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Inveterate Want

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"Inveterate Want"

He's been in his place on East 39th for almost four years. It was never the plan, but at the time, the neighborhood was safe enough and cheap enough and close enough to his new job that it had made sense. And since nothing had changed in four years, he had stayed.

Murray Hill was safe for him, too; he could easily keep his distance from Glen Oaks, Centre Street, and the Upper West Side. He didn't have to be reminded of what used to be or might have been. Things he should have done. Lives he could have had. And that's the beautiful thing about the city, after all: It's big. It's so big that most people cling to their neighborhoods for fear of being swallowed up by it. Often the only reason they leave the 10-block radius from their homes is to go to work—and there their radius is even smaller. It's safe. It's predictable. He's grateful.

He remembers, distinctly, in fact, Olivia telling him about the only time she ever walked over the Brooklyn Bridge. She'd lived in the city her entire life, she'd said, but it wasn't until her late thirties that she ever did it. And even then, it wasn't intentional. It took a tough case and a bad verdict to spur a righteous anger—and she just started walking, needed to get away, and the bridge happened to be in front of her. Midway across, once she'd sort of realized where she was, she said, she had turned back to look at Manhattan. She tried to picture where the towers should have been—they'd only been gone a couple of years—and she regretted never having walked over the bridge before. She'd driven over it a hundred times or more, but walking it was different. She'd told him that in that moment, she had resolved to do it more often, or at least again sometime, but she never had. The point of her story was regret and missed chances, but his comforting takeaway these four years was that routines were safe. If everyone stayed in their predictable circles, he could live forever in his new neighborhood without ever running into anyone he hadn't intended to see. No one could haunt him there except himself, obsessing over memories that just wouldn't fade.

And that's why he's sure his mind was playing a sadistic trick on him when he first caught sight of the woman over Kathleen's shoulder. This cafe is in his safe zone. No one from another radius, another world, could be here. It wouldn't make sense. It must have been a memory projecting itself onto some other older brunette, bundled into a dark scarf and tailored overcoat, now walking the length of the cafe to place her order at the counter. He had done a double-take at first, but now he's let it go and has returned his attention to his daughter, who seems oblivious to his brief distraction.

He laughs genuinely at something she says, and he's so grateful for easy mid-mornings like this. Ten years ago, he wouldn't have thought it possible to sit comfortably in a cafe with Kathleen, swapping trivialities before heading off to work. Everything used to be so contentious—every conversation a fight, accusation, intervention, explosion. Dressing-down. And he wasn't always the instigator. But now they can sit and chat and enjoy one another's company, together at their regular table in the corner by the door. How did they ever get here, he marvels sometimes. And then, of course, it all makes sense: He's admiring Kathleen's miraculous recovery, in which Olivia was instrumental, so of course his mind would decide to see her right now. He's so pleased that he figured it out that he automatically glances up to smile at the woman as she retraces her steps to the door, coffee now in hand, headed right towards him. They lock eyes for a moment and he's done.

His smile drops and he shrinks into himself, hoping there's some way that his beanie and his short beard will mask the recognition that must have flickered in his eyes. But from the way she drew up so abruptly that the hem of her coat swung forward, he knows it's useless. He won't even look at Kathleen now, instead staring at the discarded spoon on her saucer, bracing himself to hear his name as its own reproach.

Only, it doesn't come.

She had hesitated only briefly, and now she's out the door and he feels disorientingly relieved and slighted at the same time. He's safe again, he thinks—but suddenly Kathleen interrupts herself: "Hey, is that—Dad, is that Olivia?!"

He pretends to be confused by the question, but Kathleen leaps from her seat without even waiting for his response, and she's out the door before he realizes what's happening. He twists around in his seat to watch her through the window, and he sees as she catches up to Olivia but then his angle allows him only a view of Kathleen's back. They embrace, and when they separate, Kathleen tosses her thumb over her shoulder, back to the cafe. Elliot holds his breath, both fearing and hoping that she'll talk Olivia into returning with her. The sag of Kathleen's shoulders after a moment, though, assures him that Olivia has declined, and then he watches as Kathleen gestures animatedly, going on to tell Olivia God only knows what. Their conversation is brief, perhaps cut short by brisk weather and the fact that Kathleen hadn't taken her coat with her onto the street, or perhaps because Olivia had somewhere to be. He can see her embrace his daughter again then affectionately push her to arms' length to admire her one last time before turning away and disappearing completely from view. He pretends not to see that Kathleen just stands there, watching her go. He doesn't know what it means, doesn't want to know what it means, doesn't want to think of himself the same way, frozen to the spot as she disappears right in front of him.

He makes a point to be unassumingly sipping his coffee when Kathleen returns. She reclaims her seat unceremoniously, and her hands fidget in her lap.

"So was it her?" he asks as innocently as he can feign.

Kathleen scoffs and rolls her eyes. It must be obvious that he knew, and he can't really blame Kathleen for the attitude. He doesn't want to make it worse, so he stays quiet until she's ready to talk again. "What happened between you two, anyway?" she finally asks quietly.

I love you. I needed to tell you that. I need you to know.

He flinches at the memory and sniffs dismissively to cover his reaction. "Nothin'," he tells his daughter.

He knows she doesn't believe him, but she seems genuinely devoid of irony or guile when she observes, "It's just, I haven't seen her since you retired. Have you?"

He tries to shrug and laugh it off. "We were partners," he hedges. "Off the job, we had nothing in common, so…"

"So?"

I love you, Olivia.

