That's what her mother said, the day Achlys settled on his final shape. Olivia was twelve, and scared out of her mind, and she had done what any child would do and turned to her mother for comfort, but Serena had given no comfort at all. Monstrous, she said, her blue eyes flat and filled with something that almost looked like loathing. Olivia was only twelve, but she knew what that meant. Her father had been a monster, and that was the day Olivia realized that maybe she was a monster, too.
The fuck is that?
That's what his father said, the day Alina settled. Elliot was twelve, and proud, shit he was so proud, but his mother wept and his father swore and he led Alina away because his parents frightened him, and he did not want them to hurt her. He was small for his age and she was the one with teeth long and sharp as knives but he wanted, still, to protect her. To keep her safe, because she was good, and soft, and warm, and he loved her. He would always, always, protect the ones he loved.
As long as men had walked the earth, daemons had walked beside them. Daemons, the heart made flesh, a living soul to guide and comfort their charges. Daemons, sacred and inviolable, animals that did not hunger or thirst or hunt but lived so long as their humans lived, side by side, separate in body but one in spirit. Every child entered the world hand in hand with a daemon, a small, changeable creature that shifted in shape even as the child shifted, their purposes not yet settled, their paths not yet chosen. A child's daemon was a wild thing, a field mouse one moment, a parakeet the next, stretching, reaching, trying, until the day came when the daemon settled, and changed no more.
And as long as men had walked the earth they had sought to understand it, and so for every daemon there was a story, a legend, knowledge passed down from one generation to another. If a boy's daemon became a dog, he was said to be loyal, steadfast, a friend to the end. If a girl's daemon became a bird, she was said to be vain, flighty, unpredictable. A cat was a harbinger of an aloof spirit, a mouse a timid one, a rabbit a coward but gentle. Snakes were wily and not to be trusted, lizards were playful, stoats vicious. Most daemons were small enough to be carried by their person, to rest upon a shoulder; the largest daemon most folk ever saw was only the size of a smallish dog. And so there were whispers, too, about what it meant should a man walk with a large daemon by his side. A wolf, a panther, a lion, such things were only rumors, for most folk never saw anything so grand, and when they did they knew calamity must surely follow in its wake. Nothing good can come from a soul so big, that's what people said. A soul too big to hold was a soul too big to be trusted, a purpose too great to be understood, pride and folly both. The world was not meant for such creatures, nor for the men who walked beside them.
The day Don Cragen met Olivia Benson, he knew.
He took himself down to the 5-5 to meet her in person; he didn't want her walking into his station house until he was certain that she was the one he wanted. She'd risen through the ranks and passed her exams with flying colors, ready and willing to take her first post as a detective, and he needed someone young, someone hungry. Someone who'd volunteer for the post, because SVU was a place for believers. To survive in that job a cop had to have a fire in their belly, and her Lieutenant had told Cragen that she was the one.
He was sitting in the back of an interrogation room when the door opened, and the prettiest girl he'd seen in years came walking in. Tall and slim but strong, with her dark hair and her dark eyes, her face more suited to magazines than a police station, she would have been remarkable all on her own, but when he saw the beast that walked beside her, he knew.
It was a fucking wolf. Three feet tall at the shoulders, his head taller still, six feet long from the tip of his snout to the tip of his tail, the thing must have weighed at least two hundred pounds. Two hundred pounds of muscle, of teeth, of claws, his thick, silken fur was black as night, and he was the biggest fucking daemon Don had ever seen. Wolves, folk said, are ill omens. A wolf without a pack is a danger. A wolf alone serves his own interests. A wolf will kill, and take, and take, and take, and feel no remorse. Folks had a lot to say, about wolves, but most had never seen one.
Don had, though, and Don knew better.
"Detective Benson," he said, standing up from the table and approaching her with his hand outstretched. Her daemon moved, silently, gracefully, put himself between his woman and a stranger, looked up at Don with eyes huge and dark and watchful. Eyes just like hers. Don's own daemon was resting on his shoulder, her soft fur warming his neck, and he felt her tense when that beast's eyes caught on hers.
"Captain Cragen," Benson said, taking his hand and offering a firm shake. "It's nice to meet you."
"Is it?" he asked, smiling, glancing down at her daemon.
"He means no harm," she said. "Achlys," she called the wolf's name, and he stepped back a pace, gave Don some room but watched him, still, warily.
"A wolf is a protector," Don said, glancing down at Achlys, and when he looked up he saw Benson's eyes had widened in surprise. Probably, he thought, she was used to people assuming her wolf was something to fear, unaccustomed to anyone speaking of the beast warmly. "Is that what you are, Detective Benson?"
Or is that what you need? He wondered. Was she a protector of the weak, was she strong and fierce, or had she been wounded, afraid? Was the daemon there to serve her purpose, or to keep her safe from it?
"It's what I want to be," she told him.
"Good," he said.
The day had come; Elliot's new partner was starting today, and he was kinda looking forward to it. They'd brought in a woman to replace Alfonse, and that was ok by him; he'd worked well enough with Jo, and he didn't mind having a woman riding shotgun beside him. That was all he knew about her, though, just that she was a woman and that she was young, that this was her first gig as a detective. Most cops, taking a post like that for the first time, would set out with something to prove, but he kinda hoped she wouldn't be like that. He needed someone who was ready to do the job, not someone who was looking out for themselves and their career. SVU wasn't the place for a cop to make their stripes. SVU was a fucking calling.
You'll know her when you see her, that's all Cragen had told him. Not what time she was coming, or what she looked like, just that vague prophecy, delivered with a knowing look at him, and Elliot had been wondering, ever since, just what the fuck that was supposed to mean. How, he wondered, how was he supposed to know her? What was gonna give her away? He leaned back in his chair, caught his arms behind his head and watched the door, wondering what she'd be like, the woman who would become his other half. Young, and scuttlebutt was she was a looker, but that could have meant anything. She could have been willowy and blonde or tall and dark, could have been curvy or rail thin, hair short or long, could have been anything.
"Wonder what she'll think of you," he murmured to Alina.
His daemon was resting on the floor beside his chair, and when he spoke to her she raised her head, looked up at him with golden eyes that sparkled with mirth.
"You think she'll be afraid?" Alina asked him.
Most folks were, the first time they saw his daemon, not that he could blame them. His own father swore, the day he saw what Alina had become. Munch's tawny owl had screeched and flown back to his desk, and Alfonse's cat had crouched between her person's feet, all her hair standing on end and her back arched like she was ready for a fight. Cragen's ferret hadn't seemed scared, too, but then she was always hard to read.
Elliot had his mouth open to say something else, to crack some joke, but then a woman walked through the open doors and into the squadroom, and the breath vanished from his lungs so fast it was like someone had vacuumed it straight out of him.
"Jesus," Alina said, very softly.
The other cops were right; Benson was a looker. Turn-around-to-get-a-second-look pretty, but that fucking daemon of hers…Jesus, Elliot thought.
He rose slowly to his feet, and Alina did, too, and Benson took one look at them and froze in her tracks, staring at them, her eyes wide with the same surprise, the same recognition, the same fear that Elliot felt stirring in his own gut.
She had herself a wolf. A giant beast, midnight black, scary as all shit; there was a wolf, standing beside her.
You'll know her when you see her, Cragen had said. He'd been right about that.
For a second all she could do was stand there, and stare.
You'll know him when you see him, Cragen had told her, and that had irritated the shit out of her, that cryptic promise, but she'd accepted it with good grace because she wanted this job, wanted it so bad she ached with it. SVU was where she was meant to be; giving to others the aid, the comfort, the justice her mother had never received, doing what she could to make sure that no other child had to grow up as she had, afraid and unloved. This is your calling, she'd told herself. This is what you were put on this earth to do. To make up for the crime of her birth by caring for others, to pay penance for the sin that had made her. It was everything she wanted, to be here, to belong here, and she hadn't been sure, before now, what they'd make of her, if her new squadmates would let her in, but Jesus.
She hadn't been expecting this.
It must have been him. That tall, broad-shouldered man, with his dark hair, his blue eyes, his kind face, that must have been Stabler. Had to have been, because Cragen had told her she'd know him when she saw him, and she saw him, now. Saw him, and saw the daemon standing beside him.
Not quite so tall or so long or so heavy as Achlys, she was still huge, compared to all the other daemons Olivia had encountered in her life. Massive, and fierce, she stood silently beside her man, guarding him. Where Achlys was black as night this wolf was all silver-grey, and her eyes were golden, not black like his. Olivia felt it, the moment those golden eyes locked on Achlys; she felt it, down to her bones, the recognition. Like looking at an old friend; no, she thought, like looking into a mirror. Like seeing herself, reflected back, different, but the same. And Achlys, Achlys must have felt it, too, because he stepped forward, then, all on his own.
Daemons were bound to their men by bonds broken only in death; a daemon could not, would not, stray beyond his person's line of sight. Close, always, man and spirit, sustaining one another. But daemons were not men; daemons were something holy, something other, and to touch one was an act of intimacy so profound it was never undertaken in public. A man might stroke his lover's daemon, in private, and a mother's daemon might comfort a child's, but only in moments when two people's hearts were wound close together. No lover Olivia had taken had ever touched Achlys, and no other daemon had ever approached him. It was not done; it was one of those immutable laws of the universe, as unchanging as the pull of gravity. To touch a daemon was to touch a person's soul, and the collision of two souls had the power to change the very course of fate.
While Olivia stood still as a stone, staring, Achlys took another slow step forward, and so, too, did Stabler's wolf. Olivia looked up sharply then and found Stabler watching the pair as intently as she, but he seemed to feel her gaze upon him, lifted his eyes to look at her with something like wonder in his face. It was too much, the questions she carried in her own heart, the questions his eyes reflected back at her. What does it mean, she asked herself; what does it mean, that they're the same? She'd never seen a daemon bigger than a beagle and here stood another wolf, same as hers. The same. It was too much, looking at Stabler and wondering, and so she dropped her eyes back to the wolves, and he did, as well. Watched, as she watched, watched them begin to circle one another, sniffing at one another. Would they fight? She wondered as they moved slowly, slowly, tails swishing back and forth, ears alert, eyeing each other. Achlys had been in his fair share of scraps before, some perp's daemon coming after him or Olivia and all Achlys had to do was snap his great jaws and the thing, whatever it was, would cower in fear and relent. He had never met his match before, and though Stabler's wolf was smaller she looked every bit as fierce as he. If they fought…shit, if they fought, it would get ugly, fast.
Tension coiled at the base of her spine, her hands ready to reach for her daemon, to take hold of him, to tug him back and away if he snapped, but the wolves slowed in their circling, slowed, and then came to a stop without carnage. Came to a stop, so close they were almost touching, their eyes unblinking, a silence thick and unbreakable falling over all of them. It was the middle of the morning but there was no one else loitering around the desks, no one there to bear witness to this momentous convergence, and for a moment, just for a second, it felt as if the four of them were the only living creatures in the world.
"Well," Stabler started to say, but then his words failed him, for as they looked on Achlys bowed his head, and Stabler's wolf stepped closer, and licked a stripe across his snout.
Olivia felt it, felt it like a lightning strike, like sticking a fork in a plug, electricity sparking through her veins and leaving her trembling. Never, never before had anything like this happened to her, to Achlys. The man before her was a stranger, unknown to her, and she didn't trust him, hadn't even shaken his hand, and yet his daemon had touched hers. Reached out to him, and touched him, in a gesture so familiar, so intimate, it left Olivia feeling embarrassed at having borne witness to it. What the fuck kind of daemon would do something like that? And why? And why did Achlys let her; why did he bow his head, and submit, when he had never allowed anyone else to take such liberties with him?
"Shit," Stabler said, softly. Apparently he didn't know, either.
"Achlys," Olivia called in an unsteady voice, and her wolf heard her, and relented, stepped away from Stabler's and padded softly back to her side. She looked down at him, at the familiar blackness of his eyes, but there were no answers for her there; he just stared back at her, knowingly.
"Alina," Stabler said, and the grey wolf likewise backed away, and they were left with nothing to do but look at one another, separated by five feet of empty space and yet bound, suddenly, in a manner so profound and terrifying that neither of them seemed to know what to do about it.
"You Benson?" Stabler asked her softly.
"You Stabler?" she answered.
"Elliot," he told her.
"Olivia," she said.
And then the thing was done. There would be no going back now, not for either of them. They were partners, and their souls had touched, and in the touching changed both their lives forever.
The day Kathy Stabler met Olivia Benson, she knew. Knew it, felt it like the onset of winter, like a frigid, terrible ice settling in her bones, knew it like she'd known each time she was pregnant, knew it like she knew the lines of the tattoos on her husband's skin. She just knew.
Mama never liked Alina. Mama said Alina was a bad omen, said Kathy ought to look out for herself, ought to stay away from a boy like that, a boy with a daemon big enough to kill, a boy with a wolf. A boy with a wolf was trouble. A boy with a wolf was a boy who wasn't safe, that's what mama said. Hermes had been afraid of Alina, the day Kathy met Elliot, the day he came walking into homeroom with that giant grey wolf walking beside him; Hermes had bolted and run up underneath Kathy's sweater, huddled there against her heart, shivering. But Elliot had been kind, and Alina had been kind, and in the end the boy and his wolf had won over the girl and her rabbit. He just needs a pack, mama, that's what Kathy had told her mother, the day she married Elliot, that day when she was seventeen and six months pregnant and her whole life was about to change. A lone wolf was a danger but a pack, a family, that was something worth having, and she could give that to Elliot, she thought. They could make that, themselves.
They could, and they did, bought a house and raised four babies and they were happy, mostly. As happy as anybody could be, trying to keep that many mouths fed, trying to stay ahead of the bills, trying to find time for one another around a job that demanded every minute of Elliot's days and sometimes his nights, too. Sometimes Elliot was angry, and sometimes he was withdrawn, but mostly he was, still, the kind boy she remembered, and Alina was a comfort to her. Alina and Hermes slept together at the foot of the bed Kathy shared with Elliot, the rabbit safe between the paws of the wolf, and it reassured her, looking at them. Always had done, and she was certain it always would do.
But that was before she met Olivia.
Elliot hadn't talked about his new partner much, just mentioned that he had one, just mentioned her name, in passing, every now and again, no more or less often than he'd talked about Alfonse, or Jo. Kathy had told him to invite Olivia for dinner and he'd said that he would and never mentioned it again and Kathy just figured that meant Olivia had a life of her own to live, and thought no more of it. Not until that day.
That day, when Kathy had a few hours to herself for once, when she hadn't seen much of her husband for weeks and was looking for an excuse to spend some time with him. It wasn't like he was in the middle of a major case, not one of the kidnappings or spate of serial assaults that would keep him at the station for days on end, sleeping in the crib, calling home once a day, maybe, if he remembered to. He'd just been plain old regular busy, and she figured he could spare the time for lunch. Even if they just ate a hotdog off the car together, sitting on a bench in the sunshine, that'd be all right, Kathy told herself.
She walked into the station with Hermes in her arms, made her way up to SVU with a smile on her face, thinking how surprised Elliot would be, how nice it would be to have a few minutes to spend with him without a million other responsibilities to attend to while they were at it. And if she was curious about Olivia, if part of her was hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive woman who spent every day side-by-side with Kathy's husband, well. She tried not to think about it too much.
As she stepped into the squadroom her eyes roved about, searching eagerly for some sign of Elliot and Alina, but her smile faded quickly away, because while she found him, sitting at his desk with Alina lying on the floor beside him, she found something else, too.
That young woman with her soft, dark hair and her beautiful face, standing behind Elliot with one hand resting casually on his shoulder, the other pointing to something on his computer screen. That woman, standing there, touching him, speaking to him too softly for Kathy to hear, that woman would have been intimidating enough, with the gun at her hip, with that pretty mouth, but worse than the woman, worse than the way she touched Elliot, was her daemon.
It had to be hers. That great black wolf, bigger and heavier and more fearsome than Alina, if such a thing were possible, it had to have been hers, for no daemon ventured far from its master and there were no other people standing close by. That wolf had to have been hers, and that wolf was lying on the ground beside Alina, their huge, powerful bodies touching from shoulders to haunches, his great chin resting on top of Alina's head. On top of her, touching her, as no one else, no one but Kathy or her children, should ever have been allowed to do, he was touching Alina, and she was calm, and content, resting, with her eyes closed. The black wolf's big, dark eyes flickered up towards Kathy, and the breath froze in her lungs, looking at him, watching him, watching her. She thought those eyes might have been cold, or cruel, in a beast so terrible, so fucking terrifying to look at, but they weren't. They were warm, and knowing, instead.
There were no rules, really, about what sorts of daemons preferred what other sort, which ones made the best pairs. Some people thought there was a sort of magic in it, in the shape a daemon chose, something that united all the people whose daemons were of the same family. It was like astrology, almost. Virgos were practical, quick thinkers, often tense, sometimes obsessive, well suited to Scorpios; people with birds for daemons were flighty, and paired well with people who had dogs, someone sensible to keep them grounded. Two people whose daemons shared the same shape ought to find common ground, that's what folk said; folk said they were kindred spirits. And Kathy, Kathy had never, ever, seen or heard of anyone else with a wolf for a daemon, and she'd always thought that made Elliot one of a kind, in his own way, made him special. Only now, now she'd seen another wolf. Another wolf, so like Alina, though bigger and dark where she was light. A spirit just like his.
A spirit, she thought, that would understand him. Maybe better than Kathy and Hermes ever would.
Elliot and his partner had not noticed her arrival, but the black wolf noticed. He noticed, and nudged Alina with his snout, and then rose slowly to his feet. It was almost as if he knew. As if he had seen Kathy, and knew at once who she was, what she was, knew that she was not meant to see him lying there, next to Alina. Knew that was not his place. He roused Alina, and stepped away, padded back to his mistress, and as Alina's great golden eyes opened Elliot too looked up from his computer, and man and wolf both seemed to smile when they saw her.
"Kathy!" Elliot called, and just as the wolf had withdrawn from Alina so Olivia withdrew from Elliot, her hand sliding away from his shoulder, straight into her pocket as if in an attempt to pretend it had never been on him at all, and something twisted, low in Kathy's belly. Something that felt like anger, something that felt like loss.
There was no avoiding this, though. There was no pretending that she was not here, that she had not seen Olivia, that she had not seen the wolf. She plastered a smile on her face and approached, and Elliot met her, wrapped his arm around her waist, steered her to the place where Olivia stood waiting with her beast of a daemon by her side.
"Kathy, this is Olivia Benson, my partner. Olivia, this is Kathy."
With one arm still holding Hermes tight Kathy held out her free hand, and Olivia took it, and offered her a tentative smile.
"It's nice to finally meet you," Olivia said. "Elliot talks about you all the time."
Elliot was beaming, proud, but Kathy found herself fighting a sudden urge to scream. It was as if Olivia had sensed the danger lurking in the air, as if she knew what Kathy had seen, knew precisely what Kathy was worried about, and was seeking to reassure her. If that was meant to be reassurance, the knowledge that Elliot spoke often of his wife to his pretty partner, it fell flat. Reassured was the last thing Kathy felt, looking at Olivia Benson. No one said two people were meant to be together because both their daemons were birds, but plenty of people had birds. No one else had wolves. Just them. Just Elliot, and Olivia.
"It's good to put a face with a name," Kathy told her. "But I was thinking I might steal Elliot for lunch." She almost added if that's all right, but caught herself at the last second. She was not the one meant to be asking permission to spend time with him. She wasn't gonna ask Olivia Benson for shit.
"You two have fun," Olivia said. "We'll hold down the fort."
Elliot must have noticed that something was off, must have felt the tension holding Kathy's body ramrod straight beside him; he looked down at her, a question in his eyes, but she didn't answer. Just smiled, and led him away, left Olivia and her wolf behind.
Olivia never did come over for dinner.
"Oh, what the fuck?" Elliot heard the reporter behind him whisper, watching as the next witness approached the stand. Kimberly Thomas was all of eight years old, and shaking from head to foot, with a lopsided pink ribbon tied at the end of the long straight braid that ran down the center of her back. Shaking, as she approached the stand, the place where she would sit, and recount the crimes of the man sitting behind the defense table, the man who had hurt her, and god only knew how many others. Eight years old was too young to face such horror, Elliot thought. Eight years old was much too young to show such courage. But little Kimberly was not alone.
As she marched through the courtroom, a daemon walked beside her. Not her daemon; her daemon had not settled yet, and was perched on her shoulder, in the shape of a sparrow, for the moment, though it had been a little green lizard when Elliot last saw her. Changing, as she was changing, growing, as she was growing. Not so the daemon that walked beside her; that daemon had settled. That daemon was Achlys.
