There’s an irony to it; she’s well aware.
How ten years ago, she would have given anything for exactly this.
Ten years ago, she’d laid in bed, phone at the highest volume; every truck that rolled by a cruel tease, a phantom vibration of the sound she was so desperate to hear.
Ten years ago, she would have given anything - anything - for his name on her screen, his voice in her ear.
Now though, she lays, wide awake, a sigh of exasperation crossing her lips as her phone pings again.
Are you up? Liv, I need to talk.
He’s back now, back into her life again, back just as fast as when he’d left; and her walls are up. Firmly. Walls made of cement and brick; ones she can move herself around when she wants to, when he and his family need her, but once she can retreat behind when done.
Answering 1 am phone calls and texts are firmly on the other side of that wall.
Olivia puts her phone back on the nightstand, and rolls over. She squeezes her eyes shut and tries to listen to the white noise machine in the corner.
Elliot Stabler is back. Elliot Stabler is back, and Kathy Stabler is dead, and he is torn apart and shattered and doing what he’s always done - what they both used to do, before he’d left. Before he’d broken that bond.
He’s reaching out to the one person he can depend on.
Olivia opens her eyes again. Rolls back over, and picks up the phone.
She mutters it quietly, eyes on the lengthy voicemail transcript he’d left. He’s a man obsessed; and even after a decade away, she can feel his drive. Guilt and remorse and self blame all pile on him, wracking his brain and leaving him restless and eager to find an answer; any answer. This is his penance, and she’s well aware of the part he expects her to play in his salvation.
She sits up then, and swings her legs over the side of the bed, onto the plush rug underneath. She puts her phone face down on the duvet cover, and tries to ignore it. Ignore him.
Elliot Stabler is back. He’s back and he’s blowing up her phone, trying to talk through the details of his wife’s murder like it’s any old case; like she’s still his partner; like all of this, any of this is normal. His wife is dead, and he’s back after not one single word for ten years, and Olivia’s still trying to comprehend where and what that means for their friendship.
Her phone vibrates again, the volume turned low enough that the ping is barely audible. She takes a deep inhale in before she turns it over.
Sorry Liv. Just realized how late it was.
She sees three dots appear, then disappear and appear again. When nothing comes, she wonders if he realizes she won’t be answering. That she can’t, not for her own sake. Not yet, anyways. Ten years gone and a tearful apology; followed by a letter he’d ended on something like a retraction, leaving her spinning - and she wonders if he thinks it’s enough.
She wanders into her bathroom, turning on the soft overhead light. Even in this forgiving glow, she can still see the dark circles; how the worry on her face shows through.
Because the cruelest part of this; of all of this, is that she wants to. Answer, that is. Olivia wants to pick up her phone and turn it over; slide her finger over the screen and type out a response. She wants to pick up the next time he calls, a notepad and a pen ready, and let him tell her what he knows, what he’s pieced together. She wants to sit at a desk in the morning and slide a coffee over to him and get caught up on everything that he’s found and then solve it, together.
It’s instinct, she’s fighting. Instinct and some sort of gravitational pull, and she’s reminded of the box of kinetic sand that Noah had when he was small. The little sandcastles and buildings he’d make in it; and how they’d looked firm, like they would stay put; not move. Then, she’d sit, and watch them. Grain by grain, they’d start to shift, to move and slide and crumble, flattening themselves out as they flowed back into the rest; into something greater.
Olivia turns the light in the bathroom off, and picks her phone up off the bed.
She walks out of her room. She stops outside of Noah’s door; propping it open as she looks inside. He sleeps sweetly, soundly, and if nothing else in this whole thing matters, at least he knows nothing.
At least Noah can sleep, unbothered by his mother’s racing mind. Blissfully unaware of the storm brewing.