He shifts and stretches, laughing uncomfortably under his daughter's scrutiny. "So no, I haven't seen her," he finally confirms.

"Then why didn't you go say hi?!" she demands.

It's complicated, is what he wants to tell her. But he just told her that nothing had happened between them, and complications don't arise from nothing. I don't think she'd want to see me, is a little closer to the truth, but it would require an explanation he's not willing to give. I broke us, is what it really is, the unspoken fear that has consumed him for eight years. He sighs. "I probably should have," he finally says, not because it's true but because he knows it's the right thing to say. If things had ended differently, he absolutely would have. Of course, if things had ended differently, he assumes today wouldn't have been the first time he'd seen her since that night.

Kathleen nods appreciatively. "Did you know she made lieutenant?"

A smile tugs at his lips, and he hopes his daughter can't see how proud it had made him when he'd first found out. "Yeah, thought I heard something like that," he says, trying to downplay how closely he had followed Olivia's career since he left.

Kathleen eyes him for a moment. "You should call her," she suggests.

He laughs and stares into his cup as he swirls the last of his coffee. "Now what would she want from a screw-up like me?" he muses. He means it, but he can't help flashing back, all these years later, to her kitchen and her couch and the times she took what she needed from him. He was enough then—but that was another life. Everything was different now. And maybe it really was just need, never want.

"You're not a screw-up," Kathleen tells him softly. She must have misread his lowered gaze.

He looks up and smiles gratefully at his daughter's compassion and reassurance. But the moment is too tender for him, so he shrugs and deflects again: "Besides, if she wanted to talk to me, she would have come back in."

"She had an appointment," Kathleen reasons. She watches him as he finishes his coffee, then draws one of her hands up from her lap and tells him, "She told me to keep in touch." And then, carefully sliding a pristine business card toward him on the table, she adds, "But I think this was meant for you."


It's on his mind all night at work. The lie he told Kathleen plays in a loop in his head his whole shift. It was an echo of what he had told Kathy one time years ago when she'd asked. That memory repeats in his head, too.

"You ever hear from Olivia anymore?" she'd asked, leaning against their bathroom door frame, toweling her hair after a shower. It was an honest, innocent question, but he'd immediately felt like he was under suspicion. After all, why would a shower make her suddenly remember Olivia?

"No," he'd responded from his position on the end of the bed, even though he knew he still had a text from Olivia on his phone from months earlier. He'd never responded, but it was there all the same.

"That's strange, don't you think?"

He'd shrugged. "We were partners, Kath, not friends."

"You always seemed like friends."

He'd given her a tight smile. "Product of the job."

"Still feels like she just, I don't know, weighed anchor and took off. I mean, I don't get it. She convinces you to retire and then never even calls to check in? Something doesn't add up."

Olivia convincing him to retire. Another lie he told Kathy. "I don't know."

"Have you reached out to her?"

"No. And can we… maybe not talk about this anymore? Please?"

Kathy had eyed him for a long time before nodding and disappearing back into the bathroom to brush her teeth. That hadn't been the final nail in their coffin, but they were nearing the end. He didn't even feel guilty for the lies.

Still doesn't. As a cop he'd learned how to compartmentalize. And sometimes that meant keeping secrets. This is how he rationalized it. Kathy had learned over the years how to survive being shut out. She shouldn't have had to, but she did, and all Elliot had learned was the very habit of shutting her out. In the end, that's what did them in: despite not having anything to keep from her, he still operated like he did. After he retired, he became even more reticent than he had been when he was on the job. And, like always, Kathy had respected his boundaries and never pushed him. She put up with it for a while, continuing to sacrifice until it simply made no sense anymore. He didn't know how to change, and that dynamic wasn't sustainable.

He does recognize his role in the demise of his marriage; he understands what he did to his wife, whom he did love, and he feels a deep, personal responsibility and guilt for her unhappiness. But he can't bring himself to feel guilty for lying about Olivia. He wonders often why that is. He wonders tonight as he works his private security shift and considers whether he could really call her. Whether he has the right. Whether he has the nerve.

He's on four-to-midnight tonight, so he's got some time to think about it. And he's off tomorrow anyway.

By the end of his shift, he resolves to call the next day. In the morning, he reconsiders. It's Wednesday, and he's got Eli, so he picks him up from school as usual in the afternoon, and they run errands and work on his homework and all the regular, mundane stuff. Elliot nearly forgets that anything is different. Or could be.

It's only over dinner when there's a moment of quiet that Elliot looks over at his youngest and remembers what might have been. It's been almost exactly twelve years since the case that drove him back to Kathy. Eleven years and three months since the car accident. Almost nine years to the day since Gladys Dalton's baby died. Not that he keeps track. Not that he ever flashes back to Olivia's strong shoulders rising and falling above him, the weight of her breasts in his palms, that damned silk robe. And now it's been a few months shy of eight years since he last talked to the woman at the center of his regrets. Three years since the divorce was finalized.

He picks up the phone after Eli's gone to bed. He doesn't need the card to dial the number he still knows.

As the phone rings, there's a distinct hot pain in his abdomen that builds and spreads and creeps in such a way that makes him feel like his entire torso is hollow. A stomach knot? It's the same way he felt when he was waiting to see if Olivia would follow Kathleen back into the cafe: dread and excitement in equal measure. His hands are damn near shaking, and he doesn't quite understand. He knows anger well; anxiety is new.

