Fault line (n): 1. a planar fracture in rock in which the rock on one side of the fracture has moved with respect to the rock on the other side; 2. a potentially disruptive division or area of contention
Elliot would never in a million years have imagined ending up here. But then again, he'd never in a million years have imagined screwing up his life this badly.
And screw up he had. That's why he was standing in the light pooled beneath a dim porch lamp with his guard all the way down, counting on the magnanimity of his wife, who hadn't said a single word to him in nearly five months, to save him from the aching emptiness that had already consumed his whole life and was now working on taking him too.
"They're asleep," Kathy said quietly. She didn't look him in the eye, but she also didn't slam the door in his face.
So far, things were going better than Elliot had dared to hope for.
"I need to see them." He felt his mouth work to get the words out, but he didn't recognize the voice they were spoken with. Was it possible for someone to sound so devastated, so hopeless, and still be alive?
Kathy turned her head away and held the front door open, letting the chilled night air creep into the house that had once been theirs. "I expected you sooner."
Elliot stared dumbly. His brain was insisting that the open door was an invitation, was permission to enter, but the message wasn't reaching his feet.
"Get inside, Elliot," Kathy commanded quietly.
The gentle edge in her voice spurred him into motion. Mindful of the loose brick he'd tried to fix a thousand times, he climbed the steps, crossed the threshold and entered the house that hadn't been his home for so long now.
There was something surreal about seeing Dickie's gigantic sneakers lying where his own once had, taking up most of the narrow hall. About seeing a coat rack draped exclusively in soft, feminine colours, because – again, just like his father – Dickie tended to toss his jacket in the general direction of the rack and leave it where it landed.
But mostly, Elliot mused, there was something surreal about being greeted by a framed family portrait without him in it.
He had come here for reassurance but all he'd gotten so far was a slap in the face.
Words from the day before, uttered when emotions were running high and adrenaline was at long last bleeding off, rang in his ears.
You and this job are about all I've got anymore.
His wife was gone. His kids – who'd gotten used to a father that flitted in and out of their lives when his work allowed it – had grown up in the blink of an eye and had lives of their own. And now the 'you' in question was gone too.
Elliot was pretty sure his ability to even do his job had gone with her. Cragen hadn't let him test that theory yet.
"Is Olivia okay?"
Kathy's quiet question snapped him back to the here and now. He stared in confusion, watching while she tightened the sash on her robe and wrapped her arms around her torso.
Elliot idly wondered if self-hugs were the only kind she got anymore, now that the kids were all either moody teenagers or independent adults, and her bastard of a husband had let her kick him out of her life.
"The news covered what happened at the bus depot," she explained. "One of the stations got a shot of her walking out, covered in blood and bandages. It looked pretty bad."
It must have, if Kathy was willingly bringing up his partner. Ex-partner. Kathy hated talking about Olivia, mostly because she knew Elliot shared things with Olivia that he'd never share with her.
Kathy thought he was shutting her out. Elliot thought he was protecting her. It was one of many things they couldn't agree on.
"The son of a bitch tried to slit her throat."
The colour drained from Kathy's face, realizing that it could just as easily have been his throat that someone tried to slit. It should have been gratifying to know she still cared. Instead, all he felt was crushing guilt that he wasn't a part of Kathy's life any more and still found ways to hurt her.
"Is she going to be okay?"
"I wouldn't know."
Kathy's eyebrows furrowed in disbelief. "Elliot, what the hell is going on with you?"
"I don't want to talk, Kathy. I came here to see the kids, that's it." He didn't think it was possible to bark and whisper at the same time, but he found a way. He was being harsh with her, hard on her, when all she was trying to do was care. He was pushing her away again.
He was good at that. Pushing away the best things he'd ever had.
Elliot raised his eyebrows, surprised. He'd definitely heard Kathy curse before, but he hadn't heard anything stronger than 'damn' pass her lips in at least three children and one trimester.
He could still remember the day she'd decided they both needed to clean up their teenage vocabularies, before they passed bad habits along to their unborn baby.
"You can pretend all you want, Elliot. But we both know that if this were just about seeing the kids, you would have visited them at school. Whether you admit it or not, we both know you timed this so you'd have to deal with me."
