Kathy is a Stabler because of a baby.
She knows this and has never resented it. At seventeen she was fun and beautiful and the whole world had been at her feet, waiting to be traversed. Elliot Stabler was handsome, a good kid with just enough of an edge to make him seem like a bad boy without actually being intimidating. A Catholic boy, even, and there was something about that that Kathy had found … romantic, maybe.
They’re not thinking about the future when Kathy lets Elliot drive her to the lookout point that they both know has a certain reputation, or when she lets him put his hand up her shirt. The future is for tomorrow; tonight is all about the moment, and having fun.
The future twists and warps when Kathy pees on a stick eight weeks later and is rewarded with two pink lines. She’s going to be a nurse, damnit, she’s going to college and making something of herself. She can’t be a mother.
But she is - she’s a mother right now and there is a tiny life growing in her still flat stomach, and that’s the single most terrifying thought she’s ever had.
Kathy knows a little bit about Elliot’s home life, but not a lot. It’s not happy, exactly, but Kathy has seen just enough of her friends’ lives in school to know that most home lives are not what they’re made out to be. She is terrified to tell him what they’ve done, what they’ve made, but she doesn’t waste any time. He needs to know; he has a right to know.
She absolutely does not let herself think about what will happen if he turns her away and denies any culpability. Elliot is a good young man, the son of a cop. He won’t leave her to face this unexpected future alone.
And he doesn’t. Kathy doesn’t expect the marriage proposal, but she accepts it immediately. She’s never imagined that her life could take a turn like this but she knows in an instant that she does not want to navigate this road alone. Elliot is a good boy, and she’s a bright girl, and together they will build a life that they can be proud of - even if they look at each other sometimes and wonder if they would choose differently, given the chance.
After high school, Elliot joins the Marines. He’s determined to support his family and there’s something about the military that Kathy knows draws him in. The sense of community and camaraderie in the service is binding in a way that little else is, and Kathy thinks that part of the draw also lies in Elliot’s savior complex. He wants to be part of something greater, something noble; he wants to live a life of service. He’s loyal and self-sacrificing and those traits are more at home in the service than anywhere else.
Kathy loves and admires him for it. She’s proud of her Marine husband even though he works long hours and is part of something she can’t say she’ll ever understand.
It’s fitting, Kathy surmises, when he comes home with his first tattoo: Jesus crucified on the cross. She’s not the tattoo type herself, but she doesn’t hate them on Elliot. It reminds her again of that bad boy edge that had first fascinated her about him in high school. Too good to be a certified bad boy, but too close to the edge to be a boring goody-two-shoes.
His second tattoo isn’t a surprise either: the Marine crest. These are things that define her husband, but - and she’ll never admit this - they’re also a way of marking him as ‘other’. Kathy goes to church but she’s not particularly devout. Elliot knew that about her when they met and it’s not something he tries to change about her now. Sometimes they go to church together, and sometimes they don’t, but Elliot is the only one that goes to confession.
Elliot’s tattoos are reminders in a way. Her devotion is to her family: to Maureen, who is a predominantly happy baby, and Elliot, and any future children they might have. Kathy is still pursuing her dream to become a nurse but she knows that the moment she found out about the baby her focus shifted. Having a baby has changed more than just her future - it’s changed her whole outlook on life. Elliot is devoted to his family as well, but his tattoos are a physical reminder that there is something else that has his devotion; something else that he is committed to. Religion, and the Marines: things that are greater than himself, and them.
And really, how can Kathy fault him for that?
Elliot is great with Maureen. He’s great with kids in general, which has both surprised and delighted Kathy. The learning curve is steep for both of them and there’s a lot of growing pains, but no one can accuse Elliot of being an uncaring father. Circumstances dictate that he’s not around as much as Kathy might like, but when he is, his delight in his family is apparent. He’s proud of them, Kathy and Maureen, and his drive to provide for them is both reassuring and romantic.
It’s not how they imagined, but they’re building a good life. What’s not to be thankful for?
And if Kathy looks at her husband sometimes and thinks that there are parts of him that she can’t reach, and that he won’t share with her, well … good isn’t perfect, and perfect doesn’t exist.
There are things she doesn’t share with him either, not fully, so no harm done.
After Maureen there’s Kathleen, and Elliot leaves the Marines to become a cop. They move to Queens and it feels like a small triumph to be in the suburbs. Kathy would have thought it impossible, but as a cop her husband is home less than he was as a Marine. He tells her that it’s just the nature of the job, that he’s a rookie and it’ll take time to work his way up the ladder far enough to have some semblance of a routine.
Kathy nods and lets him reassure her, and says nothing about how she’s heard just enough talk in her new Police Wives support group to know that it’s never going to get any better.
