He feels old.
He had pushed himself into the best shape of his life over the last six months - preparing for the physicals before reinstatement - and he had ruthlessly focused on getting as strong and sharp as possible before he came back.
So it's not his body that makes him feel outdated.
It's the digital toys the squad has now that frustrate him. It's the intel gathering methodology and how it's filtered, the intricacies of the dozens of databases, the new social media channels that the sick fucks are using these days. It's the way he knows how the perps work far better than he knows what half the cops on the payroll actually do for the NYPD these days.
Five years feels like no time and forever all at once.
Detective Amanda Rollins sits in front of him now, and at least the coffee shop next to the 1-6 had stayed the same. Remodeled sure, but The Hideout Café hasn't changed the brew. He makes note of the fact that she takes hers with cream, no sugar as he peels back the tab on his own steaming cup.
Rollins had literally given him the three-hour tour, bringing him up to speed on all of the latest gadgets, departments and processes. He's been craving this coffee almost since the song and dance started.
"So, since you're my new partner I figure I got a right to ask," she drawls. She smiles at him then, and it's almost impish, as if she suspects that her youth and that twang might soften him up into answering.
He actually likes her. She reminds him of one of his daughters. Hell, she's only a few years older than Maureen. He knows she's caused herself a lot of problems because he'd pulled some old favors to learn a few things about her, but he likes that she's ballsy and undeterred. The best cops are the ones who understand when to veer from the straight and narrow right from the start of this job.
Olivia had always known how to balance both sides of the line. Far better than any cop he'd ever known. Far better than he'd ever been able to.
He clears his throat, knowing that he can't let anything show or the woman sitting across from him now will read it too well. "You want to know why I'm back."
Rollins flicks her bangs out of her eyes and nods. "Yeah. Why now? You've been gone a long time."
He gives her a half smile. "Too many reasons to explain."
She laughs and shakes her head. "Nah, you just don't want to tell me yet. That's fine. I'll get it out of you one day. Just figured I'd ask because you've got quite a reputation." That's when the smile falls off her face. It's as if she spoke too soon, without thinking. She leans forward, instantly serious. "I don't mean about that kid. I mean, everyone's heard about it but everyone 'round here knows it was justified. You got a -"
"I've got a long history with the squad," he interrupts, praying she'll take the hint and drop the subject.
She nearly looks relieved, as if she's glad he'd saved her from going on and on. "Yeah, that's what I meant."
He forces a smile. "No, what you meant was that you've heard I have a long history with Olivia."
She sits back then, holding her coffee and looking him over. "Truth? What I've heard is that half the guys around here think you two were a thing, and half think you weren't."
If she's going to trust him to have her back, he has to give a little. He knows that. He also knows that Olivia's reasons for teaming him up with Rollins go beyond their mutual informal probation. She's young, she's impulsive and he's going to be responsible for Rollins in a lot of ways.
Deep in his gut, he sees what Olivia's done even if she doesn't see it herself. She trusts him still - even if it's just a little bit. She entrusted this particular detective to him, when instead she should have punished him by partnering him with Fin. Elliot had been very well aware of how Fin looked at him - with wariness, anger and a hell of a lot of accusation just waiting there on the tip of his acidic tongue.
He doesn't blame Fin. He knows he's got it coming.
He shakes his head just a little. "It wasn't like that. It was complica…"
"Fin called you for months. Guess you didn't think you needed to call anyone back?"
He hadn't been expecting that. She'd gone from flighty and gossipy to straight for the jugular in no time flat. He gets it now, why she's so good with the perps. She builds their trust and then strikes without warning.
He can't explain it to her. It's not hers to know. His reasons for staying away are owed to Olivia and no one else.
His lack of response isn't met with the silence Olivia would have given him. Olivia would have let him be, she would have assumed she didn't need the answer anyway and she would have backed off.
But Rollins is all movement and words and unfettered curiosity. She leans in again and tilts her head. Her gaze is clear, steady. Assessing.
