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Folklore

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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.”

“Like?”

“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.

Chapter Text

This is not a first date.

Jesus Christ, of course it’s not a first date.

When he thinks of first dates he thinks first of flowers. No one does that whole flower thing anymore, but he thinks of a bouquet regardless; one as vibrant as the peonies he’d been holding the day he’d run into her on the street. Mother’s Day. Then he thinks of two strangers sat at a table, sinking into themselves in fear of being too muchtoo soon. Then of all things, he thinks of his kids, how many first dates he’s seen them off to - and all of the ones he’d missed. 

And then he thinks of her. Olivia. Wonders how many bouquets she’s held in her hands since he’d left. How many tables she’s sat at with a stranger. He pictures her there - tapping the foot of one shoe impatiently against the other as the stranger rambles on about something mundane, something she’ll politely pretend to be at least a tiny bit interested in for the sake of sparing feelings. He thinks of it then - how many first dates she’d been on in his absence. Knows it’s her right. Curls his fists at his sides when he thinks of the stranger on the opposite side of her table.

They never have a face, but my god, he wants to shrink into himself anyway. At the thought, the thought of how easily all of this could’ve slipped away if one faceless stranger held her heart in the ferocious way he vows to himself he’ll hold onto hers.

He sees her through the peek in the glass where the blinds don’t cover, her head angled to the right as she tries to wedge an earring into her left ear.

At the same time, with her other hand, she’s shuffling through a pile of paperwork, and in the reflection he notices it. The delicate way she’s trying to balance both the Olivia she has to be here - stoic, a leader, everyone’s pillar - and the Olivia she’ll morph into once she leaves here with him - one who wears silver, dangling earrings and walks to his left on the sidewalk because he’ll leave her no choice. He’ll be the pillar. All he wants is to be the goddamn pillar.

He forms a fist and knocks at about the same second he twists the knob on her already-ajar office door. “Liv,” he croaks out, “hey.”

She closes her laptop, lifts her glasses off of the bridge of her nose and sets them aside. She’s so effortlessly beautiful in this moment, in her swift transition from Captain Benson to Liv. He could lose his mind thinking about all of the versions of herself she’s shown him over the years, and then all of the ones he’s yet to meet.

She finds the back of her neck with both of her palms, pressing into her skin. “Hi, sorry, I’m — I was about done when you texted,” she says, “but I’ll just be a few more minutes, tops.”

He waves her off with a dismissive hand, grateful to be in her space at all. “‘S fine, take your time.”

Time. Fuck, she tells him they’ve got enough of it - that fifty is the new thirty and they’re fine moving through each others’ orbits with an unhurried stride, but he’ll wordlessly disagree. 

When he sits down, his kneecaps both crack almost like a painful reminder that they aren’t as youthful as they once were, that one year turned into ten before he could ever catch his fucking breath. The ghost of the decade they’d missed together haunts the most hollowed parts of him. He stares at her, at the way she wedges her phone between the curve of her shoulder and her ear, paying no mind to him over on the couch.

“Lucy, hey, yeah,” she says breathily, always multitasking. She grazes at a file in front of her while trying to steady the phone by lifting her shoulder higher, nods, “Uh huh, just — just dinner, shouldn’t be too late. Thank you, yeah, see you.”

He barely waits for her to hang up. “That the nanny?”

“Mmm, yeah.”

“So it’s just dinner now?”

She waits, laces her fingers together and cracks her knuckles, parts her lips to a small degree. “It was always just dinner,” she remarks, a hefty emphasis on the words, but lightness drips like honey in her tone. 

He doesn’t say anything, but he thinks. Thinks about flowers, about how much she’d hate them if he showed up with some - only because she’d forget to water them, she’d tell him she’d been too busy to even think about putting them in a vase. Which wouldn’t be untrue. He thinks about sitting across from her at a table in some dim-lit, lavish restaurant - because that’s where you’re supposed to take someone on a first date - and he pictures it now, the way she’d scrunch up her nose if she caught a glimpse of the bill, of how much he’d spent on her when she’s perfectly content with a set of chopsticks and two cartons of Chinese takeout, cross-legged on the floor of her living room. 

“We don’t — we don’t have to go to that place uptown,” he offers.

She’s smoothing her hands down her thighs, and somewhere between now and just dinner, she’d put in the right earring, pulled her hair back and twisted it up. He loves it like this, loves it when her face isn’t hidden in the thickness of its strands. “Why, because I won’t call it a date?”

He clicks his tongue, stands up with her. “Well, maybe,” he quips, “but no, it just — it doesn’t feel like us.”

“So what, I don’t look good enough for sixty dollar pasta, Stabler?”

She has to see it - the way he loses his mind whenever his gaze finds hers. He’s staring at the earrings again, then the bounce of her ponytail. And fuck, he’s picturing it now - his lips nipping at that spot just between her ear and her neck, and how can she not see it. 

“Liv, you look good enough for six hundred dollar pasta,” he promises, sliding his hands into his front pockets of his black jeans. He feels underdressed, undeserving when he watches her round the corner of her desk, carrying closed-toe boots in between her fingers. She must’ve changed into the heels she’s wearing now for this night, for him. “You ready?”

She’s tense until his fingertips ghost the small of her back, only until she walks over to the door. 

“Sure, but where the hell are we going exactly?”


It’s not an overpriced Italian joint uptown, that’s for sure.

They’ve spent a decent amount of time here in this park together - usually for the worst. But tonight they’re not hovered over a body in urgency, in silent harmony as they walk side by side in defeat back to the squad car. Tonight they’re just them, sans the badges and the conquest for justice, and the only victim in their vicinity is the poor kid blowing giant-sized bubbles in the middle of the concrete walkway who stomps his feet when they accidentally walk through one, splitting it in two.

“Nice goin’, Benson.”

“If you would’ve just...let go of my hand,” she says tersely, slipping her fingers out of his as if to make her point, “we wouldn’t have burst his bubble — literally.”

He waits a beat, until the kid with the bubble wand is far enough in the distance, and then he grabs onto her hand again.

“What are we, fifteen?”

He snickers - both at the way she poses the question as if a part of her is annoyed and the other part of her would go back to fifteen in a second, and also at the way she doesn’t let go. He feels her fingers tighten around his, and maybe it’s too warm out for this, for being this close to her in the middle of a crowded, muggy park, but he doesn’t give a shit.

“I’d say kids even younger than fifteen are holdin’ hands these days, Liv.”

“Noah is not holding anyone’s hand but mine.”

“Yeah well if he is, he’s not about to start telling you about it.”

He can see something like hesitancy in her when a mom pushing a double stroller jogs by and Olivia has two choices - let herself be pummeled by it, or curl up into Elliot’s side and let her pass.

Her hesitancy falls on him, every last speck of it. He deserves her resistance, her reservations. But god, her center inches from his feels like home, and by nothing but the rush of adrenaline and maybe a little bit of pure instinct, both of his hands find her torso and tug her even closer.

“Hi,” he says, something like a flicker in his voice when he does.

“Hey.” She closes her eyes and he watches her breathe it in - his palms on her body, the murky summer air, the smell of dollar hot dogs in the distance, the sound of kids whirling by on scooters that scratch the ground and dog collar tags scraping against each other as they strut.

Around them, time hurries on. It always, always hurries on.


“So this,” she says, setting her bag down atop the grass, “is why you made me bring a blanket to an Italian dinner on the Upper West Side.”

“Well in case ya haven’t noticed, this isn’t Italian,” he comments, raising the two hot pretzels still laden in scorching tinfoil he’s got in his right hand. “I dunno, I had a feeling our plans would change.”

“They always do, huh.”

He waits a few steps away, watches as she unrolls the blanket - granules of sand trickling out from the threads of it as she sprawls it across the ground.

To her, it’s a raggedy beach blanket that she most definitely forgot to throw into the wash after the morning they’d watched the sunrise in Long Beach. To him, it’s the blanket of their new beginning - the spot where he’d watched her hold her son as he slept through a beautiful daybreak. The spot where he’d dawned on the fact that breaking through her walls sure would be a feat, but walking away and letting someone else do it would be fucking brutalizing. 

The spot where he was certain time could slip and slip and slip away, but he’d spend the rest of it loving her.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” he starts, “and here,” he says, intervening on her quest to spread out all four sides on her own by holding out his hands and gripping two ends of the blanket, helping her spread it out across the lawn.

“I could’ve done it myself,” she insists, crouching down to put her stuff down atop one of the corners.

She sits down opposite her things, too close to him. He puts down the pretzels next to his left hip, forgets all about them because it’s all-consuming. Olivia and the sunset and this blanket and the way she doesn’t have to say the words for him to know that she’d about sell her soul right now if it meant that time could halt for the rest of tonight.

“I know you could’ve, but look how much easier it was just doing it together,” he counters - both a plain fact and a fucking metaphor, for how harmonious everything feels when it’s she and him.

She won’t admit defeat, but he knows she’s surrendering in silence when she lets her hand trail along his thigh, falling against him.

“Gimme one of ‘em.” She’s talking about the pretzels, lazily nodding her chin against the top of his arm in lieu of gesturing to where he’d placed them. “The food El, the pretzel,” he hears her specify when he doesn’t move - when he can’t move, not with her body abutting his like this. “I mean, it’s the least you could do considering you robbed me of my fancy Italian dinner.”

“Let’s be real, you would’ve hated that dinner Liv.”

Her laugh drowns out the sound of him unwrapping the tinfoil halfway. Take away the humming noise of the saxophone in the distance, the shrieking kids on a blanket a few feet away from them playing a card game, and just leave with him her laugh. 

She sits up straighter, taking the half-wrapped pretzel from his hands and into her own, biting a piece off of the side. “Fucking gourmet. And yeah, probably would’ve.”

“‘S a good night for this,” he says, stretching his legs forward, his feet crossed at the ankles. “Like me, you, some cheap-ass pretzels...”

“Hey.” Her mouth is full with warm dough, now dipped in mustard from the extra cup he forgot he’d grabbed at the cart for her. She swallows, conceals her lips with a fisted hand. “Don’t knock ‘em until you try ‘em, Stabler.”

“It’s not too late for the dinner, y’know,” he offers even in her contentment, even as she oozes in the most serenity he’s seen in her since the sunrise. She’s fucking beautiful like this, salt-rimmed lips and all. 

“Pretend it is,” she says, swatting a hand - at him, at the idea of being anywhere else but here -, “we don’t need it.”

She sets down her half-eaten pretzel and folds her knees into her chest. She presses the heels of her boots deep into the blanket, stares ahead at the evidence that this night is slipping away like all of the rest. The sky is a hundred different hues of pink and purple above them, but soon it’ll fade to black. Soon he’ll scoop up the tinfoil wrapping and toss it out into the nearest garbage pail and help her roll the blanket back up and he’ll take her home, and then this will all be faded and foreign, elapsed and distant. 

“Liv...” He slips his palm onto the back of her neck, the skin hidden by her hair humid and damp. Her ponytail has fallen some, and he slides his hand underneath where it rests. 