Being on the Force gives Elliot that sense of service and belonging that Kathy knows now is integral to his sense of being. He needs to be part of something greater even if that something takes him away from his family for long hours and dogs his feet on hard nights when he comes home.
It’s not that Kathy hates it. She has her girls and her nursing career, and that’s enough to keep anyone busy. Elliot dotes on his daughters and does his best by Kathy. They have a good relationship for the most part. Elliot is cranky and melancholy sometimes when he comes home, and at first she tries to ask him about it. “Talk to me,” she says, and when he does it’s only the bare minimum. He doesn’t want to bring the horrors home, Elliot tells her, and it’s just another line that he puts between them that Kathy eventually learns she can’t cross.
Whatever he sees out there can’t be so bad, Kathy thinks. After all, she’s a nurse. Where does he think all those drive by shooting victims and back alley stabbings go when they’re not fatal?
The day Elliot is transferred to the Special Victims Unit, the fabric of their lives is altered forever.
Elliot has never been the most open man. In fact, if Kathy could change one thing about him it would be this. He’s never been one to share what’s on his mind. Even in high school he’d been quiet and reserved with the important things. He can be charming and gregarious, and often is when he needs to be, but you can spend an entire evening with him and realize after walking away that you know little about him.
Part of that is because of his family. Kathy has met Bernie and Joe, and heard a few spare stories about Elliot’s life growing up, and she knows that it’s not something that he wants to dwell on. Joe Stabler was a cop and while his son has become one too, it’s not to prove that he’s like his old man. In fact, he’s hell bent on proving that he’s not another Joe Stabler.
So, Kathy is familiar with the locked doors in the labyrinth of her husband’s heart. They’ve been through this before with the Marines and the three rookie years, but SVU is an altogether different beast.
Whatever it is that Elliot sees in his day to day now is as much a mystery to Kathy as anything could be. He refuses to talk about it even in surface level terms. That line he’s placed between them slowly starts to grow, and widen, inch by visible inch. Kathy tries to bridge the growing gap but Elliot won’t have it, so she’s helpless to do anything but watch as it widens into what will one day be a chasm.
There are other things to worry about. His new partner is a woman, and Kathy is immediately wary.
“What’s she like?” Kathy asks one evening.
Elliot shrugs. They’re sitting shoulder to shoulder on their couch after dinner; Elliot has a beer in one hand.
“She’s green, but she’s smart, quick on her feet. Good qualities for a detective. Not sure she’ll last long in SVU, but I guess we’ll see.”
Kathy is used to this. Elliot’s explanation is short and straight to the point: he relates the facts and nothing more. There is nothing in his description to cause concern: no hint of warmth or admiration in his tone to suggest anything but detachment.
Still, her stomach rolls uneasily. Her husband’s new partner is a woman. Smart, quick on her feet, and part of a world that Kathy can’t imagine. Hasn’t tried overly hard to imagine - until now.
She meant to tell him earlier, and in a better way, but she feels uneasy and off-center now.
Elliot is happy about it, she can tell by the way he smiles and kisses her and then smiles again. Elliot is from a big family and he loves kids. Kathy is happy too, but she thinks they’ll have to have a talk soon. Maybe three kids is enough: after all, nursing isn’t known for its short shifts either and she’s not ready to give up on a career that she’s worked so hard to obtain.
Kathy tells herself that she’s worrying about nothing. Women are everywhere, and she knows that Elliot worked with women in the Marines, and this woman will be no different. They have a good life and Elliot is as devoted now to caring and providing for his family as he’s ever been.
They have a baby on the way, and her husband comes home at night, and they’ve successfully navigated the unknown together since they were seventeen. Nothing needs to change just because his new partner is a woman.
It changes anyway.
Kathy doesn’t go to the precinct often. Being a cop isn’t one of those jobs that lends itself well to surprise drop ins by visiting friends, or relatives, or family members. The precinct is a hive of activity, constantly buzzing and moving and alive; there’s tension and harsh language and pictures of victims and corpses and killers on desks and whiteboards.
She’s not afraid - she is a nurse, after all, and she’s never been squeamish - but Kathy admits in the privacy of her mind that she struggles to understand how her husband can inhabit this world. She doesn’t think any less of him because of it. Quite the opposite, actually: he’s one of the strongest people she knows, to live in the horror of it and remain determined to do some good.
Kathy doesn’t mean to, or even want to at first, but it’s not long before she starts to think the same about Olivia. She doesn’t know the other woman. Kathy has met her once in a rushing, passing fashion - a handful of breaths in which Elliot made the quick introduction, the women said short hellos, and then they were off again on a call - until ....
