Letting herself have this - wholly and fully, in the same salient way in which the night sky has the infinite promise of the moon and the stars - is admittedly fucking terrifying.
She observes the stillness around her and convinces herself that maybe not everyone is made to bask in it this way. God, she feels insane to be craving the glow of flashing city lights right now; for feeling more at home surrounded by the roaring sounds of a siren than she does here, petrified by the unfamiliar whoosh the waves make every time they marry the shoreline.
It’s not Elliot who takes note of her distance, though. “Liv?”
At the sound of Kathleen’s voice, she blinks back to reality, back to Long Beach Island. Back to the faint sound of her son giggling in the distance. A crackling bonfire. Dickie and Elliot clanking two bottles of beer together.
“Yeah sweetheart,” she replies, lacing all of her fingers together. She breathes out slowly, as unhurried as being here feels. She won’t admit it - not to him, not anytime soon - but Elliot was right. Everyone laughs lighter here. Time feels less finite. The drift that brushes over her as the sun starts to set is unfamiliar but comforting. “What’s up?”
“Your glass is empty,” Kathleen whispers, tipping a chilled wine bottle toward her, offering to refill it as she sets her own glass down onto the sand, using the toe of her sandal to cocoon it into the ground. “More?”
She looks ahead twenty feet from where their beach chairs are planted in the sand, observing the skillful way Elliot is flipping a stick holding two marshmallows - first on its right side, then on its left - into the fire, showing Noah how it’s done.
And my god, this is it. This here is what she’s utterly terrified of - he’s beyond attached. He’s dependent, reliant on the presence of Elliot in the little world they’ve all created. The world she’d finally granted Elliot permission to be part of - slowly, conscientiously. The world that’s been solely hers for a decade, hers to heal in, hers to revel in, hers to rebuild, all alone.
Kathleen speaks again and the words tear through her thoughts like a crashing wave. “Dad’s really happy you came, y’know.”
She hums, takes a long sip of white wine. “Is that right?”
She watches Kathleen tug down onto her bottom lip with her teeth, drum her fingers slowly against her own wine glass. “We’re all happy about it,” she says, using one hand to pull shut the blanket she’s got wrapped around herself. The wind here starts to pick up after dusk, once the heat of the day settles into its slumber. “I mean, I didn’t even think you’d say yes — with good reason, obviously.”
Olivia arches a brow at that, takes another sip. “Why’s that?”
“Because...I don’t know, you — you have this whole life outside of all of us, outside of him,” Kathleen drawls, and from the slow, soft way she speaks, Olivia can tell she’s a comfortable level of tipsy from the beach sunset picnic, the wine they’d both shared.
Olivia swallows, looks down at the sand. Doesn’t talk about how that took time; how at one point, not as long ago as it feels, her whole life was him.
“Sorry,” Kathleen continues, resting her glass between her pressed-together thighs, tugging the blanket up higher around her collar. “I just — I know how important you are to him, to us. I guess I’m just trying to say I’m glad you’re here for the weekend.”
“I’m —” The sound of Noah’s laughter distracts her.
Elliot has got an arm around his shoulder now, crouching closer into her son as he takes the stick out from his little hands, yells across the fire for Eli to grab him a paper plate. He’s guiding her kid on how to be just that, a kid - showing him to make a s’more, to revel in nothing but the crackling firewood and the ocean waves, bribing Olivia to let him stay up a little too late past his bedtime for the fireworks that’ll happen just down at the end of the beach tonight.
Olivia clutches onto the feeling while simultaneously being petrified of it; of losing it before it’s even gone.
“Me too honey,” she finally says, silencing the trepidation with another sip of wine. “Me too.”
This is what she does.
Things start to feel solid and she runs.
Walks, really - down to the opposite end of the beach, where the crackling sound from the fireworks is now faint and her view of the kids chasing each other in the sand with sparklers in their hands becomes more like she’s looking at lightning bugs buzzing along the Surf City beach.
She finds a spot in the sand and sits down, shivering as she does.
She remembers Elliot’s blue hoodie is still in her possession, unworn, looped around her waist since the moment he’d noticed her teeth chattering before he and Dickie had started the fire and insisted she take it. She unties both of the sleeves and slips it on over her hair, damp and sandy from the afternoon they’d all spent here. Noah had barely wanted to get out of the water long enough to eat the burger Elliot grilled for him back at the beach house, summoning Olivia into the waves with him for hours and hours.
She hugs her knees to her chest and breathes it all in, thinks about how small she feels right here in this spot, surrounded by distant booms of celebration and kids up way past their bedtime tracing their names in the sand with twigs and collecting piles of broken seashells into buckets. She thinks about the goddamn beach house - the room with the twin beds Eli and Noah will share tonight, and the one down the hall from that room. The one Elliot had plopped her duffle bag into, right beside his own atop the comforter.