She shuts her son’s door again; and steps back, the soles of her bare feet on the hardwood of the hallway. Olivia pauses there, tries to take stock of herself. She feels warm; flushed and uncomfortable, her pajamas itchy and too tight. Her throat feels dry, and she knows if she’d take it, her heart rate would be higher than usual. She’s learned a lot, since he left; about managing her physical reaction to stress. She’s usually able to stop this feeling.
Of course, Elliot’s presence once again is the exception to that rule.
She reaches the kitchen counter, and pours herself a glass of water. Stands, looking in the dark, at the life she’s built in his absence.
It was predictable, at least.
She whispers the word out loud again.
She knows what he’s doing, why he’s doing this. She knows the guilt is eating him alive, just like every overzealous Catholic; that a subconscious piece of him thinks that figuring this out will absolve him, somehow.
Some things don’t change.
Olivia flips over her phone, and sighs as she unlocks it. It’s much more than she owes him.
It’s late, Elliot. I’ll call you in the morning.
Maybe her walls aren’t as steadfast as they seem.
It’s petty, she knows; but she hopes he’s hurting this morning.
Olivia is well aware that he was drugged, against his consent and without his knowledge, and she is entirely empathetic to him for this. It was not his fault, he was on the job, and thank god he’d had his wits about him enough to get out.
All of that is true - she is grateful for his safety; sympathetic to his plight, and angry at the group that would attempt to drug him without his knowledge.
But - and she’s well aware that it is the vengeful part of her heart that guides her here - she hopes he at least has a headache.
He’d scared her - showing up as he did, barely coherent and practically immobile. He’d scared her, and she’d already been put off, that he thought, after a second round of ghosting her; that she, Olivia Benson, was a safe haven. A shelter from his storms; a place and person he could run to when he needed it.
Then, the admission.
She doesn’t want to dwell on that.
Olivia steps out of the shower, onto the small bath mat. She wraps the towel around herself, and wipes at her face. She’s exhausted - even after she and Ayanna had managed to shove him in the back of the younger woman’s SUV, she’d barely slept. Tossing and turning, his words on constant replay in her mind.
Kathy wrote the letter.
It was bullshit.
It was bullshit and he knew it; to place the blame on his dead wife. Maybe she wrote the letter, guided him through the words she wanted Olivia to hear, but it was his own fucked up brand of Catholic self-flaggelation that had him handing it over to her. A weak attempt to wash away some guilt, perhaps; over her death; and Olivia’s presence in his life once again.
At her expense.
Always; at her expense.
And she hates that she comes apart a little, at all of it. She doesn’t want to, wants to stay where she is. Angry, and hurt, and avoiding the part of her that buckled, just a little, under this admission.
Kathy wrote the letter.
So, she hopes he has a headache, at least. Hopes there’s a bruise on his knees, from where’d he’d hit her floor, helpless and reaching for her, letting her hold him up.
She blows her hair dry in the mirror; and applies a thick layer of concealer, hoping to camouflage the dark circles. Olivia emerges from the bathroom and pulls on her clothes, carefully laid out on her bed before she’d gotten ready.
She’ll go out after this, pour Noah a bowl of cereal; a glass of juice. She’ll grab her travel mug, and put two splashes of unsweetened oat milk in, and almost exactly 10 ounces of brown coffee. She’ll drop Noah off, and then go to work; and it’s all a routine; one she tries desperately not to veer from on the days the job doesn’t force it. It’s stable, and it’s predictable; and it’s her life; laid out in a grid, every day. Even with a job that could change everything in a second, in her personal life, she knew what to expect.
Until he’d shown back up.
Olivia sets out Noah’s food, and gently scoots him out of his room and up to the counter to eat. She reaches for her own mug of coffee, and stands, readying herself to take a sip. She turns over her phone to check her emails, and when she sees it, she isn’t surprised to see the notification.
He always was good at the ‘beg for forgiveness’ part of things. With everyone else, anyways. She supposes it’s her turn now.
She slides open the screen, and clicks on his name.