He watches her blink, take her time ripping her gaze away from the dusk. It looks like a fucking painting. To her - the sky, to him - her, observing the day’s end. He dips his hand lower, to the top of her back. His fingers are careful, never treading underneath the neck of her blouse.

“Yeah.”

“You like the whole first date thing? Like...if I showed up to your office with flowers, in a suit, what — what would you’ve done?”

She hums. “Probably ask you what the fuck you did with Elliot Stabler,” she says, dipping her head, “and then kicked you out.”

“Damn Liv.”

“Do you think I seem like someone who has the patience to water flowers every day for a goddamn week?”

He shakes his head, slides his fingertips further down her backside. She leans into his touch, lazily plunges her body back into his forearm. “It’s a week for the cheap ones. I’d at least get ya the ones that last two, maybe three.”

She groans. “Oh. Then I’d hate you. I’d make you come over and water them your damn self.”

He presses four fingers firmly into the middle of her back now. “You think that’s a punishment for me Olivia, seein’ you every day?” 

She shudders - maybe at the chill of dusk dwindling into night, maybe at the weight of his question, maybe at what she’s about to say in response.

For a few wordless moments she lets herself sink further into him. 

“You don’t — you don’t have to answer that,” he grumbles eventually, when Olivia shifts her weight a little to the left, her elbow settled comfortably atop one of his knees.

“No.” He hears her lips smack together and she breathes out through her nose. Above them the pink in the clouds dissipates and only a deeper shade of purple remains. “No, I just...It’s hard for me, to — to believe that someone wants to be around me that much. Well besides Noah, but y’know, I feed and clothe him so he’s got no choice.”

“Believe it. Liv, you’re...you know.”

“Six hundred soft pretzels worthy?”

“Six million, if ya want.” He slopes his head down, his lips pursed, pressed against the peek in her shoulder where her blouse doesn’t cover. He feels his pulse launch all the way down to his lungs, thinks about giving someone who has never needed anything from anyone everything. “You good?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

He mumbles, his mouth still on her skin, “This good?”

She must know he’s asking for more than permission to make his mark.

She spins her body around to him slowly - slow like the way the sun is vanishing over the city above them. “Yeah, it’s good,” she says, throaty and low. 

“I do,” he starts, stopping only at the feel of her hands splayed over his own, “uh — just so you know, every day wouldn’t even be enough.”

“El, you don’t have to keep making up for lost time, it’s...” She doesn’t finish. He doesn’t let her.

He blinks away from the purple haze surrounding them, remembers she’s only inches from him, finds her lips with ease even as everything gets darker around them. Kissing Olivia feels both effortless and weighted - only because the intensity of being in it with her is so much. He sifts a hand through the side of her hair, cradles her cheek. Nothing about her mouth on his feels as delicate as watching the sunset on a beach blanket in the grass could, but it shouldn’t - it shouldn’t feel delicate, because he’s been waiting almost twenty-five fucking years for this. So has she.

“I know,” he murmurs against the edge of her face, “I know.”

Around them, time completely stills. It finally, finally stills.

Chapter Text

He can’t see ahead of him.

The rain pelts his windshield almost angrily, like it’s got something to prove. He drives his car down Ocean Parkway in the same manner - silently preparing his defense on why he’d come all the way out to Long Island for this. Instinct alone wouldn’t be good enough of an answer to anyone aside from - maybe - Fin, so he tries again, words it differently in his head this time.

Because I love you.

Because you think you’re the storm.

You’re not always the storm, you know. You’re the waves, the sand, my fucking windshield.

He should turn the fucking car around. 

Something in his gut screams at him not to, though - to veer to the right and take this next exit toward the beach, the one he knows she’s somewhere on. He squints ahead as the rain falls harder, like it’s fucking livid

He pictures her in the dunes, the ferocious rain battering against her jacket, the only shield for her face her own two hands. He thinks she’s got enough rank by now to send someone else out there instead of herself - someone like Rollins or that rookie Velasco. Someone who he’s certain has also got a hell of a lot to lose themselves if this all goes wrong, yet here he is, his knuckles stark white against the steering wheel because he feels like a selfish fucking bastard for hoping to god it’s anyone else out there on the hunt for this guy tonight, anyone but her.

Just as he’s backing into a parking spot, his phone rings.

He taps the screen to answer, and then taps it again, to put it on speaker. “Fin,” he breathes out, one hand on the headrest of the passenger seat as he peeks through the back windshield, backs up so forcefully he almost flies up onto the sandy curb, “gimme something.”

“You know how she is, it’s Liv,” Fin says, like that’s supposed to justify it - like that’s supposed to make him feel any better about Olivia on a barren beach in the midst of a downpour, chasing down a psychopath who’s baiting them all, pretending like he’s got bodies buried here that’ll give them answers to something. “You there?”

Elliot shifts his car into park and taps the screen of his phone one more time, taking it off of speakerphone and pressing it to his ear in haste. “What does that mean, she’s Liv? So she’s just gonna go out there, face off with this piece of shit in the middle of Gilgo Beach at sunset?”

“If your ass is hopin’ for some cotton candy ass sky tonight Stabler, you —”

“Fuck off Fin, you know what I meant. Where - where are you, I just pulled up.”

“Hold on, you —” He hears something like static, maybe rain wedged into the receiver of Fin’s cell. “Man, you know she doesn’t need saving, right?”

“You told me enough about this son of a bitch for me to disagree with you,” he argues, tugging the zipper on his hoodie up past his Adam’s apple. The air whirling out from the vents dispels as soon as he clicks the button off, and suddenly the inside of his car feels like an inferno. He can’t close his eyes without seeing it - Liv in the sand on her knees, surrendering her weapon, chewing on the inside of her cheek ever-so-subtly so the prick can’t see how rattled she is. “I see the squad cars, I’m - I’m comin’ over, too bad.”

“You can, but she’s —” Fin starts to say, but he hangs up. Almost forgets to lock his goddamn truck. Feels the bile rise to his throat because he knows - he knows they’re not fucking invincible, not like they used to feel back in the day. He’s teetered on the edge of death too many times in the last eighteen months to believe in invincibility anymore, and for fuck’s sake, he’d give anything for things to be different. To know a world of him and her without this tainted one obstructing the lens.

By the time he reaches the beach, it feels like all of the air has been sucked out of his lungs. 

It’s raining harder now, if that’s at all possible. The sky above Gilgo Beach is fucking furious, a performer stomping their feet like a child manically demanding attention. Thundering now, because it hasn’t gotten any - not the kind it desires. The search for their guy rages on, and when he finds Fin, Olivia is nowhere in fucking sight of him.

“Who’s out there?” He yells it - thirty decibels higher than he means to. He wonders if Fin can hear it, the panic in his voice that does a terrible job of staying silent, staying hidden. “Fin, man, what the fuck happened?”

“W’do’you mean what happened, I told you we were comin’ out here, followin’ our lead. This is the closest we’ve been in days.”

He feels his top teeth grit against his bottom. He’s drenched through the cotton of his hoodie, through the denim of his jeans. The sound of the water wedged in the toes of his shoes squeaks obnoxiously as he walks. “Right, ya did, but you didn’t say she —”

“Stabler, relax,” Fin starts, squeezing his fingertips into the hollow of Elliot’s right shoulder, “Rollins and Velasco are out there with her, if we send anyone else we lose the chance of getting this prick to show ‘em where the girls are.”

He gulps. “Girls?”

“Two of ‘em, nineteen. Says he buried ‘em alive out here but won’t tell us when. Liv’s convinced they’re still alive, that he’s playin’ a long game with us.”

He narrows his eyes ahead, at nothing. She’s nowhere near him, and he can’t be pissed at her for doing her goddamn job, for doing what he’d never been brazen enough to come back to. 

He puffs out his cheeks, shivers through his soaked clothes. “Fuck. How long they been out there?”

“Not long,” Fin says, his fingers curled into fists at his side as he waits. “You know she’s gonna be pissed when she sees you here like this, waitin’ to rescue her.”

“Let ‘er. I’m not fucking moving Fin, not now.”

If Fin tries to argue as to why Elliot shouldn’t be waiting out here it’s rapidly drowned out by the rain, by the way the sky roars at them all. He’d be a goddamn liar if he said he wasn’t tempted - tempted to race into the dunes without a second fucking thought, because his first and only thought is her. Making sure she gets out of this alive, in one piece, like she’s helped so many others before today do.

A few more minutes of silence, of thrashing rain testing their resistance, Fin shoves his hands into the pockets of his jacket and ducks his head, his voice low. “What is this man? You realize you love her all of a sudden or somethin’?”

“All of a sudden.” Elliot laughs, thinks it’s ironic that someone who’d been more than just a bystander throughout twenty-something years of Benson and Stabler and their synchronicity could ever call this sudden. “I get it, I’m not SVU anymore.”

“No shit, Stabler. That beard woulda had even the perps running the other way.”

“But she’s not just,” he starts, catching his breath amidst the rainfall, gulping down droplets as he talks, “she’s a lot more than this goddamn unit too, and I’m not — I’m not gonna let her get taken down by this sadistic son of a bitch, you hear me?”

“She knows what she’s doin’, man.”

“Yeah, so did that sergeant. What, Dodds was his name right?”

He watches Fin smack his lips together, bury his hands deeper in his jacket pockets. “She told you about him, about Dodds?” He seems floored by the fact - like the Benson and Stabler outside of the realm of their unit exist only in folklore. Elliot will argue that until he’s breathless, tell him about the night on her couch or the sunrise on Long Beach or how she’d let him hold her hand before dusk in the middle of Central Park and nothing about the job fucking mattered in those moments.

“She uh, yeah — she told me enough,” Elliot says instead, two fingers pressed into his chin, “y’know, how she never stopped feeling guilty for it, all of that shit.”

Fin looks down at the ground, at the sopping wet sand the toes of his shoes digs into. “Damn. Didn’t know you guys got so close again. She’s dodged it every time I brought you up, I just thought — y’know.”

“Yeah, well...” He stops himself, says nothing else. He closes his eyes, thinks about why the fuck the beach feels so dreadful and how rainstorms have never felt this damn infinite, and then he thinks about her. How he loves her, how they never stopped being close, how he’d close his eyes at night in Rome and dream instead of a muggy sunlit city and skyscrapers and burnt coffee and piss-stained sidewalks and the way she’d walk along them by his side in an almost haunting sort of harmony. 

In the middle of a brutal blast of rain pouring down from above them, Fin grabs his buzzing phone, the stoic way he says his own name when he answers causing Elliot to snap his head up, widen his eyes.

“Rollins, yeah, I hear you loud and clear,” he says, almost shouting into the receiver, “our guys are backin’ off until he gets you to the bodies, no one gets hurt.”

Rollins must say something else, something Fin says nothing aside from “Uh huh” back to, and then he hangs up, turns to Elliot. 

“What was that?”

“Rollins thinks they’ve gotta be close to the girls, there’s not much land left for ‘em to walk, not on this beach anyway.”

“And then what? This prick is just gonna let three detectives scoop up two teenaged girls without demanding something in return? He’s not letting them walk away Fin, not without a fucking fight.”