Olivia was standing in the back of the courtroom; Elliot didn't have to turn around to know she was there. Where Achlys could be found there his person would be also, and Elliot always seemed to know when she was near. Seemed to feel it, as he felt it now. Even if he hadn't been aware of the plan, even if he hadn't known that Olivia was the one who had taken charge of Kimberly's safety, he would have felt her close to hand. It scared him, sometimes. The knowing.
Achlys walked slowly, silently, matched his gait to that of the girl beside him, and her hand rested on top of his massive head, her fingers buried in his soft fur. Touching him, and a whisper filtered through the courtroom at that, a whisper of fear, a whisper of confusion. Must be her father's, he heard someone say. It was a good guess; a child might touch a parent's daemon, and think nothing of it. It was a good guess, but a wrong one.
Elliot had never, in all his life, seen anyone give as much of themselves to others as Olivia did. Had never seen a daemon behave the way Achlys did, putting himself between victims and the world that meant to hurt them, running headlong into danger with his woman at his side, risking everything, always, just to help. He'd never seen anything like this, like Achlys walking with that girl right up into the box, standing by her side while she swore her oath in a trembling voice, resting his head on her lap and letting her stroke him while she delivered her testimony. Comfort, that's what he gave her, strength and protection, his dark eyes fixed on the perp, watchful and unblinking, a warning there. A warning that seemed to say not this one. This one is one of mine, and you will not have her.
Two years now Olivia had been with SVU, and Elliot wasn't the only one who noticed. Wasn't the only one who saw her daemon go willingly to strangers, saw him warm them, soothe them, calm them. Their second case together a young woman had been attacked in her apartment, was huddled on the floor of her bathroom, unwilling to move, unwilling to speak, and the crime scene techs and the medics and the unis had been loitering, watching, as Achlys approached her, all on his own. Olivia hung back, and the girl recoiled in terror from the wolf, but he did not stop, just kept going until he was right beside her, and then he laid his head down in her lap, and she wept, and clutched at him, held him tight until she was calm enough to speak. They'd all seen it, and word spread like wildfire, and everybody knew, now. It was unnatural, really, the way Achlys behaved. Unheard of. She's either holy, or insane, that's what people said about Olivia, about this woman whose heart was so open, so fierce, so determined, that her daemon would so freely touch and be touched. Most of the time Elliot figured the truth was somewhere in the middle. Sometimes he figured it was both.
With Achlys there to guard her Kimberly delivered her testimony and walked back out again, and Elliot followed after her. Watched Olivia open the door to her, watched the girl pause and hug her once, a desperate, clinging grasp, before dropping to her knees to wrap her arms around Achlys's thick neck. He watched Kimberly's parents come rushing up, eager to take their daughter away from that place, their eyes wide and full of wonder as they watched her holding on to the fearsome wolf, as they watched him nuzzle against her, calm and comforting, not a threat. He watched them walk away, and then he was alone in the corridor, with Olivia and their wolves.
"She did good," he said.
"Yeah, she did," Olivia agreed.
Alina and Achlys had a bad habit, one they'd developed from the moment they first met, of standing far too close together, and they did so now, their heavy bodies forming a blockade right in front of the door to the courtroom, a barrier no man could cross. Jesus, Elliot wished they wouldn't do that. It wasn't right. It wasn't…it wasn't what daemons were meant to do. It wasn't what friends did. To stand so close, to touch so easily, to move so completely in sync with one another that it felt at times as if they shared one heart, one mind. Their proximity, their familiarity with one another, was a great big flashing neon sign; too close, it screamed, too close. They were too close, Achlys and Alina, Elliot and Olivia. Too much the same, and he and Liv they'd learned to hide it, learned to keep their hands to themselves, learned not to stand too close, but no one could reason with a wolf, and their daemons would not be swayed. It felt wrong, somehow. Like someone had taken Elliot's heart right out of his chest and put it on display, and no one, no one was ever meant to see so much of him, only he couldn't hide it, not when Achlys was near.
Everybody knows, he'd think in moments like this, looking at those wolves. Kathy knew, must have known, from the moment she first clapped eyes on Achlys, because she stopped talking about having Olivia over for dinner, stopped asking about her. Kathy had seen that Liv's heart looked just like his, and she didn't want to know any more about it. A distance had begun to spring up between them, between Elliot and Kathy, a chasm too wide to cross, with no way to bridge the gap. There were things she was keeping from him, he thought. There were certainly things he was keeping from her.
"Let's go home, Olivia," he said, and she nodded, turned away, and they walked out of the courthouse together, their daemons walking side-by-side between them.
"Can you back up?" the perp demanded. He directed his words towards Olivia, who was leaning down to stare hard into his face, but he was looking at Achlys, reclining on his haunches right beside the chair where the perp was sitting, his lips drawn back to show his razor sharp teeth. The guy had a fucking rat for a daemon, and it was cowering in the pocket of his jacket, hiding from those teeth the way the perp no doubt wanted to do himself.
"What's the matter, Billy?" Olivia asked. "I thought you liked getting close to women."
They were close to breaking him, Elliot was sure. They were close, they were so fucking close. The guy was sweating bullets, and Achlys scared him shitless, and Liv had been pushing all the right buttons. This time, this interrogation, he'd decided to let Liv lead, was just leaning back against the wall with Alina beside him, watching it all unfold and keeping his expression as blank as possible to avoid drawing attention. He needed the perp focused on Liv, just now. On Liv, and Achlys. He wanted this guy nervous.
"You don't gotta get all up in my face," the perp grumbled. He was twitching in his seat, trying to shift away from her, but Liv wasn't having it. She just leaned closer, smacked her hand down on the table, on top of the picture of the victim, drawing the perp's gaze there.
"Tell me about Lena, Billy," she said, very softly.
"I don't want-"
"Tell me about what you did to Lena, Billy. Tell me how you hurt her-"
"Could you just-"
"I know you wanna tell me, Billy, I can see it in your eyes-"
"Back the fuck up, bitch!" Billy snapped, leaping to his feet, so fast he very nearly clocked Liv's chin with the top of his head. Nearly, but she was quick, too, got herself out of the way before he could hurt her. Not that he'd ever had the chance to really, because the second the word bitch left his lips Alina snarled. Alina, who had been silent, and still, and calm throughout the interrogation, she snarled, and then she was running, leapt easily from the floor onto the interrogation table, and threw herself at Billy. The guy let out a scream like a rabbit caught in a trap as one hundred fifty pounds of pure animal rage crashed into his chest, Alina's vast paws on his shoulders, the force of her attack sending him toppling to the floor, pinned beneath her weight, the chair skittering out from underneath him.
Holy shit, Elliot had only ever seen her react like that in a warzone, when he was in danger, fierce and looking to hurt, to maim, to kill, to do whatever it took to keep him safe. Only now it wasn't him she was protecting; it was Olivia. She bared her teeth and hung her head low by Billy's neck, and he actually whimpered, his eyes wild, desperate, looking around for some sort of aid, but all he saw was Achlys, black as the night, stalking slowly towards him, and snarling.
At that point, Billy pissed his pants.
"I'll tell you," he babbled, sobbing, "I'll tell you, I'll tell you everything, I'll tell you what I did, just please, please, call them off."
I think this counts as coercion, Elliot thought glumly. He raised his eyes from the terrible scene on the other side of the table, Alina's heavy body pinning Billy to the floor, Achlys close to hand with murder in his eyes. Elliot looked up, and found Olivia watching him, looking to him to confirm they were on the same page. They were, and so he nodded, and she did, too.
"Alina," she said, very softly, and Elliot's daemon heard her, and obeyed. That was unnatural, too, the way Alina responded to Olivia, heard her, when the only person she should have taken orders from was Elliot himself. Slowly, very slowly, she heaved herself up and off of Billy and then Alina and Achlys retreated, flanking Olivia like two soldiers guarding their queen while Billy wept on the floor.
"Take a minute," Olivia told him. "Get yourself together. Then we'll talk."
"Shit," Brian swore, startled, as the great black wolf leapt easily from the floor to the end of the bed and then began to prowl along the mattress, intent on insinuating himself between Brian and his mistress. Brian glanced over at Liv, alarmed, but she was still fast asleep, lying naked on her belly with her face buried in the pillow. Hell, Liv had spent her whole fucking life with that wolf by her side; maybe she'd learned not to wake when he shifted beside her.
Achlys's black eyes watched Brian warily as he stretched himself out next to Liv, Brian's apprehension and the beast's own natural size carving a space for the wolf between Brian and the girl he'd been holding on to. It was well after midnight, and he was definitely still a little drunk, and he wanted to touch her, but Achlys had made that all but impossible. To get to Liv, Brian would have to reach over the wolf, and there was something in Achlys's eyes that told Brian that would be a bad idea, just now.
That fucking wolf. The first time Brian Cassidy ever laid eyes on Olivia Benson he'd been struck momentarily mute - a rare feat, for him - by just how fucking pretty she was, but then he'd seen her wolf, and thought shit, not another one. He'd been with the squad a few month's and he'd only just got used to Stabler's wolf, only just begun to accept that she meant no harm, that she was more a protector than a ravisher, and then here came another one, another one who somehow managed to look even scarier than Alina. Everybody talked about it, how strange it was that Benson and Stabler's daemons had taken the same fearsome shape. That's a bad sign, Munch had said. An ill fucking omen, my friend. Even Jeffries didn't seem to like it, but then she didn't like anything.
But it had been a few months now and apart from an uncanny knack for saying the same thing at the same time, nothing weird or regulations-breaking had gone down between Elliot and Olivia. Elliot went home to his wife every night and Liv said yes every time someone asked her out for a drink and the squad was functioning like a well-oiled machine and when Brian slipped his arm around her shoulders in the bar tonight and whispered in her ear she'd grinned and taken him home and that wolf of hers hadn't tried, not even once, to eat him. He figured that was a good sign.
The way to a girl's heart was through her daemon; everybody knew that. If he wanted Liv to like him, if he wanted her to fuck him again - and shit, he really wanted that, because apart from being pretty as all hell and a wildcat in the sack she was smart, and strong, and brave, and yeah she busted his balls from time to time but she actually seemed to like him and that was worth more to him than anything else, her kindness - he was gonna have to make nice with Achlys. Liv had already won Rheda over; Brian's little hedgehog had run straight across the table and into Liv's lap in the bar, had snuggled up against her belly and gone to sleep there, safe, and content. For the rest of his life he'd never forget the way Liv looked at him then, holding his daemon. Like for all that her own daemon went to others so often, for all that her own heart was open and willing, always, to give all of herself to someone else, she didn't quite know what to do when that gift was given to her in return. Brian didn't really know what to make of it either; Rheda had always been prickly - and he'd always enjoyed that pun - and it had been a long, long time since anyone had treated him well enough to win her over.
At the moment Rheda had burrowed inside the pillowcase beneath Brian's head, and left him alone with Achlys. She might have liked Liv, but she was less certain about the wolf, and Brian couldn't blame her for that. But the wolf was part of Liv, and whatever else she was Liv was never mean, and so he figured that meant the wolf wouldn't be, either.
"Hey," he said, very softly. Achlys's big black eyes watched him, blinking slowly, and he tried not to let his nerves get the better of him. It was Liv's choice, who she fucked and who she didn't, and Liv had brought him home tonight, and surely, he told himself, surely whatever she saw in him, Achlys would see it, too.
"I'm gonna take good care of her, man," he continued, keeping his voice low and trying not to wake Liv.
Daemons could speak, though often they didn't, though they preferred to save their words for their respective people, rather than engaging with everyone who crossed their paths. A soul was a precious thing, and not easily shared. So Brian didn't really expect Achlys to answer, but he knew that whether or not Achlys ever spoke a word, he would hear Brian now, and that was what mattered.
"She's special," Brian said. "I know she is. I won't hurt her."
Yeah, sometimes Brian's mouth got him in trouble and yeah, sometimes he acted without thinking, and yeah, he didn't have a fancy education like Liv and Munch, but he didn't have it in him to be cruel. There was too much hurt in the world already, and he'd been hurt too much himself.
"She wouldn't let you," Achlys said cryptically, his voice a deep, rumbling growl that settled like fear in Brian's chest.
Probably that was right, Brian figured. Liv kept herself locked up tight, didn't let anybody get too close. Liv was a fighter, and she was a loner, like him. Maybe he'd never hurt her because she'd never let him have enough of her to try. But maybe not. Her wolf had spoken to him, and he liked to think that was a good sign. Liked to think that meant there was something in him that Achlys and Liv both understood, something they recognized.
"She can take care of herself," Brian agreed. He figured it probably wasn't a good idea to pick a fight with a two-hundred pound wolf, especially not when those teeth were so close to his own face. "But she doesn't have to do it alone. I'll look out for her, too."
That seemed to please Achlys; he lowered his head down onto his front paws and closed his eyes like he was getting ready to go to sleep. It was late, and their pagers could go at any second, drag them out of bed and off into the night to do battle with all the devils that walked in darkness, but there was one more thing Brian wanted to do before he went to sleep himself.
"Hey," he whispered hoarsely.
Achlys cracked one eye open, watched him curiously.
"Can I touch you?"
Brian had always liked dogs. He'd never met one he hadn't wanted to play with. When he was little he'd always kinda hoped Rheda would settle into the form of a dog, but fate had other plans. Just now, he felt a powerful urge to reach out and run his fingers through Achlys's thick fur; there was no doubt Achlys was not a dog, but he was warm and fluffy and comforting, somehow, lying there in bed sandwiched between Liv and Brian. And after all, Liv had let him touch her. Let him touch her plenty, 'til she was moaning and gasping and falling apart underneath him, and he was hoping with everything he had she'd let him do it again.
"Yes," Achlys said after a long moment.
He closed his eyes again, and Brian reached out, ran his hand over the wolf's proud head, and Achlys seemed to like that. He really seemed to like it when Brian scratched behind his ears; his tail thumped lazily against the mattress, and Liv sighed in her sleep, a soft, happy sort of sound. That was enough, Brian figured. Enough for now. He rolled onto his side, and fell asleep surrounded by the smell of Liv, and her wolf, his heart content for the first time in a very long while.
On the other side of the city Elliot was lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. Alina and Hermes curled up together at the end of the bed, where they always were. Kathy was fast asleep next to him, and he was wishing like hell he could follow her, but he was restless, tonight.
Restless, because he'd seen the way Brian Cassidy looked at Liv while the squad got ready to leave for the night. Restless, because he'd seen the way she smiled at him. They probably hadn't even realized what they were doing, the pair of them, hadn't realized how obvious Brian's attention was, or how obviously flattered Liv was by it. Maybe no one else had noticed it, maybe Munch and Jeffries and Cragen just didn't know what to look for, but Elliot had seen it. Was tonight the night? He wondered. Munch had invited the squad out for drinks and everybody but Elliot had gone and he was kicking himself for that now, for giving Cassidy the chance to make his move, a move Liv might accept, without someone there - without Elliot there - to give her a reason not to. Shit like that happened all the time, cops sleeping with other cops even though they weren't supposed to, and it always made things messy and Elliot would have stopped it, would have put himself and Alina between them and made sure Liv went home by herself, but he'd come back to Queens instead, and shit. Maybe they were fucking right now, Liv and Cassidy. Maybe Cassidy was touching her, and maybe she liked that, and-
"I can feel you thinking," Kathy grumbled good-naturedly beside him, reaching out for him blindly, letting her hand come to rest against his chest. Elliot took hold of that hand in his own, brought it up to his lips and pressed a kiss against her palm.
It wasn't any of his business, who Liv was fucking. She was a grown woman, and he had no claim over her, even if sometimes he felt like he should have. Sometimes, no matter how foolish it seemed, no matter how much he tried to tell himself that it was wrong, he felt like Liv was his.
Part of your pack, that's what mama would say, because mama took the wolf thing more seriously than anyone he'd ever met. And mama's head was in the clouds and sometimes the things she said didn't make a damn bit of sense, but that part, the part about the pack, he figured that was true, because the people he loved, the people he cared about, he felt such a need to protect them, to keep them close, he couldn't really explain it any other way. Before now that circle of connection had only extended to his family, but Olivia and Achlys had wormed their way inside it, and he didn't know what to do about it.
"Tell me?" Kathy asked him softly.
Their daemons had woken, too; Alina remained where she was, but Hermes came hopping up, planted himself on Elliot's chest and cocked his head, watching him curiously.
Elliot had always been fond of the rabbit. Hermes liked to explore, and he liked to play, but he could be unpredictable, too, lived his life caught between inquisitiveness and fear. Kathy was the same, Elliot thought, because fear made her want to run, but if he gave her a good reason to stay she could be full of questions. Like she was now, asking him to tell her, to share with her what burdened him. He made her feel safe, and she was trying to help him now, but how could he tell her? How could he explain that what kept him up tonight was the thought of Cassidy's hands on Olivia's skin, the thought of Olivia's thighs clutching at Cassidy's hips, the thought of the sounds she might make, the thought of how this decision might hurt her, the thought that Elliot himself should have stopped it, and the guilt he felt for all of it?
Hermes was a plain, grey-brown sort of rabbit, the kind found wreaking havoc in many a garden, and Elliot looked at him, now, watched one of Hermes's ears go flat while the other remained standing straight up, shivering like he was thinking about bolting. Wolves and rabbits, he thought. Maybe in the wild wolves were meant to eat rabbits, but Alina had only ever tried to keep Hermes safe. She sheltered him, protected him, liked having him close and watching him at play. Liked knowing he was happy, and safe, because of her. And maybe Elliot felt that way about Kathy; maybe he liked knowing he'd given her the life she wanted, liked knowing he was the one who protected her. And he'd never really thought about it before, but he was thinking about it now; what would it be like, he asked himself, to be with someone else? Someone different? What good was a protector without something to protect, and what did a girl with a wolf for a daemon need protecting from? Surely she could do that herself. Surely she was meant for someone with a smaller daemon, someone she could look after, the way Elliot looked after Kathy.
And Cassidy's daemon was a fucking hedgehog.
"It's nothing, baby," he said.
October 21, 2004
"You should call him," Achlys said.
"I'm not gonna call him," Olivia answered firmly.
It was late, and the case had wrapped, and she was home and lying on her sofa, with a cardboard container of lo mein balanced on her belly. One of the late night guys was cracking shitty jokes on the tv, a little noise to keep her company, and Achlys was lying on the floor beside her, his head close to hers.
From the moment she'd been born, Achlys had been her constant companion. For years her only friend, her only confidante. The keeper of her secrets, the one, the only one, who had not left her, who would not ever leave her. That's what daemons were for; to comfort, to guide, to make sure that no one, no one, was ever truly alone. When she was a teenager, afraid of her mother, afraid of the other girls in school, with no one to talk to and no one she'd want to talk to, anyway, she'd fallen asleep every night with Achlys wrapped around her, keeping her warm, keeping her safe. When her mother grew angry, unpredictable, uncontrolled, Achlys was there, putting himself between Olivia and danger. Friends came and went, lovers faded in and out, and Achlys remained, the only one who knew her, the only one who mattered.
"She left him, Olivia," Achlys said.
"Yes," Olivia agreed. "Yes, she did, and he didn't tell us. He clearly didn't want us to know and it's not any of our business anyway."
Kathy had left Elliot, and he hadn't said a fucking word about it, had just grown more and more sullen until he finally snapped and lost his cool and the truth came spilling out. It wasn't even Elliot who told her in the end, it was a fucking lawyer, blindsiding Olivia with the news right there in Cragen's office, and there was nothing she could do, nothing she could say, nothing left but to keep her mouth shut, and pretend that she hadn't just felt the pillars of the earth tremble beneath her feet.
It wasn't like she knew everything that went on in Elliot's private life. Obviously, obviously she didn't or she wouldn't have been so shocked, so devastated for him, when she learned that Kathy had left. It was just that she knew him. She knew Elliot. Knew him better than she'd ever known any other man, and she knew what his family meant to him. That was what it all came down to in the end: family. Capital F Family, a holy, sacred thing Olivia had never had for herself, a blessing Elliot had cherished. Mom and dad and kids in a house with a yard, making it all work, loving each other, promising never to leave. Something Olivia had never had, something she'd always wanted, something she'd fight every day to protect, because she knew what it was to go without, and she wouldn't wish that fate on anyone else.
Elliot's family. His people. His pack, if she wanted to get wolfish about it, which she figured she might as well, all things considered. The ones he loved, the ones he protected, cherished. The ones he'd give his life for, the ones he belonged to, as Olivia had never belonged to anyone. Family meant everything to him; who was he, without it? Who was he, cast out, adrift, without the woman he loved, the woman he'd made a life with? What would be left of him, if at the end of the day he went back to an apartment without his children in it? How much must his heart be hurting now, and why the fuck hadn't he told her about it?