One after the other, according to the time stamps.
Liv, I’m sorry.
He keeps saying that, now. Keeps apologizing and telling her that he’s sorry for what he’s done, how he’s hurt her. Then, he does it again.
I fucked up.
Of course he fucked up; but she’s unsure of what he’s admitting he actually had fucked up. Had he made a mistake, coming there? Disturbing her peace and her sleep hadn’t been great, but both of them knew it was forgivable.
Had he ‘fucked up’ giving her the letter? Writing it; refusing to take responsibility for any part of it - except the part that absolved him, the part that let him off the hook. The fanciful parallel universe line, the one meant to soften the blow his dead wife had dealt to her.
The one he’d let her.
Please call me when you can.
She stares at her screen for a moment, unsure of what to do; what to say.
She snaps out of her distracted state, shaking her head as she does.
“Mom, we’re going to be late.”
They hustle then. Noah’s backpack on, her bags slung over her shoulder, coffee mug in hand. They’re down the elevator, into their respective seats in her car before she thinks about it again. She’s into rush hour traffic, idled in front of her son’s school and waving goodbye, when she manages to look down at her phone again.
One, singular text from Ayanna.
He’s fine. Still won’t go see the doctor, but he’s fine. Thanks for having his back, Captain.
She responds to that, a simple thumbs up and an “Of course” and she’s left remembering that he’s not hers to be responsible for, anymore. She could call him, let him beg for forgiveness, but she can’t, not today. Not now, when she hasn’t slept and she’s angry and hurt and she thinks, this, the worst part of it is; relieved.
Relieved that Kathy wrote the letter. Angry and hurt and bitter that he’d placed it in her hand, but relieved it wasn’t him that felt that way.
Relieved that it wasn’t one sided; after all.
She’s tired, though.
She doesn’t text him back.
This text comes from a familiar number; finally.
The last ones - the ones where he’d let her know that he was safe; fine and alive - had come from a burner.
This one though; comes from his number. The one she’d programmed into her phone again last spring; the one he’d given her when he’d acknowledged that he was back in New York.
The one he’d called and texted from in the months after Kathy’s death, leading up to summer. The one that had gone abruptly silent after she’d finished with her ankle surgery.
The number she hadn’t answered, last time he called. Right before he went dark again.
It’s two simple words, and he doesn’t elaborate.
They’ve talked since then. In person, over emails - over cases. They’ve talked and her ire only grew at him, for the most part. His clear sympathies to the Albanians, his reluctance to face his real life; his very clear over familiarity with a sex trafficker - all of it has set her on edge.
He expects to walk back into her life; see her unchanged and sympathetic - his partner - without acknowledging that a decade has made for shifts in both of them. He has shifted more than she ever thought he would; Kathy’s death an antecedent to a tailspin she would never have predicted.
And as for her own changes; well. He doesn’t seem ready to acknowledge them.
Still though. There is this part of her; forever pulled to him. Tide rolling back into the ocean - trying to fight against the inevitable return to sea. He softens her, when she doesn’t want to be softened. Pacifies the urge to crash and fight against it; even as she swirls beneath the surface.
It’s frustrating, this inevitability.
But, he’s home.
He’s home and she’s relieved and she gives herself a moment of grace, here. Let’s herself fall a little bit into the solace of knowing he’s safe, again. Closer to being himself, too.
Olivia stares at the words, then picks up her phone off the counter. She scrolls to his contact; then hits the button to call.
He answers on the second ring. His voice is groggy, thick with sleep, and she frowns. Lowers her phone down quickly to see how long it’s been since he’s sent his text.
She raises the phone back to her ear quickly, clearing her throat.
“Hey, uh - sorry to wake you. Just got your text and I…”
She doesn’t know what to say here. Doesn’t know why she called tonight, when her insides feel twisted; wrapped around themselves at the thought of him.
She pushes past it.
“I wanted to say congratulations. For, umm; finishing the job.”
