The cliché — some things never change, is as universal as it is because it’s true. Sayings like that stick around because there’s almost a little too much truth to them. It can at times be a good thing, but most of the time said out of annoyance. Some things never change like the way Noah, Olivia’s son, has always hated olives. She’s sure, that’s something that will always be the same. He’s only eight but Olivia is positive, ten years from now, Noah will be picking off any unsuspecting olive that sneaks its way on his pizza.
Her best friend and partner back in New York, Fin, has and always will be the same witty and loyal person he’s always been. He will never change.
But then there’s the town of Aurora, which happens to be the location of the diner Olivia Benson and her son Noah sit in at this very moment. When Olivia attaches the phrase, some things never change to this town – she’s met with a feeling that borders endearing and annoying. It can be both, right? Nothing has changed about this place except maybe a few shops going out of business and new ones taking their place. The roads are a little better too, but then again, Olivia has lived in the city for so long that small-town roads seem like butter compared to the rollercoaster tracks of New York.
The interior of the diner has changed quite a bit. The arcade games that used to sit in the corner next to the bathroom are gone and the floors are no longer checkered, but some fake wood tile stuff that has a slight bounce to it if you step on it the wrong way, as Noah demonstrated when they first came in by using an area of the floor as a makeshift trampoline.
Otherwise, the counter, which stretches from side to side of the diner is still the same. The stools have been replaced from turquoise and silver stems to little black ones. More modern, which seems to be the overall theme of the place. The menu, however, is still exactly the same.
Noah munches on the same burger Olivia did when she was his age. She was tempted to get one herself, but after the drive she’s had, all she wanted to do was have a cup of coffee. Which she has, between both hands, with her elbows rested on the table of the booth they’re sitting at.
Noah reaches for his napkin to wipe the ketchup that’s spread across his cheek off. “This is better than McDonald’s.” He says, mouth full and eyes wide. He’s exaggerating, Olivia thinks because when they go home he’ll be begging for a happy meal and declaring no greater meal in the world than what comes in that little red box.
Olivia grins, giving one single nod before taking another sip of her coffee. She looks out the large picture window that oversees the street, watching as townsfolk walk up and down it. She recognizes no one yet, but she’s sure that will soon end. Across the street from the diner is a place Olivia used to practically live at as a teenager. The Aurora theater. She remembers when the theater finally got a copy of Ghostbusters and how excited she and her two best friends were to see it. It somehow looks the same, though she’s sure it’s been repainted over the years. The building sits attached to other small businesses and the marquee still displays in black letters whatever is playing now. Maybe she’ll take Noah inside sometime within the next few days.
When Olivia looks back over at Noah, she sees that he’s put on his neon pink sunglasses that she bought him at a gas station just outside of town after his consistent begging for them. I need them for summer vacation, Noah insisted. Olivia wasn’t really going to argue with that. This vacation was for Noah. So, if he wanted fun sunglasses, he was going to have them.
She gave it a week until they were either lost or broke, but regardless — party hard.
“Can I have ice cream?” The eight-year-old asks, mouth full of burger. There’s ketchup on his face again.
“How about we save that for tonight? I’ll pick up some after we settle into the house, yeah?” Olivia asks, tilting her head. She sits her coffee mug down. Noah nods.
“Does the boat work?” Noah asks, sitting his burger down and going in on the fries. Olivia reaches forward and steals one off his plate, taking a bite off of the crinkly potato.
“I don’t think there’s a boat there anymore,” Olivia replies.
“I wanna drive it if there is.” Noah states. He’s been thinking about this.
“Um,” Olivia laughs wholeheartedly. “I don’t think so. But the lake is really nice and there’s a dock. I brought your floaties so you can swim.” Olivia suggests, brows raised cleverly. He was eight and could swim well, but there was no way Olivia was letting him into a lake that sits just down the way from their rental, without some kind of floating device.