"You know why," Achlys said as if he'd read her very thoughts, which he might as well have done. She didn't need to speak for him to understand her, and he was right, anyway.
She did know why. Deep down, she knew. Elliot worried she'd think he was a failure, if she knew he hadn't been able to salvage his marriage. He worried he'd run her off, same as he'd done to Kathy. He couldn't let himself be vulnerable, couldn't let anyone, not even her, see him when he was weak. Especially not her. Not her, because they had given too much of themselves to one another already, and if he came to her now, seeking comfort, seeking shelter, there was no telling what would become of them.
From the moment they met she'd felt it, that pull towards him. Like a hook had caught her just behind the navel, caught her like a fish on a line, reeling her in, slowly, slowly, towards him, and nothing she could do about it but let it take her. When he smiled at her she felt like she'd swallowed the sun itself and carried it in her belly, warming her from the inside out. When they marched shoulder-to-shoulder into danger she felt invincible, so long as he was with her. She told him things, things she'd never told anyone but Achlys, and knew he'd keep her secrets safe. And he must have felt it, too, she thought, must have, because that first year they'd worked together every time she turned around he was there, just there, so close she could feel his breath on the back of her neck, his hands settling on her shoulder, her elbow, the small of her back, her own reaching for him just as often and they'd never talked about it, never said a word, but after Kathy came to the station that day they'd withdrawn from one another. His hands no longer reaching for her, nor hers for him, though it pained her, sometimes, to hold back. He wasn't hers to touch and he must have remembered that she wasn't his, either, but the want remained.
And now, this. Now Kathy was gone, the reason for their reserve no longer holding them back, and still he hadn't told her. Hadn't shared with her, hadn't let his hand rest on her shoulder again. She knew that, too.
"You know he's unhappy," Achlys said seriously.
Yes, she did. She imagined it for a moment, Elliot across town in some shabby apartment; he'd moved out, and probably left all the furniture behind. Had he even taken the time to buy himself a sofa? Or did he just have a mattress lying on the floor, a carton of takeout on his belly just like Olivia had now? The thought was a miserable one. He was the one who was supposed to have a home. He was the one who was supposed to do this thing right. He wasn't the one who was supposed to ache.
"I can't call him," she answered. "I can't. He's gotta deal with this himself. He doesn't want me in the middle of it."
"You know that's not true."
Yeah, Olivia knew that, too. She still didn't call.
March 28, 2006
"You should call her," Alina said.
"I'm not gonna fucking call her," Elliot grumbled.
It was Liv who'd chosen to leave. After Gitano, after he'd told her that he couldn't stand to lose her, that she was the last good thing left in his life, that their partnership meant everything to him, she had walked into Cragen's office and asked for a transfer and never even consulted Elliot about it. Jesus, she knew what it would do to him, her walking out. She oughta know better than anybody, considering how many times she'd been left behind herself. But she'd done it, just the same. Just walked, and left him and Alina all alone, and that shit stung, almost as bad as Kathy leaving. Just as bad, maybe. Worse, maybe, because he'd known Kathy was going, had seen the writing on the wall and hadn't changed, hadn't tried to make amends. Shit started to go bad the day Kathy first saw Achlys and he knew it. He'd known her leaving was coming, watched it happen like watching the rain roll in off the ocean, inevitable. But Liv? Jesus, he hadn't seen that coming. Blindsided him, that's what she'd done. That woman he knew so well, knew better than anyone else on God's green earth except for maybe Kathy, she'd still managed to surprise him, because he'd thought they were solid, thought they were of one mind, except now she'd proved him wrong, because she'd left.
"You know why she left," Alina said, patiently. She was curled up on the other end of the sofa, looking for all the world like some kind of overgrown lap dog, her tail flicking lazily as she watched him, watched him sit with his back straight and his legs stretched out in front of him, refusing to look at her.
Yeah, he knew why she left. Knew it, deep down. Knew it without the need for words because he'd looked into her face that day in the warehouse, and he'd seen it. Seen her holding her gun, her finger on a trigger she was never gonna pull, his own heart in her eyes. For years now they'd been fighting it, shrugging off the comments about how close their daemons were, keeping their hands in their pockets, trying to pretend they were just partners, just friends, and nothing more. Like it didn't have to mean anything, their souls being the same shape. That day in the warehouse they couldn't hide from it, either of them. And he'd tried to tell her, in the hospital, tried to tell her he'd do better for her sake because he couldn't love her and he couldn't lose her, and he'd thought she'd understood, thought she'd agreed, only she hadn't. She'd left, anyway, and he was hurt, and pissed, and…hurt.
There was no point in lying to Alina; she knew what he felt, because she felt it, too.
"I do," he said grimly. "I know. I know why."
"So call her," Alina said.
That was the thing about daemons. About the soul made flesh. Every word she said was a word he'd thought. She was him, as much as he was himself, his heart, sitting on the end of the sofa and talking to him. And she was right. She was right. He wanted to call Olivia. Wanted to run to her. Wanted to demand an accounting from her. Wanted to fucking touch her, the way Alina was always touching Achlys. Wanted to protect her, the way Alina had always protected her, every time some perp got too close. He couldn't love Olivia because he was married, but he wasn't married, any more. He couldn't love Olivia because she was his partner, but she wasn't his partner any more. All those obstacles had melted away and all that was left was his want.
But Olivia had walked away, and whatever his heart wanted, his pride and his hurt wouldn't let him reach for it. Olivia had decided what she wanted the day she left, and he wasn't gonna go begging.
Even if he wanted to.
November 1, 2006
She came back, left again, and tore him up in the process, because Jesus, how was anything ever supposed to go back to normal, how was he ever supposed to figure out what the fuck she wanted from him, if she kept leaving? If he couldn't trust her to just fucking stay? His life had been in a tailspin from the moment he met her, and it never seemed to get any easier. Dani fucking Beck certainly hadn't helped, Dani who was beautiful and fierce but too fragile for the work, Dani who he wanted, or maybe didn't want, or shit, he didn't know. Dani whose daemon was a fox, a little grey fox who never, ever warmed up to Alina, not that Alina had given him a chance. Maybe Elliot didn't know what he wanted, but Alina knew. She didn't want Dani.
She wanted Liv, and Achlys, and she'd told him so, told him she was lonesome for their friends, and he didn't know what to do about it, didn't know what to say to her. He'd been lonesome for them, too. Lonesome, underneath the hurt, missing Olivia like he'd miss his own right hand. Missing the way it felt, walking into a room with Olivia and Achlys beside him; fucking invincible, that's how he'd felt. Who could stop them, two well-trained cops with guns in their hands and two wolves who'd never backed down from a fight? Crowds parted before them like the sea before Moses and sometimes when he was with her, with them, he felt like they owned the whole fucking city. On top of the world, that's how he felt when he was with her, but she'd left.
Left, and then came back, and now here they were, sitting together in a cafe drinking overpriced coffee and trying to avoid one another's gaze. That didn't mean he wasn't looking at her, though. She'd changed her hair while she was in Oregon. It was different, longer. Pretty, and soft. It suited her. He might have told her he liked it, if he hadn't been so twisted up inside. He wanted to snap at her, wanted to yell, wanted to call her a deserter, a betrayer, wanted to beg her never to leave him. Wanted to take all these messy, complicated feelings, these feelings of abandonment, of want, of uncertainty, the feeling of fucking embarrassment he felt at having been so deeply affected by her, wanted to take all of it, carve all of it out of his heart and throw it in the fucking dumpster so he could just be rid of it. But life didn't work like that. He was gonna have to work with her, and he was gonna have to swallow all this shit down.
They were attracting stares; they often did. The wolves were too big to nestle under the table at their feet, and so they paced, instead, just behind the chairs where Elliot and Olivia were sitting, surveilling the cafe. The wolves had been restless, since Liv came back. Achlys kept bumping Alina's cheek with his snout, and she kept backing away. He wouldn't just stop, though. Like he didn't want her to withdraw from him, like he wouldn't let her, like he didn't understand why things couldn't just go back to the way they had been, before. Was that how Olivia felt? Elliot wondered. Did she just want everything to go back to normal? Was she reaching out to him, hoping he'd meet in the middle? Was he the one pulling away? Shit, he didn't know. Sometimes the daemons just made things more complicated, he thought. It might have been easier to pretend everything was fine if Olivia couldn't see his mistrust of her in every move Alina made.
November 11, 2006
"She knew that she was gonna die, and she still lied to my face," Olivia said softly, disbelieving.
It was late, or early, really; the night had worn into morning, though sunrise was still a few hours off. She could feel it coming, though. Could feel the city slowly waking up around them, a great, slumbering beast shifting restlessly in the predawn darkness. Every time she closed her eyes she heard the sound of Valerie Sennet's screams echoing in her ears, and word had just come through twenty minutes ago. Valerie was dead, and Olivia was here, sitting on Elliot's stoop with Achlys curled up at her feet, trying to make sense of it all.
"When love warps into hate, there's nothing you won't do," Elliot said grimly.
He'd know, Olivia thought. He'd know because he'd been in love, and lost it, because he was fighting like hell with Kathy, digging his heels in, desperate to see his kids just as Miles Sennet had been. He'd know, because he had something she never had, something she was beginning to think she never would have. A person had to fall in love to learn just how thin the line between love and hate could be, she thought. And she'd never fallen in love. Never really loved anybody, except Achlys.
There was no sense trying to quantify it, trying to dig through her heart and sort out what kind of love it was she felt for him, this hulking man sitting beside her in his old grey hoodie, staring into the cup of coffee she'd brought for him. It didn't matter what kind of love it was; all that mattered, she thought, was that it was love. It was love, that stayed her hand when she could have shot Gitano. It was love that sent her running from Elliot, when he told her we can't be partners anymore and she'd known she'd never be able to stop putting him first, and she'd taken off, been the first leave before he got a chance to do it himself. It was love that had her whispering his name that night in the hospital, and love that brought her home, and love that brought her here, to his front door, a few minutes before 5 am. It was love that made her sway towards him, just so she could feel the warmth of his shoulder brushing against her own. It was love that kept her up, made it impossible to sleep until she'd patched things up with him. The whole world felt wrong when they were out of step with one another, and she wanted to find their rhythm again. Whatever it took.
"That's why I signed the divorce papers," he said, and Olivia's stomach swooped, and Achlys lifted his head, staring up at them. "I don't want Kathy to ever regret me."
She hummed; she didn't really know what to say. Part of her wanted to reassure him, tell him he and Kathy never would have ended up like Miles and Valerie and the fact that he'd signed the papers proved that. Part of her wanted to tell him he was too good, to ever do what Miles had done. But part of her knew better. She remembered the way they'd fought after Gitano, hell, the way they'd fought the last few days, sniping at one another, bitter, angry; there was no one in the world who knew her the way he did, and no one in the world whose words could cut her as deeply as his did. That was what love did, she thought. Love stripped a person of their defenses, and left them vulnerable. No one can hurt you like someone who loves you.
"That's a step in the right direction, Elliot," she said finally.
Really it was; Kathy was so desperate for a divorce she'd come to beg for Olivia's help. It was help Olivia had not given, because she couldn't be the one to do that to Elliot. Couldn't be the one to tell him that his marriage was really over, that Kathy just wanted to be done with him, that he needed to face reality. She couldn't be the one to deliver that blow, the final catalyst for the destruction of his family. There were, she thought, so few good families left, and she'd always thought Elliot had one of them, and as long as his family remained whole her faith in love, and the bonds that sustained people, remained intact. But Elliot had signed the papers, and shattered that dream for both of them.
She still didn't understand it, not really. Sure, Elliot wasn't always the easiest guy to be around, but Jesus, she thought, he was worth it. That was why she was sitting there, in the dark, nursing a cup of tea with his knee knocking against hers at 5 o'clock in the morning. She'd been given a chance to go anywhere she wanted, to do anything she wanted, to start over fresh, and she'd chosen to come home because she couldn't imagine a life without him in it. Without his smiles, and his smartass, cocky sense of humor, and the tender, gentle way he got with people who were hurting. Kathy had four of his children and a lifetime with him and she'd thrown it all away, and why? That's what Olivia couldn't understand. Because he got angry sometimes? Hell, who didn't?
Then again, plenty of people had walked away from her, and her heart was a wolf, same as his. Maybe she was being too hard on Kathy. Maybe they really were impossible to live with, her and Elliot both.
"So, are we ok?" she asked him then. He'd gone quiet on her, grieving the state of his marriage, but she hadn't come here to talk to him about Kathy, and she knew he didn't want to anyway.
All this time Alina had been lying on the step above him, well away from Achlys. It hadn't escaped Olivia's notice, the grey wolf's reticence to be near them. For weeks now she'd been like this, withdrawn, turning her back on Achlys, careful not to walk too near Olivia herself. Guarded, uncertain, as Elliot had been himself, but somehow Olivia didn't think it was anger that kept them both away from her. Somehow she thought it might have been hurt, and that was harder to bear than the anger might have been. But Alina stood up now, stretched, looked down on Olivia with those golden eyes, unreadable now as ever.
"I just... need space to disagree with you so that I don't feel like it's gonna cost me our partnership." Elliot directed his confession to his coffee cup.
It was probably the most honest he'd ever been with her; something about the darkness, staring straight ahead, refusing to look at one another, made it easier to say all the things they never wanted to face. They were the same, in that regard; neither of them was much for talking about feelings. Feelings were messy. Feelings hurt. And most of the time, feelings didn't do anybody a damn bit of good. But he was telling her the truth, now, and she tried to listen. Tried to hear what he was telling her.
"You've never been gunshy before," she told him. They'd always felt safe disagreeing with one another, had always been able to fight and patch things up without too much damage, but everything felt different, now, and when she thought about why, it scared her.
"Yeah, well, you know, I mean, things change," he said.
You and the job are the only things I've got anymore. I don't wanna wreck that. I couldn't take it.
It felt like a lifetime since he'd said those words to her. Since he'd told her she was all he had, and she'd walked out on him anyway. No wonder Alina was reticent. Olivia had come back, and she'd thought that might prove to him that she wanted to be here, but maybe it wasn't enough. She'd come back from Computer Crimes, too, and then she'd been roped into Dana's crazy scheme and been ripped away from her life and Dani fucking Beck had taken her place and was it any wonder, she thought, that he was struggling, when everybody kept leaving him?
Olivia knew how that felt. But she had no plans to leave him, not now, maybe not ever again, because the only time she felt like her feet were planted on solid ground was when she was with him. You give him stability, Kathy had told her. Well, Elliot gave her stability, too.
"Like you said, you're the longest relationship that I've ever had with a man," she reminded him. The accusation had stung, mostly because it was the truth, and she didn't want to admit why. Elliot was the only man who'd ever accepted her, chosen her, wanted her for more than sex, the only one who'd ever understood her, the only who'd ever stuck around. And he was afraid of her leaving, and she was telling him, in her own way, that she wouldn't. That she couldn't.
"Who else would put up with me?"
No one, that's who. No one wanted a woman with a murky past and rage in her belly and a fucking wolf walking beside her. No one wanted her anger and her grief and her righteousness and her duty. No one but him.
Behind him Alina stepped out from the shadows, padded softly down the steps, and they watched her, Elliot and Olivia. Achlys's head cocked to the side, and when she drew near he stood up. For weeks now he'd been entreating her, trying to touch her, to regain some of their old closeness, and she'd rebuffed him, but it was Alina going to him, now, Alina seeking him out. She came to a stop on the ground in front of him, and leaned in close, brushed her cheek against his, and Achlys's tail wagged once, tentatively, before he nuzzled himself against her neck, and Elliot and Olivia breathed out a sigh of relief in unison.
"You hungry?" Elliot asked her softly.
She smiled, watching their wolves together, memories of this awful fucked up case, this whole awful fucked up year, fading slowly as the morning wore on. Alina had gone to Achlys, and Elliot had extended an olive branch to her, and everything's gonna be ok, she thought.
"I could go for a bite," she allowed.
They could do that, now. They could go to the all-night diner at the end of the block and drink greasy coffee and eat bone-dry eggs before the sun was even up, because Elliot didn't have a wife to worry about anymore, had no one answer to, just like Olivia had no one in the world but him.
"Who's buying?" he asked.
"Well, you are going through a divorce and you do have four children so...I guess you are."
She grinned at him, and he smiled back, not a full smile, but a warm one, still, appreciating the fact that they could tease one another again.
"That's what I thought."
And just like that, the whole world seemed to settle back into place. Everything right where it was meant to be. They stood up together, laughed when their joints cracked and their bodies creaked, accepting the fact that they were getting older by the day, but doing it together. They stepped down off the stoop, and walked off into the darkness with Achlys and Alina between them, their great fluffy bodies brushing together as they went.
Everything's gonna be ok, she thought.
March 23, 2007
"Why did you do that?" Alina asked him as she settled herself down on the backseat of the sedan.
Elliot glanced up at the rearview mirror, and saw the displeasure written all over her face. After a lifetime spent in her company he'd learned to read the lift of her brow, the shape of her eyes, the twists of her ears, and her unhappiness communicated itself so plainly to him that he felt it settle in his own bones.
Fuck, he thought.
"I don't wanna do this with you," he said, looking away and throwing the car into gear. He had a fucking job to do, and the last thing he wanted was to argue with his daemon about why he'd slept with his wife. Ex-wife. Whatever. That was the last thing he wanted, because truth be told, he didn't really know how to answer her.
"I'm serious," she said. Jesus, but Alina never could let things go. On a certain level Elliot understood that her stubbornness was his stubbornness, but it still irritated the shit out of him sometimes. Everybody said he was hard to live with; in moments like this one, he thought he understood why.
"She's my wife," Elliot said. Only Kathy wasn't his wife anymore, hadn't been for a while now, and he knew Alina would see right through him, but there wasn't another word he could find to express the way he felt. He thought of Kathy, and thought wife. Thought home. Thought safe. Thought mine.
"I know you've been lonely-"
"And I know you feel like you've let your family down-"
"I swear to God-"
"But you don't love her."
He'd been so distracted arguing with her he damn near rear ended the car in front of him, and he closed his eyes there at the red light, just for a second, breathed in deep and tried not to shout. However much it might bother him, having this conversation with her, however much he desperately wanted this to just stop, he loved Alina, and he didn't want to lash out at her. What sort of man could do that, be cruel to his daemon, to his own heart? Not the sort of man he wanted to be, he thought.
"Come on," he said, opening his eyes again, staring up at the light and waiting for it to turn green, waiting for the asshole in the Beamer in front of him to take his foot off the brake, waiting for the car to carry him far away from this night and all his stupid fucked up feelings. "You know, Alina. You know."
From the moment Elliot drew his first breath, Alina had been by his side. Been by his side the first time he met Kathy, the first time he held her hand, the first time he kissed her. There was no one who understood what Elliot and Kathy shared better than their daemons, and really, he thought, he shouldn't have to spell it out for the wolf lounging on the seat behind him. When they were young and stupid he and Kathy had gotten themselves into trouble and he'd had to make a choice. To do the easy thing, and follow his own dreams and leave her behind, or stand up and be a man, and make sure that she wasn't the only one suffering for their sins.
Liv would have something to say about that, he thought. About Catholics and the romanticization of suffering. About memorizing the wounds of the saints tortured for their faith and venerating them for it. About feeling like he deserved it, like the only way he could make up for wrong he'd done was through pain. She'd probably be right.
But it hadn't been all suffering, and that was the part he couldn't get past. He remembered nights dancing Kathy around the kitchen, laughing, and the sound of each of his children's first cries. He remembered years, years upon years, a lifetime of years, spent with her. Kathy, the one he shared his secrets with; Kathy, the one who held him; Kathy, the one good, normal thing in his life. Jesus, she'd been in his head, in his heart since he was a kid, and there was a part of him that just didn't feel right, without her. He didn't know how to be, without her. Wasn't that love?
"You care about her, and you don't want to see her hurt, and you want to look after her. That's not the same thing as love."
If the cop thing didn't work out, he thought, they might have a future in psychiatry. He could just sit back and let Alina shrink a bunch of strangers and rake in the cash.
"What the fuck is it, then?"
"It's a kind of love, but it's not the same thing as being in love."
"I really don't think the distinction matters," he said.
What kinda corny shit was that anyway? He thought grimly. Love or in love, what difference did it make? Marriage wasn't about being in love forever, as far as he was concerned. Marriage was about making a choice. Choosing to be there for one another, choosing to stay, choosing to work together, grow together, build something together. Everybody said lust faded, and all that was left was a choice. A choice to be there, or walk away, and he never, ever wanted to be the one who chose to leave. It was Kathy who'd left him, and it had taken a hellacious fucking case to make him see sense, and let her go. But she'd been talking to him again, and last night she'd given him a choice, and he'd chosen. He'd chosen the man he wanted to be. He wanted to be the man who stayed.