Elliot answers with a laugh; no mirth behind it. Dry and bitter and angry.
“Yeah. It’s finished.”
They don’t talk for a moment. She hears him move, shift. The soft rustle of sheets as he rolls out of his bed; and she pictures him, there.
She’s talked to him dozens of times like this - probably hundreds, if they’d counted. One of them laying down, the other up and moving; or both in their respective beds. They’d chat through a case, or the logistics of a call in; and there’d always been a sort of relief on her end, to be able to cut that image off.
To know that then, anyways; Kathy Stabler laid next to him; one hand likely on his chest, just in ear shot of every word Olivia said. She hadn’t ever let her mind wander too far, with the reality so close by.
Now though; there’s no reason not to.
She hears him standing now, hears him moving and she pictures him. Gray sweatpants and a white tank, padding through his space. She hears the soft thunk of a refrigerator door opening, the rattle of glass bottles as it thuds against the counter. Him, in the soft glow of the kitchen, bleary eyes; exhausted.
She mutters her response, and readjusts.
“Thanks for calling.”
He says the words in between sips of something, and she knows he’s probably drinking whatever it is right out of the carton.
“Yeah, I just - “
Olivia pauses. Looks down at her hand on the counter; worries her lip between her teeth. She knows what she wants to say. Doesn’t know why she’s so afraid to say it.
“I’m really glad you’re back, Elliot.”
And then it’s an echo; one of his arms around her; sturdy and tight as he’d held her. Sonya’s blood still on her hands; the sickeningly sweet scent of it mixing in with the familiar scent of him; sweat and cologne and fear. The relief flooding her when he’d surrounded her. The way her knees shook, just a little; because they could, then. When he was there, to hold her up.
Maybe that’s why she’d been afraid, then. Some subconscious form of self preservation; the one that guarded that memory. Kept it safe and buried, stored away.
Olivia hears him clear his throat across the line.
She wonders if it’s too much to think the words echoed with him, too.
He doesn’t start speaking again for a beat. When he does, her grip tightens on the solid granite of the counter.
“I wish I could have come home sooner.”
Neither speak after that, not for awhile. She sips her wine, and she hears him move again. Hears a door shut behind him; and the same rustle of the sheets as he returns to his bed.
“Tell me about - “
“How’s Eli and -“
They start speaking again at the exact same time; and the tension on the line finally breaks. He asks her about the rumor he’d heard, of her detective and the ADA. She laughs, tells him how sly they think they are, and how everybody knows.
She asks about Eli, and soccer; about Bernie and Kathleen’s Instagram post about free cats to good homes; and her assumption that the two went hand in hand.
They end the call after 30 minutes - half filled with awkward silences and run on sentences - but it’s something.
When she comes home that night, it doesn’t register.
Her mind is close to empty - autopilot taking over as she toes off her shoes, shrugs off her coat, and ushers Lucy out the door.
In the past, when Olivia had been fresher; newer, a shooting on the job would leave her anxious. Teeming with nervous energy; unable to sit. Synapses firing, an image burned into her brain; she’d pace. Pace and move and shower and clean and anything; anything she could do to rid her body of that feeling. Guilt and regret and confusion over the two.
Today though, she’s just numb. It’s Christmas Eve and once again, she’d been called away; asked to spend it away from her son. It’s Christmas Eve and instead of a night in, cozied up on the couch, she’d shot a man; and no one seemed to care, at all.
So she misses it, the single text that comes through. She crawls into bed after shrugging off her work clothes, sliding in between cold sheets, alone, not even bothering to glance at the device.
Olivia sees it the next morning.
She wakes up early; her alarm going off at 5. She’d made a goal to beat Noah up; to have a cup of coffee and hit reset and enjoy the holiday. They both deserve a good day; together.
She slides the screen of her phone open; and notices the solitary ‘1’ in the right corner of the little green box.