It rings so long that he thinks it might go to voicemail. If it does, he won't leave one. Might not even try calling back. It was probably a mistake to call in the first place—

And then there's a hiccup in his ear as the ringing stops. The pit of his stomach throbs in pain as he waits to hear her voice. How will she answer? Her name, the way she does for official business? What will she say once she realizes who it is? And he finds he desperately needs to hear her say his name, no matter how it comes out—

"Same number, I see," are the first words out of her mouth. It takes his breath away.

He fumbles for an appropriate, coherent response. He fails. "Yours too," he observes.

"So that means you were getting my texts the whole time," she concludes, and her voice is hard, like she's interrogating a perp, waiting for him to slip up and confess.

He decides that if that's what she wants, he won't prolong it—because he is guilty, and he knows it. He remembers them rolling in like clockwork on birthdays and major holidays until they became more sporadic and eventually stopped about five years ago. He had ignored each one but missed them when they were gone. "What can I say," he admits, "I'm an asshole."

She makes a noise but says nothing.

He is drowning in the silence. Why the hell did he call? He was safe on the shore—safe in the obscurity of east midtown. If seeing her had been like dipping his toe in the water, calling her was a running cannonball off the pier. And now he's flailing helplessly, far too far from shore. He alone has gotten himself into this mess, and the regret—for this choice, for his choices eight years ago, for his choices twelve years ago—fills his lungs. At the same time, she hasn't hung up yet, despite the silence stretching out between them, and he realizes that he'd rather be here, tethered to her through the phone, even without words, than almost anywhere else in the whole damn world. And that, he supposes, is why he called. Because even if she berates him, even if she refuses to talk, even if she hadn't answered, he still needs her. Seeing her had only reminded him just how much. He hesitates, wondering if she feels the same intense pull to him through the phone. And then, out of fear that she doesn't, that she's a breath away from ending the call, that she already put the phone down and walked away, he finally speaks again. "It was good to see you yesterday," he tells her soberly.

She is quiet. It is not lost on him that she didn't immediately return the sentiment. "Kathleen seems like she's doing well," she says when she finally responds.

"She is!" he exclaims, a little relieved to have something to discuss other than his own failures and shortcomings. "Clean and sober, working as a paralegal…"

"Yeah, that's what she said," Olivia murmurs, and he imagines he can hear her smiling. He smiles, too.

"She's even, uh, dating this guy, and I don't completely hate him."

"Impressive," she responds.

He doesn't know whether she means Kathleen or him, but he decides to own the joke: "I try."

She makes another little noise, and it might have been a laugh, but her next words sting a little. "So was there something you needed? Or, um, why'd you call?"

Somehow she's caught him off-guard and he can't think of an answer. Hell, he can't even breathe. "I, um…"

"'Cause I have to go soon—"

"I need to see you," he rushes. She's silent again, and he needs to make sure she understands. "Olivia," he practically begs, and God it feels good to say her name, "I'd really like… to see you."

She's terrifyingly quiet. He waits with bated breath. "Why?" she finally asks. "Why now? Because we happened to be in the same place at the same time yesterday?"

"Is that not enough?"

"So if that hadn't happened, what, you'd still be avoiding me?"

He wants to argue and say that he wasn't avoiding her—but that's stupid, because of course he was. He just didn't realize she noticed. It's not until this very moment that he begins to wonder if it might have actually hurt her to have been avoided. He was only trying to protect her from the fallout of his own destruction, and he had never once considered that his very absence could have left even deeper wounds. "Probably, yeah," he confesses quietly.

"Jesus," she sighs angrily on the other end.

"Liv, I never thought it would be like this. Even through the tough times, I never thought—"

"Bullshit. This is all you. You did this. You don't get to apologize now."

He cringes because she's absolutely right, but he wasn't making an apology. He knows he doesn't deserve forgiveness—he just wanted her to realize that he didn't mean for things to get this bad. For either of them, but especially for her.

"You knew, didn't you," she observes. It's not a question. "That night, when you came to my place, you were still on leave, but you knew by then—you'd already decided, hadn't you."

Again, she was right. But he's speechless because they never talked about the things that happened between them. This is the closest they've come. He rubs his temples.

"And you didn't say a damn word," she continues. "You let me hear it from Cragen for the first time. Like I was no one."

"You know you weren't 'no one,' Liv," he says quietly.

"I felt like such an idiot."

He swallows hard around the apology she doesn't want to hear.

"I think about that night a lot," she tells him. "More than I should."

"I do, too," he responds, his heartbeat picking up momentum in his chest. "I always wish I could do it over."

"Wow," she breathes. "Maybe I deserve that, but uh—"

"I wouldn't have left."

There's a small pause. "Was that the night you put your papers in?" she asks, her genuine confusion evident in her voice.

"Your apartment, Liv. I wouldn't have left your apartment."

She falls silent again. His breathing is careful and labored. He wonders if she can hear it.

Finally, he decides to try again: "That's why I wanna see you." His heart heart is hammering right into his lungs, and he glances over to the bedroom door, hoping Eli won't stir. "I meant what I said that night. I still do."

He hears her exhale on the other end of the line, and he wishes he knew what she was thinking. "I don't know if I can do this," she says.

"Please?" he asks. "I didn't even get to say hi yesterday," he adds with a grin.

A brief silence. And then: "Friday. Lunch. Take it or leave it."

"I'll take it!" he breathes. He's about to ask if he should meet her at the station, but she speaks again.

"That place we liked on Broadway," she says, as if she had read his mind. "One o'clock."