Until the house calls. Until Olivia shows up at their house at night and Kathy can’t hear her husband’s words, but she doesn’t miss the anger in Olivia’s tone as she snaps at him. Kathy isn’t trying to eavesdrop, exactly. She just … needs to know what has brought the other woman to their house at this hour.
Wishes she had some kind of context for the upset, for the way her husband keeps his tone so even and sits calmly as Olivia turns on her heel and marches off.
Whatever the reason for it, Elliot must think that Olivia’s anger is justified. He doesn’t raise his voice at her, doesn’t rise to the bait she throws the way Kathy knows he would if he were truly angry. Kathy has fought with him enough to be well acquainted with his anger, but it doesn’t make an appearance this evening.
Just a disagreement, Elliot tells her when he comes back inside.
It’s as if some sort of barrier has been broken. Elliot has always been careful with how his work and his home life mix - if he allows them to do so at all - but Olivia … Olivia has been granted some kind of immunity from this rule. She’s the exception (and the moment Kathy has that thought it never, ever goes away), and though she doesn’t exercise that power often, it’s enough for Kathy that she does.
It’s enough that Olivia comes by the house.
Kathy is not an exception to Elliot’s rule. Kathy is solidly on the “Home” side of her husband’s self-imposed, long enforced rule; she doesn’t intend to, but after the second time Olivia shows up at their house Kathy begins to wonder how it is that this woman does what she does. How, in just two or three short years, she has managed to exist on both sides of the line.
Olivia Benson is the only woman that Kathy has ever met who can walk through walls. She doesn’t even know she’s doing it, really, and Kathy wants to hate her for it - maybe part of her does - wants to believe that she’s wrong, but she knows that she’s not.
Kathy knows Olivia can walk through walls, because she keeps walking through theirs.
Kathy is too afraid to wonder whether or not Elliot realizes it … if he wants her to, and lets her do it on purpose.
She’s always had a curious nature. Kathy lies to herself that this is why she does it: because she’s curious, and nothing more. It’s not a subtle challenge, or an attempt to affirm a hunch that she won’t even let herself admit to having. It’s just curiosity.
The chaos of the precinct isn’t unlike that of the hospital. The voices are louder, because there’s no concern about HIPAA violations or sleeping, ill people - or maybe it’s because there are so many people in a relatively small space, their desks pushed together in rows that are neat even if the desktops are not.
It’s easy to stand a little out of the doorway and stay unnoticed for a few short minutes. Kathy knows that she’s out of place here: she doesn’t move like these people, doesn’t radiate their intensity and move at their frenetic pace.
She shouldn’t have brought the twins, but Elliot has been working for more than thirty-six hours straight at this point and they miss him.
He and Olivia are sniping at each other. The bullpen is packed and everyone is on edge, and the tension is palpable even from here, but they’re the only ones arguing. It’s exhaustion and not true anger. Kathy has seen it before on long nights in the hospital.
Elliot hasn’t seen his family in three days … but he’s spent thirty-six straight hours with Olivia.
Kathy isn’t jealous, but it does something to her to know that.
But Elliot is happy to see her and the twins, and he looks so exhausted and grateful for a clean shirt and a toothbrush and Kathy thinks, even half dead on his feet this is what gives him purpose. The fight; the try.
And then Olivia is calling his name and it’s like neither one of them remember that they were snapping at each just minutes before. Olivia calls, and Elliot responds. Just like that, Kathy is left holding the forgotten shirt and Elliot is gone, but she smiles anyway because she’s here.
Maybe she can walk through walls, too.
Time teaches Kathy just how wrong she is.
There is a difference between crossing lines and walking through walls, and while she is sometimes granted the grace to do the former, she’s never truly had the ability to do the latter.
Only, the years keep coming - and so does Olivia. Kathy doesn’t think she even knows she’s doing it. But Elliot keeps bringing her home, pushing (or pulling) her over the line from work to home when he brings home his silence, exhaustion, and anger.
“Do you talk to Olivia about it?” Kathy asks once when Elliot won’t talk to her about it.
“She’s my partner,” he answers.
As if that’s the end of it, when Kathy has learned - is still learning every day - that an end is the one thing that Elliot and Olivia don’t seem to have.
When she’s beginning to see that the only end that’s coming might actually be sitting in the space between them.
But Kathy loves her family, she does, and they have built something great despite the circumstances of their beginning. Elliot is a good man. She knows that he loves her, and their children, and that it’s only his innate need to serve - to be part of something meaningful and bigger than himself - that drives him to careers that take him away from them.
From what they’ve built.
She’s proud of his service in the Marines, and the NYPD, and she’s proud of what they have.