It’s time stamped at 11:37 pm.
It shouldn’t make her emotional; this little message. It’s the bare minimum of what a friend would - and should - send, but there’s something about it. Something about him sending this that breaks her, finally.
How no one else; not one other person in her life had asked if she was ok. Not her squad; not her chief - not one. It was expected that she would be the one to shoulder the burden, again.
She answers the text; blinking fast and clearing her throat. Today will be a good day; and if a text from Elliot Stabler is what breaks the spell; pushes away that awful blunted feeling and opens the door to a feeling, then there’s no need to cry about it.
Or dwell on that fact.
She sees three bubbles appear at the bottom of the screen. He’s awake, and answering; and she doesn’t know if that’s good or bad for her emotional state.
Of course she’s not sure. She’s not sure what she needs or wants today; tomorrow, any day. She wants not to feel this numb; hates that her reaction is to deaden herself; to try to protect herself from feeling anything at all.
She thinks about the person texting her; the man who’d left - fleed the city, the state, the fucking country to avoid the fallout of a shooting on the job.
At least she’s talking to someone who knows.
Not 100%, but I’ll get there, right?
There’s nothing for a minute, and then another. Olivia sets her phone down, and fills her mug with coffee. Walks over to the small tree in the corner, runs a finger up a branch; the faux needles prickly and hard against her touch. The city’s waking up beneath her; action and movement and noise even on this holiday, but it’s blunted, quieter up here.
So quiet, she’s startled by the sharp ring of her phone when it sounds.
She knows - unsure if it’s instinct or common sense - without looking, who it is. She answers, and waits.
She can hear him moving outside through the phone line; a car loudly honking and his breathing heavier than normal.
“Morning, Liv. Merry Christmas.”
Her answer is a sharp exhale of breath, harsh and angry and bitter.
Elliot laughs then; not a true laugh, but something close to sympathy, a knowing. He responds, a simple one word answer.
She hears the ding of a bell then, the echo of shoes squeaking on linoleum.
“You out shopping for presents this early?”
She moves across her small living room, eases her body into the corner of her couch. Let’s herself focus on just this; this small conversation.
“Nah; I am for once prepared. Just got done running and needed a drink.”
Olivia raises her eyebrows at this - he’s become an avid exerciser, but 5 am on a holiday seems excessive.
“At this hour?”
Elliot sighs into the phone. She hears the jingle of coins, his murmured ‘thank you’ and the small sound of the bell above the doors again.
“Yeah, I uh - couldn’t sleep.” He pauses then, clears his throat before containing. “You know how it is.”
It’s his first Christmas without Kathy, and he’s hurting - and he’s stuck again, she knows. Anger returning at the decisions made above him; at the injustices in the face of his wife’s murder. It makes sense that he’s out already; trying to exorcise these demons physically.
She can’t offer him much more than this.
“Big plans today?”
He’s moving again, and he asks her the question through swallows of water.
She toys with the loose leg of her pants as she answers.
“No. Just Noah and me. We’ll just do presents and movies and probably lots of hot cocoa. Carisi’s mom sent him home with enough leftovers for a week, so a traditional Italian spaghetti dinner.”
She laughs lightly at the last part, picturing all the food poor Lucy had jammed in to her refrigerator.
She murmurs out a small ‘mmmhmm’ in response.
She knows his family Christmas had come to an abrupt halt a few weeks prior; had gotten his text about the Wheatley news and the cancelled holiday gathering. Had felt relief, even; briefly, at having an excuse to avoid the day. She hadn’t been ready; despite wanting to be.
“Just Eli and Mama and me this morning. Kathleen’s coming over for dinner tonight. Maybe movies and hot cocoa here too.”
Elliot chuckles then.
“Might slip a little something into my hot cocoa, though. Eli and Mama fight like siblings.”
She laughs at this; at the thought of him hiding peppermint schnapps in his hot cocoa, and he joins her, and for a second it feels normal again.