"I'll be there," he agrees. And he knows exactly where she means, even though she was vague: a diner not too far from the station, on the way to her place, where they'd shared countless after-hours meals following especially grueling days at work. It was their safe spot when it felt like the world was crumbling around them. Large, wide open, and brightly-lit, it was a haven but never a hiding place. When he was married, he took comfort in that. A meal there, no matter the hour, would never be intimate; late-night dinners couldn't be misconstrued, nor would he ever get swept away, forget his commitments, and act on an impulse. He knows the place, remembers it well, but he also understands the message she's clearly sending him. This is nothing more than a courtesy.

"Okay," she says breathily, "see you then."

"See ya," he replies, and like that, the hardest part is over. He sits there in his empty living room, feeling like a truck has just run over him. Battered, broken, but alive. He is nearly giddy with relief. Still, he wishes she had said his name. Just once.


He's early to their diner. It's by design. He wants to be able to see her face the moment she sees him—doesn't want to be looking around himself, craning his neck to find her, giving her ample opportunity to spot him first and school her features to mask her reaction. He needs to know how she's feeling. The knot in his stomach is back.

She's late. Not by much, but enough to make him worry that she had changed her mind. Enough that she would have known by the time she left the station that she was running late. She doesn't call or text to notify him. He doesn't call or text to check in. He chooses to trust that she'll be there.

He sees her through the window as she approaches the front door. 1:19. She's got sunglasses on, but he can tell that she's already looking into the restaurant, searching and scanning. He wonders if she's worried that he left. Or maybe hoping that he did. Her pace is quick but not panicked.

She enters and removes her sunglasses, looking around the dining room again with fresh eyes. She looks something between nervous and annoyed, squinting as she peers around, slapping her gloves into the palm of one hand as she takes them off. As if she has somewhere else to be and would just as soon place an order to go. She could as easily be looking for a member of the waitstaff as for him.

But then she sees him. Her eyes widen for an instant and she draws a breath—and then her features harden and she heads toward him, completely ignoring the girl playing hostess who tries to help her. Elliot doesn't really know what it meant, but it was exactly what he was hoping to see: a flash of something else behind her stone-faced stare. He has hope.

He rises from the booth as she approaches. His lips part in a greeting, but no words come. He wants to extend his arms and embrace her, but all that happens is his left arm rises in a mechanical gesture to her side of the booth. She pauses, gives him a once-over, then removes her coat and sits.

She doesn't offer an apology for being late. He doesn't mention it. She doesn't ask about the coffee already sitting in front of him, and when she picks her menu up, he rereads his as if it's for the first time.

The first words they speak are to the waiter when they order. That done, their menus gone, there's nothing left to hide behind. Elliot glances up at her, and she looks uncomfortable and displeased, her gaze cast down at the table. "So how's work?" he finally asks because he thinks it's a safe topic.

But she laughs derisively and almost rolls her eyes.

He tries not to let it rattle him. "I understand you're the C.O.," he continues. "Congratulations, Lieutenant."

She eyes him at that. "You heard, huh?"

Her voice after all this time, in person, is enough to take his breath away. His head swirls, but he steadies himself, unsure how to proceed because he's so out of practice with their old banter. "I might've kept up with a few things," he tells her.

She nods.

It's more than a few, really. He heard about Munch retiring, and Cragen. Knows about the psychopath. Heard about Chief Dodds' son. And he's stayed abreast of her promotions, read about some of the cases, seen several of her press conferences. Knows she has a son now.

He gazes at her, almost unable to believe that she's right here, this close, after all this time. His eyes fall to her lips and his mouth practically waters. Eight years have not changed the way he increasingly felt over the thirteen years prior. He quickly drops his gaze to the safety of his coffee cup before she catches him leering.

There is so much he wants to ask, so much he wants to confess and reiterate, but he doesn't know where the start. "So?" he asks as the server delivers her drink. "How is it?"

She looks at him for a moment, as if she can't believe he's asking. And then she answers. "It's work. The victims are different, the perps are different, sometimes circumstances change and the gray areas get shaded differently, but at the end of the day, we're doing the same thing we've always done: getting justice for the victims and putting the bad guys away."

He smiles faintly. "I'm proud of you."

"Save it."

"I mean it. Your dedication, the way you rise to every challenge, the way you get back up after you've been knocked down…"

"I don't always get up," she contends softly, reaching for a napkin to wipe away the ring left on the table by her drink. He wonders what event she's referencing, what setback had ever proven too much for her, but he's scared to ask. He worries that he's part of it.

"Would you have taken the Sergeants' Exam if I'd stayed?" he asks instead, but it's a legitimate question, not rhetorical.

She looks him over and lightly chews her lip in thought. "I don't know," she finally answers.

"So let me be proud of you," he reasons gently with a small shrug.

Something passes through her eyes and, inexplicably, she yields. Her whole demeanor is different. "You ever miss it?" she asks.

He desperately wants to tell her that he misses her, but they're not ready for that. Instead he considers what he does miss and what he doesn't, tilting his head from side to side as he weighs them in his mind. "I miss the sense of purpose," he admits. "But, uh, not the anger." She nods a little, more out of acknowledgement than sympathy. "And I miss the people," he adds, staring directly at her, willing her to understand.

She stares back. "Entirely your choice," she reminds him.

He sighs uneasily, sheepishly. "Can't a guy have regrets?" he teases, trying to sound pathetic and endearing.

"We all do," she observes and he hopes to hell that she's not talking about them again. She narrows her eyes slightly. "Do you regret it?" she asks next, and again he wonders if she's talking about them.

He sobers. "Which part?"