“They haven’t found him yet so they’re treading carefully, watchin’ each others’ backs.”

“Yeah great, good plan,” Elliot scoffs, shoving the toe of his right shoe into the damp sand. “He could be two steps behind them with a weapon, how — how the fuck do we know he isn’t?”

“We don’t, but you don’t need to sit here and involve yourself Stabler, you — you could’ve been back in the city, worryin’ about your own shit. Liv’s a big girl, man.”

He feels his jaw lock in anger because he gets it. He’s seen the evolution for himself - the way she would’ve never become the Liv she is now if he would’ve stayed. He almost hates how strikingly obvious it is, how terrifying it is that you can love someone so ferociously that the only way for them to flourish is if you fucking vanish.

“I’m not here to play the hero Fin,” he says after a beat, deciding to stop the sentence there - to not tack on how it almost frightens him that not one fragment of himself misses this unit, to not ramble on about his theory that’d it’d always been Benson and Stabler and never Stabler and Benson because she was the half of their duo whose heart had truly, truly been in it. He’d only stayed, he realized later on, for her. Always for her.

But not even a hero could swoop in and stop the inevitable, not today.

Behind where they stand, a single shot rings out - followed by a scream so ear-splitting Elliot feels his heart plummet to his middle.


The scream doesn’t belong to her. He’d know her voice anywhere, and there’s no way in hell this one is hers.

Before he or Fin or any of the uniformed officers can race toward the dunes, Rollins sprints toward them with both hands on her knees, keeled over like if she takes another two, three steps forward, she’ll crumble.

Fin grabs onto both of her elbows. “Rollins, what the fuck —”

“He popped out the second we found the girls, they — one of them is breathing, saw the whole thing, she — she’s the one who screamed,” Rollins starts to say, entirely out of breath. Her blonde hair is stuck like honey to both sides of her face, and the weight of the water that must’ve seeped into her shoes slows her movement down. “He shot Velasco, he’s — he needs help, but Liv — Liv has both of the girls, even the one with no pulse.”

Fin looks her up and down, slides his hands down to her forearms. “Are you hurt?”

“I tripped, fucked up my ankle runnin’ back to find you guys, but no, I’m — I’m fine.”

“Stay here then Amanda, you can’t run back in,” Fin demands, and then he jolts his head up and away from Rollins and nods toward the rest of the officers. “We got an officer down, don’t just stand there, go!”

Elliot feels fucking helpless in nothing but a rain-drenched hoodie and shoes he can’t run in as Fin calls out for everyone to move in toward the dunes, toward Liv and Velasco and the girls and this sick fuck with a gun.

“Well you’re not here for Fin...” Rollins comments amongst the chaos, when it’s just she and him leaned up against a squad car. Waiting.

The rain doesn’t steady. He thinks it’s eerily symbolistic for how things feel when they’re apart, for how it feels when he’s got no goddamn idea where in the dunes she and her shot detective and two girls - one probably dead - even are. It’ll stop raining when she’s fine, when she’s safe in the passenger seat of his truck with her eyes closed and her feet curled underneath her thighs as they head back toward Manhattan and he begs her to silence her phone for the weekend, drown out the job in the same way he drowns into himself on this beach, waiting for her to be okay.

“Is he okay?” He clears his throat, cups a hand over his mouth. “Uh, Velasco I mean.”

“Can’t tell where exactly he was shot, but they’ll get to him,” she says exhaustedly, almost like she’s trying to convince herself, “but c’mon, you don’t care about that Stabler, you care about Liv.”

He stands at Rollins’ side silently, saying nothing.

“I know you don’t wanna hear it, but —”

“I know, I know, she’s a big girl,” he says, chewing on the side of his cheek, “she doesn’t need me here. I get it, detective.”

“You’re wrong, detective.” She blinks behind heavy wet lashes, tilts her head toward his. “I was gonna say that even though it’ll be another what, ten years before she admits it, I think Liv needs you, and I don’t think she’d hate it, knowin’ you were here.”

“Makes me feel better, y’know, knowing she’ll finally cave when we’re what, seventy.”

“You want her to live for more than the job.” It’s not a question, and he doesn’t think she intended for it to be.

He presses his lips together, squints his eyes down toward the top of her head. “W’do’you know about all of that? Didn’t you run into the dunes toward a murderer like ten minutes ago?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“I’m a detective, remember? I know that ADA friend of yours is somewhere back in the city freaking the fuck out right now.”

Rollins’ lips curl at both sides, the bottom of her right boot propped up against the back door of the squad car. “It’s a twisted ankle, he’ll live.”

Before either of them can say anything else, Elliot hears the sound of hurried footsteps heading their way, and in perfect harmony, a bus pulls up with sirens that blare so alarmingly loud the sound of the rain almost vanishes against it. 

“Clear the way, we’ve got an injured officer!” Fin yells, he and a uni with an arm each draped behind Velasco’s torso, holding him up as he hobbles toward the ambulance, the color drained entirely from his cheeks.

Elliot gulps at the sight of him, at the way his left shoulder dangles exhaustedly like it’s detached from his body, the way his eyes are bloodshot and his clothes are so engulfed with rain that the blood has nowhere to seep but through the fabric, painting the clearest picture for everyone who hadn’t been in the dunes with them.

“Fuck, he’s in bad shape,” Rollins mutters, almost guiltily. 

But Elliot tears his gaze from Velasco the second he sees her.

She’s covered - in blood and wet sand and evidence of an hour’s worth of rain enveloping every inch of fabric she’s wearing - but she’s still hovering behind the girls as two officers carry them in their arms, whispering to the one who must’ve screamed. He notices the way the girl’s fingers relax once they’re wrapped around Olivia’s. The soft way Olivia speaks, brushes a hand through the girl’s matted hair. Lets go of her hand when they lift her onto a stretcher, but promises she’s safe over and over and over again before she lets them wheel her away.

Something like defeat taking over her entire body, Olivia steps in slow strides toward where he and Rollins are standing by the car, her arms hugged around herself. The rain is still pouring down, soaking every ounce of them in its fury. If she’s pressed by his presence, he’d never know it by the way she keeps her composure - duty first, them second.

“You saved her life Liv,” Rollins says, using one foot to balance herself steadily enough to grab onto Olivia, looping one of her hands around the wet sleeve of her jacket. 

“We all did, you and me and Velasco,” Olivia counters, her voice hoarse. “It’s over, we — we got him.”

“And the other girl, is she —”

Elliot feels like a fucking stranger to this world, in their orbit, standing a few feet from the two of them as they fix their gazes on each other’s eyes wordlessly.

Olivia shakes her head in a way that tells him the other girl won’t make it, that she probably was already dead when they dug her out of the sand. He knows every one of her faces, and the way her lips quiver on the edges is a face that says they did their best, but their best wasn’t fucking good enough today.

“I’m — I’m gonna ride back with Fin,” Rollins says quietly, using both hands to wring out her dampened hair, tucking it behind her ears once she’s finished. “You good?”

It takes Olivia a few seconds to reply, but finally she says, “I’m good, go” and tells her to kiss Jesse and Billie - who he’s guessing are Rollins’ girls - for her.

“You know her kids?” He’s been in agony waiting for her to emerge from the dunes in one piece, and that’s the first thing he can mutter - You know her kids?

“They’re my godchildren, so I better,” she drawls, unzipping her jacket and wiggling out of it, looping it over her forearm. 

He can’t help but fixate on it, how she’s become so many things to so many people in his absence. A godmother. A mother. A sergeant, lieutenant, captain. A lover he’s certain.

He catches his breath and remembers how wildly it’s raining, remembers what he’d snatched from her on their way back to her apartment not even a week ago after the sunset. Remembers it’s stowed in his trunk for a time like this, for a night where he gets to be so many things at once for her - finally.

“Why’d you come?” She doesn’t sound angry - just curious. Tired. Drained from fighting to the depths only to still feel a loss, to wallow in the darkest kind of defeat. She’s thinking about the girl they didn’t - couldn’t - save, he can tell. “And don’t try to say Fin called you, because I asked him. He didn’t.”

“To be fair, he’s kinda lying,” he says, reaching a hand out to grab her jacket in his grip, throwing it over his shoulder. Its wetness seeps through the cotton of his hoodie and onto his t-shirt beneath, but he won’t hand it back. “We talked last night about this case, and then he told me you guys had a lead on Long Island, and I just — instinct, I guess. Told me to come. Had a feeling.”

“I’m fine, El.”

“Humor me. ‘Least lemme drive you back.”

She looks too fatigued to come up with a reason why she can’t, so she surrenders. She lets him hold her jacket all of the way to where his car is parked, and then she waits by the passenger door until he steps behind her, reaches his hand over where hers is perched atop the handle and swings it open.

She doesn’t move, doesn’t attempt to climb into the car.

“Liv, you — hold on, hold on.” He raises his index finger up toward her and shuffles to the trunk in a hurry, pulls out a blanket and closes it shut. The rain is still coming down, but it’s rhythmic, steady, just like he said it’d be once he knew she was safe.

“What are you doing?”

He lifts it up over her - free of the sand from the morning of the sunrise and the blades of grass from the night at the park, because he’d taken it home and thrown it right into the wash.

Covering both sides of her body with this blanket, he finally breathes out in relief. “Takin’ care of you, for once. You gonna let me do that?”

The passenger side door is still propped open, but she stands still against it. She only moves to take two ends of the blanket into both of her hands, gripping onto the fabric. 

“Liv...”

She’s waiting to speak until her voice won’t contain evidence of how awful this all was, he can tell. She clears her throat twice, lets a gust of wind pour rain over her eyes and doesn’t even let go of the blanket to brush it off of the skin on her eyelids. “You want me to admit —” Her words feel fractured, small. “I can admit it, El. How much this sucks. How it would’ve been me, not Joe, if I just walked two steps to the right. How it shouldn’t have been any of us...”

“It’s not your —”

“Of course I know it’s not my fault,” she cuts him off, “but a — a nineteen year old girl is dead, Elliot. My detective barely made it out of there alive. And you what, wanna drive me home and make me chicken soup and tell me how brutal this unit is in case I forgot?”

“Olivia...”

She tugs the blanket tighter around her body. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he mutters, reaching one of his hands out to loop it around her wrist, to steady her. “‘S okay.”

He watches her in the silence - as the rain starts to become measured, unhurried. Like it knows of their union, like it fucking knows.

“You drove all the way out to Long Island.” She’s not asking him. Her breath is hitched, her gaze falling soft on his face. Behind dark lashes and weary irises her eyes are almost smiling at him.

“Well yeah.”

“I’m okay.”

“Thank fucking god, Liv.”

“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” she says like it’s the ordinary, like his heart hadn’t been lodged in his throat since he merged onto Ocean Parkway. “Nothing you haven’t seen before either — in case you forgot.”

“Feels a little distant,” he tells her with two pinched together fingertips, his hand shifting from her wrist to her waist. 

She breathes a staggered breath. “Lucky you.” 

