuses on the shape of her, the softness of her breasts pressed to his ribs, the weight of her thigh where it drapes over his. Drags his nose along the top of her head and feels the texture of her hair, the softness of it and the way it tickles against his lips.

He’s wanted to know her like this for decades—had hated every man who got the chance to when he couldn’t—and he decides now that every last one of them were idiots for ever letting her go.

Jesus, he’s in love with her. He’s known for a long time, but it swells up in him now, fills his chest and clogs his lungs, and he finds himself thinking, Thank you, God, for making her. He’d felt guilty for years about how deeply she’d settled into his bones, has whispered his love into the sanctity of a confessional and done his penance, but now she’s here, and she’s letting him hold her, spending Christmas with his family, being a rock for his children in their grief, and he thinks this is exactly how it should be, and exactly when it should be. This is their time, and he is just so grateful for it. For her. For her forgiveness, and her strength, and her kindness. He’s going to do better by her, be better for her, really work to be the man she needs him to be.

He makes a promise to her, here in the dark, whispers it into her hair as she snores quietly against his chest. “I’m going to make this work, make up for all of it, and love you the way you’ve always deserved. For the rest of our lives.”

Olivia slumbers on. Elliot tugs the blanket a little bit higher around her shoulders and holds her close.