"Right, because I had every reason to believe you'd deal with me," he snarled. After months of stony silence, he'd figured he'd be lucky if she even answered the door.
"Fine. You don't want to talk. God knows I'm used to that," Kathy snapped back. "Just go see the kids. Do whatever it is you need to do, and then get out."
She turned on her heel and started toward the stairs.
Suddenly the house didn't seem so foreign anymore. How many times had he walked through the door late at night and been confronted by an angry wife who wanted to understand why his job was more important than his family, but just couldn't?
How many times had he grit his teeth, bitten his tongue and watched her walk away in silence?
Elliot was sick and tired of silence.
His hand snaked through the darkness, catching her elbow. Kathy turned, eyes wide. Surprise had melted all of the anger away. All that was left on her face was concern for a man she still loved, despite all the time she'd spent pretending to hate him lately.
Fighting back the simmering rage that threatened to take over, Elliot forced two slow, deep breaths in and out of his aching chest.
"Yesterday afternoon, a perp tried to slit my partner's throat," he said quietly. "Last night, he held a gun to my head and tried to talk her into killing me."
"Oh, El." Kathy caught his hand and twined their fingers together. It wasn't until he felt her hand trembling that Elliot realized his own hands were shaking. "Are you…"
"Liv transferred out of SVU this morning," he interrupted. "She left without saying a word to me. I didn't even know she was leaving until she was already gone."
"She'll be back, El," Kathy soothed. "You two are…"
Elliot shook his head, wishing he could shake the memories away. "She scared me so bad, Kath. I saw the knife go across her throat. Saw her fall, bleeding… I thought she was dying right there on the floor in front of me, and I couldn't leave her like that. I chose her over that little boy, and then I had the balls to turn around and blame her for his death."
"You were stressed and angry," Kathy rationalized quietly. "Olivia knows how you can get, and it's not like you two haven't fought before. She'll be back before Don even puts her transfer through. You'll work things out."
Elliot wished he could believe her, but the scenario she'd created didn't seem likely. He'd fought with Olivia before, but never like they had yesterday. Besides, Elliot wasn't even sure it was the fight that had driven her away.
Sitting side by side on a hard hospital bench, not an hour after Olivia had stalled Gitano long enough to save her partner's life, Elliot had been a bastard and told her that unless she could kill him, they couldn't be partners anymore.
He'd backed her into a corner, and Olivia hated corners. He shouldn't have been surprised that she'd run.
"I was so afraid of losing her that I pushed her away," Elliot said. "She trusted me to be the one person in her life that would always be there, and I…."
Pain flashed in Kathy's eyes, and Elliot realized what he'd just said. Who he'd said it to. God, could he be a bigger bastard? Sometimes it seemed the only thing he was good for was hurting the people around him.
"I'm sorry, Kath. I didn't…."
"I know you didn't," she assured. Then calmly, delicately, and oh so gently, she added, "I needed you, El. But I'm learning how to live without you. How to be happy without you."
Elliot had given this moment a lot of thought. He'd always thought it would hurt when he learned that Kathy was moving on without him. He'd expected it to feel like his heart had been ripped out of his chest and run over by the rush hour traffic crawling into Manhattan.
He hadn't expected to feel relief, but he did. A weight lifted off his shoulders with the realization that he hadn't ruined Kathy's life, hadn't ruined her ability to be happy.
Elliot swallowed hard, trying to clear the lump from his throat. "I never meant to hurt you." His voice was thick with sadness, pain, regret and a thousand other emotions he couldn't name.
Kathy gave him a tremulous smile. "I know."
Not for the first time, he marveled at the strength of the woman who'd given him more than two decades of her life. He'd always felt unworthy of Kathy. Moments like this just reminded him how undeserving he'd really been.
"You never meant to hurt her either, El. Olivia knows that."
"But I did hurt her."
"You were scared."
"How can you even stand there and talk to me? You left because I kept putting my job before my family." His voice was weighed down with confusion. "Now you're standing here listening to how I put my partner before my job."
"No, you didn't."
"Kathy, I had two choices: go after a killer holding two kids hostage, or check on my partner. Anyone could have called 911 and put pressure on Liv's neck, but I was the only one armed to take on Gitano. Check on my partner or protect two helpless children. I chose Liv."