But she’s never been committed to religion the way her husband has, to Jesus and his teachings, so Kathy hopes that she’ll be forgiven for forgetting that pride is a sin.
Elliot rages when Kathy tells him she’s leaving. They argue, and even in the height of their anger when their words are the sharpest, she knows that he doesn’t understand. Elliot insists that he’s a good husband and that he works hard to provide for his family, and that is one thing that Kathy will never disagree with. She tries to make him believe, make him see despite their anger, that she knows those things are true - and that’s not why she’s leaving.
There is more to providing than food, and finances, and a place to sleep. She’s tired of being alone when they’re in the same room; she’s tired of watching the chasm between them grow and knowing that they could cross it if only Elliot would try.
She’s tired of all the walls, and being shut out.
The job keeps taking him away, anyway. Long hours away from her, and their family - long hours spent with his partner instead of his wife. Kathy understands that this is one of the truths that goes with the territory: she has heard too many fellow police wives joke that the job is the real wife, and they’re just the mistresses. Kathy hasn’t laughed at that joke in years.
Force first, family second, those wives parrot. It’s their unofficial tagline, and most of them say it with laughter on their lips and only fleeting regret.
But Kathy sees them, her husband and his partner, and thinks that’s not the right order at all. Maybe it started that way, because the beginning is always different, but that’s not what Kathy sees now, six years down the line.
No, Elliot’s order has always been a little different. Sometimes it’s his family and then the force, and sometimes it’s the force and then his family, and that’s a dynamic that he has always struggled with, but it’s not what makes Kathy’s stomach turn sour any time she stops to think about it.
It’s that at some point in the last six years Olivia has slipped to the front of that list - and there doesn’t seem to be any hope of uprooting her.
Leaving is the right thing to do. For Kathy, for Elliot, maybe even for the kids in the long run. Elliot doesn’t agree, of course, and he’s a stubborn asshole when he wants to be. He refuses to sign the papers.
“How can you just walk away?” He demands of her.
As if it’s easy, Kathy thinks. As if he hasn’t been walking away, step by subtle step, for years.
Even when he moves out, Elliot won’t relent. He won’t sign the papers no matter how Kathy rationalizes with him, or yells at him, or outright begs him to do so. Kathy thinks about giving in, but she knows that it won’t change anything. Elliot isn’t clinging so tightly to her because he can’t stand to lose her: he’s clinging to something that he doesn’t know how to define himself outside of, something that, as long as he has it, means that he has not failed.
Family is everything to Elliot. It hurts Kathy to take that away from him in any capacity, but not more than it hurts her to be alone in her husband’s presence. Not more than it hurts her to look at him and know that there are parts of him that he will never share with her.
Kathy knows what to do. She knows where to find the secret weapon that she has avoided using for so long, but she is so tired of the fight; so tired of speaking, and not being listened to.
She knows who Elliot will listen to.
The precinct is busy, but not chaotic when Kathy arrives. She spots her husband: his back is to her as he crosses the room to the coffee pot. He pulls two cups off the hooks on the stairs and pours coffee into one, and hot water into the other. He grabs a packet of something that Kathy can’t see.
“There any donuts left?” Munch asks.
“Bear claw,” Fin replies.
“Olivia has the last maple bar,” Elliot says dryly.
Olivia is standing in front of the whiteboard and does, indeed, have a donut in one hand. She doesn’t even look up from whatever she’s studying.
“You snooze, you lose.”
Elliot brings both coffee cups with him. Kathy watches in fascination as it happens: he extends one of the cups toward Olivia as he approaches, and she turns her wrist and holds it away from her, toward Elliot. Olivia takes the coffee cup without looking; Elliot cranes his neck and takes a bite out of the donut, her hand bumping his chin as he does so.
“You’re making the lunch run today,” Fin grumbles from his desk.
“Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” Munch teases.
“I was up late,” Fin snaps.
“Have some coffee,” Munch says.
“I’ll make you some tea,” Olivia offers.
Elliot laughs. “Would you stop with that already, we don’t want your flower water.”
“I always knew you were a flower child at heart, Olivia.” Munch smiles at her as he says it. “That's why you’re my favorite.”
Olivia laughs. In the hall, Kathy’s heart constricts. It’s unconventional, but this is a family. These people spend hours together: they fight, and laugh, and have inside jokes. They tease each other, and care for each other … they have made a home out of this room, stuffed as it is with desks and depravity and death.
Elliot has spent the last eight years with these people - with Olivia - building something that Kathy will never be a part of. He needs stability, and this is where he’ll find it.
These connections are what will pull him through.