"Any of it."

Panic rises in his chest because he doesn't want to say the wrong thing right now. "No, Liv, what exactly are we talking about?" he asks, a little more forcefully than he intended.

"Forget it."

And suddenly he's floundering because they might have been this close to actually talking about it, and now she's pulling back. "Come on, what do you want from me?!" he presses.

"What do I want?" she repeats indignantly. "You called me here!"

"Look, that's not what I meant!" he nearly shouts over her. She falls quiet, and he huffs to calm himself down. He's searching for the right words to say, but she's not grabbing her coat yet, so he might be safe for a moment. He takes a breath and focuses on her shoulder because he can't quite look her in the eye for this. "I'm sorry," he says. "It's just I've got this one chance with you, and I don't wanna screw it up. If you wanna know what I regret, just ask me. I'll tell you. Hell, I want you to know. But you gotta be specific 'cause it's all connected."

He looks up at her, and she appears almost blindsided, her eyes wide and lips slightly parted. "I can't, Elliot," she nearly whispers. The sound of his name gives him strength. "I want to know," she tells him, "but I don't think I can ask."

He understands completely. He can see how a question like, 'Do you regret avoiding me for eight years?' might be too hard to verbalize. Too raw. He swallows hard. "Then I'll start, I guess," he says. "I'll just start with that night and work my way back." He sets his jaw and squares his shoulders, staring right at her again. She stares back as if equally intrigued and disturbed. "I regret not talking to you for eight years," he starts. She nods vaguely. "I regret not telling you that I was getting out."

Olivia snaps out of her trance as their food arrives. The server promises to bring Elliot more coffee, and Olivia picks up her fork to probe her salad.

It seems like the moment is over, but Elliot feels he has to continue. He owes it to her—just so she knows. He kept secrets from Kathy, but that's over now. He just hopes the truth won't hurt. "I regret leaving your apartment that night," he grates, and her eyes snap back to his. "I should have listened when you asked me to stay."

"That never happened," she says quietly, looking back to the bowl of greens in front of her.

"You know it did," he says just as softly. The server returns with the coffee. Elliot waits for the area to be clear again before he continues. "I don't regret kissing you." He watches her for a reaction, but she is wholly focused on her salad. "Or telling you that I loved you—"

"Elliot—" she protests, just as she had the very first time he said it.

"I'll never regret either of those." He swallows hard, takes a breath, watches as her fork moves listlessly through her salad. "I regret killing Jenna Fox," he continues, now staring vacantly at the edge of Olivia's dish, seeing but not registering the way her grip tightens on her fork. This might be the first time he's been able to say that out loud, to use her name while assuming the active responsibility for her death. "But I don't regret shooting her. I've relived that moment so many times since then that I know there's no other way I could have stopped her, but… I wish I'd hit her somewhere else."

He was so wrapped up in that confession that he hadn't noticed Olivia abandon her fork and put her head in her hands. He looks up and finds her like that, elbows on the table, head in her hands, hiding her face, and it's painful for him to see. Perhaps as painful as it had been for her to hear him talk about the shooting after all this time. He wishes he could do something to comfort her, but they're not yet back on solid ground, so reaching for her is out of the question.

"I don't regret retiring," he tells her instead, "but I should have talked it over with you first."

"So why didn't you?" she asks, head still down.

He rolls the words around in his mouth before he says them, and then he has to clear his throat before he can speak. "Because if you'd asked me not to do it, I wouldn't have."

She sniffs and, after a moment, tilts her face up. "What?"

"I needed to; it was time. There was... no coming back from what I did. But I..." He shifts in the booth, clears his throat again. "You had me wrapped around your little finger, Liv. If I'd thought you needed me—"

"I did need you," she breathes. "You were my partner, my—my best friend."

That hits him hard and strikes a nerve because it's what he'd always believed but was never sure was actually true. "But I wouldn't have been any good if I'd stayed on the job," he argues. "I knew that. So I couldn't let you ask me to." He knows it might not make sense, but it was the truth. He knew that putting his papers in was his only viable option, but he also knew that if Olivia had expressed any doubt about the decision, he wouldn't have been able to go through with it. In fact, it was the reason he'd lied to Kathy; when he first told her that he was done, she'd asked him what Olivia thought, and if he'd confessed then that he hadn't talked to her, she would have told him to. So he'd lied and said that Olivia was on board.

"So you just disappeared?"

"I can't explain it," he tells her, but then he reconsiders because, as she rightly pointed out, he was the one who demanded the meeting. He owes her an explanation—or, at the very least, an attempt at one. His gaze drops to his untouched sandwich, and his brow furrows in thought as he absently scratches a thumbnail against the basket his lunch was served in. "I fell apart after the shooting," he soberly discloses. Unwelcome memories of his mental state and very poor behavior flood back, and he tries to ignore them. "For a while," he goes on, "it was just that I didn't want you to see me like that."

He pauses to further collect his thoughts, and he is unprepared when she slowly reaches across the table and closes her hand over his. He stares at their hands for a moment, and he can't help feeling like a victim whose story she just heard. At the same time, this feels like the beginning of forgiveness, and he rather enjoys the sensation.

"And then," he concedes, "so much time had passed that I didn't know where we stood. I wasn't your partner anymore, and I didn't think I could be anything else."

"You didn't think we were friends?" she offers sweetly, rubbing his thumb with hers.

"I wanted more than that," is his automatic, unchecked response. He hadn't exactly meant to say it, but it was the truth.

