Liv, it’s me. Uh, you’ve — you’ve been dodgin’ my calls, and I get it, I — I wouldn’t call me back either, but you’ve been on my uh, on my mind, his voice grumbles, and just — just call me back, if you’re around.
She’s memorized the goddamn message by now - the exact second during the mere twenty-two where his voice dips, where he gives her a lot more with just one word than he has given her in a long time.
It’s a quarter past ten, and she’s around - probably just as around as she’d been when he left the message three nights ago, somewhere around this hour. She hovers her thumb over his bolded name on the screen, takes a wobbly breath before pressing her fingertip into it to call him back.
“Liv,” he breathes out her name in lieu of a greeting on the second ring, “hey.”
“I — I haven’t been dodging you,” she starts to say - defensive, guarded. She catches it before he can point it out, tries again. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he says again - gentler, forbearing, “you okay?”
“Yeah, no I’m fine, I’m just calling you back, like you said.”
God, for this being someone she feels so tethered to, the silence between them is maddening. Fucking uncomfortable and oh-so-familiar all at once, which is an impossible thought to comprehend. She presses four fingers into her forehead and squints her eyes shut, presses her body further into the granite. She sips nimbly at the red wine she’d poured herself after tucking Noah in, but it doesn’t help, doesn’t make her any more valiant.
“I’ve — I have been avoiding you, actually,” she starts to say, the words softer at the edges than she plans for them to sound. “Not because I want to, or because it brings me joy to pretend you don’t exist, because you do, you’re — you’re here,” she says, “but El, do you know how it feels?”
“To be here? Not great, Liv. I mean, it’s fucking muggy in New York, for June.”
She laughs exasperatedly, swallows down another sip of wine. He always does this - centers her. Reminds her that all things don’t have to be so heavy all of the time, not if she lets some of them go. “Asshole,” she says anyway, setting down the glass. “I meant this,” she continues, gesturing in front of her, to nothing and no one in particular. “Where uh, where are you?”
“Nowhere important,” he says vaguely, and she can hear the sound of his lips smacking together, of a car door shut. “I can be to you in ten, if — if you need, if you want.”
She battles with herself - the stoic, hardened part of her that says the feeling of needing him in this way will shake by the morning versus the part of her that knows she’s a goddamn liar.
With a simple exhale, that part triumphs.
“Okay yeah, just come,” she breathes out in the same soft way he’d said those two words - just come - six months before.
She finishes the rest of the wine before he’s at her door. He knocks once - softly, barely, because he knows her kid is asleep, knows she isn’t that mom who lets her kid stay up past midnight just because the sun starts to set later, just because the days are longer now. He’s shuffling his feet in their place when she swings the door open, and she doesn’t miss the way his eyes flit to her face. The way something rests in his gaze - maybe not something unconditional, because twenty-three years of synchronicity is bound to come with a few conditions. Maybe it’s hazy, maybe it’s love-drunk, maybe it’s wholly his and hers.
“So uh, what’s — what’s up?” he asks, ripping his stare away from her like he knows he’s being obvious. He shoves one hand in the pocket of his jeans, uses the other to take two fingers up to the top button on the navy blue henley he’s wearing, twisting it between the tips. It’s not the most appropriate get-up for a summer night in early June, not when the weather app on Olivia’s phone tells her the humidity will linger in the nineties until the early morning.
But she starts to think about him in less - in one of the undershirts that’d once belonged to another lover, one so distant, so foreign from this, that she could offer to him, let him change into. She quickly swallows the thought whole, finds her balance, her reason. Stops thinking about Elliot Stabler in an undershirt in the middle of her goddamn living room for a second.
“Everyone around me seems to know how I feel about you,” she says, her voice hoarse, “except you.”
He blinks, clears his throat. “Um, so you — you wanna tell me?”
“I’m gonna try.”
“Go ‘head,” he says with ease. The ease of someone who’s left their fate in her hands, who’s teetering on this slate of all of the What If’s with her but waiting for her to grab his hand, ignite the overdue leap into everything this could fucking become.
“Everyone seems to —”
He raises a hand, and his voice scales an octave. “Whoa whoa, who’s everyone Liv?”
“Just...people, people who know us.”
“People. My therapist, my squad. People. It doesn’t matter, El.”
She watches as he squints, sucks on his cheek. He’s careful in her space - like he knows how terrifying last time the he’d been here had felt, so he’s tiptoeing around her living room like it’s sacred land, afraid to move too much, too rigidly.
“Are they right? What they’re sayin’, about you, about us. Are they right?”
“My detective seems to think we should get a hotel room and, what was it, ‘get it out of our system’,” she laughs, looping a hand around her own bicep, “but that wouldn’t be fair to you. Y’know, wouldn’t want you to get your feelings hurt there.”
He points a finger at her, his lips parting. “Yeah, real funny.”
“I think a part of me is,” she gulps, feels the words rise and fall in the tightness of her chest, “I don’t know, holding onto the Benson and Stabler we were before you left.”
“Hey, they were really somethin’,” he says, not helping a bit. “Sorry.”