"You're in love with Olivia."
If Alina had been anyone else, he probably would have hit her for that. It was reflexive, the anger he felt hearing those words. Knee-jerk, unstoppable. It made him so fucking mad; she should have known better, he thought. Known that those words were meant to remain unspoken, that nothing good could come of bringing them into the light. There were dark things, grim things, scary things lurking beneath the surface of those words. Things like betrayal, and catastrophe, and doom. Things like real, and true, and impossible. He was in love with Olivia; he couldn't be in love with Olivia. He wanted her; that want was gonna wreck them. It was better not to face it. Better to just keep moving, to keep things the way they always had been, the way they were always meant to be. He'd sworn a vow to God that he would stand beside Kathy for the rest of his life and breaking that vow made him feel dirty all over. And Olivia…shit.
"That doesn't matter."
She wouldn't want him anyway, he thought. What Elliot wanted was a home, a family, a life, and Olivia bolted the first time anybody got too close. Olivia was the one who'd left him, same as Kathy. But Olivia had come back, too. Same as Kathy. Each of them wanted what they'd had before; Kathy wanted to be his wife and Liv wanted to be his partner and he could make them both happy if he just stayed the fucking course. Because surely, surely, if Liv wanted anything more than work between them she wouldn't have just vanished to computer crimes. When he wasn't married and they weren't partners she could have asked him for the whole world and he would have given it to her but she just left, and when she came back all she asked him for was work. That settled it, he thought.
"You know it does," Alina said, very softly.
It wasn't like he'd gone to Olivia, either. He knew where she was while she was away. Well, he hadn't known about Oregon, but before that. He knew where she lived, where she was working, knew her number, could have called - Alina had told him to call - could have driven like a bat out of hell through the night and pounded on her door until she opened it, opened herself, up to him and they could have…
It doesn't matter.
Could have, would have, should have, didn't count for shit. All that mattered was what was. And what it was was this: Kathy was his wife and the mother of his children, and Liv was his partner, and if he got confused about who went on which side of the line his whole world would come tumbling down around his ears. He was tired of people leaving. He just wanted them to stay.
"I owe it to them," he said. "I made a promise to Kathy and I owe it to her not to leave her alone with all this shit. And Liv belongs in SVU. I owe it to her to make sure she can stay there. I can't go getting it confused."
Even if Olivia was the most beautiful goddamn woman he'd ever seen in his life. Even if she was the only one who understood him, the only one who saw his anger and his tenderness and nurtured them both, and never asked him to sacrifice one for the other. Even if she felt comfortable, to him, even if he felt sometimes like she was the other half of his own heart, even if he looked at their wolves, sometimes, and thought words like fate and bound and same. Even if all Alina wanted to do was be cuddled up next to Achlys, even if his own heart called Olivia's name and said love, he couldn't let it change his path. His whole life had been planned out for him the day Kathy told him she was pregnant with Maureen, and she deserved better from him than his devotion to the beautiful, wounded woman who lived inside his chest. And Olivia, she deserved better than him, better than a man who'd want to settle her wild heart, better than a man who'd always be halfway bound to someone else. She deserved…she deserved the whole fucking world. There was only one thing she wanted that he could give her, and that was the job, and he wasn't gonna go fucking it up on account of him loving her.
"What about you?" Alina asked him sadly.
Maybe it was her job to be selfish, he thought. She was his soul, his heart, his every thought made flesh. Every word she said to him reflected his own desires back at him. And didn't every man, every person, struggle with their desires? With wanting things they couldn't have, with feelings that stood in contradiction to their beliefs? Maybe that was why daemons could talk, he thought. Maybe that was the only way to make sense of the tangled mess was to have someone to talk to about it, someone to work through it with, someone to advocate for him, even when he couldn't advocate for himself.
"I got to think about more than just me," he said. "I gotta think about Kathy, and the kids, and any grandkids we might have. Our family doesn't just stop because I signed the papers, that shit's forever. And I gotta think about Liv. I gotta do what's best for everybody."
"Olivia loves you, too, you know."
I would have done the same thing, she'd told him, with Gitano holding a gun to his head. Looked him in the eye, and told him she would have left Ryan to die same as he'd done, just to look after him. Maybe that was love. Maybe that was being in love. The willingness to let everything else burn, for just one person. But that was the kinda love that hurt. It wasn't the kinda love she deserved.
"I know," he said.
He knew, and it didn't change a damn thing. At least not in this moment. Maybe it could change things, eventually. Maybe he couldn't have just go on knowing that Olivia loved him, and that he loved her, forever, without snapping. Maybe it was all gonna come crashing down no matter what he did.
"It didn't work with Kathy the first time," Alina told him. "She wants you to be someone you're not. You could be happy with her, for a little while, but you're always gonna be you, Elliot, and one day she's gonna remember why she walked out."
That shit stung, more than he wanted to admit. His own heart, telling him he was impossible to love, impossible to live with. Reminding him that he'd been too angry, too closed off, too far away for Kathy to reach, reminding him that he might always be. His own daemon thought he was a dick; he didn't want to examine that too closely, didn't want to think about what that said about the state of him.
"She couldn't accept you. Olivia does."
Kathy had left because he was angry; Liv had left because he loved her. Neither of those things was gonna change, but only one of them was something worth holding on to.
When Kathy called him that day he didn't answer. Didn't answer the next time, either, because Alina's words had burrowed into his brain and a small, selfish part of him kept saying as long as you're divorced, you're free. As long as you're single, there's a chance. And Kathy left you once; you can't make her happy. But you could make Olivia happy, if you tried. He'd almost worked himself up to asking Kathy if she really, actually wanted him back, if she really thought they'd make it, or if she thought maybe they oughta just leave things as they were. He'd almost gotten there, and then Kathy told him she was pregnant, and none of the rest of it mattered any more. He had a choice to make, and he made it.
June 28, 2011
"That's her," Nirah whispered in her ear.
"I know," Amanda whispered back. "I'm going."
She'd been looking forward to this from the moment she first found out she'd been accepted by the NYPD. Not only did this job provide her the chance to run like hell from the unpleasantness and the sweltering heat in Atlanta, it would also give her the opportunity to work alongside one of the most well-respected SVU detectives in the whole goddamn country. She'd be given the chance to learn, to grow, to make new connections, to build her career in a way she was never gonna get to do in Atlanta, and she'd get to work with Benson. Everybody knew about Benson.
And everybody knew about her fucking wolf.
That's how Amanda and Nirah recognized their new colleague; Amanda had never seen a picture of the woman, but she'd heard about him. About the wolf who walked beside her, hulking and terrifying, every inch of him black, no spot of color to be found. About the wolf who let strangers touch him, who guarded victims so fiercely, who was a little holy, and a lot scary. Daemons that big, that ferocious, that fucking special didn't turn up every day, and when they did folks always liked to talk. Folks had talked a lot about that daemon, but they hadn't prepared Amanda for the sight of the woman herself. Olivia Benson was tall and tan, with a body to kill for and a face to match, but there was no softness in her; she marched through the squadroom like she owned the place, her steps steady and sure and powerful, her eyes dark and hard as the eyes of the daemon who prowled along beside her. Even from a distance there was a palpable sort of anger about her, and ordinarily Amanda wouldn't have tried to waylay a senior detective who seemed so ready for a fight but they were meant to work together, and everybody was so fucking busy, she knew she might not get another chance to speak to Benson today, and she wanted to, very much. Now or never, she told herself.
"Detective Benson?" she called, chasing after the woman and her wolf. Benson spun back around, a flicker of annoyance darting across her face, and that wolf of hers stepped in front of her protectively, but Amanda steeled herself and continued."Hi," she said, holding out her hand for a shake. "Amanda Rollins."
Benson still had her keys in her hands, was still leaning back like she couldn't wait to get moving again, but she spared a moment for Amanda, nodding at the sound of her name like she knew what it meant.
"Transfer from Dallas, right?" she said. Her voice was smooth and low, but hardly reassuring.
"Yeah, well, Atlanta."
Nirah was draped loosely around her neck the way he so often was, a thin, bright green scarf, and he raised his head, then butted himself against her chin, his lithe body tensing with displeasure. Benson's eyes darted to him warily as he moved; most people got antsy when they saw Amanda had a snake for a daemon. Most people didn't trust snakes or the folks who walked beside them but that, Amanda thought, was just because they didn't understand. Maybe Benson didn't want to talk to her and maybe Benson didn't like the sight of her snake but Amanda wasn't gonna let it deter her now. Benson was in a hurry, like everyone else Amanda had met today, but Amanda was determined to make a connection here, determined to start something, instead of always running away.
"You like Distasio for this?" she asked. Their current case had seen an Italian diplomat caught in the crosshairs and everybody was on red alert, watching their asses and trying to stay out of the line of fire. It took balls to go after a guy like that, and rumor was Benson had the biggest balls around.
"Uh...he was there," Benson answered tersely. Clearly she was tired of indulging Amanda; honestly, she was borderline rude, looking back over her shoulder and refusing to engage, and Amanda's heart sank in her chest. She hadn't expected this, somehow; shouldn't a good SVU cop, a great one, have better people skills?
Maybe mama was right and people are just meaner up north, she thought.
"Well," she said, trying to find the least humiliating way to wrap this little conversation up, "I just…I-I just wanted to let you know I'm really happy to be here." And she was. Jesus, she was happy to be here, mostly because here wasn't there. "I, um, I've studied a lot of your cases. I used some of the stuff you did on the Brown case- the-the infant homicide."
Everybody knew about that case. They'd started using it in the academy back in Atlanta. And word had spread like wildfire about Benson's cross-country rape kit testing crusade; after she hit LA all the urban police departments started getting antsy, worried about getting crucified in the press. Benson had done that. Benson and her wolf.
"Yeah," Benson said, like she wasn't even listening. "Yeah, I haven't briefed the captain yet, so…" she gestured over her shoulder, keys clacking together merrily, at odds with the sinking feeling in Amanda's gut.
"Sure," Amanda said, waving her off, and Benson reached out, brushed her hand against Amanda's arm in a gesture that might have been warm, if she hadn't spent the last thirty seconds trying like hell to get away from Amanda in the first place.
"Thank you," Benson said, and then she was turning away, marching towards the captain's office.
Amanda expected the wolf to follow his mistress, but he didn't. At least, not right away. He lingered for a moment instead, watching her. Silent, unblinking, his breaths so slow and so even it looked like he wasn't even breathing at all, those black eyes fixed on her, and a chill lanced down her spine as she looked back, wondering. Wondering if it was always gonna be like this, if Benson was as distant and unapproachable as she seemed, if Benson's wolf was as fearsome as he looked, if she was ever gonna fit in here, or if everybody would always be trying to shake her off.
"It's a bad day," the wolf rumbled at her suddenly, and Amanda's eyes widened, startled. She hadn't expected the beast to speak, and she certainly hadn't expected him to attempt to reassure her. "Don't hold it against her."
And then he turned, and marched off to follow his woman, and left Amanda behind, wondering.
"She's kind of a bitch, isn't she?" Nirah said.
"Yeah, well, we're not exactly easy to get along with either," Amanda told him. The captain had assigned her a desk and she went there now, plopped down in it and stretched her legs out in front of her, sighing.
"You think we made a mistake?" Nirah asked.
Amanda looked around at the squadroom, the bustle of activity, the desk where Benson had thrown her jacket on her way to the captain's office and the desk across from it, the one that belonged to Benson's mysterious partner. Detective Benson hadn't gotten famous all on her own; every case she worked another cop had been beside her. Stabler. Folks said Stabler had himself a wolf for a daemon, too, and whispered about what it meant, but Amanda had never met the man, never seen his daemon for herself. All she knew was that he wasn't here, and no one in the stationhouse would speak his name. All his stuff was still on his desk; coffee mug, picture frame, little American flag mousepad. Just sitting there, like it was waiting, like the man himself was gonna come walking back through the door any second, when scuttlebutt was he'd been gone for weeks and wasn't coming back ever. The wolf had said it's a bad day; maybe it had been a bad month for Benson, with her partner gone and not knowing when he'd come back, and maybe she'd get over it, eventually.
"No," she said.
It wasn't a mistake, coming here. It couldn't be a mistake, because Amanda had sunk all her savings into this move, burned bridges in Atlanta and pissed off her mama and she couldn't go back, now. This choice she'd made, it couldn't be undone, and so she decided right then and there that it was the right one. It had to be.
"Gimme five minutes," she said to Fin, and then she was turning away, moving as fast as her feet would carry her, trying, with all her might, to hold herself together just long enough to find a private place to fall apart. When she stumbled across the empty interrogation room she darted into it gratefully, and tucked herself into the corner, out of sight of the window that ran along the front wall.
Elliot put in his papers.
Thirteen years, gone just like that. Thirteen years. After everything they'd been through together, every late night stakeout alone in the squad car, every fight, every anxious night spent in a hospital and every broken bone, after Gitano, and Eli, and Simon, after Oregon and Elliot's mother and Olivia's mother, after everything, the deepest, most profound relationship she'd had in her entire life was just. Over. Done. Finished. Without a word from him, without a chance to say goodbye, Elliot had done the one thing she'd never thought he'd do, the one thing her mother said everybody eventually would. Elliot had left.
For weeks she'd been calling him, desperate to reach him, and he'd refused to answer. Achlys kept pushing her to go to Queens, to show up in person, to demand an accounting from him, but she hadn't gone, and she knew now she never would. She hadn't gone because a part of her had been afraid of this, afraid he'd already made up his mind, afraid of how deeply it would wound her to look him in the eye in the moment he shattered her heart. And now she knew that she was right, that he had chosen to live his life without her, that he had nothing more to say to her, and she would not sacrifice her pride now. He'd taken just about everything else with him when he left; pride was all she had left.
A great, wracking sob worked its way up the back of her throat, and she leaned against the wall, and gave into her tears. Let them come, now, when she was alone, with no one but Achlys to bear witness to her grief. Alone, in the dark, out of sight, she could be honest with herself, and with him. Could admit the truth. The truth was that she had loved Elliot, as she had never loved anyone else, that he had been her friend, her family, her other half, that he had given her hope, and a place to belong, and the truth was that she didn't know who she was any more, without him. Or maybe she did know. Maybe she was what she had always been, what she had always been afraid to be; just a girl no one wanted.
Achlys leaned heavily against her legs, and she slid slowly down the wall until she was sitting on the floor. She wrapped her arms around his heavy neck, and buried her face in his fur, and wept, wept hard and miserable as she had not done since she was a child. He was soft and warm and he smelled of home, and he comforted her, somewhat. That was what he was meant to do, comfort her, and he was the only one who could, but he was part of her. All she had left to sustain herself now was her own soul, heavy in her arms.
"I don't want this to be the end," Achlys rumbled at her, giving voice to the thoughts in her own head. "I don't want to never see them again."
Just the thought of it made Olivia feel like she couldn't breathe. Her chest heaved but did not expand, no air coming in, no air going out. It wasn't just Elliot they'd lost; it was Alina, too. Her golden eyes, her soft silver fur, her warm, reassuring voice. The presence of another wolf, the reminder that Olivia and Achlys weren't alone, weren't freaks, were instead part of a matched set. They were meant to go together, Elliot and Olivia, Achlys and Alina. They were a force to be reckoned with, a united front, an unstoppable team. They were shattered.
There was never gonna be another man like Elliot, and there was never gonna be another daemon like Alina, she thought. There would never be another person who understood Olivia so well and cared for her anyway, and there would never be another daemon Achlys opened himself up to so easily. Olivia was certain of this; Olivia knew this, and feared this, deep in her heart. It was the loneliness that made it impossible for her to breathe; it was the knowledge that this loneliness would not end. Everything that once had been was no longer, and the future was bleak, and dark, and lonely.
Maybe later she'd feel differently. Maybe later she'd change her mind. Maybe one day she'd find something that gave her hope again. In that moment, though, confronted with the totality of her loneliness, it was hard to think of hope. All she felt was grief.
Achlys threw back his head then, and howled, long and loud and devastating. The cry of a wolf who had lost his pack. The cry of a heart that had been rent in two.
May 24, 2013
The view from the terrace was Elliot's favorite thing about Rome. The palazzo below, the fountains, the brick and the marble, the bustle of people and the twinkling lights of the city after dark; it was beautiful, and elegant, and foreign to him, a Jersey boy turned Queens man, a Marine and a cop who had never been particularly concerned with beautiful things before. He was learning about beautiful things, here. He was learning to open his eyes.
After nearly two years spent following private security work around the globe - nearly two years spent running from himself, whether he wanted to admit it or not - he had a new base of operations, here. In the dreary cold of a New York February he and Kathy had packed up everything they owned and carted Eli across the sea to Italy, started over fresh in an apartment that was older than the Union. He was still just a private contractor, but instead of following dignitaries around the desert for money he'd be working with the Polizia chasing international criminals, liaising with the States as needed. It was a good gig. It wouldn't take him away from Kathy and Eli as much, and it felt more like proper police work. He wouldn't feel so much like a soldier, and he was glad of it. He was tired of firing his gun.
He did like this, though. He was learning Italian on the fly, and Kathy delighted in helping him practice. They'd got Eli into an English language school but he was learning, too. Learning a hell of a lot faster than Elliot; everybody said kids picked things up quicker, and he figured that was right.
Liv spoke Italian, he remembered. Spoke it beautifully. When Liv spoke Italian every word sounded like a song. He tried not to think about that too much.
There were museums here, museums Kathy carted him off to with wonder in her eyes. There were churches like nothing he'd ever seen before. The Vatican was just there; nearly three months they'd been here, and Elliot still hadn't found it in his heart to visit the place, though Kathy wanted to, desperately. There was a part of him that was, still, hiding from God; he hadn't prayed since Jenna. Didn't want to pray, or confess his sin, didn't want to confront it, didn't want to hear what God would have to say about it. In the fall, he'd told Kathy, refusing to admit his real reasons for avoiding the place. After the summer tourists go home. Most days he felt like a tourist himself, but he was determined to make a go of it, here. To be one of the locals. He thought he was making headway in that regard; he'd started buying nicer suits, like the ones his colleague Matteo wore. Not the old grey suits from the discount racks at Macy's; nice blue suits, with vests and pocket squares. Kathy liked the new suits.
Liv would have made fun of him for them, he thought. Liv would have said he was trying to be someone he wasn't, and she'd be right.
The food was better here. Or different, at least. There had been plenty of good Italian in New York - Christ, it was New York, of course the Italian food was good - but there was something about eating it here, in Italy, in little restaurants tucked away in corners of ancient buildings, that made it taste better. Richer. Fuller. Right. The coffee was better, too, but then he'd spent so many years drinking the swill from the station coffee pot, the one that never got cleaned, or from bodegas at 3 am, maybe he'd just stopped worrying about quality, while he was in the city. It wasn't like he was drinking coffee just to appreciate it while he was a cop; he was drinking it to survive.
Everything was different here.
The pace of life was a little slower, he thought, but maybe that was just because the work wasn't as devastating. Kathy seemed lighter, somehow, but maybe that was just because she wasn't so worried about him, any more. In Rome there was nothing to distract him from her, and the pay was a hell of a lot better and they spent less time arguing about bills, and their older children required less attention, these days. It was just the three of them now, Kathy and Elliot and Eli, and their home was more peaceful than it had ever been. He had time to appreciate things, now.
Like he appreciated the view tonight, like he was appreciating sitting here in his shirtsleeves in the warm air of a May evening, sipping on a glass of good whiskey, watching the people drifting through the palazzo, listening to the splash of the fountain.
Liv always wanted to travel. He remembered stacks of brochures, pictures of white sand beaches and crystal clear blue waters. Remembered sitting in the car with her on stakeout, listening while she told him about her dreams. Paris, Rome, Vienna; Liv's mom had been an English professor, and in between her drunken rages and catatonic depressions Serena Benson had filled her daughter's head with stories, stories about far off places and devastating beauty, and Liv wanted to see it for herself. But Liv never got further afield than Brooklyn, tied to the city that was her lifeblood and the job that gave her purpose. Those brochures, they'd never been anything more than a dream, because Liv never took those vacations, never took more than one day off work at a time, and then only under duress. Just a dream, a soft, fragile thing Liv had nurtured in her heart, and never reached for.
And he was the one here now, the one soaking in all this beauty, while she was walking familiar, grimy streets. The time difference was about six hours; it was night here but it wouldn't be dark back home, not for hours yet. Where would she be, right now? Elliot wondered, looking out at the night. In the box with a perp, maybe, giving him hell while Achlys paced behind her, or marching through Midtown with crowds parting before her like water. On the stand, maybe, glorious in her power and her fury, putting some asshole away for life, making the world safer one case at a time. She'd be, he thought, where she'd always been. Liv belonged in SVU; that was just an immutable truth of the universe. That squad was where she was meant to be.