The lakehouse. Olivia hasn’t actually been inside the lakehouse but — she remembers it being there from when they were younger. The high school football coach used to live there with his wife until she passed away. Then he ended up selling it, moving to Florida, and ever since then, it’s been used as a vacation rental. Doc was his name. His real name? Olivia has no idea. But he went by Doc because when he wasn’t teaching football, he was down by the dock fishing.
“I can do cannonballs.” Noah declares, holding his index finger up. He pokes another fry into his mouth.
“Where’d you learn that?” Olivia asks, finishing off the fry she stole from Noah’s plate.
“ Ahhh.” Olivia chuckles, following up with a nod. She will not be letting him do cannonballs off the dock. Olivia is a bit overprotective, especially when it comes to Noah. She can’t help but keep looking around. Maybe she’ll run into Sally, who was adamant on making mud pies when they were kids. She probably has a bakery by now. Or maybe she got married and just makes cakes from scratch for her children – who knows? Or she could run into Tim, who had a thing for Mrs. Caldwell in high school. But the last she heard, Tim left Aurora years ago. Supposedly, he married Sally’s older sister. Or so she heard.
The thing about Aurora, was that people came and went. It was a place where some found home and for others, a place to get out of. It could either be someone's dream location or some hellish nightmare with invisible chains to escape from. That was the case for Olivia. She never wanted to stay in Aurora. Everyone in town knew about her mother and that was not a legacy she wanted to carry around.
But then there was her career, which she knew if she stayed in Aurora, she couldn’t have. So she escaped as far away as she could. Four and a half hours, to be exact.
Olivia still remembers the day she left vividly. She left in her car, with nothing in the backseat but a suitcase and some other belongings. Going off to college was a huge milestone for Olivia, especially after the death of her mother. Serena had left her just enough money to skip dodge on, and in some sad way, it was retribution for the many occurrences between the two of them throughout her childhood. That money got her out of here.
So why come back?
Noah is adopted.
That may seem like a strange excuse to bring him here, but Noah doesn’t know much of anything about his birth family. What Olivia does know about them, she’s not exactly sure an eight-year-old is ready to know. So, she believes the right thing to do is to show Noah where she came from. Regardless of some of her undesirable memories correlated with the town, it was a fun place to be during the summer.
The lake, the one that their rental overlooks, appears to be on fire this time of the year. The sun casts down on it in such a way that both causes it to sparkle and gives the illusion of flame. Riding bikes down these streets, as a teenager, was a relief from the heat while simultaneously making you feel like you could fly; The breeze and the dust from bicycle wheels were nothing but mere pixie dust compared to the joy Olivia felt. It was the feeling she lived for.
Then there was this place. It had been remodeled, yes. But Olivia still can’t help but look over in the corner at the booth that still resides there. She can still see her, Elliot, and Kathy piled into the booth, drinking milkshakes and talking about the movie they’d just seen at the theater across the street.
A deep breath leaves Olivia just as quickly as she took it in.
“Mom?” Noah asks.
“Can we go now?”
“Yeah, it’s getting late, we should go.” Olivia reaches for her purse to pay the bill.
Trees are everywhere. Short ones, medium, tall – they’re everywhere. Olivia doesn’t remember there being so many goddamn trees but regardless, they surround the two-story lakehouse. The lakehouse itself hasn’t changed except for the color. It was once brown, matching the cabin aesthetic of it all. But whoever owns it now has painted it an emerald green color, with white trim. The house sits on a wooden pedestal structure, with a long winding staircase that leads in three different flights in order to get to the top. Rocks and brush sit below them. Olivia is not looking forward to carrying their luggage up to the house.
Olivia stands outside of her black SUV, slowly taking in her surroundings. Noah is still sitting in the car playing a game on his phone. So, she uses the quiet moment before he gets out to study where she and Noah will be staying for the next few weeks. Straight ahead from the driveway is the first flight of stairs that lead to the house. To her right is a small set of steps that lead down a tiny decline and to the water. A dock waits in the distance, and beside it, is an empty boathouse that has been left alone from the painting renovation. Olivia can’t help but think maybe they should’ve painted the boat house just so everything looked more cohesive but oh well.
