It didn't used to be this way.
Olivia stared straight ahead at the closed door in front of her and contemplated whether or not to step through it. But not just step through it. That was the easy part. The hard part was what came next. The hard part was admitting that she wasn't just there on a case. Her eyes darted back and forth across the hallway, and for a brief moment she took a tentative step backward.
The images that raced through her mind haunted her. Elliot. Tybor. Bushido. Elliot. Dale.
Damn it. She closed her eyes. Why did he have to be there? Why did he have to see the truth that she'd fought so hard to bury? And how the hell was she going to explain it to him?
Once. Once she could manage, but two times…yeah, that was never going to happen. She'd known that as she sat across from him, the lump in her throat prohibiting any further conversation. He hadn't tried to talk to her because he had known that she knew the truth. This time was different. This time there was no more pretending there were no other options. This time there was no more pretending she was seeing a weakness in a perp and exploiting it. This time he'd finally realized the truth.
She had lost control.
She wasn't sure how. She wasn't sure when. No, wait…scratch that. That was a lie, and she was supposed to be working toward the truth now.
She had known when. She just wasn't ready to admit it yet. She wasn't ready to admit that her actions were just another item to be checked off on some list of reactions of a sexual assault victim. Oh, wait…the correct term was supposed to be survivor. She didn't want to be a survivor. And she definitely didn't want to be a victim. She just wanted to pretend that nothing had ever happened.
She wondered where that would fall on some damn psychiatrist's list.
Probably under denial—was denial a better place to be?
The door in front of her swung open, exposing her presence. Olivia froze.
Huang stood in the open doorway, his keys in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. The expression on his face looked startled. Or maybe confused. Olivia blinked. Either way, it didn't really matter. She swallowed hard. "Sorry, you're headed out."
"I'll come back…"
"Olivia," he interrupted gently. He nodded toward his office and flipped the light switch back on. "Come on in."
She hated talking about it. Talking about this. She'd tried. And the only thing it had done for her was convince her that words were useless. It was like trying to find a way to tell someone what her job was like. There were simply no man-made words in the entire English language that came close to describing the gut-wrenching world that inundated them day after day. Or to describe what that did to them, how it changed them.
How it led to this.
Huang was still waiting for her to speak, but somehow she still couldn't do it. She couldn't bring herself to give him words because when she finally started to talk about it, she was terrified of what might come out.
"What's going on, Olivia?" he prompted her gently.
Shit. She still hadn't said anything. She glanced around wildly, looking for something, anything to distract her. It wasn't working. And she knew it. "I don't know what to say."
There…that seemed safe.
"Yesterday was a very traumatic day. It's natural to feel overwhelmed."
Olivia shook her head softly. "I'm not just talking about that," she admitted quietly. "It's…it's like everything has changed, and I don't even know who I am anymore."
The words sounded weak to her own ears—vulnerable. Olivia wasn't ready to see the recognition in his eyes when he figured it out. She turned away and studied the edge of the window frame.
She was still studying it when he spoke again. "You mean since Sealview?"
She nodded, her eyes staying focused on the window. Staying focused on anything but his inquisitive gaze. His interpretive words. His determination to strip her of the truth.
God, she was cynical. Here she was asking him for help and mentally tearing him apart all at the same time. She was lucky he hadn't thrown her out yet. Olivia looked up, reluctantly meeting his waiting gaze. "Yeah," she agreed.
"Have you been talking to anybody about it?"
"Not since the last time I was here with you. I don't want to deal with it. I just want to move on, but no matter how hard I try, I can't stop it from affecting me on the job."
There, she'd said it.
She bit down on the corner of her lip and waited for his response.
His voice was gentle when he responded. "How do you think it affects you on the job?"
Olivia swallowed hard. Her eyes dropped away from his. "I let them use me. Use my body. I just put it out there on display like it was some damn piece of property. And I…I don't know what that means."
Huang nodded quietly. "What do you think it means?"