"See, I get to ask that question because if we're partners, then I'd like to consider you a friend. Fin and I? We're friends. But I can't imagine a friend of mine not even calling me after something like that. So…" She sits up, straightening before taking a sip of her coffee without taking her eyes off of him. When she's done she grins, and there's no humor in it. "So I guess I'm just statin' the obvious when I say that you got a lot to prove.. Hope you're ready for that, 'cause I don't know how it was back when you were around, but I can tell you that we've all been through a helluva lot since you were last here, and the way I see it, you're the new guy to the rest of us."
He's silent. He can't fault her. She's not angry or accusatory. She's a straight shooter, and he likes that she'd chosen to lay all of her cards on the table. He'd heard about her battles with gambling, so he knows she probably doesn't making any decision without instinctively weighing the odds.
"I got your back," he finally says, focusing on picking at the edge of his cup. "You can read all about every fuck up I've ever made, but I won't ever leave you hanging out there. You'll read that too."
As soon as he says it, he realizes that he'd messed up.
At least she's quiet when she responds. Rollins leans in, setting her cup on the table. "You left my Sergeant hanging, Detective Stabler. And no matter what you think you mighta read about what she went through, no matter what you think you know, lemme tell you that you don't. For two weeks after that first round with Lewis, most of the squad took leave. Manhattan let the other units back us up because none of us could keep a meal down or get any sleep. All we wanted was to know what to do, how to fix things for Olivia. Nick used to just go watch TV with her during the day. We'd drop off food, and between Brian and Fin crashing on her couch, she didn't have a night alone after that."
He can't hear this. Not yet. None of them know why he wasn't there, why he couldn't be. He doesn't expect understanding much less forgiveness. It's not like he has ever forgiven himself.
Elliot's chair scrapes back loudly as he stands up. He focuses on holding his cup without breaking it, he's doing his best to keep his emotions in check.
She doesn't back down. "You oughta know they said your name. Munch, Fin, Cragen. They whispered about you as if you were the solution to something for her. Yet all I know is you never showed. So we're partners, you and I. But Olivia's the one who's had my back. She's the one who's saved my badge more times than I can count." Rollins stands then, shoving her chair back under the table and obviously ready to go. "And if push comes to shove, I just figured you oughta know where my loyalty's gonna fall. We clear?"
He just wants to get back to the squad room. He knows he's not wanted there either, but if he can just get his bearings as a cop again, he won't feel like he's walking on a seesaw anymore. "Clear."
Thankfully it's enough for her.
They don't say anything else as he pushes open the door and they step out into the bitter early evening wind. He thinks about what Rollins had said about the squad losing their appetites, their sleep and their peace of mind in the weeks after Lewis.
What she doesn't understand is that he still doesn't sleep through the night. It's been three years and he still finds himself roaming his apartment at night. Some nights he'll take a hot shower at 3 a.m; other nights it's a tall glass of Scotch while the city sleeps. In the last three years he's spent hundreds of nights running through the darkness of the city parks, waiting for his lungs to sear. He's hit the bag before the sun came up, he's felt his face burned by the cold night winds off of the piers.
He's been to every place Lewis ever took Olivia nearly a dozen times. Twice, he'd broken bones in his hands tearing shit apart.
The one place he hasn't been since the day she'd been taken is church, and he doesn't see himself going back there anytime soon.
It's been three years since he realized that his religion had failed him, and that God was no longer listening to him anyways.
It's half past eight and the last vestiges of sunlight have faded into the now graying sky. The lamp on her desk is dimming, the bulb nearly out, but she doesn't want the fluorescent glow of the overhead tonight. It'll draw too much attention, and knowing her sonofabitch ex-partner, he'll wait her out, no matter how late it gets. If she can sit here in the quiet, maybe he'll slip away, leave her be.
She's exhausted, but it's not the kind of tired that sleep or a vacation could fix. She has dreams of taking her son on island vacations; of bringing him to the coast of Maine on the brightest of summer days to all of the places she never got to experience as a child, but the job still takes from her. It keeps her rooted here. It's different than it once was, but the blood feels depleted from her body now, her bones ache with weariness.
The truth is, it's because of him.
Elliot Stabler: shield number 6313, former partner, devoted father, asshole whom she once believed - maybe still believes - she's in love with. He came back into her life when she was numb but settled, broken and yet somehow complete. He used to be the biggest contradiction in her life, until she realized life was entirely contradictory. Since Lewis or perhaps before, nothing has ever quite made sense the way she hoped it would.