Noah opens the passenger door and climbs out, then shuts it. One look around and Noah’s nose turns up. “Is there a lot of bugs here?” Noah asks, swatting at one coming his way.
“At night there’s mosquitoes. Dragonflies and …” Olivia looks behind at Noah, who is still fighting off whatever is trying to get to him. “I have bug spray.” I just don’t know where it is.
“Mosquitos?!” Noah asks in horror. He smacks at the bug that’s just landed on his arm. “Is this a mosquito?” Noah adds, not looking up at Olivia but rather examining the smooshed pest on his forearm. The sun is going down so it’s likely a bug looking for its next meal.
“I’ll find the spray. I think I put it inside the cooler.” Olivia makes her way, keys in hand, to the back of the SUV. She pops the trunk and begins digging inside. She moves suitcases and outdoor activities such as the volleyball net (which she’s sure now she has no room to set up) and folding outdoor chairs. The realization that she’s left the ice chest at home, next to her apartment door, hits her. “ Shit.” She mouths to herself. The empty chest had a variety of things in it. Bug spray, and sunscreen, among others.
“What is it?” Noah asks, coming around to meet Olivia. She climbs out of the trunk, but leaves the door open because this stuff has to go up to the house anyway.
“We’re going to have to go back into town in the morning.” She sighs, running her fingers through her hair. This meant a trip to the drug store.
“I thought we were getting ice cream?” Noah pouts, blue eyes staring up at her.
Noah Benson did not play when it came to two things. Ice cream and his disdain for olives.
So, apparently, they’re going back into town tonight.
Bulb lights, hung in rows, line the streets of Aurora. The sun is on its way down, casting an orange-ish glow on the red cobblestone streets and little stores, also lined and joined together.
Olivia and Noah, ice cream cones in hands, pass Vidler’s – a little 5-10 $ store. Something catches Noah’s eye from the storefront window and he quickly walks back to get a better view of it. Olivia turns around to see him gawking at some fidget toy in the window display.
“Can we go in?” Noah asks, backing up more to look at the door. The white sign that hangs in the center of the glass door reads CLOSED . Noah frowns, which prompts Olivia to come up to him and put her hand on his back.
“We can come back tomorrow maybe.” Olivia says, rubbing soft circles against her son’s back. She looks through the glass window, studying everything inside. The lights are off but she can still see to an extent what’s on the shelves. Board games. Modern toys which she just doesn’t get the appeal of. But what catches her eye in the display case by the cash register incites a soft smile from her. They’re still selling kaleidoscopes.
Olivia can hear Noah talking but she’s not really there. She recalls being no more than ten or twelve years old and coming here all the time with Elliot. They would meet from their respective neighborhoods in the middle of the street, on their bikes, and ride down to Vidler’s.
One day, they rode down together. Olivia needed to get out of the house because her mother was doing what her mother, Serena, did; Drink. Before Olivia left her house, Serena’s words weren’t kind that day and in fact, they rarely were. But Elliot had made up for it that day by buying her one of the kaleidoscopes in the display cases. She’s sure now he must have used every penny of his lawn mowing money to buy it. Kids back then weren’t exactly paid fair wages for their labor.
Elliot waited to give it to her until later that night when they were by the lake. They had just finished swimming when he pulled it out of his backpack and told her to close her eyes.
It was a toy at the end of the day, but what Elliot had told her is what has stuck with her all of these years.
“ When you’re sad, just look into it. You can pretend you’re away from here.”
It was childish, but that’s what made the moment magical. Elliot kissed her that night, both in wet swimming suits and trunks, with soaked hair that stuck to foreheads and cheeks. Olivia, if she thinks back hard enough, remembers the distinct taste of cherry popsicle on Elliot’s lips. She remembers them both wiping their mouths after that, stunned by how unexciting a first kiss could be. It would be that very bank that Olivia and Elliot would come to sit at, year after year, with each other.
Until Elliot developed a real interest in girls and Kathy joined their group.
“ Mooooommmm?” Noah tugs on Olivia’s white t-shirt. She immediately brings herself from her daydream and turns away from Vidler’s storefront.