He’s missed so much - growth and trauma and loss and healing and everything and everyone in the last decade of her life, but talking to him, like this - it still feels good. To be them, again.
“That sounds amazing. It’ll be a long day here, too. Fun, but long.”
They chatter on, easy conversation back and forth as he makes his way home, and she only ends the call when Noah emerges from his room an hour later; bleary eyed and excited for the presents under the tree. It’s not until she hangs up that she realizes it. The curtain of dread that had hung over her; solid and unforgiving has lifted, just a bit.
Enough to let the sunlight in.
Later; after lunch and the cartoon version of Grinch on the couch, her doorman calls with a delivery. When she emerges from the elevator, she sees it right away.
Elliot’s gone; respectful of the day with Noah, but on the counter of the reception area, he’s left behind a small gift.
A small bottle of peppermint schnapps; and a box of hot cocoa - the good kind, she notes - adorned with a small red ribbon. A note, in his familiar scrawl.
Merry Christmas Olivia.
She knows it wasn’t his intention, by any means.
Rafael Barba is a wizard with words; can change the trajectory and outcome of a case with a simple speech. His words can shape and mold and shift the way people view the world; their own selves.
He’d made her feel little, though, somehow. With his words.
Made her feel foolish and silly; and that, combined with Lindstrom’s insistence that her feelings for Elliot are idealized; has her back on defense. Ready to push this, push them away again.
She’s moved him an arm’s length away; a steady stream of calls reduced down to the odd text, and she knows that when he comes up to breathe, he’ll wonder why.
She wonders why, too. Why she feels the need to pull herself back, when it’s obvious to so many what she wants.
Still, though, she’d not so gently shoved him away.
Until she gets his text, anyways.
I’m fine. Whatever you hear, I’m fine.
She gets the notification at her desk. She looks down at her phone, at the ping it makes, and sees it’s from him. She reaches for it, reading the confusing line of text.
Her desk phone begins ringing a second later.
“Liv - “
It’s Fin, his voice pitched higher than she’s ever heard before, a franticness to it that she’d be shocked by, if she wasn’t so confused.
“Liv - it just came over the radio, it’s - “
The man stops talking then, and she can hear him try to catch his breath, can hear him pant into the phone and whatever it is, she’s never heard her sergeant like this. She’s sure there’s been times before - she can think of two - but she knows she’d been the cause of the anxiety then, but she is here, safe and so is Rollins and oh god, is it - she thinks about Noah, her mind racing and she opens her mouth to speak, when Fin blurts it out.
“There’s been a shooting, Liv. He’s shot. Stabler’s shot.”
And for a second; not even, a millisecond, she forgets. Forgets the text she’d just seen, forgets it completely and there’s bile in her throat and her hand is shaking so hard she can’t hold on to the clunky plastic shell of her desk line; then she looks down.
Sees the block of her cell phone, sitting on her desk calendar, and remembers.
I’m fine. Whatever you hear, I’m fine.
Fin’s silent on the other end; and she’s sure he thinks she’s in some kind of shock; stunned into silence and scared and she calculates, quickly.
“Are you alone?”
She asks the man; hears him turn his head and cough before he answers.
“Yeah, I just finished up at a scene when I heard and -“
Olivia interrupts him; stopping him quietly. Firmly.
“He’s ok, Fin.”
She hears him exhale then; his voice confused as he responds.
“Nah, Captain - he’s been -“
She interrupts him again.
“I know what you heard, Fin. I’m telling you, I know, and I know he’s fine, and that information doesn’t leave this phone call.”
She hangs up then; not wanting to continue the call on an NYPD line. She stands up, and draws the blinds of her office closed. Sinks into the small couch, and just breathes.
It’s funny, how’d she never wondered. Had always known. In ten years of radio silence, she’d been angry and sad and devastated, but she’d always known he was fine. Alive, at least.