Through the slats in her blinds, she watches him sit there. He doesn't have a case yet nor does he have the paperwork he used to be desperate to hand off to her, so instead he's rearranging his desk with photographs. She used to see the backs of those frames and wonder what it was like to have a family, to be loved in the way he was by Kathy and his children. So much has changed and yet it feels as if nothing has, and there's something cyclical about that, about the way life moves and people change, but things somehow end up the same.
She tears her eyes away from the window, glancing at the time on her computer. Quarter to nine and the darkness has completely enveloped the sky outside her windows. Her son is already in bed, but if she's lucky he'll roll over in his sleep when she enters the room, the soft sigh falling across her cheek when she kisses him goodnight.
This is ridiculous. She's losing minutes with her son to a man who had left her without a call, without reaching out in all the moments that truly mattered. She faced him this morning and she can face him again for the three seconds it'll take for her to walk out of here, head held high. He has no effect on her.
Except he does, of course he does.
Olivia takes off her glasses and throws a few things into her bag before the silence outside is broken and it's Fin's voice she hears: clear, loud, annoyed.
"She's not leavin' until you do, Stabler. Think she's had enough of you for one day, let her get home to her kid."
Elliot's answer is muffled, but she remembers the inflections of his voice, ghosts coming out of the shadows and back into her heart. The accent is thick and he was always the one to fight with Fin. His body is wide behind his desk and he's too big for this room, for this unit. She waits for it, for the shouting and the fight she'll inevitably have to break up, but then he's pushing back against his desk, standing. Olivia quickly drops her gaze, but it's too late. Their eyes lock and just like that she's back in that warehouse with Elliot and Gitano, their stare impenetrable, their lives on the line.
She thinks she hates him for coming back. She thinks she hates him even more for leaving how he did.
She doesn't even realize Elliot has left until there's a knock on her door and Fin steps in, one hand still on the doorknob.
"You didn't have to do that, you know."
Fin shrugs. "You weren't gonna throw his ass outta here."
"There's still time," she answers wryly. "You heading home?"
"Got some paperwork I need to do."
"You're staying late for paperwork?" She hoists her bag onto her shoulder, lifting an eyebrow. "I take it that date didn't go well?"
"Shoulda gotten a parakeet." Olivia laughs and when Fin is halfway out the door, he turns around, leaning against it. "You can still ship him outta here, Liv. Let the Bronx or Queens handle him."
It's his squad too, she wants to say, but it's not. It's hers and she needs to remember that.
"And give up the chance to torture him a little bit?" She thinks there are a million things she can say in this moment and yet none of them come. "It'll get easier," she manages. "For all of us."
"If you say so."
But as she shuts the light to her office and she walks through the nearly empty bullpen, her eye catches the new photos on his desk. Maureen and Kathleen. Dickie and Lizzie. Eli. The five of them with Elliot on what must have been his last birthday.
She can lie and say it'll get easier, but it's always been the complications with them that win out.
OUTGOING TEXT: NICK AMARO
Letting you know today was fine.
Look at you actually telling me things before I force it out of you. You are a fountain of info, Liv.
You should show your commanding officer some respect.
I did when you were. Now this friendship is fair game. You're okay? You didn't kill Stabler? More importantly, Fin didn't?
Not today. How was Zara's dance recital?
She was perfect. I'll send the video once I get it from Maria.
I didn't know the guy, Liv. You can tell me that I helped you grow, that you don't know what you had with him, but we both know it was something.
You and I are friends, Nick, but this isn't your business.
No, it's not, but I care about you. I also know better than anyone that people can make up for the shit in the past.
This isn't the same as you and Cynthia.
Not saying it is. Just saying everyone deserves to be heard. You home?
About to walk in the door.
Give Noah a hug for me. We'll talk tomorrow.
No wise fortune cookie advice to cap off the night?
Listen to Nick Amaro. Genius, is he.
I was going for Yoda.
Yoda you are not
Even before he's got his key in his apartment door lock, he knows that there is someone inside.