“Come on, let’s go before it gets too late.” Olivia ushers Noah in the direction of the drug store. Noah digs back into his dripping ice cream cone, catching the melting dessert with his tongue before it makes its way down his small fingers.
As they pass a trash can, Olivia tosses her ice cream into it. The butterflies in her stomach are swarming a mile a minute; Turns out they’re not a fan of pistachio.
That night, long after suitcases have been dragged up stairs and Noah is tucked into bed, Olivia makes her way down to the dock with a glass of wine in her hand. The crickets are out and singing and in the distance, she can hear the hoot of owls and other suspicious creatures. The lake is quiet, but somewhere within the soft sway of water, she hears frogs.
It’s warm tonight and the heat is only supposed to get worse tomorrow, but tonight, the weather has graced Aurora with a gentle gust that’s just nice enough to sit and enjoy without the consequence of sweat.
Olivia kicks off her white deck shoes. She’s already changed into shorts and an oversized t-shirt for the evening. As soon as she sits down on the edge of the dock, she dips her legs into the water, allowing them to be submerged up to the calf. Her eyes close, a soft smile being blown onto her lips by what feels like the breeze. The water is just right. It’s always been just right.
She opens her eyes and brings her wine glass up to her lips. Mid-swallow, she hears him —
“ Hey partner.” Age can change a voice, but she would recognize his anywhere.
Olivia turns around as far as her body will allow her to while remaining seated. She’s choked on her wine, so she puts a fist against her chest to try and clear her throat.
He’s scared the shit out of her.
“ Jesus …” Olivia clears her throat again. She’s surprised – beyond startled, to say the least. But he’s there, standing there in dark wash jeans and a navy Henley that fits just right to his muscular chest. Both sets of fingers are buried into his front pockets and one of the first things she notices about his face is that he still has that same cocky smirk he’s always had. He’s also missing his hair, but that’s beside the point. He’s aged, but he’s familiar and has just as kind of an aura. Lines have formed around his eyes and his cheeks, which she can see because of his smile. He’s different but he’s the same. Olivia takes notice of his blue eyes, which even in the dark are as blue as the lake once was.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.” Elliot states, his expression falling.
Olivia stares up at him in disbelief. She can’t believe he’s standing in front of her. Jumbles of sentences are forming in her head but she can’t articulate them now. One of them, she’s sure is, how did you know I was here?
As if Elliot can read her mind, he answers her question.
“Kurt said you were in town. I asked where you were staying and uh …” Elliot shrugs. “He didn’t know but Addy did,” Elliot says, and she can tell he’s on the verge of overexplaining himself. Kurt was the pharmacist, who coincidently, Elliot and Olivia both went to school with. He was the high school geek that everyone made fun of and Olivia remembered a few instances where Elliot got into a brawl or two with the bullies who poked fun at him. Addy was his younger sister, who also worked in the pharmacy.
“ Oh …” Is all Olivia can seem to get out.
Elliot’s expression dulls out yet again. “If it wasn’t okay to come I can g—”
“No, no. I –” Olivia turns away from him just long enough to take another big drink of wine. She’s gonna need it and prays that it hits her system quick. Her eyes pop all the way open as she downs what’s left in the glass dramatically. She sits her empty glass on the dock and brings her legs off the edge. Standing to her feet, she makes her way over to Elliot, leaving wet footprints on the wood of the dock in pursuit of him. “I’m glad you came – I just, I’m surprised. I thought you left … I mean, I didn’t even know you were still here.” Olivia states, now only standing a mere few inches from him.
Olivia watches as Elliot’s eyes drift up and down her. He’s taking her in. She’s different now too. She’s not twenty anymore. Or sixteen or twelve. She’s aged, just like he has. She’d like to think they’ve both done so gracefully.
“I left for a while. But after Kathy you know I just needed to … clear my head. But this is home so …” Elliot nods. “I don’t think the kids would know what to do if they came to visit anywhere else.”