“But we’re not them, we’re different versions of them, right?” It’s rhetorical, he knows, so he stands in idle silence, waits for her to speak again. “I’m not — Ten years. What if you don’t know me at all anymore? Doesn’t that — doesn’t that terrify you?”
He shakes his head almost so gently she’s not sure if he’s moved his body at all. “I’m here, right?”
She palms the back of her neck, tries to comprehend it - how someone can be so minute in the way they move around her apartment, yet so fluidly and vibrantly entwined into every crevice of her world. She’s so aware of him, so engulfed in the fact that it’s still him and her and them, all of these years later.
“We can remember all that, who we were once,” he starts to say, “but we can also move on, let — let ourselves be us now.”
So they do. She finds a wool throw blanket looped over the arm of the sofa and throws it over herself, tiptoeing into the kitchen to dig her empty wine glass out of the sink, pouring herself a refill.
“You want?” she offers, tipping the glass slightly toward where he’s standing.
“I’m good, d’you — do you wanna get to bed?”
“Mmm, I’m not so good at sleeping these days,” she admits. “C’mon, it’s cooler by the couch.”
He joins her wordlessly, waiting until she slides into the right hand corner, engulfed in the throw blanket. The only limb that peeks out from underneath it is the arm holding onto her wine glass, and she takes a slow sip, nowhere to hurry to. Nowhere to be but here.
“Just so you know,” he mutters when it’s absolutely silent - when it’s just the swoosh of the wine on the bottom of the glass, the faint rattling of the air conditioner -, “people don’t know shit about us, Liv. ‘Bout what we mean to each other.”
She leans forward, stretches her body as far as she can without wiggling out of the blanket, and sets the wine glass down on the coffee table. She’s so aware - so aware of how he’s looking at her move, at how loving someone with your entire body can physically ache, all the way down to your bones. She presses her lips together and settles back against the cushion, tucking her feet underneath her knees.
“So why aren’t you sleeping?”
“Want a list, or?”
He scoffs, holds his chin up with one of his hands.
“Just...reasons,” she explains, picking at loose lint fibers littering the throw blanket, squeezing them between two manicured nails distractedly. “I could ask you the same thing, y’know. You don’t exactly look like the poster child for a good night’s sleep, El.”
“You flatter me Liv, y’know that?”
A few sips of wine later and her eyes are fluttering - not closing, but shutting in the most honeyed of ways, surrendering to sleep. She knows she can’t fall asleep out here on the couch, this close to him, in jeans and an old t-shirt wrapped up in a throw blanket.
He knows that too, which is why she feels his hand envelope her kneecap, shake her gently. “Hey, sorry, I just — I could get goin’, if —”
She doesn’t muster enough energy to lift her head off of the back of the cushion, just asks, “Wait, why?” so tiredly she’s not all that sure they sounded like words.
“‘S late Liv, that’s why.”
She squints one eye open. “Bernie give you a curfew or something?”
“Yeah, real funny,” he snickers, his palm sliding down to her calf. He doesn’t let go of his hold on her, and now she’s aware - aware of his touch, what it does to her to have him here with her like this. “Hey, when’s the last time you saw a sunrise?”
She squints the other eye open, weakly tugs the blanket further up her body. “Uh, last week,” she grumbles tiredly. “Caught a case that kept us up for twenty-six hours. Don’t think stale bagels in the parking lot with Fin is the ideal sunrise, but it technically was one.”
He gets a thought, maybe two - she can see it in the way his chest moves up and down so vividly before he speaks again. “W’do you say you get a few hours of sleep, and then I wake you up, we head to Long Beach.”
“Long Island.” She doesn't pose it as a question, but he answers it like one.
“Hardly, it’s close enough to the city, and yeah, Long Beach. It’s — it’s some sunrise, if you catch it on a good day.”
She brushes a few loose strands of hair away from her face, suddenly shivering underneath the blanket. Suddenly aware she’s still in a tight pair of denim as she presses her thighs together. “It sounded nice until I remembered I have a sleeping kid down the hall, I can’t just...up and chase some sunrises.”
“Bring him,” he offers, so easily. Bring him, like this equation doesn’t work without her son. It’s sincere, it’s everything she’s ever wanted - almost too wild to believe.
“You ever try waking up a kid on a summer morning at six A.M.?”
“Actually, five of ‘em, and more like four-thirty if we’re gonna make it in time,” he corrects her, shuffling in his spot, his arm stretched forward to grab the remote off of the coffee table. “C‘mon, sleep. I’ll wake you and Noah when it’s time to go.”
Olivia hovers over Noah’s bed just around four o’clock, a few of her fingers ruffling through his unkempt, bed-ridden curls as she drawls out the words - tells him about the sunrise, about Long Beach, about how he can sleep in the backseat on the way if he wants. She coaxes him out of bed slowly, lifts him out from underneath his comforter as his limp body dangles sleepily in her hold. She grunts, reminds herself he isn’t a toddler anymore.