And then he tells her to get in the car. That he didn’t drive all of the way out to Gilgo Beach to ride back into the city alone. He waits, watches her tug the blanket up her body so it won’t dangle onto the ground as if that matters - as if all of the rain hasn’t already weft its way into the fabric. The seats in his car will be soaked, but he doesn’t give a shit - not as long as she’s in one of them.

“Liv, fuck the blanket, get in the car,” he says again, climbing in himself to start the engine.

It takes her a minute to settle, and when she does, it’s just how he pictured it - her boots toed off and tucked underneath the seat, her soaked socks wedged underneath her thighs as she curls up comfortably into herself. He glances to his right as he pulls the car out and watches her eyes flutter closed, her cheek grazing the glass of the window as she holds her chin.

He waits until they’re on the parkway to cup one of her knees in his hand, giving it a squeeze.

He swears she’s asleep until she says, “El.”

His fingers trace lazy, abstract circles atop her pants. He won’t let go of her, not unless she tells him to. “Hmm?”

“I think I needed you today, to — to show up like that,” she admits groggily, her voice faint, her eyes still shut. “I’m not good at admitting that, but I — I did. Need you.”

“Liv, you don’t —”

“Yes,” she insists, her fingertips spread out across his own atop her own knee. She shifts slightly, lifts her head from off of the window to say, “Yes. I do.”

As he drives onto the parkway, for the first time in a long time, he sees everything ahead of him.

Chapter Text

This is new for them. 

New. God, how anything can be new between them when he’s had a home in her heart for a quarter of a century, she’s not sure. 

But it’s new. Untouched territory being walked on - danced on, is what this feels like. Dinner at his place, watching him from behind a wine glass as he tells Eli that he has to stay at least until he makes a dent in his plate, as he scoops another serving of veggies into her son’s plate. Says something to his own kid under his own breath as he does, something like, ‘He’s barely ten and he’s got a better palate than you’.

Nothing about the moment is faultless, though. She’s still delicate when it comes to inserting herself into their dynamic in front of Eli, still calls Bernie “Mrs. Stabler” three times before the woman sets a hand on top of hers and insists she stop calling her that.

“It makes me sound old,” Bernie scoffs, half lovingly and half seriously.

“You are old, grandma,” Eli says, setting down his fork, his fingertips tapping impatiently onto the tabletop. “Can I go to my movie now, dad?”

Bernie wags a finger at him. “Go to two, after that comment —” 

“Mama, I got it,” Elliot interjects, pointing the serving tongs still in his grip toward his son. “Yeah Eli, just — go, go.”

Eli pushes in his chair and rips his phone from off of the table where it’s resting facedown, shoving it into the front pocket of his jeans hastily. “Thanks, dad.”

“Nuh-uh, you say goodbye to Liv and Noah before you go anywhere,” Elliot is sure to add, solidly defining what this is with nothing but the simple sternness in his glance as he looks from Olivia and her son back to his own. “And s’gonna rain tonight, don’t run out of here without a jacket, Eli.”

“Sorry, yeah, bye Liv. Noah. See ya.”

She watches him - the way his chest tightens as his kid races out the front door so hastily he almost trips over his own shoes. “You ever wanna run out on your mom like that during dinner Noah?”

No way,” Noah responds, sticking his fork into a half-eaten pile of green beans with a wrinkled nose. 

“Good, keep it that way,” Elliot says, clicking his tongue as he takes one hand, ruffles Noah’s hair. “You got a good mom there, kid.”

The look he shoots her from across the table tells her his comment is more for her ears than her son’s, but she says nothing. Smooths her palms down her thighs, says goodnight to Bernie as she stands up and excuses herself. Finds herself enamored by the gentle way Elliot smooches both of his mother’s cheeks like she won’t be just right down the hall. 

Noah’s voice floods the room the second she starts to think about it - the way every jagged edge of him seems to soften in her presence. “Can I play the card game now, mom?” he presses.

She clears her throat, her voice laden with firm delicacy. “We should go, honey, it’s late —”

“It’s also summer,” is Elliot’s immediate interjection. He leans forward and swoops all three serving trays between his arms, off to search the cabinets for lids to seal the leftovers. “C’mon Liv, one round won’t hurt.”

“Oh, it’s suddenly a three-player thing?”

“I mean.” Elliot grunts as he reaches into the very top cabinet, pulling out three mismatched lids. “We’ll let you join, just tonight.”

And then, here they are - sitting cross-legged atop three throw pillows in the living room as Noah cheekily shuffles a deck of cards, explains the rules to Crazy Eights slowly. Mostly because Elliot genuinely can’t remember the last time he’d played a card game, the dust pooled on either end of the deck of cards sheer evidence of that fact. 

Thunder vibrates through the loft and raindrops fall slickly and swiftly down the windows. Noah wins the first - only - round, and it takes only twenty seconds of him begging for another game for Olivia to give in. To remember this is all she’s ever wanted, even if it terrifies her to say it aloud. The sounds of the storm are louder now as they start round three, the kind Noah asked for purposely when he was a toddler and the only way he could sleep through the night was with a white noise machine on, humming from its spot on his dresser.

Tonight, he’s sleepily surrendering to the rumbling in the same way - eight cards gripped through limp fingertips. It’s Elliot who grabs onto one of his shoulders, says, “You tired, bud?”

He swipes at weary eyelids with two fingers each, his head tucked into the crook of his elbow as he props half of his body onto the couch. “A little.”

“I told you it was past your bedtime,” she mutters, craning her head down to smooch the top of Noah’s. “C’mon, let’s say goodnight to Elliot, thank him for dinner.”

Noah stands up slowly, blinking the sleep from his eyes as he buzzes around the living room to look for his shoes. 

“You can stay, y’know. Eli, I — I doubt he’s comin’ home, you and Noah could have my room,” Elliot starts to say as Olivia hoists herself up off of the floor, picking up all three of the pillows and tossing them back onto the couch. “Liv.” 

“I hear you El, I just —”

He blows out a weighted breath, “Don’t want him getting attached?”

She squints ahead, focuses on Noah unlacing his sneakers to slip them on.

“Something like that, I guess.”

“Liv, you know he can, right?”

Beyond tonight’s dinner - the domesticity of it all swelling her heart in even its most rigid of places - she thinks of the sunrise. Of Elliot enveloping her boy in his arms with ease all the way to the car like he’s been waiting just as long for it as she has. Like he knows full well he’s done all of this five times over, but for her and for Noah he’d do it six - in a heartbeat. 

She nods wordlessly, tries to catch her breath. She’s trying to remember whether or not she’d brought her purse into the living room or hung it over by the door, and she’s also thinking about staying. Trying to ignore the way his gaze falls onto her and also engulfing herself in it, all at once. God, everything about the way she loves him feels like a paradox, and then the goddamn lights flicker.

 

“I set him up in Eli’s room. You sure he’s good to sleep in the dark, no night light?”

“You left the door cracked?”

“Yeah, I left the door cracked.”

“Then he’s good,” she says, her voice faint.

“Good,” he says, his own voice full.

She pinches the bridge of her nose using two fingers, almost starts to apologize for imposing. 

He waits until her lips are half-parted to say, “Don’t. You guys aren’t leaving in the middle of a blackout, Liv.”

“When the lights come on...”

“We’ll see.”

The rain steadies, but the air around them feels balmy and she’s aware of how quickly her hair starts to stick to the sides of her face, how necessary a working air conditioning unit in New York during the summertime really, truly is. Elliot’s in front of her using the flashlight on his phone to peek into every cabinet in the kitchen until he finds a half-empty box of matches and a few old candles of Bernie’s, all of the wax melted down three-quarters of the way inside of each one.

“She just has to burn pumpkin spice in February,” he mutters, swiping a match against the box until it’s lit and tilting the candle on its side. “Pumpkin and sweat, what could be better.”

“Don’t remind me,” she groans, two fingers pinching the fabric of her t-shirt collar together as she uses it to fan herself, collapsing onto the couch. “I feel gross.”

“You’re in linen and jeans, Liv. Of course you’re hot.” He sets the burning candle atop one of the end tables and joins her, the heat of his body orbiting all of the way into her space. She’s so aware of his breathing, of how he’s helping neither of them cool down when his thigh is brushing hers like this, with a hand cupped over her kneecap.

She’s got no idea when that happened - somewhere between searching for the matches and now she blinked once, caught her breath maybe twice

“Well that’s one way to make sure we keep sweating,” she finally whispers, angling the back of her head onto the top of the couch, her hair splaying out across the fabric.

“Can’t help it.” She feels his fingers trace their trail down her calf. “I’m sorry about Eli, at dinner.”

“Sorry for what, him being every fourteen year old on the planet? El, it’s fine.”

“He’s not used to seein’ me with anyone but his —” He stops himself, presses his fingertips into her leg. “Never mind. We don’t have to go there.”

“You’re right, we don’t,” she agrees, shutting her eyes. “But if this is too much, for him, for — for you...”

“Olivia.” His voice sounds like fractured glass when he says her name. He lets go of his hold on her leg, lets her breathe. “Liv, it’s not. Never. It’s what I want — dinner, Noah comin’ over here like it’s nothing, you not runnin’ out on me in the middle of a blackout.”

“To be fair...” She smacks her lips together, “I almost ran out, but the entire city being dark kind of stopped me.”

“Thank god.”

“Oh so what, we’re enjoying this now?”

“I’ve been enjoying myself this whole time,” he says like the smuggest motherfucker in the city, like everything she is in this moment belongs entirely to him.

She doesn’t argue that.


It takes her about an hour to cave - to unfasten the button on the jeans she’s somehow still wearing and ask him if my god, he has anything else for her to change into. She’ll take the goddamn shower curtain, the throw blanket on Eli’s bed, Bernie’s apron slung across the stove handle.

The pumpkin candle flickered out ten minutes ago, and now he’s crouching down and digging through the kitchen cabinets, asking her what the hell a winter cabin smells like and says it’s between that or one that smells like a salted pretzel.

“Elliot?”

He lifts himself up off of the floor at the sound of her exasperation. Sweat dribbles down the sides of his temples in the same way she’s sure it does hers, and he swipes at the space between his top lip and the tip of his nose with one finger. “Hey. You okay?”

“Yeah no, I’m fine, I’m just dying.”

“Alright, look, it’s not that bad.”

“I’m in jeans, El.”

“I remember. C’mon, c’mere.” He sets the unlit candle - the winter cabin one - down onto the countertop and brushes a hand along the small of her sweaty back, guiding her into his bedroom with muted steps. He lets her step inside before him, the floor beneath her bare feet the only blip of coolness she’s felt since the minute the power went out. 

The darkness wraps itself around her now, more evident in here. He’s still got a palm rested on her body, and then he lets go, only to peek into one of his dresser drawers. It takes him a second, but he tosses two pieces of fabric onto the bed and tells her he’ll leave the room while she changes.

She thumbs the black shorts between two fingers and squints at him. “Knee-length basketball shorts? God, I’ve never felt sexier between this, the sweat...”

“Just put ‘em on Liv.” 

It’s either these or the denim that burns the tops of her thighs like an inferno, so she surrenders. Waits a moment to pick the basketball shorts and an oversized v-neck up off of the comforter. Doesn’t warn him that she’s stripping down to nothing but her bra and a black thong because they’re standing in the dark doorway of his bedroom and for a moment, it doesn’t bother her if he stares. Not in the dark like this.

