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She’s not going to make this easy on him.

And really, she shouldn’t. He knows that. 

He knows he doesn’t fucking deserve Olivia. He knows in spite of how shitty it feels when she declines his invitations, when she gives him only the tiniest fragments of herself - when he used to know every square inch of her soul - that it’ll never feel the way him leaving her for ten years did. Like drowning, like getting the breath pummeled out of your lungs every morning for a fucking decade.

So yeah - it’s only fair that this is fucking hard. It’s only fair that he for once knows the brunt of the hurt, of the distance, of the longing. 

The intensity of how magnetic this all feels doesn’t entirely hit him until they’re in her truck on the way back to the 3-7, though.

Working with Olivia in this capacity again reminds him of two things. One: He’ll never get those ten years of time back and he hates himself for it. Two: They’re still fucking unstoppable together.

He holds onto that thought - thought number two - up until she shifts the car into park in front of the station. Until Frank Donnelly peers his head like a smug motherfucker through the lowered driver’s side window and spews some bullshit about weaseling his way into becoming Elliot’s favorite partner. He thinks. He half-hears it, honestly. He’s too enraptured by her, by the way her hair faintly brushes the back of the seat and her lips spread into a faint, tight-lipped smile, like she knows there’s no way in hell she could ever be replaced.

Before he steps out of the car, he wants to say it. Nothing grandiose, because that’s not his forte and he thinks she’d kill him if he started pouring his heart out to her with half of his limbs already hanging outside of her passenger door. But he wants to utter the words - tell her it’s always nice to work with her not only for the familiarity but because he fucking loves her, because he fucking misses who she was to him once.

He longs for who they once were as partners, captivatingly in sync like they’d been today. He longs for the easy way it felt - for the Elliot and Olivia who hadn’t been afraid to challenge one another, to push each other’s buttons, to be so ferociously devoted to their partnership that they were absolutely fucking legendary for it.

Everything now feels so careful, so foreign, skirting the line of almost - but nothing happens. It can’t, and it won’t, and he’ll love her solely and wholly from afar if that’s what it takes to keep her in his orbit. 

He rattles out a breath and bows his head, his palm wrapped tight around the rim of the car door. He catches her delicate gaze and knows - beyond the stoic way she’d been able to brush him off, to say no without a thought, to hold back the details of who she’s become without him here - that somewhere buried underneath the mound of hurt he’d weighed her down with, she’s gotta love him too.

She would’ve already driven away. Passed over the crowbar at the scene to him without her free hand finding a home on his back. Left him to worry about finding his way here on his own. 

“What is it?” she asks. He’s taking too long to get out of her fucking car, and she’s too polite to say she’s got somewhere better to be, but he can tell she wants to. “You okay?”

“Yeah, no, I’m good,” he says, sliding his hand off of the exterior, dipping it into his pocket. “I meant it, Liv. It’s always nice — workin’ with you like this.”

It’s a lot more than nice, but he treads cautiously, never thrusts his entire soul into it - into this, into them - the way he’s dying to.

“Mmm, it is,” she agrees at the repeated sentiment, both of her hands wrapped tight around the steering wheel. “I gotta —”

He shuts the car door, the window now lowered halfway. She must’ve done that when he stepped out. Maybe before. He’s been too entranced by all of this, by her, to notice. “Oh yeah, don’t — don’t lemme hold you up.”

She hoists one hand off of the wheel and says, “You’re not.”

But she’s chewing on her cheek like she’s ready to get the hell home, to hang up her badge and her gun and the piercing nostalgia that he’s certain is coursing through her bones the same way it is his. She’s checked-out for the day, done playing the role of the Olivia Benson that functioned at her absolute prime only whenever she’d been side-by-side working a case with Elliot Stabler.

“Home safe partner,” he murmurs, tapping on the center of the car door with his palm wide open as she flicks her headlights back on.

“You too,” she swallows, gazing down at the gearshift, “partner.”

 

He’s not a stranger to heartbreak. The numbing way it’d felt on days and nights he witnessed it seep into every crevice of Kathy’s face whenever he’d hurt her haunts him. Whenever his daughters had been wallowing in sorrow over a broken heart, he’d be right there with them as best as he could be - his palm drawing circles onto the center of their backs over and over, thinking of how he’d kill the son-of-a-bitches if he could get away with it. 