That was why he'd left, in the end. Well, one of the reasons. The main reason he'd left was because he couldn't live with himself if he stayed. That job was eating him alive, wrecking his relationships, his family, turning him into a fearful, angry man he didn't like very much. That job was breaking him in half, and the way he'd failed Jenna was the final straw. He was meant to protect her and he'd killed her instead. She was just a kid, about the same age as Lizzie, and he'd let her down, let her mother down, let himself down. He'd looked at her, bleeding out on the station floor, and seen his own child, and something inside him had shattered. How could he go back, how could he face another victim, how could he look his own children in the face, knowing what he'd done? That was the first reason he'd decided to go; he couldn't stay. The second reason was Liv.
It was Liv, because Tucker had looked him in the eye and told him that if he wanted to come back he'd have to submit to an IAB review of all his cases. IAB reviewing him meant IAB reviewing Liv, too. Meant dredging up all the sins of her past, all the secrets that were better off buried. Porter and Simon and every time Liv had ever fired her gun. The world had changed, over the years they'd been working together, and some of the shit she'd gotten away with back in the day wouldn't fly, now. They would have crucified her. And even if they hadn't she would have been marked, tainted by his sins and her own, trapped with no hope for advancement. He couldn't have that. Liv deserved better.
Liv deserved so much better, he thought, than him. She deserved better than a partner who'd stall her career and keep her down in the gutter with him forever. She deserved better than a man who loved her but couldn't touch her.
But it had been two years, and he was thinking of her, still. Thinking of her often. Thinking of her always. Kathy knew it; Kathy could see the far away look in his eyes, his gaze trained on the horizon, and she knew what it meant. Kathy knew, but she never said a word about it, like she thought just the mention of Olivia's name would be enough to send Elliot running for the hills, running for home, running for her. It was a fragile sort of happiness they'd found here in Rome, and Kathy didn't want to unbalance it, and Liv was the only thing heavy enough to tip the scales away from her.
With a sigh Elliot wrenched his eyes away from the palazzo, looked down at his drink and then over at Alina. The wolf had been restless, the last few days. Pacing, ears twitching, tail swishing in agitation. When Elliot asked her what's wrong she had no answers for him; I don't know, she kept telling him. I don't know, but something is wrong.
She was pacing now, back and forth, back and forth. The terrace was maybe ten feet long, and Alina just kept going from one end to the other, tail flicking, her eyes grim. Something had gotten under her skin and Elliot wanted to comfort her, but how the fuck was he supposed to do that when she didn't even know what was happening? It wasn't Kathy, or Eli; they were happy, and healthy, and safe, inside the apartment. Eli was tucked away in bed and Kathy was lounging on the sofa with a book in her hands, and not a care in the world. It wasn't work, he knew, because they'd wrapped up their last case and he had a whole weekend to spend alone with his family. He'd called all the big kids, Maureen and Kathleen and Dickie and Lizzie, and they were all fine, and mama was, too. What else was left?
Alina froze, suddenly, and Elliot felt it coming, felt it like it was crawling up the back of his own throat, the rising tide of horror, of grief. The whiskey glass tumbled from his grip and shattered upon the marble of the terrace at the exact moment Alina threw back her head, and howled. It was a terrible sound, one he'd never heard her make before, loud and high and full of pain. It was a sound like heartbreak made real, and it scared him more than anything else had ever done in all his life.
"You don't have the balls," he said, and something deep inside Olivia's chest snapped. She raised her head slowly, pausing for the briefest of moments to look at her own face in the reflection of the mirror. Her hair dirty and wild, her face bruised and bloody, her eyes black with vengeance; she did not recognize that woman in the mirror, but when she wrapped her hands around the metal bar, she felt a sort of purpose settle over her. For a while now, ten minutes, an hour, a day, she couldn't say how long it had been since she'd wrestled herself free from the bed, she'd been at war with herself, between what she wanted to do and what she ought to do. Between the action the law said was right, and the justice her heart demanded. Between what Elliot would do, and what an obedient cop would have done. With one simple taunt Lewis had made up her mind for her. That piece of shit, that vile, evil fucking demon handcuffed to the end of the bed, he thought he knew her, thought he had her all figured out.
He thought fucking wrong.
Achlys was in the corner, with Lewis's stoat trapped between his heavy paws. He was still woozy; Lewis had shot him, that's how fucking evil he was. Shot a fucking daemon, a creature who could bleed, who could feel pain, but could not die, could not escape from it. Shot him, and might as well have shot Liv herself, because Achlys was her own soul, and whatever he felt echoed in her own bones. Echoed like hurt, a hurt so bad she thought it was a wonder she hadn't died already. Of course Lewis didn't want them dead, Liv and Achlys; he wanted them wounded, and weak, and then he wanted to play. He'd underestimated both their tolerances for pain, however, and in the moment Liv had wrenched the bar off the bed and bashed Lewis with it, Achlys had caught that fucking stoat in his jaws. With man and daemon both neutralized Liv had time to think, but it hadn't helped, much. All she kept thinking was how alone she felt, trapped in that house with him, with no one coming to save her. No Nick, no Fin, no Amanda, no Brian, because they had no way of knowing where she was. No Elliot, because he had disappeared, and never looked back.
Someone who you would give anything to see just one more time.
He'd been right about that. Chained to that bed, powerless, Achlys delirious from pain in the corner, she hadn't thought of her lover, or her friends, or her brother, or her mother. She had thought of Elliot. Thought how fucking badly she wished he would come for her, and thought how fucking weak she felt for praying for it. Elliot had walked away, and he wasn't coming to save her now.
Except he was, in a way. My old partner, he'd know what to do. Once she spoke those words out loud, she couldn't think of anything else. Couldn't think of anything but him, bursting through the door, what he'd say, what he'd do, when he saw what had become of her. She thought of him, his strength, his vengeance, his righteousness, thought of how he'd always been more concerned with what was right than what was legal. Elliot would have looked at that man, seen the evil he had done, known how many times he had escaped justice in the past, and Elliot would have done what he must. Elliot would have saved her.
But Elliot wasn't here.
She was, and she turned slowly with that bar clutched in her hands. She would do what Elliot would have done, what Elliot could not do. If he couldn't save her, she would save herself. With grim determination she raised the bar over her head, and brought it down, hard. Again, and again, and as she did she began to scream, a feral, heartbroken sound ripping out of her with every strike.
In the corner of the room Achlys lifted his head, and howled, and on the other side of the world another wolf heard him, and answered.
March 26, 2021
It was raining the night Elliot Stabler came home.
A slick and steady drizzle, cold, shining like ice on the ground. The glare of the spotlights the emergency crew had set up, the glare of the headlights from the police cruisers, the glare of the blue and red sirens, spinning silently now, all that light twisted and bent in a rainbow of fractals and made the whole scene appear hazy, somehow, as if he were viewing it through the stained glass window of the parish church he'd grown up in, and not his own two eyes. There was an unreal quality to the air, to his breaths, to the sounds around him; he had slipped somehow from life to dreams, he thought. He had stumbled into a nightmare, and any moment he would wake. He would wake, and he would see that all was well. It would fade, surely. The scent of smoke and the sound of screams and the frozen glare of the lights would fade, and be forgotten. He could not tolerate remembering.
There were people everywhere, watching him. Watching him pace, his wolf by his side, the pair of them agitated, isolated, tainted, somehow. Cordoned off by themselves like grief was catching and no one wanted to come too close. His hands were shaking, and so he stuffed them deep in his pockets, and tucked his chin into his scarf. His voice was raw from screaming, and so he did not speak. Not that there was anyone to speak to, really. Not any more. After the explosion he'd whispered to Kathy, screamed for help, barked orders at the unis and the EMTs and pleaded for a grace that was not forthcoming, but no one had need of him now. The scene commander was handling things efficiently, and the medics were working, and the twisted shell of what had once been his rental car was dripping slowly, miserably, soaked through after the fire truck got done with it.
A uni approached, warily, hands outstretched, her eyes skittish and wide, and he wondered as he watched her draw near if this was the first time she had seen such horror. He wondered if she'd go home and tell her husband about this, or if she'd keep it to herself. He wondered if this story - his story - would become one of hers, one of those stories she'd tell three drinks in at a party when someone inevitably asked her what the worst thing she'd ever seen on the job was. He wondered if his nightmare had become hers, and he wanted to take it back, somehow, but he carried so many other people's griefs within his own chest it seemed hypocritical of him to make such a demand.
"Sir?" the uni called, softly. "Sir, is there someone we can call for you?"
Elliot just stared at her. What the fuck kind of question was that? He didn't matter, right now; Kathy mattered, fighting for her life while the medics tried to decide the safest way to move her, tried to stabilize her vitals, tried to stop the pain that made her scream in wretched misery. Why bother with him?
And who the fuck could he call?
Not the kids, not right now. He didn't know anything, didn't even know what hospital Kathy would be taken to yet. When he spoke to them he wanted to be calm, and steady, and in command, wanted to be able to lead them, to hold them all up, and his hands were shaking so badly he couldn't hold a coffee cup, right now. There were no friends left to him in this city; he'd turned his back on it, on them, a decade before, sliced through every tie that bound him to this place with a knife forged of regret, and he could not ask for them now, when they had asked for him then and he had not come.
"Captain Benson," Alina answered for him, and the uni startled and then shied away, made nervous by the great silver wolf. Alina didn't seem to mind. "Out of the 1-6. We were going to see her tonight, she should be close."
The uni nodded, and stepped away, unlatching her radio from where it sat clipped to her shoulder. It was Elliot's turn to stare down at Alina, accusation and fear swirling together in his belly.
"You shouldn't have done that," he told her.
Liv doesn't need to see this, he thought. Liv doesn't need me ruining her night. Ruining her life. Again.
Liv was supposed to be on her way to a ceremony in her honor this evening, was supposed to be wearing a pretty dress, standing up on a stage amidst a roar of applause for all that she had accomplished. What was happening here, this was darkness, was sorrow, was a burden she didn't need to carry. A burden he couldn't ask her to carry, no matter how badly he wanted her with him. And Jesus, but he wanted her with him. Liv who held him fast when he stood on the very edge of losing himself completely, Liv the compass pointing him always back towards righteousness, helping him find his way when the path was too dark to see. Liv who was good, who had reached for him, whose touch he had shied away from. How much must she hate him? Resent him, for his abandonment? Or had she forgotten him completely? He did not want to see her now, did not want to see her angry with him, or pitying him; each alternative was more unthinkable than the last.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
"You need her," Alina said.
The worst part was, he thought, that she was right.
The fucking rain made driving in the city a misery, but Olivia was nearing her destination, and she felt only the faintest flutter of nerves. She had her speech all typed out on her phone, would go up to the podium and speak those words about what this job meant to her, about belonging to a cause greater than herself, giving praise to those who had walked this road with her and not retaining it all for herself. She would speak, and she would drink, and she would go back home to Noah, and all would be well. Yeah, she hated giving speeches, but she'd had to do it enough times over the years to learn how to manage herself. She'd be fine.
The radio in her car crackled to life and she tensed, hands tightening on the wheel. Whatever it was, whatever had her brother officers calling out into the night, likely it was nothing to do with her, but the radio was always on, just in case.
"10-13," a woman's voice said, and then she gave her location, and Olivia's heart sank. 10-13 meant officer in need of assistance. 10-13 meant any cop who heard it would answer, no matter what they'd been doing at the time the call came through. 10-13 meant drop everything, and come, and the woman speaking on the radio was only a few blocks away from Olivia. She flicked her blinker on and smoothly changed lanes, her plans for the evening already thrown off course.
Shit, she thought. Fin is gonna be pissed if I'm late.
"Captain Benson, Manhattan SVU," she said into the radio as she went. "Five minutes out, I'm on my way."
"Benson?" the woman who'd delivered the 10-13 asked, sounding surprised somehow. "Out of the 1-6?"
Idly she wondered why that mattered, but then the woman told her, and shattered Olivia's whole world.
"I got a guy here asking for you. The victim's husband."
Fear like knives settled in her belly, tearing at her. Who could it be? What man was calling for her out into the night, and why? What fresh hell had come for her, and why did it have to be now?
"What's his name?" Olivia demanded.
"Stabler," the woman answered, and all the breath vanished from Olivia's lungs.
It can't be, she thought. It can't be. It can't, it can't, it can't.
Stabler was still pacing, back and forth, back and forth, that fucking beast of his matching him step for step. The medics had finally gotten his wife on a stretcher, but there were too many people gathered around for him to get close to her, and he'd heeded them when they told him to stand back, even though Mariella could see he really didn't want to. Not that she could blame him for that; shit, if it had been her husband, blown up right in front of her eyes, she'd want to be right there with him every second, and every inch of distance would feel like heartbreak. Stabler had been in pieces when help finally arrived, but he seemed to have pulled himself together. Apparently he was a cop, too. Maybe his training had kicked in, was helping him now, when he needed it most.
There wasn't a lot for Mariella to do; she was just waiting, like everybody was waiting, for the medics to clear out, for the crime scene techs to come in, waiting for orders to canvass, to do something, besides babysit this guy and block the flow of traffic from the accident site. As soon as the vic was loaded in the ambulance and her husband was shuffled off this thing would kick into gear, and she was itching for something to do. Waiting gave her too much time to think, and she didn't like the thoughts that came for her.
On the other side of the crime scene tape a fucking tank of a black SUV came pulling up, a red light flashing on the dash. The driver's side door opened and a woman emerged, wearing a long dark coat that fell to mid-calf, the skirt of a dress swirling underneath it, an expensive pair of heels splashing thoughtlessly into a puddle. There was a smooth, powerful quality to the way the stranger moved, as if despite her clothes she was comfortable here, on the edge of disaster, where no one should be comfortable at all. Mariella watched as the woman turned, still holding her door open, and then a vast black shadow, so big it made Mariella gasp, leapt easily out of the car. It must have been the stranger's daemon, but the night was too dark and the beast too black for Mariella to make out whatever it was. All she could see was that the thing was huge, and that frightened her, just a little. Stabler's wolf had been shock enough, fierce and silver, with those haunting golden eyes, her size a warning all by itself. What did it mean, Mariella wondered, that she should see two impossibly big daemons on the same night? Two creatures walking out of legends and into the drizzling rain seemed to her to be a bad omen.
The woman approached the crime scene tape and slid under it with practice ease, straightened up with her shield in her hand, raised high above her head.
"Captain Benson, SVU," she called, catching Mariella's eye, looking for information.
This was the woman Stabler's wolf had asked for. The woman who had come when he called for her, the person he wanted with him so damn badly his daemon had spoken her name aloud to a stranger. As Benson stepped into a beam from the spotlight Mariella got her first good look at the woman's daemon, and a chill lanced down her spine.
It was another wolf. Bigger, more fearsome than Stabler's, this beast was huge, and black as the night around him, though the yellow glare of the spotlight revealed his muzzle was shot through with grey. He moved slowly, steadily, silently, a predator at ease in any environment but ready, always, for a fight. A wolf.
Same as Stabler's.
The medics didn't give her the time of day, and Kathy wasn't making a sound, wasn't even moving as they loaded her into the ambulance. A feeling like futility settled into Olivia's bones; everywhere she went her voice was heeded, her commands obeyed, the sight of her face and her Captain's shield opening every door, but here she was blocked out, cast aside, irrelevant. Irrelevant, as she always was when it came to Elliot and Kathy. An afterthought, meant to be kept out of sight, watching them from a distance, her own connection to Elliot made meaningless by his devotion to his wife.
It had been so long. Too long. The time had changed her. When she thought now of the girl she had been, then, the woman she had been before, when she thought of charging reckless and bold through the night with her gun in her hand and Elliot and the wolves beside her, the visions she conjured were of a stranger. That girl had been bold and safe, with Elliot by her side. Fearless, for what should she fear, with two wolves to protect her and a man whose heart beat in tandem with her own? She knew the taste of fear, now, as she had not known it then, and in the knowing she had been irreversibly changed.
There had been moments, so many moments, too many moments, when she had wished for him, prayed for him, longed for him, and he had not come. A heart could only weather so many disappointments before it became hardened and her own had calcified in her chest, made pristine white and hard as a rock. There was not room in that heart for anyone else, not any more. No one had cracked through her defenses since Ed, Ed who had done what every goddamn body else in the world did and left her. There would not be room in that heart for Elliot now. Could not be, for he was the one who'd broken it in the first place.
But he was here, now, somewhere, on the edge of the night, and his wife was in the ambulance, and Achlys was tense and silent beside her, as her own heart was tense and silent, hardly a thought in her head for the night had grown so surreal, so impossible, that she could not comprehend it.
Elliot was gone. Had been gone. Was meant to stay gone. What the fuck was he doing here, now? Had he been here, all this time, in the same city, in their fucking city, content to be apart from her? Had he really asked for her? What the fuck did he think she could do for him now? What the fuck -
"Liv!" a voice called out from behind her, and she spun around at once, and all the defenses of her heart seemed to shatter like glass, and all the questions faded away.
Emerging from the drizzling darkness like the battered hero of a black-and-white western, his face more lined, more weathered than she had ever seen it, his hair shorn so close he looked nearly bald. Elliot, his blue eyes full of misery, his mouth full of her name. Elliot. A ghost come walking, with Alina by his side, beautiful and warm though water was dripping silently from her silver-grey fur.
"Elliot," she breathed.
She was impossibly beautiful, walking towards him through the black chill of the night, the lights throwing her face into stark relief, shadows fading away as she drew near. Her hair was long and softly curling despite the slick of the rain, and her face was softer than he had ever seen it, the furrows of her brow, the corners of her eyes wrinkled gently now as they had not been when she was young and strong and standing beside him. Achlys was with her, his head taller than her waist, and when Elliot's gaze flickered to the wolf something like anguish stirred in his gut because Achlys was no longer black from snout to tail as he once had been. His muzzle was shot through with grey, now, the years taking their toll on him, as much as on his mistress.
I've missed so much, Elliot thought, staring at them. They were squaring off against one another, all of them frozen, unwilling to take another step, hardly breathing, not daring to blink. Just looking, with eyes full of questions, taking in all the ways the time had changed the faces they recalled and searching for some sign of the one they had once known. Elliot, staring at Olivia hungrily, seeing the Captain and wondering if his Liv still lived, somewhere within her chest. Olivia, staring at him just as intently, and what questions she was asking herself now he could not say. And beside them, with them, Achlys and Alina, who spared no glance for the humans but focused, instead, on another.
It was Alina who moved first, and that was right, Elliot figured, because he could feel it, his heart screaming in his chest, begging for Olivia, begging to hold her, begging for her to hold him, begging for comfort and forgiveness and the safety he found when she was near. Begging, pleading, wretched, miserable, needing her, as he had never needed anything in all his life. Ten years he'd been away from her, ten years he'd spent running from his past, but in ten years he had not stopped thinking of her, not once, not for a moment. Ten years her ghost had haunted him, slept in his bed, wedged between him and Kathy; ten years he had spent regretting it, the way he'd left her, aching for amends he was not certain he'd ever been allowed to make. Ten years, and now, finally, she was in front of him, and Alina was approaching Achlys.
The day they'd met, decades before, when they were young and strong and did not know what lay in store for them, it was Achlys who stepped toward Alina first. It was Olivia's heart, curious and hopeful, that had moved first, seeking connection, and understanding, and Alina had moved second, but moved, still, towards him, and it was Alina who had touched him first. Achlys had entreated, and Alina had responded, and Elliot and Olivia's whole lives had changed in an instant. Now it was Alina moving first, and Elliot watched, watched as she approached the wolf who had once been her dearest companion. Elliot watched, and thought of all the times he had seen the pair of them resting on top of one another, a pile of fur, black and silver intermixed, their eyes closed, their breaths content. Peace, that was what he thought when he thought of the two of them together, a peace he had not found since he'd walked away from Olivia a decade before, a peace he was desperate for now.
Slowly Alina continued her approach, but when the distance between the two wolves lessened to no more than a foot Achlys did something he had not ever done before, not with Alina, not with Elliot, not with anyone that Elliot could recall.
He shied away.
Blanched, as if he had been struck, turned his head away from Alina and retreated a pace, and Alina froze, confused. Never, she had never been rejected by Achlys, and she seemed uncertain, now, did not know what to make of his hesitation, wounded by his reticence. The silver wolf raised her head to look up at Olivia, rain running slowly down the slope of her neck, but Olivia did not return her look. Olivia offered her no comfort. Instead Olivia reached out, and placed her hand on Achlys's head, and looked steadily at Elliot. Affirming her wolf's decision not to accept Alina's plea for closeness, her dark eyes shuttered and her heart hidden from him.