“Jesus,” she thinks he croaks out, “ya couldn’t wait?”

She grits her teeth, folds the band of the shorts twice over so they don’t fall at her waist. She could just use the strings to tighten them, but she doesn’t. “You told me —”

“No I know I did, I just —” He scrubs a hand down his face. “You’re killing me here.”

She slides the t-shirt over her neck and smooths it out where it creases, lifts it over the folded shorts band. “What?”

You,” he says, his voice thick, “you just...”

Instinctively, she hugs both arms around her middle like he hadn’t already seen her bare it almost all. She’s suddenly aware of it all - curves that’d formed in the valleys where they’d never been before, the small bits of dimpled flesh that speckle across her hips, the back of her thighs, her butt. Her heart flies up into her throat when she realizes he’s staring, that he’s been looking this whole entire time. Seconds feel like hours, and the heat of the summer air only feels heightened in here.

“I’m not your wife,” is the first thing she says. There’s no scorn behind it - just fact, just truth. “Not anyone else you’ve been with either.”

“No shit you’re not Liv. That’s the best thing about you.”

“You just saying that because I’m wearing an itchy ass pair of your shorts, Stabler?”

“No, I’m sayin’ that ‘cause it’s about time you hear it from me,” he says, stepping into her space. She feels his breath on the side of her face, feels his thumb slide into the band of her - his - basketball shorts. “How beautiful you are. Jesus, you — you are, y’know that?”

A clammy palm rested flat on her cheek, he kisses her. When he pulls away, he doesn’t quite - he lets his forehead linger in her space, pressed against hers, his hitched breath loud and his heartbeat louder. 

He drags his thumb across her pursed lips and in the dark, she still finds his eyes, the way they fall onto hers with this sort of intricate delicacy - both like he needs all of her right now and like they can take their time, like they have forever and a day.

“Liv, I wanna give you that,” he mutters against her mouth, “everything, whatever you want.”

“The lights on would be nice.” But he’s serious, pleading irises and begging hands tracing the outlines of her own. “This,” she says silkily, “I want this El.”

“Good, ‘cause you’ve gotta know it, you —” He clears his throat. “Liv, I meant it when I said you mean the world to me.”

His blue eyes flit to her like a lighthouse at the very tip of a beach after dusk. The only vibrancy in this blacked out bedroom.

He kisses the words she’s searching for right off of her lips, surging his center into hers with a little more desperation this time. It’s a kiss that spills outside the lines - hurried yet slow, familiar yet unacquainted.

Elliot’s hands are sturdy as his palms lay splayed beneath the back of her t-shirt, atop her slick skin. His lips trace a map alongside the side of her face, into the hollow of her neck, peppered smooches staking their claim in the valleys of her shoulder. His tongue slips through the margins and she swears she moans his name back into his mouth.

“I know you did, me too,” she manages to breathe out.

The cadence in which their cores meet and then pull apart both grounds and terrifies her. Cleanses and drowns her. 

“Hi,” he says when he pulls back a few inches, tracing one of her cheekbones with his thumb. 

“Hey. Maybe we finish this when we have, y’know, air conditioning.”

He dips his head, “That we can do.”

 

This is new for them.

It’s barely sunrise when the lights come back on, when they’re awoken by a glare from the ceiling light above before daylight can even peek itself in through the blinds, before one or both of them have the chance to get roped in by a work call or one of their kids.

“Morning,” he exhales. One of his hands is tucked in between her thigh, the other in her hair. She feels his fingers press into the humid skin on the back of her neck. “Sleep good?”

“As good as I could’ve like this,” she barely nods, stretching the leg he isn’t holding onto out in front of her, curling her toes into the sheet they must’ve pushed off of themselves in the middle of the night. “You?”

He lifts his hand out of her hair to scratch his chin. “Uh, better than I have in — in a long time,” he confesses.

She’s basking in this. Too much light. The goosebumps trickling down her legs like dominoes when the air kicks back on. His hand at home in the dip of her waist, his lips lazily vibrating across her bare shoulder. The thought of her son sleeping soundly down the hall makes it all too real. The way the band of his basketball shorts uncurled mid-sleep does too, now loosely sliding down past her hips as if to remind her they belonged to him first. 

Next to her he hums, and she thinks he’s wallowing in it just the same.

“Me too.” 

Chapter Text

“Fourth husband?”

“Fourth.”

“And he’s claiming it’s consensual?”

“Of course he’s claiming it’s consensual.”

“And our victim?”

She lowers her glasses, breathes through her nose. Just another day.

“It uh, it wasn’t exactly reported by her,” Rollins says, tapping her fingertips onto Olivia’s desk slowly, matter-of-factly, “it was actually brought to our attention by someone at one of Rebekah’s...gatherings.”

“Gatherings. Why do you say it like that — gatherings.”

“Well Rebekah’s husband — twenty years her junior, I gotta add — hosts parties at their home, and they’re — well, they’re not parties, really.”

She blinks, thinks about the four hours of solid sleep the night had allotted her before Rollins’ wake up call.

“I’m not following, Amanda.”

“More like scams,” Fin intervenes, slapping a thin file folder down onto her desk. “Dude’s a doctor, holdin’ these elite gala parties like they’re auctions, but no one has ever seen the money go to the cause, if ya know what I mean.”

“And this is SVU because...”

Rollins releases a frustrated breath. “Of the rape. Uh, alleged rape. Rebekah won’t exactly talk to us.”

She squeezes her eyes shut, curses herself for not getting an extra espresso shot in her coffee this morning. “So, who’ll she talk to?”

“No one. Which is why we’ve figured something else out.” Rollins slides into the seat across from hers, laces both of her hands together in her own lap. 

“Which is?”

“So, the parties are exclusive,” Rollins begins to describe. “Like, even the best doctors in the city gettin’ invites to this thing is rare. But we’ve come up with a profile, Velasco and I.”

“Which is?” she repeats, swallowing down a sip of coffee. 

“Liv, before you say no, hear me out.”

“What, we send in a UC? That’s —” She drums two fingers against the plastic lid on her cup, nods. “That actually might work. So what are you thinking, you and Velasco head in as doctors?”

It’s Fin who clears his throat. Leans his right hip against her desk and tiptoes around the details of the assignment in a way only someone who’s known her as long as Fin has could. She knows he must feel her gaze - firm and frustrated. Get to the damn point, it screams silently through weary irises and the beginnings of a caffeine-induced migraine. 

“Well, we figured we’d need to send a couple in,” Fin starts, pressing both of his palms into the folder he’d tossed down onto her desk just before. “Rebekah and her husband Ben, they’d be less suspicious of a couple of married physicians from a private practice strolling into one of their parties. Y’know, just blend right in with the rest of their plushy ass couple friends.”

“Okay, so great. Rollins, get out into the bullpen and grab your groom. When is this happening, tonight?”

“Uh, yeah, there’s a party tonight, but it’s — he’s not my groom,” Rollins starts to say. “He’s yours.”

Yours. Her temples twinge and she’s either had too much coffee before eight o’clock in the morning or hardly enough. “That’s sweet, but I’m a little too old for Velasco,” she says with a titled head and pinched-together fingers.

“Liv, we’re not sendin’ Velasco in,” Fin says. “You uh, you talk to Stabler today?”

God, talk, not quite. Slip out of his bed before the sunrise in nothing but a pair of his basketball shorts and the t-shirt she’d stripped out of in her sleep balled up between her fingers, yeah

But she lies, of course she lies. Beginning to think about defining whatever it is between them - beach sunrises and blackout kisses and drives along the parkway wrapped in the warmth of his truck and their blanket and his worry - makes her head throb even more than the caffeine. 

“Not today, no.” She narrows her eyes toward both her sergeant and her detective, adds a honed, “Why.”

“Maybe you should,” Fin tells her. “No need to text him though,” he says in the same moment she reaches into the pocket of her blazer for her phone, “he’s on his way over here.”

 

Rebekah is in her early sixties.

Ben is forty-one.

Mr. and Mrs. Stabler are around the same age, save for a year or two. She was his boss when they met - which Olivia realizes is an added touch in the profile workup from Rollins and also a clever ode to Rebekah marrying men she could’ve mothered, men she held an abundance of power over. They moved to the city just four months ago from Connecticut, from their own private pediatrics practice, and Christ, she can’t focus when these goddamn heels are already pinching the skin around her ankles and she hasn’t even left the precinct yet.

Mrs. Stabler also wears four hundred dollar heels, apparently.

“Liv, you good?” It’s Fin - who believes in knocking only when necessary. He must catch the exasperation flood her face as she uses the front lens of her phone to apply a mauve-colored lip liner. “I know you don’t wanna go in —”

She smacks her lips together, scrubs a smudge of lipstick off of her front tooth with one finger. “Oh, you mean I don’t look like I’m excited to spend my Friday night schmoozing with criminal doctors in the West Village?”

“C’mon, we all know no one does it like you and Stabler.”

“Like we used to, Fin,” she reminds him boldly while fixing a thread of hair that feels out of place. Mrs. Stabler lives in a swanky six-bedroom penthouse. She most certainly doesn’t walk around with unkempt hair. “This could’ve worked just as well with Rollins and Velasco and you know it.”

“Rebekah’s friends are too mature to be hangin’ around someone like Velasco, Liv.”

“Mature? There’s a report of a group of them stealing a neighbor’s dog and dyeing it key lime green to make him more valuable at an auction, Fin. Spare me.”

Before he can say anything else, Elliot - Mr. Stabler, Dr. Stabler - knocks a fist onto the door to her office, clears his throat to voicelessly announce his presence before stepping wholly inside.

She swallows down whatever retaliation had been brewing in her chest when she sees him. 

Her husband. The title alone both rattles her bones and breathes life into her lungs, and then he shoves the hand he’d used to knock into his pocket and she catches a glimpse of something he hasn’t worn in almost a year. More, even. A goddamn wedding ring.

She remembers hers set aside enclosed in the emerald colored jewelry box Amanda had hand-delivered to her an hour ago while she’d been getting ready, but she doesn’t put it on. Not yet.

“Ready, Mrs. Stabler?” Fucking Fin. She could kill him.

“I do get to have a first name on this assignment, y’know. Olivia is fine.”

She stands up, intentionally forgets to reach for the ring box. She’s thinking about his basketball shorts, his thumbprint staining the fold of her bottom lip, the soft way he’d tucked a sheet around her boy last night as he’d put him to bed. Jesus Christ. She smooths her hands down her thighs, presses two fingers into each of her temples.

The only sound in the room is the clicking of her heels across the linoleum. Until he notices - until he points his index finger toward the velvet box sitting atop her desk and says, “Liv, your rings” like it’s second nature, like it’s a rhythmic thing they do. Like she’s the wife who puts things down and forgets to pick them back up and he’s the husband whose vows had been to remind her, to ground her, to tell her - lovingly, always lovingly - to stop leaving her goddamn things all over the house. 