Kathy leaves before anyone has seen her. When she’s outside, she fishes her cell phone out of her pocket and dials Olivia’s desk number.
“Benson,” Olivia answers curtly. As if she hadn’t been eating a donut and laughing a few short minutes ago.
“Hi, Olivia,” Kathy says on a breath.
“Kathy.” Her surprise is evident.
“I, uh, was wondering if you’d meet me. Everything is fine,” she hurries to add. “I just … I’d like to talk, if that’s okay.”
“Sure,” Olivia answers after a moment. She sounds anything but. “When?”
“Ten minutes? The park?”
“And Olivia? I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention this to Elliot.”
This isn’t the easiest thing Kathy has ever done. Talking to Olivia, of all people, about the state of her marriage is … well, it goes against her natural instinct.
But Kathy tells herself that this is Olivia, and that despite everything else, her husband’s partner has never done anything but watch out for their family. The divorce isn’t Olivia’s fault.
It means a lot to Kathy, the way Olivia tries to reassure her. The way she tells her, so earnestly, that Elliot talks about her and the kids all the time. For all of the times Kathy has privately resented this woman and her ability to traverse spaces that Kathy can’t, Olivia has never tried to hurt her.
Even now, Elliot’s partner is trying to make a last ditch effort to preserve something that she’s not part of.
Kathy thinks she might love Olivia for that, a little. Might understand, just a little, why Elliot is so taken with her - even if he won’t admit it.
The way they communicate without speaking is almost unnerving.
They’ve been partners for years and worked long hours side by side, so Kathy assumes this … intimacy is just a result of all that time spent and invested. Assumes, because she wouldn’t know - she’s never experienced this kind of bond with anyone.
Including her husband.
After Eli is born there’s a new layer to Kathy and Olivia’s tentative friendship. Kathy only remembers bits and pieces of what happened, but she knows that Olivia was with her every step of the way and was instrumental in getting her out of that car and to the hospital.
Months later, she invites Olivia over for dinner. A chance for a proper thank you Kathy explains, and won’t listen to Olivia’s protestations and insistence that it’s not necessary.
It’s not weird having Olivia in their house, exactly. She’s been here before, several times throughout the years for different reasons, but this isn’t the same. Olivia isn’t here because of a case, or Elliot. She’s here because Kathy has asked her to be, and that’s a first.
Kathy is nervous but no one else needs to know that, and Olivia is great with the kids. Especially Eli. She jumps at the chance to hold him and is content to make faces at him and bounce him on her leg or sway with him on her hip as the three adults visit in the kitchen while Kathy makes dinner.
They only talk about work in broad terms. What would Olivia be doing if she wasn’t in SVU (nothing - it’s a calling to her more than a job, even on the days when she wishes it weren’t); does she ever get tired of being the only woman (sometimes, when the men are particularly stubborn and pigheaded, and Kathy doesn’t miss the teasing smirk she gives Elliot and the entirely unannoyed way he rolls his eyes in response).
Olivia is sitting at the kitchen table, her attention on Eli, when Elliot pauses what he’s doing to grab a cold bottle of water out of the fridge, pop open the lid, and set it in front of her on the table. Kathy stares at the bottle for a second and the way Olivia reaches for it with barely a glance at Elliot. She hasn’t said anything about being thirsty, but she doesn’t seem at all surprised to find the drink suddenly in front of her.
When the table has been set and dinner is ready, Elliot calls the kids in. He takes one look at Olivia and grins.
“You know, we usually put him down for dinner.”
“He’s no problem, El.”
“You say that now. Wait until those chunky little baby arms are knocking your fork out of your hand.”
But Olivia doesn’t change her mind, and Kathy watches in a quiet, almost morbid sort of fascination as Elliot prepares two plates. His, and Olivia’s. He doesn’t look over his shoulder once to ask her what she wants. When he’s done and sets the plate down in front of her Olivia smiles her thanks at him and doesn’t check to make sure that he got it right.
Kathy has always worried about Olivia. She knows enough about her now to know, to some degree, that even if Elliot tries to cross that line Olivia won’t let him. But that is a small consolation in the face of this truth. There is a closeness and a bond between them that’s almost too deep for Kathy to fathom.
Elliot and Olivia may not have crossed that line - may never cross that line - but this is the moment that Kathy first begins to understand that she is sharing her husband.
Those pieces that Elliot won’t share with her … those are Olivia’s. For nine years, Olivia has crossed lines and walked through walls, moving freely between “home” and “work” in ways that Kathy has never been able to; she exists in places she shouldn’t, in places that she doesn’t know or recognize.