The immediacy with which she withdraws her hand reminds him of the times she'd protested or tried to stop him from telling her that he loved her. Same effect.

"Sorry," he says, even though he's not really, and he pulls back from the table like she did.

She says nothing, isn't even looking at him anymore, and finally returns to her salad. Elliot watches her, waiting to see if she'll start eating. She doesn't, but he thinks she might be waiting for him instead, so he throws his elbows onto the table and finally picks up his sandwich. She follows suit, spearing a tomato to eat first.

After a few bites, around a mouthful of food because that's how well they once knew each other, he finally asks, "So what were you doing in the east 30's?"

She runs her tongue along her teeth to dislodge something before answering. "I was at the Child Study Center."

He frowns a little. "They don't do that in-house anymore?"

"Wasn't for a case," she says before taking a drink.

He's pecking through the chips in his basket. "Then what for?" he asks.

She tilts her head to the side, and her fork slows again. "Uh, I have a son."

This draws his attention immediately, not because it's new information, but because she volunteered it. And he's wondering how it answers his question.

"He's adopted," she says before he can ask anything else. She gestures with her fork and confesses, "He's been acting out lately. I think I know the reason, but…"

"You want him evaluated," Elliot supplies.

"Is that wrong?" she asks, leaning forward. "I feel…" she gestures helplessly. "I don't know if I'm overreacting or if I'm being prudent. His birth parents were—well, he was discovered during a case, so you can probably imagine. I just…"

"You wanna know if it's a phase or if it's inherited."

"Yes," she breathes fervently. "Is that normal? I don't have anyone I can talk to about any of this—"

He chuckles wryly. "From where I stand, you're doing the right thing. If we'd taken Kathleen's behavior seriously when it started, it might not have come to a head the way it did. And, of course, the way a child is raised has a lot to do with how they turn out—you and I both know this—but sometimes there are inborn traits that no amount of love or affection or support can overcome." A server passes by, and Elliot gestures for refills for Olivia and himself.

She still looks doubtful. "But you don't think I'm grasping at straws, looking for outside explanations when it might be something I already recognize and can address?"

"No," he responds decisively. "You're being thorough."

"Because I very well might be to blame—"

"Oh, I doubt that," he observes softly, a faint smile on his lips.

"I'm not home enough."

"We never are."

"I make plans and have to change them constantly."

He just smirks. "Welcome to the club."

She doesn't look comforted.

"How old is he, anyway?"

"Five."

"Wow. Pictures?"

Her eyes go wide as if she can't believe she hadn't offered them already. "Yep!" She pulls out her phone and shows him a few recent ones and some of her favorite older ones.

"What's his name?"

"Noah."

He stops watching the screen to instead watch her face as she talks about the boy, narrating something that was happening in a photo. It fills him with even more pride than her promotions had. "I'm really happy for you, Liv," he tells her. "I'm really, really happy for you."

She beams at him as she puts her phone away. "Thank you."

"Maybe I could… meet him sometime."

He's relieved that she doesn't immediately say no. It's clear from her reaction that it was an unexpected suggestion, but she thinks about it earnestly. "Maybe," she says, and he believes her.

Elliot smiles as he returns to his sandwich, pleased that they have somehow achieved a state of familiarity and ease between them. Olivia returns to her salad, looking similarly comfortable, and a server arrives with their refills.

After he's gone, Olivia glances up at Elliot. "Speaking of kids, what were you and Kathleen doing in the 'east 30's'?" she asks with relish, making it clear that she was turning his own question back onto him.

He laughs at her, and it feels good. "She and I are there every Tuesday," he says. "Her firm keeps extended hours twice a week, and she's part of the Tuesday team. We get together before we each go to work."

"Work!" Olivia repeats, clearly wanting him to explain himself.

He smiles bashfully. "Private security. It's only part-time, but the pay's not bad. You know… if you were trying to figure out how to be home more with Noah…" he teases, letting her fill in the gaps herself.

"I appreciate the thought, but I'm good for now," she replies.

"Yeah? What's it like being the boss?" he asks, grimacing a little at the thought of all the paperwork, all the responsibility. He thinks of how many times Cragen had chewed him out, and he wonders how often Olivia has to do that with her squad.

She sighs. "It's different. I'm in the field a lot more than Cragen was—I don't know what that says about me. The paperwork's a nightmare."

"What do you mean, you don't know what that says about you?" he asks, brow knitting as he works the last bit of his sandwich between his fingers.

Olivia shrugs a little. "Am I in the field so much because I'm more emotionally connected than Don was? Am I more hands-on? Or am I bad at delegating? Or: is this what a lieutenant is supposed to do, and he did what a captain should do? I don't know the answer."

"What's your closure rate?"

She scoffs. "Nothing like what it used to be."

He can't help his cocky smirk. "Well it couldn't be, could it?" She rolls her eyes, but she's smiling. "You're probably doing fine," he assures her. "You know that job, those vics, inside and out. You know when you need to be there, and you know when to step away. Sometimes I thought we were only as successful as we were because Cragen gave us space. Not saying you should do that with your squad; just saying you and I were good without supervision. Keep trusting those same instincts for when to go and when to not. You'll be fine."

She gives him a flat smile, as if embarrassed by a compliment he had just paid her. "Thanks, El."

It's a tiny thing, but the sound of his nickname fills him with a warmth that courses through his body and brings a smile to his face. Maybe there is hope for them yet. He gazes reverently at her as she continues to eat.

"So how's the rest of the family?" she asks, focused on a spinach leaf that keeps evading her, as Elliot takes a sip of coffee.