He can smell the cooking garlic and herbs coming from within and hear her chattering on the phone as she moves around the small space. He can hear her footfalls and her laughter and for one moment he rests his head against the outside of the door and just exhales.
She makes it easier for him. She makes everything easier. The last few months of her living with him have changed him, made him feel more connected and purposeful. Capable. She's got no idea how grateful he is.
Elliot opens the door and she's already hanging up the call, spinning on her socked feet to grin beautifully at him.
"So? How'd it go?"
His smile forms slowly, for no other reason than to reassure her. "It was good."
Her bright eyes cloud as she frowns at him. "You're lying. I told you, you have to do this for you and it doesn't matter to me if-"
He steps closer to her and places a kiss on her forehead, silencing her for the time being although he knows the questions will inevitably come later. At twenty-two, Elizabeth is no longer a little girl that he can placate or divert for very long. "It was fine, baby."
She exhales and steps back, looking up at him as if again judging his answer. To her credit, she doesn't push him. "I made you dinner. It's just spaghetti and garlic bread but my guess is you haven't eaten?"
He laughs just a little at the fact that she's an incorrigible mother hen. She had started working in Queens three months earlier, and because Kathy and Eli had moved a bit further south into Jersey, he is now the closest one to where she has to go every day. Since the first day she'd moved in, his whole world had changed. His dark, simple apartment had filled with throw pillows and paperwork and the sound of late night television. She buys groceries and flowers and she stays up too late on the pullout couch in the living room, reading and talking endlessly to Maureen or her mother.
"No," he shakes his head. "I haven't."
Liz puts her hands on him, turning him and pushing him towards the bedroom. "Shower Dad. Then we're eating and watching Castle. Go."
He acquiesces, heading to his bedroom. He usually lets her lead him. He eats what she makes, he watches what she chooses. He feels grateful for her vibrancy, because she alone put life into this place. And she doesn't easily let him roam the city at night. She wakes when he so much as touches the chain lock on the front door on the nights when he's trying to ease his pounding head.
He closes his bedroom door and starts the shower in the attached bathroom. He doesn't want her to know that tonight his temples are already throbbing. She's told him the night headaches he gets are from anxiety, and he doesn't argue because he's got no other explanation to give her. He'd been to the doctor and there's nothing physically wrong with his head, but the headaches are still debilitating.
They always come at night.
Some nights they are beyond excruciating.
On the worst nights, when he can't find distraction by out-paining the pain with the late night runs or the punching bag, he'll give in and take some Tylenol, but that's all he'll allow himself. He doesn't want to get back to where he used to be.
He strips down and steps under the hot spray, waiting for the water to pound into his head and praying that tonight he'll be able to sleep. It was one thing to suffer through the insomnia and pain when he wasn't working, but now the lack of sleep could become dangerous. He has to stay sharp, strong. He can't fail any of them.
Elliot lifts his head, and the water stabs at his closed eyelids. It hits his cheeks, his lips, his forehead. The water slides down his chest and he swipes his hand over his face.
No one is coming near you or Noah again.
The water is losing to the throbbing of his head. He leans forward, pressing his fists to the shower wall in front of him and bowing so the water hits the back of his neck. His closed eyes are a replay of her as she'd stood there in her office, just watching him. There was a stillness in her today that scared him, because he thinks most people would assume she is holding it all together, unaffected. In charge. Even handling it well.
But he sees her differently than everyone else. He knows better.
He's infinitely grateful to Noah, because that little boy had saved Olivia when everyone else had failed. Without her son, he knows that the resignation inside of her would be far more obvious.
He knows that without Noah, Olivia would have long ago given up and given in.
The memory of how she'd said his name hits him then. The pain expands, seeps down into his neck, his shoulders, his arms and into his fingers. His toes stiffen on the shower floor, his teeth ache. That had been the difference today. He'd seen her before this afternoon, of course. Too many times.
But today, she'd also seen him.
The headache sharpens, strengthens. He drops his head into his hands, pushes his thumbs into his temples. Tonight there will be no outrunning the agony, tonight there will be no dinner or television.
Tonight he will just need the dark and the endurance to simply let the pain have him.