She gulps wordlessly as she holds out her palm, lets him slip the still-closed ring box inside of it. She thinks about the basketball shorts, how she’d fingered them off and slid out of them, left them crumpled, inside out on his bedroom floor.

She’s willing to bet everything he’d picked them up right after she left.


“You gonna look at me, wife?”

“God, don’t start, don’t do that.”

Her ankles are fucking throbbing, and he’s keeping his distance. The space between them feels achingly vacant, but she won’t reach for him. She rubs her thumb against the rings on her fourth finger, swiveling the band over and over again so she can stop focusing on how staggered her breathing sounds on this quiet street.

“Liv c’mon, it’s — it’s not as weird as you’re makin’ it seem. We’ve gone under as a married couple how many times?”

She plants her feet firm on the sidewalk, hugs her arms around her center. “That was before,” she says, sucking on the inside of her cheek.

“Before...?”

“El, I’m not doing this now.”

“Liv, look at me.” She feels his hand find her elbow, blinks and lets her eyes fall to the blue-colored sleeve of the blazer Dr. Stabler wears to penthouse soirées. “Liv.”

She parts her lips to say something - anything. She’s slipping out of character and swimming in the realm of who they’d been this morning - Olivia and Elliot, tangled limbs and hitched breaths and shared clothes and sweaty necks.

No. No. This is an assignment, and she takes her assignments seriously. So she lets it go, presses her top lip to her bottom and stands wordlessly at Rebekah and Ben’s front door until someone - neither Rebekah nor Ben - swings it open.

“Hi,” greets the green-eyed man at the door, standing a whole head shorter than Elliot - and Olivia, in these absurd heels. “Are you on the list?”

She watches Elliot squint his eyes, scrub a palm along his jaw. “Uh yeah, should be. Dr. Stabler, and this — this is my wife, also Dr. Stabler if we’re gettin’ technicial.”

His hand gravitates toward the small of her back, and he keeps it there. His fingertips press into the satin of her dress, and Mrs. Stabler would not falter at that gesture, at her husband marking his territory in the doorway of a penthouse filled with dozens and dozens of perfect strangers. So she straightens her stance and smiles at the doorman with a grin that reaches her eyes. Slides one of her hands over to his abdomen, wedging it in between the lapel of his jacket. Marks her territory right the fuck back.

The man disappears only to circle back to the foyer not thirty seconds later. “Yes, the doctors from Connecticut,” he says, clapping his hands together. “Welcome to New York.”

“What a welcome, huh?” She gestures around them at a room buzzing with what feels like a hundred bodies in glorious harmony, each holding a half-full champagne flute and picking cautiously at hors d’oeuvres on gorgeously lined gold serving platters. “So where’s our host hiding?”

“Oh, Rebekah is mingling, I’m sure,” he tells them both with frantic hands, “but there’s plenty more to stick around for than just Rebekah.”

“C’mon baby,” Elliot takes the lead, reaching out for her hand and lacing their fingers together. “Let’s go do the same thing, yeah?”

“Enjoy.”

Elliot tips his head toward the man. “Thank you.”

“‘Baby’, really?” She whispers through gritted teeth once the doorman steps away, his body pressed up against the wall by the entrance like a statue once again. “Don’t push it, Stabler.”

“What, you’ve never met a husband who calls his wife baby before?”

“No I have, you’re just,” she pauses, presses her fingertips firm into his palm, “not my damn husband.”

“Like it or not, I am tonight. C’mon, let’s scope this place out, see what the hell it’s all about.”

She glances down - at her throbbing feet, her golden calves peeking out of this mid-length dress, their interlocked fingers. “And we have to hold hands to do that?”

He bites his bottom lip, shrugs. “Fine, you do it your way,” he mutters, dropping her hand and tucking both of his into the pockets of his dress pants.

“El, I didn’t —” She starts to protest until a woman - mid-thirties, at most; strawberry blonde shoulder-length hair pulled back by two rose gold plated barrettes; legs adorned in black tights too hot for summer - stops Elliot in his tracks by pressing her palm into his shoulder. 

“You’re the doctors from Connecticut, right?” she asks like she already knows, like she’s already scoped them out from across the room, smoothing her hand down the backside of Elliot’s blazer. 

“I mean, are we really ‘the doctors from Connecticut’ anymore? Once ya step foot in New York it just feels like —”

The woman cuts Elliot off with one of the most dreadful laughs Olivia has ever heard slip out from in between a set of lips. Shouldn’t’ve dropped his fucking hand, she thinks.

“Couldn’t be truer,” she says, again trailing her fingertips over his blazer - this time, lingering at the hem of his sleeve. “You two sticking around for the auction?”

“Auction? No, we —”

This is why no one does it quite like them, she reminds herself. When he falters, she forges ahead.

“We weren’t planning on staying long but,” Olivia drawls. Something inside of her possesses her to hold onto the collar of his blazer with two steady fingers, swivel her hip so her center is pressed into his. “It’s just...our son, we’ll have to call his sitter and beg her to stay later, but I mean...is it, y’know, worth it?”

The woman tilts her head back, takes a sip from her champagne glass. “Is it worth it? Honey, you should see some of the men up for auction at this thing. No disrespect to, you know, your husband.”

Elliot waves a hand at her dismissively, says, “Don’t worry ‘bout it. I guess I can learn how to share.”

Olivia blinks, ignores the way the buckles of the heels are digging into the skin around her ankles now. “So you’re saying I bid what, a few grand and get to ditch my husband for an afternoon to...do what exactly?”

“Whatever you want,” the woman says easily - too easily. “You bid ten grand on say, a pharmaceutical rep and he does whatever you want, no questions asked.”

“Well,” Olivia leans in, her palm pressed into Elliot’s chest, “as...tempting as that sounds...”

“Oh, no, I get it, you’re —”

“Right, married,” Olivia finishes, leaning her face into the side of Elliot’s, letting her lips ghost his jawline.

Elliot peeks over his shoulder once the woman walks away to make sure she’s entirely gone and out of earshot before he mumbles, “Jesus Christ.”

Whether it’s a reaction toward her unforeseen contact or the crime, she’s not entirely sure.

“So people. They’re auctioning people.”

He presses two fingers into his temple. “Not exactly a new concept, Liv.”

“No, but it’s — You don’t have to be SVU anymore to know that whatever it is that’s happening during those dates is in no way consensual.”

“What’re you sayin’?”

“The rape, it’s — No one outright said it was Rebekah’s husband Ben, did they?”

“I dunno. Rollins and Fin said they weren’t saying much at all.”

She squints, thinks about gorgeously elegant rooms bursting at the seams with ugly corruption and suddenly, her ankles hurt less than her chest does. “What if,” she pauses, inches in closer to Elliot, “what if he put his own wife up for auction?”

“Jesus. But I mean, I guess it’s possible.”

“We’ve gotta find her El.”

“And say what, Liv? ‘Hi, we’re actually not doctors from Connecticut, we’re cops. Did your husband auction you off a few weeks ago at one of your own parties? Blink once if he did.’

She releases a breath of frustration, smacks the side of his bicep. “We do what we do for a reason, right? If we could just get her to say something...”

“Your call, wife.”

“I told you to stop calling me that.”

“Yeah? Well a head’s up that we’ve got a son all of a sudden would’a been nice.”

“Don’t start with me, Elliot,” she warns him.

You,” he brushes the back of her hand with his thumb, “started that one if I’m rememberin’ right.”

She swallows, thinks about Elliot keeping the door wedged open for Noah last night during the blackout. Thinks about the way her boy gleamingly talks about the morning of the sunrise, about Elliot being there, being engrained into every crevice of one of their sweetest memories. 

“I just — I just said it,” she says, almost defensively, “it didn’t even mean anything.”

“Hey. Look at me.” His tone is low, almost entirely drowned out by the sound of clinking glassware and scurrying feet and the monotonous voices of a hundred medical professionals scattered about the penthouse. “Liv, even if it did, ‘s okay.”

“We’re not doing this here,” she says firmly, insistently. “C’mon, someone said Rebekah is in emerald green,” she says, pointing ahead, “that could be her.”

The figure in emerald green beelining toward the mantle is Rebekah.

She is ethereal-looking. A dancer, unlike her fourth husband and his colleagues. Perfectly poised and entirely diastrous all at once, swinging a drink glass dangerously with a flailing arm. She wears earrings that dangle to the tip of her shoulder, and the blonde of her hair is undeniably bottled albeit gorgeous. 

“Dr. Stabler, but you — you can call me Elliot,” Elliot says once she’s - tipsily - introduced herself to the both of them. “This is my wife, Olivia.”

“Olivia. Elliot.” She smiles behind a glass of something that isn’t the champagne everyone else here is drinking. “Thank you for coming.”

“Yeah, well thanks for havin’ us.” Elliot sits on a chaise lounge opposite where Rebekah has opted to sit - on the base of the fireplace. Olivia scoots in beside him, takes a long sip of her champagne.

“Olivia. Wow. Beautiful.” Rebekah’s eyes flit to her in the most flattering of ways. “Elliot, you have to know how beautiful your wife is, right?”

Elliot lifts one of his hands out of his own lap and finds the hollow of Olivia’s collarbone, settling his fingers atop her bare skin, just where her dress dips. “I’m a lotta things Rebekah, blind isn’t one of ‘em,” he winks.

Olivia has to say something else, anything else. She's wholly aware of the effect his touch has got on her, how smugly his lips curl at the corners when he says what he says. 

“So Rebekah, obviously we’re not from here,” she starts, “but I have to ask...if I don’t want my husband to be part of all this...” She dips her head forward, fidgets with the band of the ring on her finger. 

“She means the auction,” Elliot finishes.

“Oh.” Rebekah tenses, gulps down the rest of her drink. “Uh, Ben — he handles the auction. I don’t know anything about it.”

“It’s your house,” Elliot counters.

“Half of it belongs to Ben. What happens in that half, well...”

Olivia studies Elliot to see if the same thought exists in the planes of his face that reside in hers. They’ve both been doing this long enough to know - to identify the rigid way Rebekah’s shoulders lift at the mention of the auction, to take notice of the instant flush of her cheeks, the tightness suddenly sheathing her tone.

“Rebekah.” They both say her name in unison, and then Elliot swallows his words, lets her take the lead. “Rebekah, if you were auctioned off against your will —”

The room around them feels like it stills despite the commotion, despite not a single soul looking their way. 

“I appreciate the concern, but you’re two pediatric doctors from Connecticut, not my fucking therapists.”

“You’re right,” Olivia assures her, “we just —”

Suddenly, Rebekah’s lips purse. She wags her pointer finger at them, says in a shushed voice, “Not here.”

In the same harmonious fluidity that led them here to this very moment, Olivia and Elliot swiftly follow Rebekah out of the room to somewhere quiet, somewhere no one will look for them.

“Ben hates this room, y’know,” is the first thing Rebekah says, even before she flicks the light switch on. When she does, all that resides here is a sole ballet barre built into the wall furthest from the door, walls which are all mirrored from the floor to the ceiling.