"They're good. Eli's in fifth grade now—"

"Oh, time flies—"

"You're telling me! He just got accepted to the middle school we were hoping for, so that's good. Uh, Richard did four years enlisted with the Army, two years ready-reserve, as a carpentry-masonry specialist. I don't think it's what he wanted, but he made a commitment and saw it through. And now he's a construction supervisor for a company based in Queens, pulling almost as much at 26 as I did when I retired—can you believe that?" He laughs because he's not embarrassed to be jealous, but he's proud, too. "Liz got married last May—"

"What!"

He nods. "Yeah, to a guy she met in her nursing program—"

"No!"

"He's not a nurse—he's a paramedic with the fire department now, still in his probationary year—but they had a class or two together." He shrugs, sips his coffee. "He's a nice enough kid—but he is a kid." He pauses, thinks about his youngest daughter. "She's happy, though." He scratches his eyebrow and grins, wondering why he didn't start with his oldest. "And Maureen's up in Westchester, married to a very boring accountant, and I couldn't be happier."

Olivia raises her eyebrows. "You're kidding."

He shakes his head. "No. She'd been doing social work, and it was really wearing her down, but she wouldn't admit it, couldn't step away—"

"—sounds familiar—"

"—and then they got pregnant, so she took the maternity leave, and Aaron said, 'You know what, I make enough for all of us; if you don't wanna go back, we'll be okay.' And that was it: decision made. So she spent a year as a stay-at-home mom, and now she works part-time at a preschool."

He glances across the table, and Olivia is trying to tamp down a ridiculous smile.

"What," he says defensively, "I like a man who understands family and providing."

"It's not that," she whispers giddily. "But: Grandpa Elliot?"

His proud smile is irrepressible. "She's perfect, Liv. Emily Evelyn Connor. Coming up on seventeen months. And I get to see her every weekend."

"You and babies," Olivia muses.

"Wanna see a picture?" he offers, already reaching into his pocket for his phone. She laughs and doesn't need to answer because he's already scrolling through an album for her.

"You know, Fin's a grandfather now, too," she says, nodding to the server who comes to clear their table and drop off the check.

"Is that so?" Elliot asks, barely able to look away from the giggly towhead on his screen.

"Yeah, Ken and his husband, Alejandro, had a baby a couple of years ago. Jaden. Fin just dotes on him."

Elliot chuckles and withholds comments about Fin's early relationship with Ken. "That's great," he says instead as he slides his phone back into his pocket.

"And how's Kathy?" Olivia asks.

He hesitates, wondering why she's asking, but then he thinks it might be a reiteration of the message she was sending when she yanked her hand away from his. And Kathy is, after all, still his family. "She's doing well," he remarks candidly. "I think, probably, we're better now than we've been in years."

"Oh!" Olivia tries to mask her surprise, but it's apparent.

He shrugs. It's the truth: There was no anger when their marriage ended, only relief that the constant strain was over. They don't fight now, and Kathy has even observed that she loves how involved Elliot has become in their kids' lives. "One day at a time," he offers sheepishly. It doesn't even occur to him that Olivia might not realize they're divorced.

"Well. Please give her and the kids my best."

"Will do." He glances up at the clock above the front door, sees they've been there for a little more than half an hour, and looks at their cleared table. Olivia instinctively understands, looking first to his mug then her cup. Elliot lifts his coffee to finish it. "You walk here?" he asks.

"Uh, yeah," she responds, also finishing her drink.

"All right if I walk you back?"

She sets down her cup. "Sure," she agrees airily.

It feels like a victory and he struggles not to smile. He narrows his eyes at her empty plastic cup and asks, "You ready?"

Olivia nods, and they gather their coats. Olivia reaches for the check, still lying in the middle of the table.

"Oh no you don't," Elliot chides her, pinning the slip of paper in place with his forefinger. He slides it over and picks it up as he rises from the booth, reminding her, "I'm the one who demanded this meeting, after all." He leads the way to the register at the front, continuing to talk to her over his shoulder as they navigate the aisles. "Besides, if tradition holds, the guy on the pension, paying alimony and child support, has to buy, right?" he teases.

"Wait, what?" she asks, drawing up beside him at the counter.

Elliot's already handing the cashier a credit card. "It was a joke," he says, picking up a pen in anticipation of the receipt printing. "Remember the first time Kathy and I split up, and there was that case, that awful thing with the ex-wife? And you came to my—"

"—no, I remember—"

"Good, 'cause you were the one who said it," he laughs. He signs the receipt that's handed to him and slides his credit card back into his wallet. He's out the door and buttoning his coat before Olivia can say anything else.

"Elliot, what did you mean, 'alimony and child support'?" she asks as she joins him outside.

He turns downtown and waits for her to finish with her own coat and things. "I always made more than Kathy did," he says to explain the alimony. "And she's got primary custody of Eli," he says about the child support.

"You're divorced?" Olivia asks.

His mouth drops open as he replays the last few days in his head, wondering how that fact had not been abundantly clear. "Uh, yeah?" he says ineloquently.

Again she looks blindsided, eyes and mouth open in surprise. "I didn't know," she tells him.

He doesn't know what to say in response, so he just starts walking, assuming she'll fall into step beside him. She does. Their pace is very slow, barely even a stroll.

"Um, when… did it happen?" she asks after a few steps.

He sighs as he thinks. "I moved out about four years ago. We finalized everything a few months later."