What is this? Elliot wondered, looking at her. What did it mean, that Achlys should withdraw, that Olivia should keep her distance now, when there had been no such gulf between them before?
You did this, he thought, looking at her, remote and unreachable, resplendent in her power, strong in her isolation. There was no anger in her, but neither was there shelter. Her heart was closed to him, now, and he couldn't blame her for that, not really, because he was the one who'd slammed the door.
"There's room for one in the ambulance," a medic called out from behind them.
"Go with her," Olivia said. "I'll speak to the scene commander and I'll meet you there."
She was right. His place was with his wife. He had made that decision long before, whatever else his heart longed for, and he could not forget it now.
March 26, 2021
"Did you know about this?" Sonny asked her softly, urgently. Though her own eyes were staring straight ahead, watching the scene playing out in the interrogation room with a terrible, all-consuming sort of focus, she could feel his gaze on her, intent. Questioning. Questioning, not just her, Amanda knew, but questioning everything. Questioning Liv, and everything he'd ever he thought about knew about the Captain.
There were some things about the Captain that Amanda knew, some things that Sonny wasn't ever gonna know. There were some secrets best kept buried in the past. Old heartaches, ancient rages, fights and tears and hurled insults. There were some things about the Captain Amanda wasn't ever gonna tell anybody. Until tonight, this had been one of those things.
This was Elliot Stabler.
A ghost come walking, a memory made flesh, Amanda stared at the man as he rolled back his sleeves, stared at the breadth of his shoulders, the heavy ink of the tattoo on his forearm. Stared at his weathered face when his pacing led him close by the window where she stood, watching. Stared, hard, stared long and silent, stared, and tried to make sense of it. Tried to reconcile this man, this back alley brawler in an expensive suit, this fucking thug with what Amanda knew about him, about Olivia. What Amanda knew, what Sonny did not know, was that this man had broken Liv clean in half, once. The word had come in, that the Captain's old partner had been targeted by a car bomb, and all Sonny heard was partner. He had nothing to go on, no scuttlebutt, no memory, no photograph, no fond stories recounted over drinks at the bar because by the time Sonny turned up the only people left who'd ever known Stabler at all were Liv and Fin, and they weren't fucking talking. Sonny heard partner, and thought friend, no more, no less.
Amanda knew better.
Amanda remembered the first time she ever met Liv, the anger that had surrounded the woman like a cloak. Amanda remembered Liv as she had been, once, as she was no longer, with a sharp tongue, perpetually looking for a fight, perpetually getting one. Amanda remembered the way the unis used to whisper Stabler like the name was a curse and they were afraid to speak it too loud. Amanda remembered a desk that more closely resembled a shrine, left untouched, inviolable, left waiting for a man who would not ever return to it, left waiting until Liv was made to pack it up herself, as if in penance for the sin of wanting him so goddamn much. As if Cragen needed her to do it herself, just so she'd understand she wasn't ever gonna get what she yearned for. Amanda remembered grief, and the way it colored every word that came out of Liv's mouth, and she remembered watching Liv come alive again, over the long slow years that followed after. Amanda remembered thinking, more than once, that if she ever met Stabler she'd kick his ass herself, for the crime of having hurt Olivia.
And Amanda remembered the rumors about the wolf.
Rumors that were true, apparently, because she could see it, now. Could see inside that room where some pissant little wanna be anarchist sat facing off against the Captain, and her partner, and two massive wolves. Not just one, not Achlys alone, not just that familiar black shadow, but two of them, for Stabler's silver wolf paced near the door.
"I heard about it," Amanda told Sonny.
She'd heard that Stabler had a wolf, but this was her first time seeing it, and shit, it made her uncomfortable. Made her feel scared, somehow. Achlys had always been a warm, steady presence, the constancy of Liv's heart made flesh, compassionate and only ever fierce in defense of his mistress. Achlys she'd gotten used to. Achlys she understood, expected. He was one of a kind, as Olivia was one of a kind, a heart so goddamn big it took a wolf to contain it. The biggest heart she'd ever seen, the most devout, the most steadfast. No one she'd ever met had ever been anything like Achlys, like Olivia - who was, had been and always would be, the one person Amanda respected more than any other on the planet - but there stood Stabler, and there stood his wolf.
"I don't like this," Kat murmured softly.
Amanda didn't answer; there wasn't anything she could say. Probably Kat didn't like the optics of this, a victim's husband allowed in interrogation, two experienced, grim-faced cops who were too damn close to the crime standing there with two fucking wolves, intimidating as all hell. Kat was a true believer in reform, and this shit didn't look good. Amanda didn't like it either, but for entirely different reasons. Amanda didn't like it because she didn't like Stabler. What little she knew about him, that he was reckless and violent and had broken Olivia's heart, made him a threat in her book, and that daemon of his was more threatening still, for having taken the same shape as Olivia's. In what ways would he be like her, Amanda wondered, and in what ways would he differ? Would he share her compassion, or her rage?
That rage, Sonny and Kat didn't know a fucking thing about that rage. Didn't know how vicious Liv could be when backed into a corner, how ruthless, how uncompromising. To them the Captain was a mellower beast than the one Amanda knew.
The interrogation was getting tense; Stabler had held himself together, so far, but Liv's back was up, and so, too, was Achlys's. The fur at the nape of his neck had bristled and he was standing near Stabler, staring at the suspect over the table with those black eyes of his, the kid watching him warily. Liv was silently drifting closer to the suspect, cautiously placing herself in position to run between him and Stabler, if such a thing were warranted. It was deftly done, the way Liv moved, unobtrusive; Sonny might not have even noticed it. But Liv had tried to call Stabler off and he had not heeded her and Amanda could see it, could see Liv running the calculations in her head, could see Liv adding it all up, and anticipating what was to come.
"This is gonna get ugly," Amanda breathed. Beside her Sonny's head whipped around, his expression alarmed, but she wasn't watching him. She was watching Liv, watching Liv pull her hands out of her pockets, watching Liv clocking her old partner, reading him as easily as she would a book, as if Stabler had given her some sign of his intentions, when Amanda had seen no such sign at all. They'd worked together a long time, Stabler and Liv; if anyone knew what he was thinking, it would be her. Once more Liv cautioned him, and this time Stabler seemed to hear her, backed off a pace, and Amanda was about to breathe a sigh of relief when that stupid kid went and signed his own death warrant.
"Your wife bleeding out on the sidewalk, she's just another casualty," the suspect sneered, thinking himself powerful.
The room exploded, then.
In some ways it was what Amanda had expected. Stabler snapped and slammed his fist on the table, vaulted towards the kid like he was gonna tear his fucking head off. That, she'd expected. Everybody said Stabler's jacket was full of excessive force complaints, and that kid had just pressed the biggest button Stabler had with both hands. When Stabler leapt forward, though, Liv was there to meet him, running in from the side, and stopping the momentum of his body with her own. That, too, Amanda had expected, because she'd been watching Liv closely, and she'd seen the way Liv seemed to just know something like this was gonna go down.
What was unexpected, then, was this.
Firstly, the impact with which Stabler and Liv collided was titanic; it reverberated through both their bodies, though Liv stood firm, did not let his bulk drive her back. The unhesitating way she had done that, placed herself in the path of a brute on a mission to maim, was enough to knock the breath from Amanda's lungs. It was brave, was so fucking brave, and of course it was, because Liv was brave. Fearless.
But Stabler stopped, the moment her hands caught hold of him. Shuddered as the momentum left him, but did not try to push her aside, to barrel past her, to continue on his way; he stopped, stopped like a car hitting a brick wall at ninety miles an hour, stopped, because she told him to. Maybe that was why Liv was so fearless, Amanda would think later. Maybe Liv had been fearless because she knew no matter how out of his mind he might be with grief, no matter how angry, how bloodthirsty, how vengeful he might have been, maybe because she knew no matter what he would not ever, ever hurt her. It must have been a hell of a thing, Amanda would think later, to trust somebody that fucking much.
The most unexpected thing of all, though, was the wolves.
Stabler's wolf was silver-grey, with great golden eyes, smaller, more graceful than Achlys, though no less fierce. She had been lingering by the door, and in the instant Stabler lost control she had gone to him, pressed herself against his leg as if to offer him comfort. Stabler's heart had not snapped and snarled at the man who claimed responsibility for damn near killing his wife. Stabler's heart had not jumped and ripped the man's throat out. Stabler's heart had put on no display of violence, of reckless, agonized heartbreak. She had only gone to him, and tried to comfort him.
In that moment of madness Stabler's heart had not attacked.
In that moment of madness Achlys did something Amanda had not ever seen him do, not once in ten years. He snarled, a horrifying, murderous sound, and leapt with easy grace from the floor to the table, and then vaulted from the table onto the suspect, the weight of him sending the man crashing back against the floor, his terrible jaws snapping, claws tearing at the suspect's coat.
It was Olivia's daemon who heard that man's mocking, derisive words, and gone in for the kill. It was Olivia's daemon who sought vengeance for the gravely wounded Mrs. Stabler. Achlys, and not his silver companion. Later, Amanda would remember that. Later, Amanda would think about it, and wonder. Wonder just how deeply all of this had affected Liv, wonder what feelings, if any, Olivia might harbor for her old partner and his wife, wonder if she grieved, as he grieved. If she grieved because he grieved, or if her grief was hers, and hers alone.
In the moment, though, all she knew was chaos. It all happened so goddamn fast, Stabler running forward, Liv stopping him, Achlys tackling the perp to the floor, snarling and threatening him while the man screamed like a frightened child. Three seconds, maybe, that was as long as it lasted; Stabler looked in Liv's eyes, and backed up a pace, gave up the fight because she'd told him to, as if her voice was all that was needed to calm him.
"Achlys," he said, calling her daemon to heel, and his voice was low, and dreadful, and wretched.
The presumptuousness of it rattled Amanda; even the worst, most self-interested, egotistical dirtbags she'd encountered in this job wouldn't bother delivering instructions to someone else's daemon. It wasn't worth the breath it cost to speak the words; a daemon would heed no voice but its master's, and rightly so. But Stabler had done it, and Achlys listened. Achlys snapped at the suspect one last time, and then withdrew, paced back to the place where Liv, and Stabler, and Stabler's wolf were standing, watching him. Olivia did not berate Stabler for assuming command of her daemon; she didn't even seem to have noticed that he'd done it. As if that gross overreach of privacy and propriety was no more remarkable to her than sunshine in July. As if it happened all the time. As if it were simply the way things were.
With the suspect still babbling to himself on the floor Stabler and Liv made to leave that room, stepped towards the door, both of them scowling, faces like thunderclouds, their daemons falling into step behind them. Through the glass Amanda watched the two wolves walking, watched, and saw Stabler's grey wolf press her cheek, briefly, to Achlys. Saw her touch him, and saw Achlys sway towards her, returning the gesture, as if the two of them were consoling one another.
We have no idea what's happening here, she thought as the door opened, as the foursome came trooping out in the hall, as Stabler kept right on walking, marching out of the squadroom. His wolf hesitated, for a moment, torn it seemed between going with him and staying with Olivia, but Achlys nudged her with his snout, and she relented, followed after her man while Achlys remained behind with Olivia, who was running her hand wearily over her face, and seemed not to have noticed their interaction at all.
We have no idea who they really are, Amanda thought.
The wolves knew, though.
March 27, 2021
"Hey," she said softly into the phone, looking away from her squad, trying to focus on nothing but the sound of Elliot's voice.
Elliot's voice. Jesus.
From the moment she'd clapped eyes on his face again they'd both been in crisis mode; which hospital, where are the kids, what the fuck were you thinking, Olivia I'm sorry, we don't have to do this now, how's Kathy. At some point she'd have to go home to sleep, and she knew the second she stepped through the door it would all come crashing in on her, the fact that Elliot had come back, the fact that Kathy was laid up, broken, in a hospital somewhere. At some point it was all gonna hit her, and it was gonna snap Olivia in half like a twig; ten years she'd spent pushing these feelings aside, talking herself into letting him go, trying to move on, but just now she'd seen his name on her phone and her heart had swooped in her chest. Despite the chaos, and the grief, and the anger bubbling low in her belly there was something like relief singing in her blood. He looked at her with heartbreak in his eyes and every word he spoke was a wound but she felt relief, still, because he was home. Because he was right back where he always should have been.
Because he was on the other end of the phone.
Because he'd called her. Finally.
Called, but wasn't speaking; while she waited, listened, focused entirely on him, no sound came forth from him save for his ragged breathing, unsteady in her ear.
"El," she prompted, very softly.
"She's gone," he told her, and his voice was a wretched, broken thing. "Liv, she's gone."
Grief twisted in Olivia's belly, sharp as a knife.
"I'm coming," she said. "I'm coming."
And she did. Without question, without hesitation, without even waiting for him to invite her, she came to him, because he was Elliot, and she would always come when he needed her.
Even if he hadn't come when she needed him.
The other people in the hospital, doctors, nurses, patients, visitors, gave them a wide berth as Olivia and Achlys strode purposefully down the corridor. Olivia knew her way around the trauma wards of every hospital in Manhattan, and the people who worked there knew her, and did not try to waylay her. Likely that had more to do with the great black wolf padding silently by her side than anything else, but still. They were not interrupted, and Olivia was grateful for it, because she was only barely hanging on, now, and if she had to stop she feared she'd dissolve into pieces right there in the middle of the hospital.
Kathy was gone. Kathy, who had always been kind, if not warm, to Olivia. Kathy who had understood, somehow, the role Olivia played in Elliot's life, and despite an understandable sort of resentment never really took it out on Olivia. Never really took Olivia to task for owning so much of someone else's husband. Kathy who had asked Olivia to get Elliot to sign the papers because you give him stability, Kathy who even in leaving him worried for him still, and wanted to know he'd be looked after. Kathy who had sat beside her in the car that day, the day Eli was born, laughing one moment and unconscious the next. Kathy who had begged her no, Olivia, don't leave me, and held her hand like Olivia was the only thing tethering her to the earth. Kathy who was good, and untouched by horror, Kathy who was the mother of Elliot's children and the center of his world, Kathy who he'd loved enough to go back to, even after she broke his heart in half. Kathy was gone.
And all that was left, now, was this great big hole. This crater torn through the fabric of the earth and this weight settling heavy as lead on Olivia's shoulders. Elliot would be lost, now, she knew. He would be consumed with questions and wracked by guilt and he would need someone to guide him. The anger she felt for him, still, the questions she needed answered, her own grief and heartbreak, those things would have to wait, because Elliot would not be strong enough now to bear her sorrows and his own.
He would need stability, goddamn it. And the only person who could give that to him was her. It wasn't a choice, not really. Her options were to leave him to figure it out himself or to go to him and hold his hand through it, and abandoning him felt…wrong. It felt out of the question. She never even considered it. He had need of her and she went to him because maybe he'd found it in himself to leave her, once, but she could never turn her back on this man, this man who was the other half of her heart. It took more strength to stay than to leave, and she had always been stronger than him.
Even though she didn't feel particularly strong, just now, walking down this corridor. The last two years - hell, the last ten - had taken so much from her, and time and time again she was forced to push her own heart aside in favor of taking care of someone else. Was forced to be strong, because somebody needed to be, and no one else was up for the task. It was beginning to take its toll on her, but she could not stop; if she laid her burdens down, how many other lives would crumble? If she was not strong for Elliot now, what would become of him, and his children? There was no other choice, not for a heart that loved as deeply as hers did.
"He needs you," Achlys said as they continued on their way.
They rounded a corner and there he was, Elliot, standing with his back to her, alone and forlorn outside the room that had been Kathy's. Olivia faltered, for a moment; it's too much, her heart seemed to say. It's too much.
"And you need him," Achlys concluded.
He was, she thought, probably right about that.
Olivia drew in a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and schooled her expression, eased the tension in her brows, her mouth, let her eyes go soft, and then she was moving again, making her way towards Elliot. Though she and Achlys made no sound he must have felt them approach, must have known, the way he always did, when they were near, for he turned, then, him and Alina both, and watched with haunted eyes as she came to a stop in front of him.
"Elliot," she breathed his name, and he shattered.
Came to her, and she knew, knew in the space of a single heartbeat after she spoke, exactly what he was going to do, and she was ready. With open arms she accepted him, wrapped herself around him and felt him do the same, felt him cling to her, burying his face in her hair while his heavy body shook in her arms, while he trembled and wept like a child.
"I'm so sorry," she breathed.
She was sorry; truly, she was. She was sorry for him, sorry that he had to suffer such loss, sorry that he would be alone, now, as he had not ever really been. Sorry that his love had been ripped away, sorry that the future he had imagined for himself and his wife had been stolen. She was sorry for his children, who should have had decades yet to spend with their mother, sorry for Eli, who would always be in her mind a squalling newborn cradled in her arms, his safety her responsibility. And she was sorry for herself, sorry that this was the way their story would play out, sorry that her heart had not been healed, that her love had not come looking for her but had instead fallen into her arms in a moment when he had nowhere else to go. She was sorry for herself, holding him like this for only the second time in her entire life, and though she knew it was not love of her that brought him to her arms she could not help but sink against him, soaking up the heat and the hardness of him, finding comfort there, when she knew she shouldn't. He smelled like Old Spice and shoe leather and mint from his gum; he smelled exactly the way she remembered. He smelled like home, and tears stung at the corners of her eyes.
While she stood there, holding him, while he wept in her arms, she glanced down and found that Achlys had likewise gone to Alina. When they met in the rain at the site of the car bomb Achlys had shied away from Alina, but at the squad room he had, tentatively, allowed her touch. There was nothing tentative about him now; he went to her, to the place where she was sitting just behind Elliot, and wrapped himself around her, his great head resting on top of hers, comforting her, as Olivia was comforting Elliot. His dark eyes found Olivia's, his gaze steady and sad, and she knew then that he felt it, even as she did. That reluctance to let them in, and the compulsion to do it anyway. Knowing they were setting the stage for further pain, and yet unable to stop it, they had gone to the ones their hearts loved, and could not be moved aside.
Alina threw back her great silver head and howled, long and low, even as her man wept, and after a moment Achlys did the same, adding his heartbreak to hers. Every person on the ward stopped and stared, then, in silent, devastated wonder, stared at the two wolves pouring out their sorrow, stared at the man and the woman beside them, clinging to one another. Stared, and shared, for a moment, in that grief, until the sound of it faded, and more pressing matters drew their attention elsewhere.
With a grunt Olivia sank onto the floor, stretched her legs out in front of her and leaned back against the sofa. It had taken an embarrassing amount of effort to roll him on his side, shift his arms and legs into the recovery position, but then he had always been a big man, and the time he'd spent apart from her had left him heavy with unfamiliar muscle. All that muscle was peaceful now, in repose, like he was just sleeping there on her living room floor, and for a moment she just looked at him, heartbroken and weary. Weary, more than anything else; Christ, but she was tired. Tired of the back and forth, tired of the way one look from him could make her heart sing, and one word could bring her crashing back down again.
What we were to each other was never real.
It will always be you and I.
That was the part of the letter she'd never been able to reconcile. The part she'd never understood, though she'd read the letter over and over until she'd memorized the damn thing. How could he go on and on about how he wished her the best but didn't love her, and then end his letter with the wistful assurance that they were meant to be? It was a contradiction that seemed to sum him up perfectly, she'd thought, this man who reached for her and then pushed her away. It was a hypocrisy that made her wonder if he even knew what the fuck he was feeling, or if he was just as lost as she was. At least she knew, now, why she'd never been able to make the letter and its postscript come together in her mind; they had not been written by the same person.
It was Kathy wishing her the best, praying she'd found someone else, hoping that time would have dulled the ache of this love, betting all her cards on Olivia having moved on. It was Kathy who wanted, so desperately, to believe that the devotion that bound Olivia to Elliot was no more than the brotherhood of two cops in a terrible job. It was Kathy, pushing Olivia out for good, and it was Elliot clinging to her, Elliot whispering through the darkness that he had, always, loved her, that he would, always, love her, in this life, in the next, in any universe, at any time. The truth of his heart, scrawled messily at the bottom of the page, the only line of truth in a letter full of lies.
A letter he'd given her with no explanation, knowing what it said, knowing how it would wound her, and doing it anyway. A letter meant to cleave them in two, to separate them, once and for all, he'd given her the fucking thing, and only come to tell her the truth when he was too high to know better. When he was high off his ass, drugged intentionally by men he could not trust for purposes he could not explain, he had come to her door; Jesus, what if he'd been followed? What if there were goons outside right now, waiting for him to come out? He'd made it past the doorman, who was to say the Albanians wouldn't do the same? They wouldn't know what apartment he'd gone to, would they? What if they'd put a tracker on him? What if they came banging on her door, now, when Noah was sleeping peacefully and all her carefully erected defenses had come crumbling down and her gun was too far away to reach?