Olivia has to look away - down to the floor, her feet, her aching ankles. If she looks straight into the mirror in front of her, or behind her, or to the right or the left of her, it’s too real. Elliot’s hand - the one with the wedding ring - is tucked into the pocket of his pants only far enough so that the white gold band still glints in the reflection of the glass. The way his right hand has refused to break contact with the small of her back since he’d led her into here behind Rebekah terrifies her, because in this moment they look so scarily like husband and wife she won’t - can’t - blame anyone here for being fooled.

“Because it’s yours?” Elliot asks, scuffing the toe of his shoe onto the vinyl floor.

“Because he — he can’t control me when I’m in here,” Rebekah stutters, leaning her body weight into the barre haphazardly, the empty liquor glass still in her left hand. “Everyone is so quick to say, ‘Rebekah fucks everything up, Rebekah Rebekah Rebekah’, but what about him? No marriage is perfect, Ben is far from a fucking saint. One person, they — they can’t destroy everything alone. They can set the fire to it maybe, but they always have a reason.”

Elliot puffs out his cheeks. “I hear ya.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Rebekah crouches down to the floor, sets the glass down onto it. With both hands, she grabs onto the barre and does a plié. “Maybe your marriage is perfect. It looks pretty perfect.”

“You’ve known us for twenty minutes,” Elliot says, almost laughs.

“And I promise,” Olivia has to add, the feeling of his palm hovering on her body burning into her, “our marriage is not perfect.”

At that, Elliot does nothing but wrap four fingers around her wrist, tug her body toward his own in the most subtle of ways. Not perfect, but it’s ours, his hand says as it lingers. Stays. Engrains itself into her skin. 

Rebekah does another plié, cackles. “Did you ever fill his pool with Dom Pérignon after a fight?”

Olivia squints. “Can’t say I have...”

“Then I win,” Rebekah declares, snickers almost victoriously. “It’s fine, y’know. Let him auction me off, send me off for an afternoon with a rich physician who’ll fuck me better than he has in six months. I don’t care.”

“Did you...” Olivia cranes her neck forward, feels Elliot slide his hand off of her. “Did you want to have sex with that physician?”

“Which one? Look, Olivia,” Rebekah flounders, finding her balance with two hands back on the barre, “if anyone can do this shit without getting caught, it’s Ben.”

“Rebekah, what if we told you he could be. Caught.”

“I’d tell you....” She hums, does another plié, this time straighter, proper. “To tell me the hell how.”


“Thank you,” Rebekah says genuinely, the warmth from the buzz wearing thin. She shivers as Olivia drapes an oversized NYPD jacket around her bony shoulders, promises her that they just need her statement and then she can go. “Olivia, I don’t believe it though.”

Olivia arches a brow at her. “Believe what, that Ben could be put away for this? Rebekah, I promise you —”

No,” Rebekah says sharply, “I don’t believe that you and Elliot are just colleagues, that you’re not actually husband and wife.”

Oh. God. She stifles a laugh, picks at a loose cuticle on her thumb so their sobering-up victim can’t study her face, search her irises for clues that the what if’s don’t just exist - they’re fucking colossal. 

“Well, believe it,” she rubs her lips together, blinks behind weighted eyelids, “we’re not.”

“But it’s something,” Rebekah insists, tapping her faultlessly manicured fingernails atop the wooden table, “four marriages in and I still can’t find a man who looks at me like that.”

“We’ve worked together for a long time, we were undercov —” She starts to elucidate, until she remembers she doesn’t know where Olivia and Elliot end and the roles they’d been asked to play this evening begin. “Rebekah, can I get you anything else? Water, coffee? We’re almost done here, I know you’re tired.”

Exhausted,” Rebekah groans, “but sitting here can’t be worse than being at that godforsaken auction.”

Rollins and Velasco return back to the room with hushed footsteps, shut the door behind them both.

“We got it from here Cap’t, if you need to go change,” Rollins gently offers, sliding into the seat across from Rebekah’s.

“You know what, good idea.” She suddenly remembers her swollen ankles, the burning desire to slide off these goddamn heels and wince at the bloodstains she knows full well rim the straps inside. She tugs at the falling sleeve of her satin dress, takes a few hobbling steps out into the bullpen.

“You’re still here.” His voice is throaty, exhausted. He takes two fingers from each hand and swipes them tiredly over both of his eyelids. 

She notices he’s changed out of his blazer, back into the black v-neck he’d come here in. “The better question is, why are you?”

He shrugs, loops his belt back through his jeans, Dr. Stabler’s dress pants long gone. “Was waiting for you. Can we talk?”

“It’s after midnight and we haven’t slept in...” She pauses to flick on the screen of her phone, squinting at the time. “About a day.”

“What’s a few more minutes, right?” He fastens the belt buckle and waits until she takes another couple of steps toward him, studies the way she moves. “You’re limping, Liv.”

“Yeah well, my feet are bleeding.”

“Jesus. Should I let you go take care’a that before stealing you away or?”

She sneaks away to change, finds a pair of black leggings and slip-on sneakers in a duffel bag she must’ve forgotten here at one time, zips a hoodie on over just her bra.

By the time she gets back, the bullpen is empty sans Fin, who could’ve gone home hours ago.

“Hey. What are you still doing here?”

“I told you no one does it like you and Stabler.”

“Fin, give it up.” She pulls her hair back into a slacked ponytail, tries to shift her eyes across the room subtly so it doesn’t appear that she’s searching for him.

But Fin knows her, knows them, better than that. “He’s outside, somethin’ about caffeine.”

She widens her eyes. “It’s almost one in the morning.”

Fin raises both hands in defense. “Take that up with your husband Liv, not me.”

She disregards his comment - and the way her feet feel almost no alleviation even in sneakers as she walks too quickly out of the precinct doors to get to him - and finds Elliot sitting flat on his butt with two cups of hot coffee, one in each hand. The first thing she does is angle her head down and tell him it’s a balmy sixty-seven degrees, that she would’ve liked it iced.

“Yours is tea, actually,” he corrects her, setting the cup he’d gotten for her down beside his thigh, waiting for her to scoot in next to him. “Liv, I gotta tell ya...”

“That was...”

He wrinkles his nose, takes a long sip of what she presumes is coffee - black, if she knows him. “Yeah. Somethin’ else. But not all marriages are like that, like Rebekah and Ben’s.”

“If you brought me out here to lecture me on good marriages, you can stop —”

He treads lightly. Takes another swig from his coffee cup. Loops his fingers around her wrist like if he lets go he loses her. “I’m not, I wouldn’t, I was just gonna say it was fun pretendin’ you were my wife for a little, even if you hated it.”

She kicks the toe of her sneaker into the concrete, lifts the lid off of her tea to blow it cool. “I didn’t hate it, El.”

“Yeah?” He laughs. “‘Cause I swear I saw my life flash before my eyes when I called you baby.”

“Yeah well that was just...”

“Noted.” He swallows down another sip, cracks his his knuckles. “You done here?”

She rubs her hands together. “Think so. Rollins and Velasco are almost finished with Rebekah, they know I need to get some sleep.”

“Yeah, you’re not kidding. We slept what, five hours last night?”

She shuts her eyes, groans. “Four.”

“God, well can I get ya home at least?”

“You in a rush or something?” She smiles teasingly behind the cardboard cup, laces the string that dangles from the teabag around her pointer finger.

Something in the way his eyes land on her says he would sit here on the stucco all night, if she’d asked him to.

“No rush, I swear.”

She swirls her finger around the rim of the lid she’s replaced back onto the cup, says, “You’re staring.”

“Can you blame me? Rebekah’s right, look how fucking beautiful you are, you just —”

“What.”

“I’m not saying you’ve gotta tell a single soul, no one’s gotta know what this is, what we are to each other. But I dunno, doesn’t it feel kind of good, bein’ like this?”

She places the cup of tea down by her feet, tries to catch her breath. Lets her head fall slowly, tiredly, into the dip of his shoulder. It’s unfamiliar and also versed, like coming home after a long time away. She relaxes, finally, when his fingers thread through her hair. 

Wordlessly, she gives him his answer when she leans into him further, their bodies meshed like they’re one on the precinct steps, and then she says, “Yeah, you can get me home. You know, least you could do as my husband.”

Chapter Text

He tries to search her face.

For what, he’s not entirely sure. Maybe an inkling that her lunch went well - too well. He swallows down the thought, thinks about how it’s almost evening now and she’s here, with him. 

She moves through the kitchen with a gentle sort of comfortability - swift and beautiful and all at once his and yet entirely her very own. It’s almost like he isn’t even in the room at all, the way she moves about, slips off her shoes and stands up on her toes to grab out a glass from one of the cabinets.

“Want?” she finally asks, tilting an empty cup at an angle toward him.

“I’m good.” He holds a hand up in protest, watches as she pours herself a glass of water from the tap. Hums to herself as she does. “So how — how was lunch?”

She sets down the glass atop the counter, palms the surface. “How long were you holding that one in, detective?”

“C’mon Liv. You come inside, say absolutely nothing to me, pour yourself something to drink — all while lookin’ like that...”

“What’s like that El?”

“I dunno, like you look too beautiful to be coming back from a casual diner lunch ‘s all.”

She laughs bitterly. “You’re right. Maybe next time I meet up with someone else who’s wronged me I’ll forget to brush my hair, how’s that sound?”

“So you admit he wronged you,” is all he responds with.

She takes a gulp of water, narrows her eyes at him as she presses her right hip into the countertop. “You left for ten years and yet...here I am,” she says pointedly. 

He sits in it. With it. Feels the jarring way she tears her gaze away from him settle in his bones, in the valleys of where he’d hurt her. 

Absence doesn’t only make the heart grow fonder - it seeps its way into the bloodstream, haunts even the airiest of dreams. He thinks about it, the shadows of her face, of her figure, recurring in so many of them. Thinks about sleeping next to someone else entirely every night in Rome, taunted only by what he’d left behind here in the city. Snaps back to the here and now. 

“Liv,” he mutters, “I know, I thought —”

She slopes her head, palms the back of her neck. “What, that we were beyond it?”

He recoils, presses two fingers to his forehead. “No, that’s not —”

“Lunch,” she continues flatly, “was fine, since you’re so curious. Rafa and I, we — he’s been there for so much, and I know, I know it’ll take me time to get past how he hurt me, but I — I know I can. For myself, for — for his relationship with Noah...”

Rafa. He selfishly wonders if he’s El, to others. Thinks about Rafa, the kind of prisms he might see Olivia through. Wonders if they’re anything alike, in how they love her.

He tries to swallow down the intrigue in his voice when he asks, “You two, you ever...?”

“Never,” she says sincerely, a twinge of brokenness when she does, “he was just, my best friend at one point in time.”

“Like us.”

“Um, maybe a little different than us, but, yeah.”

He doesn’t intend to challenge her when he asks, “How so?”

He’s taken aback when she answers, when she doesn’t challenge him right back. “The kind of love we have for each other, Rafael and I, it’s — not the same.” 

“As what you and I have got?”

He watches her take another sip in lieu of a response, breathe out the weight of everything heavy rested in the space between them. 