Just like today.
She could have second guessed it - the timing of his text and the phone call from Fin - could have wondered if he wasn’t fine, after all; if the worst had happened and he’d laid on the ground, slowly bleeding out onto the damp spring pavement.
But she’d always known, somewhere.
She’d thought once about it, after he’d been shot and come close. How a great writer in a novel might make some dramatic realization, if their tale was a piece of literature. The scrappy heroine of the story and the bold hero and their deep connection; intrinsic, weaved into their very essences. How their souls inhabit each other’s,
or some otherworldly line of prose.
She thinks it’s much simpler than any of that.
She’d just know. If it happened.
Later, when she’s finally home, well past midnight, her cell phone rings again.
She answers right away.
She breathes out his name, quiet in the stillness of her room.
He sounds small; drained, and there is an instinct here, between them. She can sense what this is, this hollow sound in his voice; the tired way he says her name, then sighs.
He never strays too far from his roots; a sense of Catholic guilt pervading into every facet of his life; an almost constant for him.
“Are you - is…Ayanna called, and told me. What happened, I mean.”
She sits up, and waits for his response.
“Yeah it was…”
He stops then, his voice quaking slightly, as he continues.
“It wasn’t good. I’m sorry for calling so late, I just…”
She nods along with his words; before she realizes he can’t see her. Doesn’t know she’s saying yes, I get it.
It’s simplistic, really - how they’ve landed here again. Ten years apart, each surviving things neither yet knew about; but now, they’re back where they’ve started.
“Thanks for texting me.”
She blurts the words out into the paused conversation.
“Today, I mean. Thanks for the heads up.”
She squeezes her eyes shut as she says it. Raises an arm from the warm sheets to run it through her hair; and waits for his response.
“Didn’t want you to worry.”
There’s a softness to his voice here, one she knows. She’s heard it, before - after Gitano, an admission that nearly broke them permanently. Another night, in a parked car, when she’d been trying to chase down her only family.
When he’d come back; and his wife was two doors down in a hospital bed, and he’d tried to apologize, tried to explain.
She’d heard it before.
“I would have. Worried, I mean.”
Her words come out fast, and she doesn’t open her eyes as she says it.
Barba is right, about this. That something unconditional exists. She knows it’s not ready to be realized yet, not fully - mountains exist between her and him that they still have to climb, before they can get there, but tonight, here on this quiet phone call, she can admit at least this.
That him, in peril, is too much for her to bear.
It’s silent for a moment; and then his voice again; small and almost timid.
She’s not sure if it’s a thank you for the admission, for feeling the way she does; or perhaps a combination of them both, and it’s too late and too hard for either of them to try to figure much out tonight.
He’d known to tell her; she’d admitted she needed him to do so, and that’s enough for now.
Instead, they let the silence continue, lingering, before she lets out a small laugh.
“You should have heard Fin though.”
Elliot’s clears his throat, resets his tone as he asks.
She nods as she responds; eyes opening again.
“I’ve never heard him so scared to tell me something in his life. His blood pressure had to be off the charts.”
Then, it’s easy again. For now.
She circles around the airport twice, before she finds a space in the cell phone lot.
Olivia curses the mess of a system the whole time - and she can almost hear him laughing, and telling her she didn’t have to come.
She’s well aware that she didn’t. Well aware that he could have easily hopped into a rideshare, and made his way home. He would have been fine, she knows; but his voice had caught when they’d talked last night. Wavered and trembled just a bit; and she’d insisted.
“Let me come pick you up? From the airport tomorrow?”
She’d asked him; and he’d said yes, told her he’d pay for her gas and her parking fee and she’d just laughed.
A summer has changed some things. Not most things, but some. They’re easier with each other now. She’s not shy about texting him and calling him; and he doesn’t seem to second guess honest admissions with her. There’s an openness, now. The road is long before them, but the path feels clear, finally.