"You chose your partner," Kathy reminded. "That is your job."
He blinked at her in confusion.
"Your job is to protect people, including your partner, and her job is to protect you. You have done so much good with SVU, put so many bad people away, Elliot, and you couldn't have done it without Olivia watching your back, and you watching hers.
"I didn't always like your partnership, but I was always grateful for it because I knew she would protect you, no matter what. Even when you two are at each other's throats, she'd die before letting anything happen to you because that's what partners do for one another."
"Husbands are supposed to be there for their wives."
"Yes, they are," Kathy nodded. "And if my life was on the line, I know you would be there."
"In a heartbeat."
Kathy smiled at him tenderly, and for a single moment, it was as if the months since the separation and all the years of hurt before it had never happened.
"She won't stay away for long, El. She can't. She needs you just as much as you need her. She will come back."
"What if she doesn't?"
"Yours is the closest, longest friendship she's ever had, El. She'd be stupid to give that up, and we both know Olivia's not stupid."
Stupid? No. But painfully stubborn and self-flagellating? Hell, yes.
Elliot had been when Cragen broke the news to him this morning, mostly because Olivia had left without saying anything. It was no surprise she'd martyr herself – giving up the job she loved, the job she was so damned good at – because Elliot had been stupid enough to suggest that she'd cost a child his life simply by being there.
"Believe me, El, she'll be back. Life always brings you two back together."
God, how he wanted to believe that was true. Because even though she was standing here in the middle of the night, offering him comfort and reassurance he had no right to ask for, he'd lost Kathy and his kids had lives of their own and there were times when he really felt that the only things he had left were his job and his partner.
He studied his wife seriously, really seeing her for the first time in a painfully long while. She was beautiful, smart, funny, compassionate almost to a fault… "I never really deserved you, did I?"
Kathy smiled at him, warm, tender and just a little bit sad. "You're a good man, Elliot."
As answers went, it was just cryptic enough to keep him guessing.
"Do you still have your key?"
"Lock the door on your way out."
With that, Kathy climbed the stairs, her steps slow and shuffling slightly as she made her way through the darkness. Elliot watched in silence, feeling at peace with his marriage and its inglorious end for the first time.
The anger and resentment that had flowed back and forth between he and Kathy for so long was gone. The gentle reassurances and understanding she'd offered tonight gave him hope that even though they couldn't be married to each other anymore, they could still deal with one another, still relate. Even though they couldn't be husband and wife, Elliot finally had tangible proof that they could still be something vaguely resembling friends.
He knew that mattered if they were still to be parents together. Because even though Maureen and Kathleen were adults now, and Liz and Dickie weren't far behind, Elliot knew he and Kathy would never stop being parents.
And that's why he was here, at the house he no longer shared with his family, in the middle of the night. He would always be a parent and even now, the sight of his children sleeping safe and sound in their beds was like balm for his soul.
Despite all the hurt and anger of the last few months, he loved Kathy for knowing that. For being so willing to let him find his peace here. And she needed to know that, because God knew, he'd never told her how much he appreciated the fact that she just got him when they'd been together.
She turned, seven steps from the top, and looked at him expectantly. "Yeah?"
Suddenly Elliot found he didn't have the words. Just like they had so many times during their marriage, words failed him when he needed them most.
Rather than the heartfelt apologies and gratitude he was dying to heap on her in that moment, he settled for a simple, "Thanks."
She smiled again, the same smile she'd given him one day in tenth grade geography. The one that had made him fall in love with her. It still warmed him from the inside out, just like it had on that cold, grey January day, but the lust was gone. In its place was a rush of warm affection for the woman who had given him a home, a family, and something to live for throughout his adult life.
"Good night, El."
"Good night, Kath."
Elliot stood totally still, searing the sight of Kathy climbing the stairs in her bathrobe into his memory. He knew he wouldn't see it again, and suddenly he regretted not paying more attention to little things like that back when they'd still been together.
He'd taken so many things for granted. Especially when it came Kathy.
When she was gone, Elliot made his way up the stairs, navigating the creaky floorboards from memory. He'd found solace here tonight, but that didn't lessen his need to see his children.
Maybe, just maybe, seeing his children sleeping the sleep of the innocent would be enough to convince Elliot that he didn't ruin everyone he cared about.