Olivia purses her lips together. “I am so sorry, I … by the time I found out the funeral was already over and I just, I didn’t know what to say—”
“It’s – no, it’s fine. ” Elliot furrows his brows, waving his hand at her. “That … yeah. I mean, it’s been a long time.”
“It has. But I did mean to reach out I just —”
“Well no, I know you did. I get that –”
They’re absolutely tripping over each other’s words.
But suddenly, they stop. Their eyes meet, and lips curl up. The frogs, the owls, the crickets – fall silent. Or maybe they’re still going and it’s just that Olivia doesn’t hear anything else right now except for the pounding inside her chest. The butterflies have made their way up from her stomach and flutter their wings against symbols and drums. That must be it.
“You look great.” Elliot gestures with both hands to her, letting them fall back down with a slap against his sides.
“So do you.” Olivia’s voice softens.
Silence. Their gaze intensifies.
“So um … where are you staying?” Olivia asks.
“Well, I … when the insurance money came in I decided to buy a RV. You know, since the house was gone and all that I just … didn’t see a point in starting over.” Elliot says.
From what Olivia has heard, the night of the house fire was terrible. By the time Kathy had been brought out, she was barely hanging on from smoke inhalation. She read online that she died at the hospital and that ‘the husband’ was distraught.
It feels like all she can do is nod along to what he’s saying. She feels guilty for not reaching out to him after Kathy died but to be fair, the last she heard from him was right before he and Kathy were married. You’re coming to the wedding right? I need you there. But Olivia never got the invite or the date. She heard about it from Sally, whom she was still speaking with at the time.
It was one of the many things that crushed her during that period in her life.
“Can I?” Elliot asks, opening his arms. He wants a hug. Olivia looks at him as if she’s processing his request, then moves into him.
“Of course.” Olivia sings, opening her arms.
They press against one another, but his arms are strong and firm against her. They’re wrapped around her like they have been so many times before. Like on the banks of the lake, after a chilly swim. Like on nights when she needed a friend after Serena had told her for the hundredth time that she was a mistake.
Like he did the night they had each other for the first time, under the summer stars.
Olivia feels Elliot nuzzle his chin into her neck, which encourages a smile to grow on her lips. He smells the same, somehow. It’s not cologne she smells, but something else. It’s uniquely him. Soap and maybe the smell of his sheets, which she assumes he uses some kind of woodsy fabric softener on. It smells like fabric softener. His shirt is soft. She almost giggles at such a random thought.
He’s the first to pull away, but instead of completely moving away from her, he braces his hands on either side of her biceps. His fingers press delicately into the bare skin there, warming any goosebump that he may have caused. Elliot drops his arms back to his sides and looks around.
“So … I guess the obvious question is what brings you here?” Elliot asks. She knows he doesn’t mean it the way it comes out. But he might as well have just said look what the cat drug in.
“I’m here with my son for the summer,” Olivia replies. There’s something in her that revels at being able to tell him that she has a son. That she has a family. That she has someone.
“A son?” Elliot asks, surprised.
“ Mhm. He’s eight.” Olivia responds.
“Did you … come with his dad or?” Elliot asks, looking over his shoulder and up towards the house. The lights are still on, which casts a yellow glow on the trees that surround it. Olivia finds herself wanting to laugh at his question. He really went straight there with it.
“No dad. Just me and him.” Olivia nods along with her own words.
“So it’s just you and him here?” Elliot asks, sticking his hands back into his pockets.
“Yeah.” Olivia smirks. Awkward. He’s trying to find out if she came with a boyfriend. Elliot wasn’t exactly one to beat around the bush and if he did, it wasn’t for very long until he made some absurd statement.
“ Okay. Well, tomorrow … my mom is making dinner. If you want to come by, we’d like that a lot.” Elliot licks his lips, blue eyes lingering on her.
“I have plans tomorrow.” Olivia’s reply is instant. The truth is, tomorrow is pretty open for her. She promised Noah he could swim but that was it. More of the truth? Sitting and having dinner for the first time with Elliot in forever felt like a bad idea. Things were bound to come up. Things that she wasn’t ready to talk about. “Maybe another time though?” Her suggestion seems just as disingenuous as she meant it, which she hates. What she’s really thinking is I’m never having dinner with you, I plan on avoiding the shit out of you actually —
“Okay.” Elliot purses his lips together and runs his tongue along his bottom lip. Had he picked up on her fib? Or fibs rather.