The twins are bickering and Elliot is chiding them for insulting each other at the dinner table, and Eli reaches out a chubby hand before Olivia can stop him and knocks her fork off the side of her plate with a clatter; Olivia laughs despite the clump of macaroni salad that falls into her lap, and Elliot stands and retrieves a clean fork as Olivia bends down to pick the other one up off the floor.
He doesn’t say anything as he switches out the forks, but Kathy reads it in her husband’s expression as he catches Olivia’s gaze: Told you so. And it’s … painful, in a way, to watch as Olivia glares at him without any heat and tips her head in his direction and responds as if he’s said it out loud.
“Shut up,” Olivia says, and even though Kathy hears it the words are spoken softly, in a teasing way that she doesn’t think is meant for anyone else.
“C’mon,” Elliot replies, and damn if Olivia doesn’t know what he means even though he doesn’t say anything else.
Olivia lifts Eli out of her lap and holds him up for Elliot to take him, and Kathy is certain that there’s a knife stuck somewhere in her ribcage.
Kathy became a Stabler because of a baby, and she’s stayed a Stabler because of a baby. She has never resented that, and even though he’s unexpected and the timing of his conception wasn’t ideal, Eli is a gift.
But in this moment, watching Olivia smile sweetly at a gurgling Eli as she passes him off to Elliot, Kathy’s heart hurts. She can see a different life in front of her, a different future, and she doesn’t know who she is hurting for: maybe all three of them.
After all the years and all of the crossings, Kathy knows that there’s one line that Elliot and Olivia haven’t crossed because if they had … if they had, then this moment would not exist.
Is that the only line that remains because it’s the only one that Olivia can’t cross - or because it’s the only one that she has chosen not to approach?
Kathy tries not to think about it. She gets after the twins again when they start to argue, and then makes sure they rinse off their dishes before leaving them in the sink and disappearing back upstairs. She asks Olivia harmless questions and makes easy conversation, and throughout it all she unconsciously catalogs all the differences in the way they communicate as compared to how Olivia and Elliot do.
She takes her plate to the sink during a lull in the conversation. It doesn’t last long: Kathy has barely reached the sink before she hears Olivia speak, though not to her.
“Really, El?” she deadpans.
“I saved you the last of the chow mein,” he replies, unbothered.
Kathy turns just enough to see them. They’re not paying attention to her, but she turns on the water in the sink and pretends to be busy just in case. Elliot has leaned forward onto his elbows, which are resting on the table, and reaches over to grab another piece of macaroni salad from Olivia’s plate.
“That was the least you could do after leaving me alone with DeSantos for three hours.”
“I knew he’d respond better to you.”
“You’re making more of a mess than Eli did,” Olivia points out, and takes a last bite before holding the handle of her fork out for Elliot to take.
They’re both leaning forward on the table now, though Elliot is more stretched out, and then Olivia pushes her plate further into the space between them to make it easier for him to reach.
“Do you think if we’d figured it out sooner ...” Olivia starts quietly. Eli is gurgling happily in his high chair and smacking his hand into the plastic table, and the twins can be heard arguing again upstairs, but she keeps her voice low.
Elliot swallows the bite he’s just taken. “Don’t go there, Liv.”
“Finish your food,” Elliot responds and holds the fork out toward her with the last bite of macaroni salad.
Olivia rolls her eyes but takes the bite, and then Elliot puts the fork on the plate and Kathy has a split second to face the sink and pretend like she’s been washing the dishes the whole time.
“Dinner was delicious, Kathy. Thank you.”
“No thanks necessary,” Kathy answers warmly.
Elliot leans over her shoulder to put Olivia’s empty plate in the sink. “That was great, Kath,” he says and kisses her temple.
Olivia doesn’t stay long after that. She says her goodbyes to Kathy and Eli, and Elliot walks her to the door; Kathy can hear them talking as they go and then both of their voices disappear as they step outside and Elliot closes the door behind them.
That’s fitting, Kathy thinks. Maybe what are walls - Elliot’s walls - to Kathy are only doors to Olivia, and while she’s free to move between them Kathy is bound to always remain on one side.
And that’s not such a terrible thing, in the end. Kathy has her children, and Elliot came back when she asked, so she can live with the knowledge that she’s sharing her husband. Not in the physical sense, but mentally, emotionally … he is as much Olivia’s as he is Kathy’s. More, even.
Kathy’s not sure that it’s a balance they can maintain forever, but for now she’ll find a way to be okay with it. Because Olivia saved her life, and Eli’s life, and she sends Elliot home at the end of the night … and because, despite all of the pieces of himself that Elliot has given her, Olivia has never tried to walk through that last wall or open that last door.
Kathy does not let herself wonder if that door is locked from Olivia’s side, or Elliot’s, or not at all.