She slides into a space, a ‘fuck’ muttered under her breath at the narrow width. She pulls out her phone, and checks the time; then the airport web page for arrival times.
She’s got a few minutes, anyways.
Olivia opens to his contact, and types out her message.
I’m here for you.
She hits send, then reads it on the screen, and bursts into a loud laugh, alone in her car.
It’s a little too nail on the head, even for them.
She is here for him. Here for him because for the first time in forty years, he was coming home to an empty house. Not just for the day, or even the week - the promise of his kids when separated had been enough, back then, to soften the loneliness. This was permanent - a true empty nest, and she’d known he’d need to ease his way into it.
That’s what friends do, after all.
Friends, or almost more than friends; or two adults with a complicated history who are slowly hacking away at the barriers with chain saws and hammers and axes in the hopes that something idealized becomes something tangible.
Either way, she’s here for him.
Lot 5. I’m in lot 5.
She adds the second message, watches the thumbs up reaction appear, then settles back into her seat. Indulges herself in a little bit of gossip scrolling while she waits.
She’s 15 minutes into a rabbit hole on the latest drama of the Salt Lake City housewives, when she sees him. Walking methodically, overnight bag slung over his shoulder, as he heads towards her.
10 years gone, and 1, almost 2 years since he returned, and sometimes it still hits her like this. How he’s changed - he’s broader, heftier; balder - but how now, as he walks her way, how little has changed. His gait; the self assured cadence, the ease at which he moves. His mannerisms - the way he holds the bag close to him, eyes flicking left and right at any perceived threats; the way he runs a hand over his face, tired and drained, when he sees her, and relaxes.
His smile, when his eyes meet hers through the glass. The way it starts slow, a half turn of his lips, and then creeps across his face, complete and wide; eyes crinkling as he approaches, and god she is staring.
Elliot opens the door to her car, making himself as narrow as possible so he fits, and there is an awkward moment. Her hands settle, one on the wheel, one on the center console, and she can’t quite figure out where to put them.
She reaches over then, a quick impulse, and grasps his hand. Squeezes it once, then drops it, and tries to ignore the heat rising in her; the flush of her chest. Prays it doesn’t hit her cheeks.
Elliot looks down, a half smile on his face at their hands, entwined, before the moment is over.
She puts both hands on the wheel, backing out and easing them into the flow of traffic. Neither speak until they’re stuck again, traffic outside the airport slowed to a halt.
Elliot speaks first, his voice rising above the 80s station on her SiriusXM.
“Thanks for doing this. Picking me up, I mean.”
Olivia leans forward, and turns down the radio.
She hesitates, then continues.
“It’s not supposed to be easy, when your last one leaves, and…”
Elliot sighs, and nods.
“Haven’t been on my own since the Marines.”
He clears his throat and looks out the window, then starts again.
“Even then. Always had people around, anyways. I’m dreading this.”
She curls her fingers underneath the wheel, not sure what to say. She could say what she’s thinking - that he’s not alone, not really; that she’s a phone call and a ride away, if he needs her; but it’s not totally true, not yet. There’s still a hesitation, with both of them. Two and half decades of what ifs, and it’s hard to break her aversion to giving him too much of herself, when he couldn’t return it.
Finally, she speaks.
“You can call, you know. If you need to.”
She swallows, her eyes straight ahead.
“You can call, Elliot.”
When she looks over, finally, his eyes are on hers. He doesn’t drop her gaze; just nods, and reaches over to her. Let’s his hand find hers, then tugs it gently to the center.
He fixes his eyes forward then; well aware of what is too much for this moment, but he doesn’t drop her hand.
“Thanks, Liv. I will.”
It’s the end of an era, this moment. Elliot Stabler, and an empty home.
When she arrives at his place, it’s an hour before he emerges from her SUV. They sit, and talk, and when she leaves; she feels the change, finally.
There’s no longer a finiteness to what they are. They’re a possibility.