"But you said you and Kathy—"

He smiles, now sort of understanding how his response to her earlier questions might have been misleading. "We are in a good place," he maintains. "I still love her. I think she still loves me. It's just different now. I did a lot of things wrong in that relationship, so now that we're not in it anymore, I can't hurt her the way I used to. It's better. We talk sometimes. We're always civil. We sat together at Lizzie's wedding."

Olivia hums in thought beside him.

"But being a husband's not so different from being a partner," he observes. "And I let Kathy down over and over, just like I let you down."

"You never let me down."

"Sure I did."

"That's not how I remember it."

"No?"

She shakes her head. "Just the once."

He grunts in dread. "Which time was that?"

"When you left."

It stops him in his tracks.

"Elliot, I've forgotten every fight we ever had. I've forgiven every injury and insult. Your leaving was the one thing I never got over."

Her words make his nostrils flare and bring angry tears to his wild eyes. He's not mad at her but at himself. "I'm sorry, Liv—God am I sorry!"

She hushes him, shaking her head as she steps closer and runs her gloved hands over his shoulders. "It's okay," she tells him.

"It's not!" he insists. "I've always tried to do what was right for the people I loved, but all I've done is break everything good in my life. Get married, stay married, raise Eli—I did it all for Kathy, and it ended up hurting her. And I tried to protect you from any damage I would cause, and instead I hurt you even worse!"

"But it is okay," Olivia repeats, stepping even closer. He struggles to accept her blithe, misplaced forgiveness because he understands that a simple apology would never begin to repair the wreckage or heal the wounds. He bites his lip and shakes his head, but she continues: "It is. Because you're here now."

He closes his eyes because he wants to believe her, but he knows she's wrong. Despite what had felt like a gradual return to their old selves over lunch, she had still put distance between them. Those were the same mixed messages he had struggled with throughout their partnership. She had barely wanted to see him today; how could he possibly believe that his very presence would fix a damn thing between them?

And then she kisses him.

His eyes fly open the moment he registers the contact, and she pulls away almost as instantly. He stares at her, bewildered, and she stares back, a bold challenge in her expression.

"You let me down," she says. "You hurt me. I needed you, and you weren't there, and I never got over it. But the reason I never got over it was that I never got over you."

He is utterly dumbfounded. "I didn't… What?" he mumbles.

She chuckles ruefully. "I was in love with you, Elliot."

The blood is pounding in his ears. "'Was'?" he manages to ask.

She laughs again and looks away. "Maybe still am, I don't know."

"Olivia," he breathes, reaching for her. One hand finds the side of her neck, his thumb tracing her smooth jawline. The other lands at her waist.

"Promise you won't disappear again," she says.

"Where else would I ever want to go?" he asks in response.

"Because the only way you make this right," she continues, "is by being here. With me."

"That's all I want," he agrees. "That's all I've ever wanted." He inspects her closely, looking back and forth between her eyes. "Why did you push me away? Today and before?"

She takes a breath but closes her mouth and breathes out forcefully through her nose. "You were married," she says. "I wasn't going to ruin that."

He gazes at her, amazed that she can be so different and yet so unchanged. "I love you," he tells her reverently.

She smiles and leans into his hand. He loves that she does not object.

He grins. "You don't mind me saying that?"

"Say it again?"

"I love you, Olivia."

In response, she leans forward and kisses him again. It's like she doesn't even realize it's the middle of the afternoon and they're standing on the sidewalk along Broadway. Or she doesn't care. He tastes the tang of her vinaigrette dressing when she slides her tongue against and just past his lips. The hand on her waist travels up to the side of her breast, and he can't wait for the chance to explore her body at his leisure. Eventually she pulls away again, rearing back to look at him. "This may have to go," she says, pawing affectionately at his beard.

"What?" he cries in exaggerated disbelief, releasing her so they can resume walking, each with an arm around the other.

"Don't get me wrong: the white's cute, Grandpa, but the last thing I need is whisker-burn."

He's too happy right now to actually be offended or annoyed, but he rolls his eyes anyway. "Can we negotiate?" he asks. "Maybe try it out a few times, see how it goes, before we make a decision?"

"We could do that," she tells him, and he grins like an idiot, already anticipating it.

"And speaking of, when can I see you again?" he asks.

"What are you doing next Friday night?"

He purses his lips. "Nothing."

"You want to come over?"

"Yes, but I'd really like to take you on a date first."

"Oh, this didn't count?" she jokes.

He smiles. "We can do something Friday."

They walk on. At one point, Elliot stretches and presses a lingering kiss to the side of Olivia's head. It is strange to him how new this is, how unprecedented, and yet how natural and familiar it feels. He has never expressed affection publicly for this woman, and it's been eight years since he's even seen her, and yet… it feels completely normal. It feels right.

He pulls her to the side about a block from the precinct. He doesn't actually want to go all the way there—not now, not now that something might be starting between them. He wants to stay away from the prying eyes of subordinates until she gives the go-ahead. "I'll leave you here," he says, and she seems to understand implicitly. "But I want you to know: today did not turn out like I expected."

"Me neither," she observes.

"I don't really know what I thought would happen, but it wasn't… this. And I am… unbelievably happy."

She smiles up at him, and he tenderly thumbs her chin.

"And I am so sorry for everything I did and the pain it caused you. But I want this. I want you. You should know that because I will spend the rest of my life making it up you, if I have to."

She opens her mouth, and he thinks she might be about to repeat her unconvincing argument from earlier that his being there is enough. Instead, she says, "I love you, Elliot." And for now, that's all the absolution he needs.

-fin-