She does not let herself wonder what will happen if, one day, one of them tries to open it.
(Kathy doesn’t know - can’t know, will never know - that the closest they’ve ever come to opening that door is in a moment of danger, hardly an hour after Olivia appears on her doorstep and convinces her not to leave her husband.
She doesn’t know that the only weapon Olivia has in that moment to keep them both alive is her body, and that even though it works … it rattles that door.
It rattles them.
What Kathy does know is that things change, again, after that).
If Kathy Stabler has to share her husband, she could do a lot worse than sharing him with Olivia Benson.
She learns this in bits and pieces, in starts and stops; she learns it through Olivia herself, and people she hardly knows, and people she loves.
Dani Beck teaches her that even though Kathy doesn’t technically have anything to worry about then, because the decision to separate has already been made. Kathy calls her The Stunner in the privacy of her thoughts, and immediately dislikes her. She immediately compares Dani to Olivia, and damn if that isn’t some kind of messed up.
Damn if Elliot must not do the same thing, day in and day out, if Kathy’s first instinct is to measure this new woman against the imprint of the one who left.
And that’s its own brand of unbelievable, really, that Olivia would ever choose to leave Elliot.
But Olivia comes back, and so does Kathy, and she wonders if this is some kind of twisted dance that the three of them are cosmically stuck in. Kathy wants to resent it, wants to regret the circumstances and the choices that keep them stuck in this endless orbit, but she doesn’t. Not after Dani Beck.
Dani Beck can’t walk through walls like Olivia can - and they’re walls for Dani, Kathy somehow knows, like they’re walls for her - but she knows in her heart that if it had been Dani by Elliot’s side all of these years then her marriage would have ended a lot sooner. The Stunner would have taken one look at The Door and thrown it open wide (or done her best to try).
But if Kathy finds the reality of Olivia daunting, Dani finds the memory of her to be insurmountable. Kathy doesn’t know what drives Dani away, only that she is gone as suddenly as she arrived. Couldn’t handle the victims, Elliot tells her one day, and Kathy thinks again of Olivia.
Olivia, who has lasted eight years in whatever hell she shares with Elliot, and respects The Door, and sometimes fights for their family like it matters to her … and comes back.
Kathy doesn’t know why she cares that Olivia doesn’t like Dani, either, but she does.
She doesn’t know why she’s reduced Dani Beck to her looks, to a title, when she has never managed to do so with Olivia, who is arguably one of the most attractive women Kathy has ever seen.
Maybe it’s because Olivia defies reduction.
Kathleen teaches her again. Her beloved, out of control second child gives her another lesson on how fortunate they are to have Olivia. Kathy fights with her husband over their daughter’s future - can’t believe that any part of him really thinks that sending their daughter to prison is the right choice, that it will do anything but hurt her - and she doesn’t know how they will come back from this.
If Elliot lets Kathleen go to prison, Kathy doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to forgive him.
It’s a shock, really, to discover that Olivia is on her side. To learn that Olivia is as determined to help Kathleen as Kathy is, and that she’s willing to go against or around or through Elliot to do it.
(It’s another example of Olivia’s power, Kathy knows, to dance over that “home/work” line that hardly exists anymore.)
Kathy doesn’t know the extent of it, she only knows from Elliot’s comments that he and his partner are on opposite sides of this issue. That he’s in the doghouse with Olivia, too, and Kathy doesn’t expect it but the knowledge makes her feel powerful. Surely, with Olivia’s help, with her ability to leap across chasms and bridge the gaps, Kathleen will be okay.
And she is. Olivia sits with Kathy in that courtroom as Kathleen pleads guilty and promises to get treatment for a condition that she wouldn’t even admit to having a few days ago, and Kathy is so relieved she can hardly breathe.
She has no idea what’s happened. It doesn’t matter, in the end, because Kathleen isn’t going to prison and she’s going to get help, and Olivia smiles when Kathy gives her a triumphant hug.
Kathleen only tells her the secret later, when the therapy and the medication have evened her out and she’s building a life that she doesn’t have to hide.
“Olivia brought grandma Bernie to see me,” she admits to her mom one evening. “In prison.”
“Olivia did?” Kathy questions, flabbergasted. Until this moment, she’s had no idea that Olivia even knew Bernie Stabler exists.
Kathleen nods. She doesn’t say anything else, and Kathy doesn’t ask - and she doesn’t mention it to her husband. Somehow, Kathy thinks that this is something that Elliot doesn’t know. It’s just a feeling, a hunch, and even though she doubts that this would be the thing that shakes Elliot and Olivia’s foundation she keeps it to herself anyway.