Olivia turned back toward him. She finally took a seat across from him. "Self-medicating with alcohol, hyper-sexual activities, partaking in risky behavior—it's the outward adjustment stage of rape trauma system. George, that much I know, but…"
"Those are clinical expressions, Olivia." Huang added quietly. "That's not what I asked."
Olivia swallowed hard. "I understand why it happens. What I don't understand is how to stop it, how to move forward."
"You've already taken the first step in making that happen."
Olivia's head shot up in surprise. Her breath caught in her throat as she tried to make sense of his words. Finally, she allowed her focus to settle on him. "What are you talking about?"
"Olivia, you're here, and you haven't run away yet. Recovery is not something that's going to happen overnight, but you have to stop being so hard on yourself. You have to stop analyzing what you're going through and just let yourself feel something."
Olivia's voice was trembling when she spoke. "I'm afraid of feeling something."
Huang nodded. "I know," he agreed quietly. "But Olivia, there's no answer out there that's going to just help you get through this. There's not. You want to try to control everything and turn it all into something that's black and white, but the truth is, you just can't. The world is one big shade of gray and when you finally accept that, that's when you can finally start to move forward."
"George, I've screwed up so many things. I don't think that I can ever go back again."
"That's a decision only you can make," Huang responded gently. He studied her carefully. "Do you want to go back?"
She raised her eyes to meet his. "I don't want to listen to someone tell me I can't go back. I just…I can't handle it."
Huang nodded. "You didn't answer the question, Olivia. Do you want to go back?"
She wanted to shrink away from him. She wanted to run before he could demand an answer out of her, but she couldn't do it. She was tired—tired of running, tired of pretending. Tired of the sheer amount of emotional energy it took to pretend that she was fine. She swallowed hard. When she finally answered his question, the single word that slipped out was barely more than a whisper. "Yes."
"Then what are you waiting for?"
Olivia pushed open the door in front of her and froze. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize that you were in the middle of a…" She trailed off and started to turn back around.
"No, stay." Tucker's voice was commanding.
Olivia swallowed hard and quietly stepped back into Cragen's office, closing the door behind her. "Okay." She took a deep breath, her eyes darting over to meet Cragen's. "Look, about what happened yesterday. It was a…"
"A dangerous thing to do," Tucker shot back. "There's no excuse for what you did. It was way off the books not to mention the fact that you were on suspension from the unit and on trial for murder at the time."
Olivia dropped her eyes down to the floor. "I know. I'm sorry."
"I should let you go right now." Tucker glared back at her and hesitated. "But while I don't approve of your actions, you did manage to get a confession out of a man who the Feds have been trying to nail for the last four years," he responded grudgingly. "We convinced Dale we'd transfer him upstate in return for pleading guilty and giving us the names of hundreds of pedophiles."
Olivia's head shot up in surprise.
Tucker's voice was sharp. "That doesn't excuse your actions, but under the circumstances, I'll cut you some slack. You need help, Detective."
Olivia nodded quietly. "I know that now."
"Good, because I guarantee you this is the last chance I'm giving you." He glanced over at Cragen. "Two week suspension without pay while we finish getting all of our paperwork in order." His gaze returned back to Olivia. "And may I suggest that you take that time to get some help."
Olivia's eyes widened as she stared back at Tucker. Her voice was hesitant. "You're letting me come back to work?"
Tucker headed toward the door, his face completely stoic. "Consider it an early Christmas present."
And without another word, he was gone. Olivia's eyes darted over to Cragen. "What the hell just happened?"
"I think Scrooge finally had a change of heart." Cragen drew himself up to his feet. "What do you think about going out to celebrate?"
Olivia paused. Her voice was quiet when she finally spoke. "That's probably not a good idea."
The corner of his lips turned up in a smile. "Holiday party at my house with a little non-alcoholic egg nog?"
"Okay, she agreed quietly. Olivia hesitated. "But there's something I need to do first."