There came the soft sound of a bedroom door opening behind her, and her heart sank; as if her fears had slipped through the apartment raising a clamor of alarm Noah must have sensed that something was wrong, and he came stumbling into the living room, then, rubbing at his sleepy eyes, his beautiful curls a tousled mess.
"Mommy?" he said as he took in the scene before him with bleary blue eyes, and Olivia's heart clenched in her chest; he was growing up, and he only called her mommy now when he was especially tired, or especially upset. At this moment he was probably both, because all that waited for him in the living room was confusion.
Because when he looked, he saw, saw his mother sitting on the floor, and the huge, imposing man in dirty clothes laid out cold in front of her, saw Achlys sitting on his heels beside Olivia, and pacing off to the side the great silver wolf he'd never seen before, a creature he probably never imagined could have existed, an impossibility made real. Jesus, he must have been scared, she thought, to see a stranger, to see a strange wolf, there in his home so late at night, and not know why. Alina was something that should not have been, a truth Olivia loved but could not begin to explain.
"It's ok, sweet boy," Olivia said, very softly. "He's my friend."
Her voice cracked on the word friend. It wasn't enough, she thought, didn't come close to encapsulating everything she felt for the hulking behemoth of a man passed out on the floor. It wasn't nearly enough; friend could not explain thirteen years and countless heartbreaks and boundless trust and two souls twined together irreversibly and unkind fate and the dream of a universe where things were different. Friend was not enough, not nearly enough, to convey how much of her own heart rested within this man's chest, how there was nothing, nothing she wouldn't do for him, how ten years of changes wasn't enough to cloud her unwavering understanding of him, or his of her, how one hundred years wouldn't have been enough. There was not a word, she thought, for what he was to her, not a single word in any language that meant he is the wound and the salve both, and I will never turn aside from him, nor him from me, but his hands have never touched my bare skin. But friend was all she could say, was all the truth she could offer her son now.
"Is he hurt?" Noah asked warily. He did not come closer, though he might have wanted to, for his eyes were fixed unwaveringly on Alina, who likewise was staring at him unblinking, staring at him in wonder, as Elliot had done the first time he'd ever seen Noah's face. It seemed to Olivia as if Noah were afraid of the silver wolf, and the thought was nearly enough to break her heart. Achlys seemed to sense the unease in the air; he rose slowly to his feet, and padded softly to Noah's side, pressed his head against her son's belly until Noah reached out to scratch his ears, relaxing somewhat with his mother's fierce daemon beside him, content in the knowledge that no danger could touch him so long as the black wolf was there to guard him.
"Yes," Olivia said. "But I'm going to help him."
"What happened to him?"
Noah was a naturally curious boy, and usually Olivia tried her best to indulge his questions, to help him understand the world around him, not to snap and shut him down the way her own mother had done with her inquisitive child, but the questions Noah had to ask were questions Olivia could not answer now.
"We'll talk about it in the morning, ok? I'll take you out for pancakes, and we'll talk all about it. But right now, you need your sleep, mister."
The promise of pancakes and the tension in the air was enough to send him away; he nodded, and yawned, and then departed, leaving Olivia alone once more with her friend and their wolves.
"That wasn't how you were supposed to meet him," she said, very quietly, looking at Elliot's face, his features softened in sleep, wishing he could hear her, wishing he would rouse, wishing he would be the man he once had been, the man she knew he could be, the one man she'd spent the last seven years wishing could meet her son. Seven years, watching her boy grow, wondering what Elliot would make of him, what Elliot would think of her efforts as a mother, wondering if Elliot would be proud of her. Seven years, and this was what she got in the end, Noah full of questions and Elliot unconscious on the floor.
Her cell phone was on the coffee table and she reached for it now, dialed a number that was becoming familiar to her.
"Bell," she heard Ayanna's voice, sleepy and annoyed, on the other end of the phone, and guilt flooded her; Elliot was supposed to be her problem. She was the one who was supposed to keep him in line, the one who was supposed to clean up his messes, and here she was foisting him off on someone else. But Ayanna was his boss, and she needed to know what he'd done, what had been done to him, for the sake of her operation, and Olivia could not let him stay here all night for the sake of her own heart. It brought to mind the memory of too many nights spent in a bathroom, huddled over her mother's unconscious body, and she couldn't bear to go through that again, no matter how much she cared for him.
Briefly she explained the situation to Sergeant Bell, and before she even suggested it Ayanna volunteered to come and get him. Olivia gave her address, and then hung up the phone with a sigh. The thing was done; Elliot's new friend would come to fetch him, to ferry him away - though she still wasn't entirely sure how they were going to get him down the stairs and into Ayanna's car - and Olivia could return to her bed and…what? Sleep? After this, sleep seemed unlikely.
It would take a little while for Ayanna to arrive, though, and while she waited there was nothing for Olivia to do. Nothing but sit, and look, look at this man who meant so much to her, who seemed so hellbent on hurting them both. The clothes he wore were trashy and stank of smoke and booze, and didn't suit him. Since he'd returned from Rome he'd favored a more tailored look, but that didn't really suit him either, she thought. Elliot was blue jeans and a white henley under flannel, was comfort and warmth, not expensive vests or ratty t-shirts. He wasn't either of those men, the polished expat or the grimy criminal. He was just…Elliot, and she missed him.
Idly she reached out, and ran her hand gently over his head; though he'd been losing his hair for years he'd not yet lost all of it, and it must have been a while since he'd last shaved it because the soft bristle of new hair brushed against her palm. Her touch did not wake him - she did not think anything would wake him now, after he'd crashed to his knees and stared up at her like she was holy and passed out in her arms - but he seemed to relax even further as her hand passed gently over his skin. Like it calmed him, like he liked it, and she liked it, too, liked the way his hair felt under her hand, liked the warmth of him, liked being able to touch him, without having to withdraw, without him recoiling from her, without having to face the reasons why her heart was so desperate to hold him.
Achlys had returned to her, and Alina came to her now, sat down on her other side and leaned heavily against Olivia's shoulder.
"He's lost, Olivia," the silver wolf said solemnly.
"I know," Olivia answered, still gently brushing her hand over his head, looking down at his scruffy beard, at his eyelashes resting gently against his cheeks. "But I can't be the one to find him, Alina."
"He has to find himself," Alina agreed. "And when he does, he'll find his way back to you."
The breath caught in the back of Olivia's throat, and tears stung at her eyes. That was all she wanted, really. Was for Elliot to come home, and come to her, for him to be found, again, to be with her, again, for him to come and never, ever leave. She felt stronger, when he was with her. Felt braver, bolder. Felt as if she could leap out into thin air and never doubt that two strong arms would be waiting to catch her. It had been months since he'd burst back into her life and their paths had not crossed as much as she would have liked, as much as she expected, but even when he was not physically beside her she felt it, still, felt him with her, and felt herself changed because of it. Rafael had told her once that she had brought color to his world, and that was how she felt now, as if she had been living these last ten years in a world painted black and white and grey, and Elliot had made it all technicolor again. What would become of her if he left, and took all that color with him?
"I'm so worried about him," Olivia confessed, running the tip of her finger gently around the shell of his ear. "He's hurting so much and I don't know how to help him, and I'm afraid of what it'll do to me if I try."
The two wolves flanked her, Achlys on her left and Alina on her right, warm and soft and solid, bolstered her as she felt her own reserves of strength faltering, comforted her when she found herself more alone than she had been for quite some time. Sitting on the floor like this they were as tall as she was, their heads brushing lightly against her shoulders, and she felt safe there between them.
"He's afraid, too, you know," Alina told her, kindly. "He was afraid you'd forgotten about him, and then he was afraid you hated him, and now he's afraid he's no good for you. But when all his fears and all his inhibitions were stripped away he came to you, Olivia. He's not in his right mind, but even now he knows what he wants. He's afraid, but he wants you with him."
Want. That was what it all came down to in the end. Not what they knew, not what was right, not what was good for them. Not what was safe, or mature, or righteous. What they wanted. Yearned for, longed for, like children with their faces pressed against the glass window of a toy store at Christmas time, dreaming of joys not yet realized, of hopes that remained only quiet potential. What she wanted was him. Never mind if he hurt her, never mind if he was good for her, never mind the insanity of thinking he could still be the man she recalled all these many years later. She wanted him. Wanted this man by her side, wanted his hands on her skin, wanted to hear his voice, wanted to know that he was with her, and always would be. But all the things she wanted so desperately seemed so far out of reach; how could she have what she wanted so long as he was lost and stumbling, heedless to her begging him to be careful, to come home? When had she ever gotten what she wanted? So often her dreams turned to dust in her hands, and she feared that he would as well, that he would fade away, and she would be left, once more, alone in the dark.
She began to cry, and Alina pressed harder against her, brushed the cold end of her snout against Olivia's cheek, and Olivia broke, then. She could not hold Elliot, Elliot who was so far away from her now, who was lost in sorrow and dreams and regret, Elliot who was dangerous, in every possible way, Elliot whose eyes were closed, and would not open again for hours yet. She could not hold him, but she wanted to, and so she reached out and wrapped both her arms around Alina's thick neck, and buried her fingers in the silver wolf's soft fur. Like a child she clung to his daemon, his soul made flesh, the part of him that comforted her, protected her, always. It was Alina who spoke the truth to Olivia, Alina who said the words Elliot could not yet bring himself to speak, and it was Alina who soothed her now when her heart was battered and weary. Achlys pressed himself against her back, and if Olivia would have only raised her head she would have seen it, the two wolves staring into one another's eyes, two hearts finding rest and salvation with one another, but as it was she kept her eyes shut tight, breathing in the familiar smell and the gentle warmth of the wolf who had been too long gone from her side, who was with her once more.
"Don't do this, Elliot," Alina said very softly, staring at him reproachfully from the passenger's seat of his SUV. "This is not the time-"
"This is exactly the time," he cut her off and killed the engine at the same time, unbuckling his seatbelt, already on the warpath. "She's the one who brought it up and if she wants to talk about it so goddamn bad then we're gonna talk."
He flung the driver's side door open and stepped out, stood waiting impatiently by the open door, waiting for Alina to follow him, to jump down from the car so that he could continue on the warpath, but the silver wolf did not move. She stared him down, accusation in her golden eyes, but he was under a full head of steam, and he would not be deterred, not even by his own heart begging him to reconsider his reckless plan.
"I'm doing this," he told her. "I've made up my mind. I'm sick of walking away from conversations and trying to say all the right things and I don't want…"
I don't want her to go to bed tonight thinking I don't care. That was the truth, whether he was willing to admit it or not; Elliot did not want Olivia to pass even one more night believing she was no more than an afterthought to him.
"Angela takes the stand tomorrow, and I wanna talk to Liv before that happens."
That was also a truth, if not the whole of it, but Alina knew all of it already, and didn't need further explanation from him. She could see, with just one look, that his mind was made up, that he would not be deterred by her careful, rational counsel. If she really wanted to stop him she could have stayed right there in the car all night, could have snapped at him if he tried to pick her up and move him, but she was part of him, and whatever he wanted she wanted the same, even if she knew better.
"If this is the way you want it, so be it," she said, and then she rose to her feet, picked her way gingerly over the center console and the driver's seat, and then leapt easily down to the ground. "She's not going to be happy with you, though," Alina added as Elliot slammed the door closed behind her.
"She's already not happy with me," he grumbled.
I wish I could trust you, she'd said to him. I have tried to be here for you, she'd told him, like he didn't know that, like he'd somehow forgotten all the work she'd done, trying to carry him when he couldn't carry himself, trying to shoulder some of the burden, trying to keep him in the road when he was spiraling out, trying to help look after his kids. That was hard for me, she'd told him, talking about the night he'd turned up at her door with his heart in his hands. Scary, she'd said, and the word had lanced through him like a knife because the one thing he never, ever wanted to do was scare her. You have not asked me one question about what has happened to me since you left.
That's why he was here, now, making his way through the 1-6, making his way towards her. He was here because an hour before they had stood outside the courthouse and she had asked him about Angela and he'd panicked and she'd told him he'd been a shit friend and she'd been right, and then she'd walked away. That was why he was here now, because she had said what has happened to me, and those two little words to me had been ricocheting like bullets around his brain since the moment they passed her lips and he wasn't gonna find any peace until he asked the question and he didn't think she was gonna find any peace until she gave the answer. Something - some things - had happened to her. That's what she thought he ought to ask about, what had happened to her, not what she had done herself, and he'd never been particularly pedantic about grammar but Liv always meant every damn word she said and he couldn't stop thinking about it now. About what could have been done to her.
So he'd called the desk sergeant at the 1-6 on a hunch and been proven right; the man remembered him from the old days, and assured him that yes, Captain Benson had come back to the station and yes, he'd call Detective Stabler if she left before he got there. The desk sergeant hadn't called, though, and even gave Elliot a little nod as he marched to the elevators. Liv was here, upstairs, alone in the darkness, and Alina thought he ought to leave her be, ought to let their conversation settle, ought to focus on the trial and his kids and give them both a chance to calm down, but he'd never been one to back down from a fight and this was, he thought, about to be the fight of his life.
When he stepped into the SVU squadroom the only person he saw was a young uni making a beeline for the coffee machine, and the light was off in Liv's office. But the desk sergeant had said she was here, and somehow Elliot didn't think the man had lied to him.
"Hey," he called to the kid, who spun around so fast he nearly spilled his coffee all down his front. Elliot tugged his badge out of his pocket and flashed it at him as he asked his question. "Where's the Captain?"
"Uh," the kid said, his mouth comically wide as he tried to decide how much to tell the gruff looking stranger standing in front of him. Really, an officer worth the uniform wouldn't tell a stranger where to find his pretty CO this late at night when there was no one around to watch her back, but the kid's eyes flicked from Elliot's shield to Alina and back again, doing the math in his head. He saw Elliot's wolf, and he had seen Olivia's, and he knew what it meant.
"She went to the roof," he said.
Elliot was already turning away as he spoke. The path to the roof was familiar to him, and he went there all unthinking, bulled his way up the stairs and burst out into the night, breathless, with Alina right beside him.
For a moment he just stopped, and stared. Stared at Olivia, fierce and proud in her black coat, a shadow backlit by the city she loved so much, the city she'd given her life to, Achlys beside her like something from a myth, and the breath caught in his throat. There was a power to them up here, Olivia and Achlys wrapped in darkness like a blanket, the silent protectors of the city, the shadows on the wall, the old guard, still manning their posts, after so much loss, so much grief. It was an image he'd never forget, for all the rest of his days.
"You should be at home," she said when she caught sight of him. She did not draw closer, and nor did Achlys move; they just stood there, waiting, watching, while the door closed behind Elliot, while he closed the space between them with unsteady steps.
"What happened to you?" he asked intently.
Olivia flinched, looked away. Up close he could see how tired she was, and he faltered; this really was a shitty plan, and he knew it. Alina had been right; he shouldn't have come here. He shouldn't have pressed. He shouldn't be standing here now, demanding an accounting from this woman who had already given him so much of her time, her heart, her shelter, in recent days, but he was dying inside, desperate to know, cracking beneath the weight of his own questions.
"Don't do this, Elliot," she said, very quietly.
"I wanna know," he answered stubbornly, fighting the urge to reach out and catch her under the chin, to lift her face so that he could look into her eyes. "What happened to you?"
Why have you changed, that's what he was asking, because she had, she had changed, was more reserved, more hesitant, more withdrawn now than she had ever been, because she was more thoughtful, more calculated, more professional than he had ever seen her, because so much of her was hidden away from him, when always before she had been an open book to him. What made you this way, he wanted to scream, and was it me? Did I do this to you?
He thought he had the answer to that question already.
But he had no answers to the other questions. Did not know what had been done to her, but he knew the life she lived, the job she worked, knew the sorts of things that could have happened, and the could haves were eating him up inside.
"What happened," he said again, stepping a little bit closer, his heart breaking when she took a step back, left room between them, "to you?"
"My brother died," she said, but he knew that already, and she knew that, and it irritated him that she was so fucking angry with him for not asking, and yet refusing to answer him when he did ask. "And a few months before that, someone I….someone I loved killed himself."
It was Elliot's turn to blanch; the word loved hit him like a wrecking ball to the chest, and he thought of her little boy, that sweet little boy he'd seen only once, playing with her in the snow, a little boy who by all accounts did not have a father. This man she'd loved, this man who'd killed himself, was he the father of her child? Was she carrying that horror around, struggling to explain it to Noah, stumbling under the weight of her own grief even before Elliot laid his squarely on her shoulders?
"People keep leaving me," she continued. "It's been…it's been fucking hard, Elliot."
People keep leaving me. Like he had left her. Like he had started a chain reaction, with his leaving, and one right after the other every person she cared about just faded away until all that was left was Olivia, alone. Christ, he wanted to hold her. He wanted to pull her in close and wrap his arms around her and just hold her, and whisper promises into the curtain of her hair, swear his fealty to her, swear that no one, no one, least of all him, would ever leave her again, swear that her days of grief were done, but her eyes were full of fire and she would not let him touch her now, and his promises would be worthless for he had broken them before and given her no reason to trust them now.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Olivia laughed, a bitter, mirthless sound, and turned her back on him, pacing closer to the edge of the roof, staring off into the night.
"Is that everything?" he asked. Somehow he didn't think it was, not by half, and the thought scared him. What she had shared with him, her sorrow, her abandonment, was painful enough, and the thought of more hiding somewhere in her past was too much to comprehend. Just how much could one person endure?
"Fuck you," she said, very softly.
"Fuck you for asking, and fuck you for not knowing."
"You told me to ask-"
"I shouldn't have to tell you!" she whirled around, dark hair flying out behind her, lightning flashing in her eyes, glorious and black as the night and full of hurt. "If you gave a shit about me you would have asked months ago because you wanted to. I don't want your pity and I don't want your duty and I don't want you to be here because you think you oughta be."
"I'm here because I wanna be," he fired back. "If I didn't want to be here you really think I would have come? You think I would have come all the way out here tonight if I didn't want to know? I didn't ask because I thought you didn't want me to know. You haven't exactly been telling me shit, Liv. I asked you and you still won't tell me. I don't know what the fuck you expect."
"I don't either," she snapped. "I don't know what I was thinking-"
"Tell me," he said. "Tell me what happened to you."
"Goddamn it, Olivia."
He took a step towards her then, his hand outstretched, frustration making him bold, making him just this side of angry, but he froze in his tracks because Achlys stepped out from beside Olivia, then, stepped between them. Came between Elliot and Olivia, when he had never, ever done that before, and bared his teeth in a silent growl.
Olivia's heart, her very soul, was looking at him with teeth bared, ready to fight him, ready to hurt him, just to keep him away from her. Achlys was protecting Olivia from him, and all his anger faded into dust. How had he fucked things up this bad? How could she be afraid of him now, when they had for so long shared one heart, one thought, been united in their care for one another? She'd gone to Je rsey for him, to speak to his mother, to help his child, and he'd gone to Jersey for her, to watch her back when her desperate need to connect with her brother threatened the very foundations of her life; there was nowhere they would not go for one another, nothing they would not do for one another, but Achlys was standing between them, now, telling him without words that Olivia did not want him near.
It was Alina who stepped forward when Elliot could not, but though she did not draw too close her approach made the fur bristle at the back of Achlys's neck. It was un-fucking-bearable seeing the two of them at odds with one another and Elliot lifted his gaze to Olivia's face, his eyes pleading, desperate for her to end this, desperate for her to tell him how to make things right. Olivia's eyes would not meet his, however; she was looking at the wolves.
"Achlys, stop," she said, very softly, and the great black beast relented, backed off a pace because his mistress told him to, though his eyes were still wary.
"He's never done that before." There was a question in Elliot's words, and Olivia heard it, reached out and laid her hand gently on her daemon's head.
"He's more protective of me now," she explained. "Some things…some things happened."
"Tell me what happened, Olivia."
He was begging, and he was not ashamed of it. He had to know. He had to know what had been done to her, what had made Achlys so defensive, what had made Olivia withdraw from him, what secret was so painful she'd rather snap and snarl and push him away than simply share it with him. He held his breath, waiting; he could feel her warring with herself, caught between the part of her that desperately did not want to tell him, and that part of her that desperately needed him to know.
"I was taken," she said, finally. "This man, he…" her voice trailed off, and Achlys moved, again, pressed his body against her legs and looked up at Elliot with an expression that seemed to tell him to be quiet, to be still, seemed to order him not to interrupt or spook Olivia.