When he slides into a bar stool at Forlini’s, he can hear it in the way her voice cracks when she greets him. He searches right away for it, and it doesn’t take him long to find it - the somber way she looks down at her glass, twirling her index finger around the rim over and over and over again. He’d give anything, he swears, if it meant she’d be shielded from any more suffering.

“Talk to me,” he commands, more firmly than he intends to. When she doesn’t respond, he tries again. “I just mean...What happened?”

“This was about him,” she says, sliding her fingers onto her cheek. “He’s selfish. He always has been. It was never about him and I or me and you or —”

“You gotta give me more than that Liv,” he jests, interrupting her words to raise a hand in her peripheral, but she isn’t having it. “Who are we talkin’ about here?”

“You don’t get it —” She takes a sip of her drink and he watches as she presses her lips together, the tip of her nose wrinkling as she swallows it down. “No love in this world is unconditional, and I’m not going to let someone sit here and tell me how I feel, how I love —”

She presses her pointer finger to the center of her chest defensively, ferociously. 

“Who’s — Who’s tellin’ you that?”

She swallows, sets her glass down and sifts a hand through her hair. “He doesn’t get to do that. He doesn’t get to sit here and tell me he’s been a dick toward me because he loves me, because he’s protecting me. Defending that piece of shit, that’s not protecting me.”

“Wh — Oh.”

He doesn’t need any further elaboration. Not if Olivia’s guilty eyes are any indication. They shift from his cheek to her own lap, and she’s anxiously twirling one finger around the edge of the glass again.

He knows very little of the nature of her relationship with Rafael Barba, but if he’s gotta guess, it feels somewhere in the realm of how this one does — fractured, incomplete, half-existent. His fault. All his fucking fault.

“I had no idea,” he finally manages, his voice small.

“To be honest…” she says, craning her neck back, “neither did I.”

“So you two never —”

She shuts her eyes, shakes her head. “Never.”

“It’s okay, Liv.”

“No, never,” she repeats. “But you come back and he blames you - says you’re the one who made things more complicated.”

It stings right in the gut. He could throw up - mostly at the accuracy, at being the complication. He wants to be nothing but entirely hers, and here he is, fucking it all up. Hoisting her over his shoulders and dragging her into the shit storm with him.

One day, he silently vows, it’ll stop fucking hailing down on us.

“I haven’t made things easy,” he admits.

“No, you haven’t.”

“Liv, I’m sorry.”

She taps her fingertips atop the bar and swivels around in the stool until her knees poke his left thigh. “And I don’t — I don’t love you unconditionally.” Another blow to the gut. She may as well shatter the glass she’s holding in her hands - throw the shards at his center one-by-one.

“Well, thanks for clearin’ that one up.”

“I just mean, there’s no such thing Elliot. There are conditions. Our work, our history, my son, your wife…”

“I don’t know how in the way of things the last one could be —”

She closes her eyes again. “Oh god, I’m…I’m sorry.”

“No, no, it’s alright,” he promises, gently waving a hand at her. “Can I get you home?”

She shakes her head slowly, contemplating. “Noah’s there with the nanny. Probably still up waiting for me. No.”

God damnit. He takes two fingers to his face and pinches the bridge of his nose, remembering to breathe. Her hesitance only exists because of him. He uncurls both of his hands from fists and relaxes his fingers, spreading them across both of his kneecaps.

He breathes out again - slower, gentler this time.

“Liv. I’ve met Noah before, remember?”

He’s still thinking about that day - Olivia in a green dress, hand-in-hand with a kid who looks an awful lot like he could’ve been the perfect blend of the both of them if this were another universe, another time. If fate were - for once - on their side. He shakes away that thought every time it comes, but never before he lets it rattle him to his core. 

“Not like this, Elliot,” she counters, fierce protectiveness hanging onto every syllable of her words. “I’m sorry, I’m just — I’m not ready for you to be in our space, in our home, it’s — it’s too much.”

He could sink into how horrible it feels - to be so close for so long, teetering on the edge of every ‘what if’ imaginable. He stares at her as she pulls her wallet out of her purse, uses two fingers to hastily tug her credit card out from its slot. She’s rough but delicate. She’s pulling yet pushing. She’s everything and nothing to him, all at once.

“Okay,” he manages - barely. He locks his hands together, cracking his knuckles.

The center of her body grazes the side of his when she slides out of the bar stool, a crumpled twenty fisted in her grip. She throws it down by his elbow and asks him if he’ll be okay, if he’ll find his way home.