The leaves behind Olivia rustled in the faint wind as if somehow mocking her. Silently she pulled her jacket closer around her. The fabric did little to protect her from a bitter cold only she could feel. A single tear slowly traced a path down her face. She brushed it aside, fighting to maintain her composure. She was so cold, weak, and tired. Olivia tried to fight against it, but she could feel her knees buckling beneath her as she dropped down to the ground. She traced her fingers lightly along the single name embedded in the limestone.
The image began to blur as a second tear slowly slipped out. And then a third. Olivia could feel her lungs restricting, could feel her heart pounding. The world seemed to be spinning out of control, and Olivia allowed it to envelope her. The tears flowed faster than she could brush them aside, and time stood still as her shoulders wracked with deep, aching sobs. Then, as if shaken into reality, she heard the soft footsteps behind her. Olivia drew her gaze up slowly as she sensed Elliot's presence. Her hand self-consciously came up to brush the tears away as he knelt down beside her. His hand rested lightly over her shoulder, stopping her. "Don't." He swallowed hard and offered her the bouquet of roses in his hand. As her eyes darted away from his, he took a deep breath.
She nodded quietly, allowing her eyes to fall to the ground as she gently set the flowers next to the barren earth. Olivia slowly drew her gaze back up to meet his eyes. "I never got to say goodbye." Her shoulders fell forward as her hand settled lightly on her stomach. "When I woke up in the hospital, I knew that something was wrong. I just felt so empty."
Silence enveloped them for a long moment before Elliot finally spoke. "You know, Liv. Sometimes it's okay to cry."
Olivia's lower lip began to tremble, her eyes shimmering with a fresh sheen of tears. She drew in a shaky breath. "As soon as the doctor came to my room, I knew they were both gone. My mother took me home from the hospital, and I…I never came here. Not even when I moved in with Liz to help her take care of the kids. I just…I couldn't do it, El."
Elliot nodded quietly and sensing her need to be alone, he rocked back on his heels and drew himself to his feet. Olivia never saw him leave. She pressed her palm lightly against the coarse stone, allowing her eyes to slide closed as she felt the cold seep into her body. Her hair fell forward in her face as if shielding her from the guilt and numbness swirling around her. She let the emotions drain out of her until the only thing remaining was an aching sorrow that she had pushed away for the last twenty-three years.
Her eyes fluttered open and settled on the bouquet of roses in front of her. Swallowing the knot in her throat, Olivia reached forward and removed a single rose. She drew it to her lips one final time before allowing it to rest on the ground, nestled between the tombstone and the rest of the bouquet. When she finally spoke, her voice was barely more than a whisper. "I love you."
As she drew herself to her feet, Cragen came up behind her. "Are you ready?"
Olivia nodded silently and slowly raised her eyes up to meet his. "Thank you." She allowed her eyes to sweep over to where Munch, Fin, Elliot, and Alex stood waiting for her. She brushed back the final traces of tears, her lips twisting upward in a small smile. "I think I'm ready for that egg nog now."
"Then it sounds like to a Christmas party we go," Alex suggested lightly.
"Must I remind you that although 76% of the US population identifies themselves with some derivative of Christianity, the little guys left behind spend every year sitting at home twiddling their thumbs and reflecting on the fact that the world around them has virtually shut down for one day of the year."
Fin rolled his eyes. "Come on, man. Mazel tov. Get over it."
"I've finally figured it out."
Elliot glanced around the room. He shrugged his shoulders and nudged his glass away from the edge of the coffee table. "All right, I'll bite. You finally figured what out, John?"
"This whole family thing. It's a conspiracy." Munch raised the mug in his hands to his lips and waited for a response to his declaration.
"Oh, this should be good," Fin muttered under his breath.
Olivia's eyes met Munch's from across the room and suddenly she understood. Her heart pulled inside her chest at the unspoken words between them.
There were words that when spoken, were approached with such a degree of caution that sometimes she wanted to pretend they didn't exist. Marriage. Husband. Family. All three now added to some list of words never to be spoken in her presence. Along with child of rape, abortion, and father. She wanted to be normal again, wanted to ignore the words that spilled forth without meaning rather than decipher those left out in order to not upset her. Olivia smiled softly. "What kind of conspiracy, John?" she asked lightly.