"It was bad, Elliot," she said. Bad, that was the best she could do, the only word she could come up with to explain what had been done to her. "He had me four days. No food, no water. Drugged me, beat me, made me listen while he…did things. He shot Achlys. He would have…he would have raped me, but I broke free. I broke free, and I beat him within an inch of his life, and I nearly lost my shield over it. He kept me in the trunk of his car for hours, and I still get antsy in tight spaces. I can't stand the smell of cigarettes, anymore. He…he left marks, on me. And then he broke out of prison and that was worse. It's been years, and sometimes I still wake up in the middle of the night feeling his hands on me, the gun against my temple, his blood on my face. That's what happened to me, and you weren't there."
It was painful for her, he could tell; just recounting even those scant few details cost her dearly. He could see it in her, the fear, the grief, the wounds she was ripping open, just for him. The picture she painted was one of terror, was so horrific to him that his mind shied away from it, even as he struggled to hold on to every word she'd said. How she suffered, still, lingering effects from the things that had been done to her, how she had been marked. How the worst thing of all was that he hadn't been there. She had needed him, and he hadn't come.
"There was a moment," she said. "When I thought I was going to die, and I prayed for you. It was stupid. It was pitiful. I felt so fucking weak. But all I wanted was for you to come bursting through the door. I wanted you to save me. And you never came."
"Olivia." His voice cracked as he spoke her name, the sound of it a miserable, bleeding thing, but she shook her head, her eyes flashing a warning at him.
"This isn't about you," she said. "This isn't about how it makes you feel or your fucking apologies or what you would have done if things were different. This is about me. This is mine."
This pain, this horror, that had been visited upon her, body and soul, she was claiming it, telling him how it belonged to her, and it broke him, to see her so fiercely owning something so wretched.
"When I needed you most, you were nowhere in sight," she said. "And when you needed me, I was there. Don't you ever forget that."
With those words she walked away from him, her chin held high, her steps sure and steady, refusing to meet his gaze, and as she went so, too, did Achlys, keeping his heavy body between her and Elliot as he went. The black wolf passed close by Alina, and brushed her cheek with his once, gently, as he went, but he did not slow for her, did not stop, did not so much as glance at Elliot. Elliot they left alone, watching, all the words he longed to say lodged in the back of his throat, his voice frozen by guilt.
Maybe it was for the best, that he could not speak, that his limbs were frozen, petrified in the oldest, truest sense of the word, his body turned to stone as punishment for the multitude of his sins. There were no words he could have said, to staunch the bleeding of that wound, to smooth the rough edges of her hurt, to atone for the mistakes he had made, the things he had done. In the daylight he might have fought her, might have chased after her, might have reminded her that he had no idea what had become of her, that if he'd only known no force on earth could have kept him from her, but in the darkness those words faded into shadows, and did not pass his lips. There was no point in speaking them, anyway; she knew it all already, knew everything he wanted to say to her, knew everything he was feeling, and had told him she didn't want it.
He knew, now, what had happened to her, and he wished, with every piece of his heart, that he didn't.
It was late evening on Christmas day - the worst Christmas day in recent memory - and the interviews with IAB and force investigation and her union rep were all wrapped up, all the paperwork submitted, and orders had come down that Olivia, Fin, and Rollins were to take the next two days off work, as a gesture of thanks for having sacrificed their holiday with their family, as a gesture of wariness from the NYPD's PR team, who - despite the fact that the victim was in this case a murderous fucking prick no one would miss - wanted to give the story time to percolate before they crafted the department's message around the shooting. Cop kills a civilian in a market in full view of a crowd of people; maybe she would be the hero of the story, or maybe she would be the villain, and the brass wanted to see which way the wind was blowing before they cast their support behind her, or turned away from her entirely.
So she'd come up here, to the darkness of the station roof on a cold December night, to try to gather her thoughts and settle herself before schlepping across town to pick Noah up from Amanda's. Amanda's mother - who was, by all accounts, a grade A bitch - wasn't exactly an ideal babysitter, but she'd raised two children to adulthood and any port in a storm, Amanda had said. It wasn't like they'd had a lot of options for childcare on Christmas Eve when they were called in. It broke Olivia's heart, not being able to spend this day with her son, and she was desperate to see him, but she didn't want him to see her like this. Frayed, and weary, and heartbroken. He was so young, still; there were so many things she didn't want to tell him, not yet. Let him be little, just for a while longer, she thought. Let him stay sweet, and happy.
She was almost ready to go. She was almost calm enough, almost resigned enough, and she had her phone in her hand, prepared to text Amanda and let her know that she was coming to get her son, when the door to the roof creaked open, the sound of it loud despite the endless bustle of the city below.
"Thought I might find you here," a familiar voice called out from behind her, low, and soft, entreating.
The breath caught in her throat and Achlys rose to his feet; he'd been lying on the ground beside her, resting, but he was on high alert, now, pacing between Olivia and the man who had intruded on her private grief, and it hurt, somehow, seeing her own heart so reluctant to let him draw near. Slowly she turned, and found Elliot and Alina stalking towards her, watched with her hands in her pockets as they drew near, as Alina went to Achlys, the way she always did, bumped his shoulder with her nose, an offer of comfort. No one else's daemon ever drew so near to Achlys, no one except for Noah's daemon Cybele who was still so little, still changing shape from one moment to the next, still eager to rest between Achlys's paws, comforted by his nearness. Only her; no one, no one else dared to touch him. No one but Alina.
"Heard what happened," Elliot continued, watching her from the other side of their wolves. He was wearing blue jeans and his heavy black coat, a black beanie pulled down to protect his bald head from the cold. He looked like he'd just rolled out of bed; maybe he had. Fin had only left perhaps an hour before; probably, Olivia thought, probably Fin had called Elliot from the car, and Elliot had come straight here. It seemed like the sort of thing they might do, those two men who were her closest friends. It seemed like something Fin would do, wanting to make sure that she was taken care of, and it seemed like something Elliot would do, wanting to be the one to stand beside her, but perhaps, she thought, perhaps that was only wishful thinking.
"I'm fine," she said, even though he hadn't asked. He wouldn't have been here, she thought, if he wasn't worried about her, and the last thing she wanted to do now was worry him.
The state of affairs between them had been shifting since the trial; after their cataclysmic coming apart on the roof he'd been watching her every moment they were together, staring at her in wonder as if he were only just seeing her for the first time. She'd called him to task for being a shitty friend, and though his first attempt at making things right had been a disaster, his second was smoother. That day in the hospital, waiting for Eli; Jesus, everything that happened in Jersey seemed so bizarre now. She'd gone to him, even though a part of her was still angry with him, even though a part of him was still wounded, because he was her friend, because Eli was just a child and they needed help, and she'd stayed because she wanted to, because in the light of day with thoughts of Angela Wheatley banished from her mind she'd wanted to be near Elliot. And he'd asked her, so sweetly, to come to his family's Christmas party, had opened up his life to her and made room for her in it. After what she'd revealed to him, the angry words she'd hurled at him, he had not withdrawn from her; he had held his arms open to her instead, and she had gone.
She had gone because she wanted to see his children, because she wanted to look in on Eli, because she wanted Noah to meet Elliot properly, because she wanted to believe there was a way forward for them, that there was a chance, however small, that they would not be broken by the sins of the past. She had gone, and baked cookies with Maureen, and watched Noah with Elliot's children, his grandchildren, and felt warmth seep through her whole body as she and Noah were enveloped by family. It worried her, just a little, giving her son a taste of family, not knowing when or if he'd ever be able to enjoy it again, but she had done it because she wanted to, and Elliot had walked her to her car that night, and ducked his head and shyly thanked her for being here.
She hadn't seen him since, and yet now here he was, coming to her when he felt she needed him.
"Like hell you are," he said.
Her lip trembled at the memory. He had always known when she wasn't fine, had always seen through her lies; other people did, too, she was certain. Amanda, and Fin, they'd hear her say she was fine and know she wasn't but they never called her out on it. Elliot did; Elliot knew her, and Elliot would not let her get away with hiding her heart from him.
"What are you doing here, Elliot?"
She knew - she thought she knew - why he was here. She looked at him, at the warmth of his blue eyes watching her in the darkness, and believed he had come because he cared for her, but in that moment she wanted to hear him say it. It mattered to her, suddenly, deeply, that she hear someone tell her that she was cared for. That she was more than the job, more than a murderer, more than a mother, that she mattered to someone else for her own sake.
"You were right," he said. "You've always been there for me when I needed you. Always. You need somebody right now, Liv. And I'm here. I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere. You don't have to be alone."
She took a deep, shuddering breath, looked away from him because she was certain that if she maintained eye contact with him she would burst into tears, and never stop. There had been so many times, over the last ten years, when she had wanted, needed him with her, and he was nowhere to be found, but he was standing in front of her now, handsome and proud and strong, promising her always. She wanted his always. She wanted two strong arms to hold her, wanted to know that whatever challenges lay in store there would be someone beside her. She wanted someone to share the burden, someone to catch her when she fell. And she wanted, more than anything, for him to be that someone.
"Tell me what you need, Liv."
Tell us what you need.
A lump formed in the back of her throat at the memory, as she recalled his soft voice, saying I love you. His declaration of love had come ten years too late, had come at a moment where it could not be anything more than a wound, but the ground had shifted beneath their feet. For so long they had kept the truth of their feelings for one another to themselves, had hidden away the softest, most hopeful pieces of their hearts behind locked doors, the keys thrown away. For so long the truth - that he loved her, that she loved him - remained unspoken, for to speak it would be to unleash disaster on them both. But he had said it, finally. Had brought that truth into the light in a moment when his heart was cracked and bleeding and he was not strong enough to hide from it, and Olivia had been dealing with the fallout in her own heart ever since. He wasn't saying I love you now, but he was showing his love to her, just by being here, when everyone else had left her all alone. Actions had always been more important than words, to both of them, and his actions spoke of love.
"I need to see my son," she said. She was tired down to her very bones, heartsick and weary, and what she needed right now was to see Noah. To look down into his sweet face as she had done so many times before, and remember why it was she did the work she did. To remember why it mattered, to remember that the world was full of good things, things worth fighting for. That was what she needed. What she wanted, though, was Elliot.
He seemed to understand.
"Let's go get him, then," he said, and held his hand out to her.
For a moment she hesitated, staring at his hand, mulling over his offer. When it came to his son she did not hesitate to step into the fray, to be there for both of them, to make her presence known, but so far she had kept her own son shielded away from Elliot. The Christmas party marked the only time they had met, talked, interacted with one another, and as much as it warmed her heart to see Elliot treating her son so kindly, to see her son speaking to the man who for so long had been the center of her world, it worried her, too, because Elliot meant everything to her and Elliot had left. Leaving her, that could be forgiven, but if he walked out of Noah's life, she feared her own heart would be irreparably shattered.
But she wanted to take his hand. She wanted to cling to him, and let him help her, wanted to see Noah's face light up when he caught sight of Uncle Elliot. She wanted him to be with her, always.
At her feet Achlys shifted, leaned his heavy body against her legs, and when she looked down into his eyes she saw it. Saw her own yearning, and the reassurance of her heart. Just take it, Achlys seemed to say, and so she did. She threaded her fingers through Elliot's, and let him lead her away.
He volunteered to make tea while she tucked Noah into bed; her son was growing up, a little bigger, a little older, every day, but he was still small, small enough for Elliot to pick him up easily, carry him out of Rollins's apartment to the car, carry him up from the car into Olivia's home, and he had done it gladly, done it not just because the way Olivia looked at him while he held her son made his heart sing but because it had been so long since his babies had been small enough for him to carry, and he missed it sometimes, still. It felt good, sharing this with her, looking after her, looking after her child; she had done much the same for him, a hundred times over, and he was glad to pay her back in kind. He was glad to be here, puttering around her little kitchen; when he'd told her he meant to do this for her she'd looked at him skeptically, said you don't even know where the tea is, and he had reassured her. I'll figure it out, he'd told her, confident that he knew her well enough to find his way through this kitchen he'd never been in before, because she might have moved into a new apartment but she was still Olivia, and he knew how her mind worked. He was right, in that regard; he found the kettle and the tea and the cups exactly where he thought he would.
But the tea was ready, now, and Olivia still hadn't appeared, so he took her cup and drifted further into the apartment, searching for her, a little uneasy about wandering into her private space uninvited but more uneasy when he thought of her alone after everything she'd been through today. Killing a fucking white power terrorist on Christmas day; it was too awful to be believed, more horror than she ought to have to endure on her own. When things got tough she had a tendency to withdraw and he didn't want that, now; he wanted to be here, and he wanted her to trust him, and he wanted her to speak, and know that he was listening. He hadn't done a great job listening since he'd come home, but he was trying, for her sake, to be better than he had been.
In the corridor he found her, leaning in the doorway to Noah's bedroom. She'd changed into her pajamas and let down her hair, barefoot and soft and beautiful, so fucking beautiful that just her profile was enough to knock the wind out of him. She didn't seem to notice his approach; she and Achlys were staring straight into the room, watching, presumably, her little boy fast asleep in his bed, safe and well. Very gently Elliot reached for her, let his hand settle on her shoulder, and she did not startle or pull away, only sighed, very softly, and relaxed beneath his touch.
"When he was little, I used to just stand here and watch him for hours," she whispered into the stillness. "All night, sometimes. I was so scared for him. This world is so cruel and he's so little and I just want to keep him safe."
There had been nights, more nights than Elliot could count, when he had done the very same, when he had gone to his children, one by one, and stood over them, needing to reassure himself that they were safe, that whatever evil he had encountered during the day would not touch them in their home. It stirred something in his chest, thinking of Olivia doing the same thing with her child, thinking how Kathy never seemed to understand his fear and how Olivia knew the taste of that fear so intimately. She was a mother, and he was a father, and they were both cops, and they were both afraid. Maybe that shouldn't have been a comfort to him, but it was.
"He is safe," he said, squeezing her shoulder lightly. "You're a good mother, and your son is safe."
Her body trembled beneath his hand, and he heard her breath hitch, like she was trying, very hard, not to cry.
"Come on," he said. "You've had a long day. You need to rest. Let me keep watch tonight."
Everyone in his apartment was fast asleep; his mother would be up at the crack of dawn but Eli wouldn't stir until noon, and Kathleen had crashed on the couch. His family was well, and safe, and wouldn't miss him while they slept, but Olivia needed him, he thought. Olivia had been all alone in this apartment for years, with no one else to help her guard her child, no one to take over her watch when she needed to rest. He wanted to do that for her, now. He wanted to sit on the floor outside her door, wanted to keep guard with Alina through the long hours of the night, making sure that Olivia and her son were both safe. He wanted her to know that when he said always, he meant it.
Olivia must have been exhausted because she didn't even try to protest. She turned away, let him close Noah's door, let him follow along behind her as she walked on leaden feet into her own bedroom. It was a nice room; nice white coverlet, nice artwork on the walls, nice, unassuming furniture, so different from the clutter and explosion of colors he recalled from the bedroom in her old apartment, like the woman who had decorated this room was not the girl he recalled. Maybe that was true, but he loved her, still.
Olivia threw back her covers and slid beneath them with a sigh while Elliot set her teacup gently down on the bedside table. Her eyes fluttered closed as her head sank into the pillows, her thick, heavy curls framing her face like a halo. Without even really thinking about it Elliot reached out, drew the covers up over her chest and smoothed that hair back from her forehead, drinking in the sight of her; she was so fucking beautiful, and so fucking strong, and she had suffered so fucking much, and he made a silent vow, in that moment, that he would never, ever let anyone hurt her again, not while he drew breath.
"Good night, Olivia," he whispered, wanting to lean down and press a kiss against her forehead but restraining himself at the last moment. He turned to go, intent on closing her door softly and then settling himself down outside of it, but the wolves, it seemed, had other plans.
As he stepped away Alina shot him a reproachful look, and then she leapt gracefully from the floor up to Olivia's bed, stretched herself out over Olivia's belly and laid down like she had no intention of moving. His heart did not want to leave Olivia; his heart wanted, more than anything, to stay. Achlys, too, did not seem to want him to go, for he stalked away from the bed, silently placed his heavy body between Elliot and the door, watching him with eyes dark and intent. Olivia's heart didn't want him to leave, either.
He swung back around, thinking of calling Alina, telling her to get down, to please not do this, but when he looked at the bed he found Olivia looking back, running her hand gently over Alina's silver head. Olivia, and beautiful, lying in bed, stroking his daemon, her own blocking his exit; he swallowed thickly as the rush of need threatened to overwhelm him. Alina had done what he had not been brave enough to do, and laid down with Olivia, and he could not deny it, looking at her now, could not pretend for one second that he didn't want to be lying right next to her. It was as if his own heart had been laid bare, as if Alina had given voice to every thought in his head, and he was left defenseless in the face of her honesty.
"You don't have to go," Olivia said, very quietly.
"Then I won't."
He reached out, caught the edge of the door in his hand and swung it gently closed, and then he toed out of his shoes, feeling strangely self conscious as Olivia and Alina both lay there, watching him. He didn't want to slide beneath her crisp white sheets in the same clothes he'd worn out in the night, and so he unfastened his belt, slipped his trousers down off his hips, and then set about unbuttoning his shirt, Olivia's dark eyes on him all the while. There was something heady about it, undressing in front of her, knowing that he meant to go to bed with her, knowing that she meant to let him, feeling as if their lives were about to change, as if the very stars had realigned themselves just to allow this one moment for Elliot and Olivia to come to one another with their defenses down. It felt like fate; it felt like it was always meant to be, like from the moment they'd first met, the moment Achlys and Alina had first touched, their two hearts had been, always, careening towards this moment.
When he was stripped down to his briefs and his white undershirt he crossed to the other side of the bed, and Olivia reached out to turn off the lamp while he slid under the covers beside her. Alina rose, lifted herself off of Olivia and went to curl up at the end of the bed, and Achlys joined her there, jumped up and wrapped himself around her, silver fur and black forming a little yin yang at Elliot's feet, a perfect sort of balance. That was as it was meant to be, he thought; the two wolves deserved the chance to rest with one another, and maybe their people deserved that chance, too.
In the darkness, up close, he saw Olivia's eyelashes flutter, saw her lower lip tremble, as the weight of the day, and the weight of this moment between them, had settled heavily on her chest, as if she were fighting the urge to cry.
"I've been alone for so long," she told him, refusing to meet his gaze. The confession was heavy, and he knew it had cost her dear to make, and he knew what it was she was telling him. That she didn't know how not to be alone, anymore, that the thought of not being alone scared her now, that she worried, still, that love might not be worth the risk. Elliot knew better; every heartbreak, every grief, every wound of the last twenty-three years was worth it, for the chance to love this woman, and he would do it all again, every part of it.
"I'm right here," he said, reaching out to brush his fingertips against her cheek, turning her head gently towards him. "And I'm not going anywhere, Olivia. I'm right where I want to be."
It looked to him like she still needed some reassurance, and so he lifted himself up onto his elbows, leaned slowly towards her, gave her every opportunity to pull away while his heart raced in his chest. She didn't pull away, though; when his lips met hers she was ready for him, and he sank into that kiss with a feeling like relief swirling through him. It was a gentle kiss, a chaste kiss, sleepy and sad, but her lips were warm and so soft, and touching her made him feel as if he had, finally, found the answers to every question that had plagued him for the last two decades. The answer was Olivia. She righted every wrong, made sense of the chaos, settled his mind and warmed his heart, and when he kissed her she kissed him right back, like whatever he was feeling, she felt the same.
This moment was not a moment for passion, though, and so he pulled away, flung his arm out over her belly and laid his head down next to hers on the pillow.
"Sleep, Olivia," he said. "I've got you."
Now, and always, for all the rest of his days; he would have her back, would support her, would run to her when she needed him, would try, with all his might, to be the kind of man who deserved to share a bed with a woman as magnificent as her.
"I love you," she whispered.
He had told her the same thing once before, in a moment of unspeakable grief, when his life was spiraling out of his control, when nothing made any sense, when the only thing he knew, with any certainty, was that he loved her. He had clung to that one truth, though she did not speak the words back to him, though she had not once since his return voiced such feeling for him. She had been holding it in reserve, he knew, not because she wanted to hurt him but because she was afraid of it. Because she was like him, and she knew what their love had cost them, and she was scared of what it might do to her in the future. She had been afraid, but she spoke those words now, now when he held her, now when he had come to her, and pledged himself to her. It was a gift, he knew. She was taking a chance on him; she was believing in him. Believing that he was no more a monster than she was, believing that no matter what other people might say about the two of them, with blood dripping from their hands and wolves prowling by their sides, that they were good, and that they could be good, together.
"I love you," he whispered back, brushing a kiss against her shoulder. "I love you."
That was, he thought, the only thing that really mattered.
He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, and she did the same, safe beneath the warmth of his arm, and at the end of the bed Achlys lay with his head on Alina's belly, the two wolves at peace now that they were together, as they always should have been.