“How is your mom, by the way?” Olivia asks, her tone shifting.
“She’s doing great. She has a new doctor and … yeah. Better than ever.” Elliot smiles, crossing his arms.
“Good. I’m glad to hear that. Tell her I said hi.” Olivia returns the smile, faintly. She walks past Elliot, brushing her shoulder against his on accident. If she could see his face, she would be able to see his eyes cast down at their contact. She makes her way over to the small set of steps that lead to the level plain.
“I will …” Elliot agrees.
“I’ll uh …” Olivia shrugs. “I’ll see you around, I guess.”
Once again, there’s a shift. It goes quiet and feels stagnant. Elliot doesn’t say anything to her at first. She wonders if this is her get-out-of-jail-free card. She can simply avoid him now that she knows he’s still living in Aurora. He had snuck up on her this time. He had a habit of doing that in every sense of the word.
“What happened?” Elliot asks. It comes out suddenly and without filter. It’s possible he didn’t even think about his question before it fell through his lips. Olivia comes to stand at the head of the steps and turns around to face him; A confused expression on her face.
“Sorry?” Olivia asks.
“To us. What happened?” Elliot asks, eyes narrowing.
Olivia looks at him, flabbergasted by his question. Her mouth opens, but nothing comes out. Where to even begin with that?
She has no clue, so she remains silent, unsure of how to answer him. The crickets, the frogs, the owls, all start up again. If they ever stopped, that is.
“We were so close and then we just … weren’t. ” Elliot’s voice fades off.
“I’m sorry I’m just … I mean, it’s kind of thrown me for a loop, Liv. To have you back here … so I’m just, I don’t know, trying to understand.” Elliot takes a step forward so that he’s looking up at her. “I want to understand.”
It was funny in a way to her how quickly the mood shifted. It could have just begun and ended with a hello how are you? How have you been?
But because some things never change, and Elliot Stabler fitted into that conundrum, she should have expected this right away. It would come no other way . It wouldn’t come after a dinner he invited her to that she would ultimately refuse. That he probably knew she would say no to anyway. It wouldn’t come after a few days, maybe, when they inevitably run into one another again. It would come now, because Elliot was both impatient and consistent with his understanding of her. But even that ploy of his seemed to always come at the wrong time.
So Elliot must understand, when tears spring to her eyes, that they were coming. If he still knows her and understands her, then he’ll know she’s always been emotional about the topic of them. They meant so much to each other at one point, and while things had changed vehemently over the years, he still touched a very raw spot in her soul.
“Life.” Olivia’s voice cracks. “I guess life happened …” A nod follows. She turns around to leave but his voice comes out clearer than hers ever could now. She’s too choked up for that. History could be a rotten thing and because of its bitter taste, could cause speechlessness.
“I saw that you made Captain.” Elliot’s tone is urgent. He wants to keep talking to her. But she can’t imagine standing here a moment longer without bursting into flames; The lake tomorrow, in the heat, would have nothing on her.
Olivia looks over her shoulder at him, wide-eyed.
“I have the newspaper clipping.” Elliot scratches the back of his neck.
Olivia looks away from him as a rush of emotions flood her senses.
“I always knew you could do it. I knew that you would. ” Elliot finishes.
She doesn’t say anything in response. Her head hangs, but only for a second. She looks straight ahead and begins to make her way up the winding staircase. She grips onto the white banister and by the time she’s up flight one, Elliot has already come to stand in the small driveway.
Olivia doesn’t look back once at him. She can’t. She can feel something piling in the back of her throat, ready to come up. Whether that be the coffee from the diner or half-eaten ice cream that ended up in the trash. Or maybe it’s the butterflies, trying to free themselves.
The only thing she can bring herself to think is …
I should have taken Noah to fucking Disneyland.