To the first part, he lies. Says something along the lines of ‘Sure, I’ll be fine’ because it’s what she wants to hear. To the second, he sinks into himself. There’s no way to tell her that home is this - the two of them together.

“Goodnight,” she says, looping her jacket over her forearm and leaving him alone.

“Liv.”

“What?”

“It does exist, y’know.”

“What does?”

“What you were saying before,” he says, folding his hands atop the bar. “It’s real, I promise, even if it feels like it isn’t.”

She sucks at the inside of her cheek, her feet firm on the ground. The only controlled part of her in the moment. “Elliot, don’t…”

Don’t what, tell you the truth? Tell you that I’m fucking trying and you’re just —” He watches her cross her arms around herself, squint her eyes at him. He drops that thought, picks up another. “And what’s with that guy Barba? What the fuck does he know about the two of us anyway?”

“Nothing,” she says, laced with exasperation, “and I told him that.”

“Good,” is all he says back, hardly satisfied.

“Okay, are — are we done now?”

“I dunno Liv, are we? What are we doing here? Why am I here if you’re just gonna —”

“Leave?” she croaks out. "Like you did? Unlike you, I’m just heading home. But hey, I could ghost you for a decade if you’d like, see how it goes...”

He stands up now, instinctively looping his arm around her elbow. He just wants to touch her, have the faintest inkling of contact with her. An elbow will have to suffice - he won’t even think about holding her the way he’d like to, both arms enveloped around her middle, their centers meeting. 

“Please, just let me take you home,” he pleads, his thumb stroking her elbow bone.

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not? At least gimme a reason.”

She doesn’t, squirming out of his grip, her head bowed to the ground. She’s running, running, running and he doesn’t fucking blame her.

“Liv. Olivia. C’mon.”

Her pace picks up, and before he knows it they’re both outside, standing on the pavement, and the air is heavy and misted from a cocktail of mid-May humidity and evening rain.

The city bustles on in commotion around them - a few people lazily strolling, people ducking with hands over their heads like a shield from the rain, couples hand-in-hand, kids in clusters squealing at the thunderous way the clouds just rolled in and soaked the sidewalk - but they are still. 

Still here, still spinning each others’ worlds on their axises. Still hesitant, still unwaveringly loyal. Still the deepest of loves swirling in a haze around, between, and through them.

“Go home, El,” she says, the words thick and weighted. Defeated. 

“I’m trying. Trying to be here, to — Liv, you’re the most important person in my life and you feel like a stranger to me.”

“That’s comforting.”

“I don’t mean it like that,” he promises, pulling both hands out of his pockets. They reach out for her - stop at either of her wrist lines. The rain is picking up its pace now.

“You feel like one to me too,” she admits after a beat like she’s ashamed, her gaze falling onto the way his fingers curl around her forearms, like he’s holding her in place.

“We can change that,” he tries, his words spewing out like gravel. 

“I really do have to go,” she breathes out, a raindrop sliding from the slanted awning above and onto her cheek. He wants to wipe it away, just to slide a finger across her skin like he’s staking his claim. It’s fucking hard, keeping his hands to himself. Not losing complete and utter control around her. 

“Yeah, I know. But before you do, just — I’m here, okay?”

“Do we have to do this now?”

“Fine, then when? When should we do this?”

She doesn’t shift out of his grip. He watches as she blinks, contemplates. The top of her hair is now completely dampened with rain, and he won’t keep her out here much longer, but if she wanted to bolt, he thinks she already would’ve. She’s still here, and that says something. That says this isn’t all for nothing. That she’s thought about it too. That there’s a reason she’s hanging on, a reason she’d dialed his number and asked him to meet her here with urgency in her voice - like his company was beyond a want, but a need

“I know how fucked up it was, how long ten years is, but I’m not — you don’t have to be scared of me goin’ anywhere anymore.”

The way she shimmies away from him - fractured, unsteady - tells him it’s going to take a lot more than a sentence to assure her he’s fucking serious.

“G’night, El,” she says gently, like she’s sorry.

“You too, Liv,” he responds like the sorriest son-of-a-bitch on the planet.

He goes left and she goes right, and he waits - waits for Olivia to look behind her and back at him.

With his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans and the rain pelting him, he waits, follows the click-clack sound of her steps until she’s too far away for him to hear them anymore.

She doesn’t look back once.