A group of seven kids from the house next to theirs - all different ages, different statures, probably cousins or family friends - race toward where Olivia is sitting. The two littlest ones call out for the five kids sprinting forward, yelling in unison for them to wait up as their little legs kick mounds of sand behind their wet feet as they try and keep up.
“Our — our frisbee.” The oldest - a girl with auburn hair and a face full of freckles in nothing but a teal blue Surf City hoodie and bathing suit bottoms explains with a staggered breath, pointing to the dip in the sand the frisbee has landed inside of. Olivia rubs her lips together and leans forward to pull it out for them. “Thank you,” the girl says with grace as she catches it in the small distance between Olivia and where she’d thrown it back to her.
When all of the kids stroll away, Olivia thinks about her son. Her son who’s somewhere on the other end of the beach playing with a frisbee just like the one that’d belonged to those seven kids. Her son who’s always been alright with it being just the two of them - but only because it’s all he’s ever, ever known.
And then she remembers the light in his eyes this afternoon when Dickie had picked him up into his arms to jump the waves with him. How beautiful and loose and free his laughter had sounded over s’mores making, how manically he’d giggled when he and Eli had raced through the house to the room with the bunk beds to stake their claims in it before Dickie or Liz or Kathleen could beat them to it. How here he belongs, how she knows Elliot would’ve never invited the both of them to the beach house if he didn’t intend to show she and Noah how solidly bound he feels to the both of them.
This is good, this thing between them.
The other day, Dr. Lindstrom had asked her to define it. This thing. Said it’d help to call it something - anything - but. What would you call it? he’d said, Aside from ‘figuring it out’, he’d added.
And that’s the part that rattles her. Terrifies her. Slapping a mundane label on something like this - a partnership that possesses thousands of different kinds of love throughout its core - is asking too much of her. Of them. With she and him, everything they are has been defined in the wordless moments. In the way his eyes can speak to her across the kitchen in a beach house full of their kids and without uttering a word, she knows what he’s trying to say. In the way ten years can pass and yet falling into one another for the first time in a decade can still manage to feel like fucking home.
She loves him. She tugs the sleeves of her - his - hoodie up over her hands and knows at least that much, that she loves him.
She knows that she misses his presence when he isn’t here even though she’d been the one to take the walk down the beach. Even though he’s right where she’d left him at the bonfire, probably roasting another bagful of marshmallows with the boys.
She knows that she craves him - that she can close her eyes and picture his mouth skimming her neck and lose her mind at the fact that even the most phantom of his touches are now reserved only for her.
A few more fireworks soar into the sky, tiny speckled ribbons of illuminated blue and white from where she sits. She holds her chin in one of her hands and looks out into the ocean, grateful for the stillness, for nothing to focus on but the waves. For her next session with Dr. Lindstrom being a week away from now. For the way Elliot loves her wholly even if she can’t tell him what he is to her aside from Elliot, like that’s supposed to suffice.
The night around her is silent, sacred, still, until he sits down beside her.
“Jesus, I would’ve been terrified if your footsteps weren’t so goddamn loud,” she says, scooting over on the sand as if there’s not an infinite amount of room beside her, as if this patch of the beach doesn’t feel like it’s entirely theirs. His and hers and no one else’s - much like what they’ve become, even if she won’t let herself go there; won’t let herself say it. “I thought you were watching the fireworks.”
“Got sick of ‘em.” He stretches his legs out in front of him, the back of his shorts sticking onto the dampened sand. “Rather watch you.”
“Watch me what, stare into the ocean and think about how much work I’ll have waiting for me on my desk on Tuesday?”
“C’mon, you’re not thinkin’ about work,” he grumbles accusingly, inching into her until their sides touch, until he can wrap his left hand around her right calf like he’s holding her in place. “What is it?”
She chews on her cheek, kicks the toe of one of her sneakers into the sand. “You invited us on a family vacation.”
“Well yeah.” He tilts his head, slides his fingertips down to her ankle. “What else was I supposed to call it, Liv?”
“I don’t...I don’t know. Nothing. Forget it, El.”
She presses both of her palms into the sand, squeezes her eyes shut.
“Noah is falling in love with this,” she says lowly. “He’s falling in love with the beach house, with your kids, with this family, and it’s just...”
The memory of the sound of her son’s full-bellied laugh as Elliot smeared a melted marshmallow onto the tip of his nose washes over her, consumes her.
“Well no, I’ve — I’ve always loved your kids Elliot, you know that. But my son? It’s always just been him and I, and I see it, how — how much he loves being here with all of you.”
His voice teeters on the fringes of brokenness, but it stays whole. For her. For them. “And that scares you.”