Fin rolled his eyes at her. "Please don't encourage him," he managed, reaching for the mug in front of him and throwing back the rest of his drink.
Munch's eyes narrowed. "You jest, but it's true." He sighed. "It only took me four times to figure it out."
Cragen crossed his arms in front of him and leaned forward interested. "So you've finally figured out what went wrong?" he asked, the tone of his voice amused.
Munch shook his head. "What went wrong with my marriage, no."
"Don't you mean marriages?" Fin inserted.
"Yeah, whatever. It's irrelevant. The point I'm trying to make here is that it's nothing more than an economic conspiracy to drain you of every last penny you have left. Seriously, think about it. The whole concept of a family was to create a socially acceptable means of procreation with two sexually exclusive individuals."
"Yeah, so what's wrong with that?" Alex countered, glancing over at him with amusement. "I mean besides the fact that clearly sexually exclusive is a relative term that in no way represents a marital alliance."
"What's wrong is that the very principle behind it has been completely commercialized and turned into an industry meant to generate outlandish profits at the expense of the American people." He took a deep breath, his face completely serious. "You know the average cost of a wedding is approximately $30,000. That doesn't even take into consideration wedding and shower gifts. On top of that, you're paying the state for the marriage license itself. And what are you really getting out of it in the end besides heart break, lawyer's fees, and a settlement that's guaranteed to plague you for the rest of your life?"
"I don't know, John," Elliot returned. "Somebody to share your life with."
Munch nodded eagerly at his response. "Exactly—how many times when you and Kathy were married did you ever share anything with her about your life at this job?" There was silence around the room. Munch smirked in satisfaction. "Yeah, I thought so. Now how many times have you shared that with Olivia? There's no benefit to being married, so why get married at all? Why pay all that money for the state to recognize that you've screwed up?"
"I don't know, John. Some people want to have children," Alex attempted tentatively, carefully watching the expression on Olivia's face.
Olivia shook her head. "Children are not mutually exclusive to a marriage," she countered.
"Exactly," Munch declared triumphantly. "Today, the state pays for couples to have children. It's turned into a commercialized business that's based on your status in the system, not on your ability to take care of a child."
"Well, I won't argue with that," Elliot agreed, looking back over at Olivia.
She smiled reassuringly at him. "I'm fine," she whispered. He nodded.
And before anyone could say anything else, Alex's phone rang. "Sorry guys. I'd love to hear more about it, but duty calls."
As she stepped away for a moment, Fin looked back at his partner. "Fine, families are a conspiracy," he agreed. "Now can we just drop it?"
Alex came back up beside them. "Sounds like an excellent idea to me." She crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight uneasily. "I'm beat. What do you say we call it a night?"
Elliot nodded. "Sounds like a great idea. Anyone else ready to get out of here?"
Olivia drew herself to her feet. "Sure, somehow not working is far more exhausting than actually working," she conceded. She turned back toward Elliot and grabbed the jacket he tossed at her.
As everyone else started to walk toward the door, Cragen reached out to grab Alex's arm and pull her back toward him, his face suddenly serious. "Not so fast. You want to tell me why you're in such a hurry to get out of here?" he asked softly.
She nodded. "Yeah, that was Jack McCoy. The DA's office did everything they could to keep Olivia's trial out of the media, but apparently some bloodhound over in the courthouse caught word and one case managed to slip through the cracks before they quashed all the others."
Cragen studied her face carefully. "That was to be expected," he added. "We knew that might be a problem going into this so why the long face? Who's the bastard they let out?"
Alex hesitated. The name that rolled off of her tongue stopped him dead in his tracks. "Richard White."
Author's Note: Thanks everyone for making it all the way through with me. It's been a fun journey. I hope you'll take a moment to let me know what you think. And yes, I did leave you with a cliffhanger...let me know what you think about an eventual sequel?