“Elliot’s gonna drive us, that okay?” She asks, just because she has to make sure. It’s always and forever going to be she and her boy, and she’ll never allow that to be disrupted - even at the expense of something so universally unavoidable as the magnitude of she and Elliot’s partnership has always been, will always be.
Noah barely manages an audible “Mmm-hmm” before he burrows his head in the crook of her neck, his legs finding their way around her torso.
“Gimme,” Elliot says from behind her, holding both of his arms out, “you won’t make it to the car with him.”
And then she surrenders her kid to him, treks out the door with nothing but a beach blanket and her car keys, two steps behind Elliot who’s holding her sleeping son with ease.
If she’s thinking about it again - how her son’s blue eyes mirror Elliot’s in the most haunting yet comforting way - she stops. She stops herself from thinking about what could’ve been and climbs into the passenger seat of her own car, exhaustedly letting her head fall back onto the top of the seat. She waits, waits for Elliot to set Noah down in the backseat - still protected by the promise of sleep on the way and the comforter from his bed.
“You get some sleep at least?”
She huffs, reaches her left hand out to turn off the radio so it won’t wake up Noah once he starts the engine. “I should be asking the guy driving us forty minutes into Long Island that.”
“I’m good, promise.”
They make it just in time. Hues of pastel orange and cotton candy pink start to peek out, make themselves known to something greater than the clouds they’d spent the dusk hiding behind. Elliot parks the car a block from the beach. Less. All they’ve gotta do is walk a few steps to the boardwalk, find a spot on the sand, and wait.
He climbs out first, looping around to the backseat to grab Noah out. He sleepily wiggles out of Elliot’s arms and promises he’s fine to walk, suddenly awake and commenting on how the swirl of sky just ahead looks like Trix yogurt. He peeks his head back into the car, calls out for Olivia. “Mom, bring your phone, I wanna take a picture,” he says.
“Okay baby,” she replies, shoving a hand in both of the front pockets of her jeans until she realizes her phone is at home, in Manhattan, somewhere burrowed in their couch. “Elliot has his, ask — ask him, Noah,” she says, climbing out of the car. She loops the keyring through two fingers and carries the blanket carefully so it won’t dangle on the ground, get sand stuck in the fibers.
But they’re already ahead of her - steps and steps ahead, the two of them walking to the boardwalk and beyond with purpose, as if there is anyone else on this vacant beach to fight for a front row seat to the sunrise with.
By the time she catches up to them, Noah is insistent that this is the spot, his bottom already planted firm on the sand. She’ll wash those pajama bottoms when they get home, try not to think about how much sand he’ll track back into the car.
Elliot seems to scan her face, find traces of evidence that she’s entirely out of her realm of comfort, that she hasn’t watched a sunrise - one that didn’t include a day-old outfit, mundane breakfast, and a trek back to four stuffy precinct walls - in a long, long time.
“Hey, you good?” He grabs one end of the blanket she’s stretching out, helps her set it down onto the sand. The wind starts to blow it up at its corners, so he points to the far left, tells Noah to pop a squat and hold it down.
“Yeah, just tired.”
“Good thing beaches are great for sleep —”
“I’m not sleeping on a desolate beach where we’re the only three people on the goddamn thing,” she whispers through gritted teeth, crouching down and sliding onto the blanket next to her son.
Elliot sits too, and his eyes hold this ferocity to them - this gaze that says he’d give anything to be here with her, with them, over and over again.
“It’s safe Liv. D’you think I’d take you somewhere that wasn’t?”
She thinks. Thinks about who they were to one another all of those years ago, thinks about the weight of the duty he’d always felt to keep her unharmed.
She shakes her head no, laces both of her arms around Noah, who’s falling sleepily into her middle. The complete opposite of the sunrise, he succumbs to rest, to darkness, and she holds him, zips up his hoodie to his collarbone when she feels him shiver against her.
She watches Elliot watch them with pressed together lips, with his hands folded in his lap as he stretches out on the blanket opposite she and her son. “I knew he wouldn’t make it five minutes,” she whispers, losing her lips in Noah’s hair.
“Kids, right?” He laughs, chews on his cheek. “He’s a good one, Olivia,” he adds - mostly as a testament to her, she knows. As an ode to who she’s become in his absence.
He looks away from the two of them and stares up ahead, probably taking in the way orange and pink have suddenly kissed good morning. She’s enamored by it too - by beginnings. What were once orange and pink swirls of sky are now one color she can never begin to name. The glassy waves rustle awake gently underneath the pastel sky, and suddenly Manhattan feels like a universe away. It’s just she and Noah and Elliot and the beach, this beginning.
It’s the most beautiful start to the day she’s had in so long she can’t even remember a better one. In this moment, she feels like time is an unexplainable blend of infinite yet fleeting, that they are both enormous yet so, so small as they sit amongst this endless sand, but one thing for certain is that she loves him.
She loves him for forcing her to chase a sunrise, for the delicate way he sets a palm to the small of Noah’s back as her boy sleeps soundly against her body. For not forgetting who they were all of those years ago, but looking past that to now - to the horizon on the endless shoreline of everything they’ll let themselves become.
They are the sunrise, over and over and over again.