“Liv, um —” He stands up from the stool he’s sat in, takes the glass of water from her hands when she holds it out in offering to him. “Thanks. Liv, look,” he gulps, sets the glass back down onto the countertop, “there are still some things between us, things we — things we gotta talk about, get past, before we can —”

She rubs her lips together, two fingers fidgeting with the pendant of the necklace that dangles loosely near her collarbone. 

“Like...?”

He hardly thinks before he says, “You consume me.”

She stops him, stills her fingers. “Don’t — don’t say things like that, El.”

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

She shakes her head in resistance, dips it down. “Because you’re right, there are so many things you don’t know about Elliot, that’s why.”

He blinks, feels the hefty ping of guilt make itself a home in his chest. 

“And I — I could tell you, pretend I’m not scared of it changing the way you look at me, pretend I’m not terrified to — to tell you everything,” she says hoarsely, cautiously. “But if I do, then it’s out there in the world and that’s — that’s fucking scary.”

The fragility enveloping her words is not lost on him, but he won’t give into the urge to reach out and hold her like he’s dying to.

“Try,” he pleads. 

She sucks in a breath. “I learned to be okay with it, with you gone, after awhile,” she starts. “My partner Nick, when — when he started at SVU, I hated him, made every effort not to make him feel at home. God, I was horrible to him for awhile there. But only because he wasn’t you.”

“Well that’s...”

She hugs an arm around her own center, says, “I’m not finished. Elliot, I hated myself after you left. Hated everything, really. Hated how much I relied on our partnership, our — our history. Hated how much I couldn’t bare to call Amaro my partner even though Cragen told me you were done, told me he was your permanent replacement. But then — then I got used to things without you, started to let myself finally accept the fact that you weren’t coming back. Amaro was no you, but he — he grew on me, showed me that you weren’t the only one who knew how to have my back. I grew, I — I got better.”

“Liv,” he gruffs, presses the dips of his palms underneath his eyes, “what are you tellin’ me here?”

“Don’t. You’re looking at me like I’m fucking helpless, and I — I need you to stop looking at me like that,” she heeds, sliding two fingers up to her temple.

He shakes his head, tries his hardest to rid his face of any trace of worry. “I’m not trying to, I just —”

“I was fully convinced I didn’t need you anymore, until — until I did,” she admits.

And then before he can breathe again, she bares it all.

It’s like he’s there with her. The smell of burnt flesh vividly floods over him when she lowers the neck of her blouse, runs a gentle finger over raised, healed skin. Explains to him the origins of the pink markings like she’s disgusted by herself, like they’re her fault, her doing. He can see the beach house she describes so clearly when he shuts his eyes, and he hates himself. He fucking hates that more than anything, she needed him. Cried out for him. Thought at all about him in the same moment she’d believed she’d been taking some of her last breaths. Hates that she can’t talk about any of it without her voice crackling, without sinking into herself even as she presses on, tries to recount as much of the torment she can for him even if it’s killing her to.

“I think...” She lifts up her shirt, smooths two fingers over the collar. In her voice, healing starts to slip its way through the cracks after the brokenness all but swallowed her whole. She catches a glimpse of him from her peripheral, presses her palms into the edge of the counter she’s still standing against. “Elliot, why are you —”

He chokes on what he’s trying to say, doesn’t bother scrubbing his fingers over the tears that have paved their way down the slopes of his cheeks.

“Elliot,” she repeats, pulling herself away from the countertop. He blinks again and she’s suddenly in his space, both of her hands sliding up his thighs. 

“Y’see, this — this is what I’m talking about Liv,” he croaks out, his words jagged. As fragile as hers. Worse. “You’re over here tellin’ me about the hardest four days of your life, and yet you’re making sure I’m good.”

She holds onto the tops of his legs with both of her hands. “I mean...yeah.”

“Well I’m not good, knowin’ — knowin’ you went through this. That I wasn’t here to do what I should’a done about it.”

Her voice is small when she says, “So you really didn’t know?”

He swallows thickly. His ribs feel like they’ve been kicked in, shattered. She’s holding him - them - together with only her touch, her palms firm in the dips of his hips now. 

He lifts both of his hands up and finds her wrists, steadies her as if she’s trying to move. She’s still, solely in his orbit, fixated on the serious way his eyes flit to hers.

“Olivia. If I knew, d’you think the bastard would’a even had the chance to kill himself?”

She lets out something that sounds like half of a laugh, half of a sob. Buries her head in his chest. Gives to him so much of herself in such a small fragment of time. Against him, he feels her breathe, her lips ghost the base of his collarbone.

“You would’ve —” she starts to say, losing her grip on the words as a cry takes over like a wave, knocks them right out of her throat and back down into her lungs.

The feeling is all-consuming to her, the notion that he absolutely would’ve killed the son of a bitch. It swallows her like the tide. She squeezes her eyes shut, cries harder at how boundless their partnership has always been.

He loses a fist in the back of her hair, tugs her closer into his margins. His lips graze the center of her forehead as he nods against her clammy skin. “I would’ve. No doubt about it. No remorse either.”

“That felt...” She huffs, lifts her head off of the center of his body. Sniffles. “Not good, but — I’m not holding it in anymore.”

“Liv,” he says, taking the pad of his thumb and swiping it underneath her eye, “y’know that’s what this is, right? You don’t — you don’t have to.”

Her lips quiver. “Can we sit?”

“Yeah, come — c’mere.”

So they sit in the silence in his empty apartment - her arm draped lazily across his middle, her head exhaustedly wedged in the space between the couch cushion and his shoulder.

She releases the heaviness she’s been sitting with when she collapses into him, lets him hold her. He looks rigidly ahead, afraid that if he looks down at her holed up against him he’ll start to wallow in everything he’d left behind a decade ago. Lose his shit some more. 

But still, this feels like home would - should. God, he’s drowning in guilt, in what if’s, in visions of her tied helplessly to that goddamn metal headboard every time he shuts his eyes.

But it’s home, him and her. Nothing about this moment exists in the realms of somewhere parallel, and he grounds himself in that, revels in that. 

It’s quiet up until she traces a finger across his chest and says, “I didn’t mean to make you —”

“Cry?” He finishes for her, clearing his throat. “Yeah well, picturing you like that, it’s — it’s a fucking nightmare, Liv.”

“Well.” She chews on her cheek, he feels it against his own body. “Try living it.”

“I know, I can’t even — I’m sorry.”

“Can’t change it,” is all she says, her palm flat against his abdomen. 

“Wish we could,” he says anyway, squeezing her fingers in his. “D’you — Can I make you tea? Something?”

She lifts her head up off of his shoulder and squints, shakes her head no.

“It’s just...you say I consume you,” she says slowly, and it registers. The significance of that word, the weight of what he’s placing in her hands and vowing never to run away from again. “And I just — I have a hard time understanding, I guess, why — why anyone could want to be consumed by this,” she finishes, rubbing her lips together.

“Lemme prove it then,” he mutters, good faith and two decades of love hung onto the edges of every lowly-spoken word.


He guides her into the bedroom, leaves the light flickered off and keeps the blinds half-drawn because he sees how she’s looking down at herself - two fingers hovering the top button of her blouse, her breath hitched in fear of unraveling everything she’d just warned him of, permanent flecks of the most torturous ninety-six hours of her life scattered about the places his lips will soon graze, cling, find their way home.

“Liv.” He closes the door, leans up against the back of it. “Hey.”

She cranes her head up at him, swipes a finger over the dampened space between the tip of her nose and her top lip. Breathes. “Hi. El, you —” she stutters, stops herself.

“I know but,” he says, impeding her hesitance. He reaches a hand out to help her with the button, undoing it himself. “D’you think I’d be here if any of that mattered to me?”

“They’re everywhere,” she says anyway, capturing his wrist as it’s in motion, as he works her way down her center, shrugs out of the shirt he’s undressing her from. 

“All I see is this...you,” he tells her, making his mark at the pulse point on her neck. He feels her skin warm against his mouth, cradles either side of her now-bare torso, her blouse falling to their feet.

He walks with her still in his hold all of the way to the foot of the bed, lays her down and crawls his way up her body as he hovers atop her, stops just above her belly button. 

“Jesus. I told you,” he breathes out, his chin rested on the skin of her abdomen, “how fucking beautiful you are to me.”

“You might’ve mentioned it before,” she says with two pinched-together fingers, letting her head fall back onto the ruffled comforter with more ease than he anticipates. Brunette locks splayed across a sea of white. So much beauty pooled into only so many square inches, a bed that’d never quite felt like his until he looks down and watches her dip into it.

Consumed - a fucking understatement. He’s enamored. In love. A little bit in disbelief. She’s everything to him in this moment and beyond it. He unbuckles his own belt, slips out of his own jeans, tugs them off of himself and loses them somewhere in the realm of where her blouse rests on the floor. Then comes his shirt. As hungry as he is for her, he works his lips all of the way back up her upper body with delicacy, with patience. Thinks about how ferociously he loves her as he trails his mouth across her skin.

It’s not until he peppers a few kisses along her collarbone when she groans against his touch, allows herself to bask in the pleasure of this - of the finally's.

“‘S okay?” he asks, his fingers hovering at the waistband of her jeans. He waits for permission, until she voicelessly nods against the slant of his cheek, before he helps her slide out of them. “Liv, I —”

She takes her pointer finger and slips it between both of his parted lips, hushes him. Her eyes find his like a warning, Don’t say it, not yet.

He smooches the side of her finger instead, sucks at the skin. “I just —” She squints one eye open, and he feels her fingertips dig into his shoulders. “Liv, I gotta make sure.”

“Of what?” Her voice is drawled and sore. 

This,” he says, even though he’s sure she’s sure.

And fuck, she’s beautiful as ever when she surrenders. 


He finds her in the kitchen afterwards, sat at the table with a mug of tea and her knees to her chest.

Her phone is propped up against the steaming drink so she can use it hands-free, and he walks in just as she’s blowing a kiss into the lens.

“G’night, my love,” she says softly, tiredly, her chin rested in her hand. “Just Noah — he’s at a sleepover with Rollins’ girls.”

He circles around to her side, says, “He’s really a damn good kid, I’m not just saying that.”

She turns her phone over and places it onto the table. “He’s the best,” she agrees with a tight-lipped grin. “El?”

“Hmm.”

“I know you blame yourself for the things that happened to me,” she says, one finger rimming the top of her cup in circles, “when you left, I mean.”

Fuck, of course he does. 

“But there are uh, so many good things,” she tells him. “So many.”

He squeezes the side of her neck with four fingers. “Yeah, like what?” he teases.

“Like...” She leans her head back into his touch, closes her eyes. “Like my kid FaceTiming me and asking for you, for starters.”

He threads a hand through her hair, laughs. Fully aware Noah happened for her in the throes of his absence, fully aware that if he’d hung around, if he’d stayed, there may very well be no Liv and Noah.

“That’s a good thing now, huh.”

“What’d I tell you, we get attached.”

“Good.”

And he doesn’t have to search her face to know, this time, that something this good can always blossom from the brutal.

Chapter Text

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.”

“Tell me.”

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. 

“And you’re...not?”

“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.

“Elliot.”

“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.