She pinches her pointer finger and her thumb together, says, “A little bit.”
“I get it,” he grumbles, and she feels it - the way his hold tightens, the way it says in the silence, but it doesn’t have to.
“You know...eight years and he’s never jumped over the waves like that. Ever. Actually, I’ve probably gotten him to the beach about...twice.”
“Hey, that’s not fair, ‘s always been just you. You can’t be mad at yourself for not taking him to the beach enough Liv.”
She closes her eyes again. Basks in the way he jumps to defend her more than she’ll ever defend herself. Loves him for it.
My god, she loves him for it.
His voice is steady when he asks, “You’re not gonna let me say it, huh?”
In one swoop the touch of his hand starts at her calf and ends up tucked against the slope of her cheek, his fingers strumming through her hair with delicacy.
“Your hair, ‘s so long,” he says lowly, observingly, his thumb smoothing across the tail of her brow.
“That’s your burning confession, Stabler? That my hair got long?”
“Well no,” he gulps, his palm balmy against her sea-stained skin, “‘s just an observation. Perfect. You won’t cut it, right?”
She laughs, loose and light and free. “No promises.”
“What I was gonna say...” She watches him take a breath, trapped in the throes of whether or not saying what he wants to will do it - will make her run away, this time farther than just to the other side of the beach.
“El, just —”
“I’m not asking anything of you Liv, you’ve — you’ve gotta know that.”
She dips her head further into his touch, swallows.
And my god, she despises labels; hates being confined to only one descriptive term when what they have feels like a thousand disparate things to describe loving someone else all at once.
“Good,” she says finally. “Because I’m not calling this anything. I can’t, not now.”
“‘S fair.” She can see that he hates himself for it, blames himself for it, like the fractured parts of her only started existing in his absence. “But I have to say it, that — that I love you, ‘cause I’ve been sitting with it and it’s driving me fucking crazy, Liv. It’s driving me fucking crazy.”
She laughs again, feels lighter at his admittance. She watches the pressure leave the center of his body when he breathes out. “Sitting with it, huh?”
“Um, standing with it too I guess, back — back at the grill,” he says, pointing a thumb to the right, to the beach house she’d walked too far away from for them to see it in the distance.
“I know, stupid joke.”
Made it easier, she confesses to herself before ever saying it aloud to him. I love you’s don’t exist very much in Olivia Benson’s orbit, and he must - somehow - know that.
In spite of it all, he doesn’t falter. Doesn’t take back what he so tremendously means. Finds her lips in the dark - amongst the crash of the tide, the crackle of the sparklers that light up the seemingly barren beach - and brushes his own across them, mutters her name slowly and steadily against her mouth.
By the time they make it back over to the beach house, Dickie and Liz have put out the rest of the fire, and Noah is fast asleep beside Eli and Kathleen in one of the beach chairs.
“He swore he’d make it to the end of the firework show,” Kathleen says in a whisper, one of her hands tracing tiny circles onto Noah’s back. “I can put him to bed, if — if you want.”
Olivia surprises herself by surrendering control, but only because her boy is in good, loving hands. Enveloped in Stabler arms. She still watches intently as Kathleen hoists Noah up onto her hip - he’s more than half the size of her, nothing but sleepy limbs dangling down her body and his face burrowed exhaustedly between the crook of her neck - and takes him inside, tells Olivia she’ll make sure he’s in the bottom bunk.
Dickie and Liz follow them, each of them carrying one of the coolers - nothing left but melted ice and the six unopened juice boxes Elliot stopped at the grocery store in town to get for Noah.
Eli stretches his legs out in front of him and stands up from the beach chair he’s almost half-asleep in, folding it up and dropping into the sand once Elliot tells him to leave it outside, that they’ll be back out here in the morning to do it all over again.
He follows his siblings into the house, nods their way. “Night Dad. Liv.”
“She didn’t have to put him to bed,” she says once Eli is inside, the back door slid closed, “I could’ve —”
They each take a seat on the porch steps leading down to the beach from the house. They’re rickety and splintered and he makes her stand back up to lay a blanket down over them before he lets her sit back down.
“Sorry, ‘s just...I didn’t wanna spend my Saturday night pullin’ splinters out of our asses, did you?”
She wrinkles her nose, finds solace in his softness, in the way he doesn’t hold her hesitance against her.
“Look, that’s the beauty of havin’ older kids Liv.” He cups a hand around her knee. “Glad you came and brought him?”
“Feeling...better about it,” she admits, “you?”
“Glad you’re here?” He runs his thumb down the base of her chin, shakes his head. “Olivia, that’s not a question.”
And now she knows she doesn’t have to call this something - anything - to be lit on fire by it.