Olivia has pulled her from the literal wreckage; she has held her, and grounded her, and soothed her as the husk of a car that almost became their coffin was peeled away; keeping this knowledge to herself is just another layer in the bond that Kathy hasn’t chosen, but is grateful to have anyway.
(And isn’t it telling that even Elliot’s guarded, discarded past isn’t off limits to his partner?)
When it comes to Elliot there is nowhere that Olivia can’t go, after all.
Only places where she chooses not to, and yes, if Kathy has to share her husband with someone, she could do much, much worse than Olivia.
Kathy doesn’t see them together often, but she learns something every time she does.
In the twelve years of their partnership, she’s never seen them like this - and she only gets to now because they don’t know that Kathy is there.
She doesn’t know what’s drawn her to the precinct tonight. It’s nothing concrete, just a feeling that wouldn’t leave Kathy alone as her thoughts tumbled carelessly in her head and the kids did their homework. It’s just the twins and Eli at home now, and it won’t be long until it’s just Eli.
Kathy and Elliot have been married nearly thirty years now. Their oldest daughters are out in the world and figuring out how to live their lives, and create things they’re proud of, and Dickie and Lizzie are in their last years of high school, and it’s hard to believe where they are - and where they’ve come from.
But Olivia has more than a decade with Elliot now, too, twelve out of the twenty eight years that Kathy has been a Stabler, and it’s just a fact of their life that these histories exist concurrently, side by side. Elliot and Olivia have built a life the same way that Elliot and Kathy have: they have inside jokes, and anniversaries, and fights to be rehashed - buttons to be pushed and triggers to be pulled that have nothing to do with actual guns.
There is a whole life that they live together, and it might not come with rings or babies or promises made in a church, but it’s no less real than the life Kathy shares with Elliot.
It’s no less valued, and defended, and protected … as Kathy learns that evening.
She doesn’t know why she’s here, but she’s standing just outside the doorway that would lead her into the bullpen if she stepped forward. The precinct has changed through the years, it’s bigger and nicer and less cluttered, but Kathy understands that this is their home, Elliot and Olivia’s. This is the house they’ve built.
There is a paper basket of fries on Elliot’s desk and a large stack of paperwork. Olivia is sitting on the edge of his desk, her feet planted on the seat of what Kathy assumes is her chair. She’s bracing her elbows and forearms on her thighs, a manila folder open in her hands. Her back is to the door, so Kathy can’t see her face, but she’s angled herself toward Elliot. Elliot is leaning back in his chair, his head hanging back so he’d be staring at the ceiling if his eyes weren’t closed, and an identical manila folder is open but laid against his chest. His hands are clasped behind his head.
It’s been another string of hard days and long nights. Elliot came home last night but only after logging a fourteen hour shift, and from the looks of it tonight is going to be no different.
Perhaps that’s why Kathy is here now.
“She has to be in the city, El. He’s hiding her somewhere.”
“Even if he is Liv, the odds that we’re going to find a body that he’s managed to hide for half a decade are not on our side. We don’t have any leads, and we’ve spent hours going over these files.”
“So, what? We just throw in the towel, give up?”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
“That girl deserves justice, Elliot. She deserves to be found, and buried somewhere beautiful, not lying alone and forgotten in an unmarked grave. She was alone her whole life.”
There is a thickness in Olivia’s voice that Kathy has never heard. Elliot picks up on it, too, because he pulls the folder off his chest and leans forward.
“Olivia,” he says tenderly.
Olivia turns her head to indicate that she’s listening but doesn’t lift her gaze to meet his eyes.
“That girl isn’t you, Olivia.” He says it gently, with infinite patience and gentleness. “Hey,” he continues when she doesn’t respond. “She isn’t you.”
And Kathy sees it, the tiny flick of her eyes to his face before she drops them again. “I know that, El.”
Kathy has never seen Olivia vulnerable like this. In all the years that the other woman has been a part of their lives, overtly or not, she has never wondered what fears or insecurities or struggles keep her up at night. It has never occurred to Kathy that Olivia might be lonely; that despite all of the things that Olivia shares with Elliot, it’s what she doesn’t that leaves her feeling left out in the cold.
Kathy has been so thankful for so long that Olivia leaves The Door alone that she’s never considered what it might be costing her to do so. The companionship that she has is like a veil that conceals all that she doesn’t.
She’s never heard Elliot talk about Olivia’s personal life. Never heard him mention a boyfriend, or a parent, or, hell, even a friend. It’s always been them: just Elliot, and Olivia. But she always sends Elliot home to them, Kathy and the kids, and only in this moment that should be private does Kathy wonder who Olivia goes home to. Who holds her when she’s upset? Who makes sure she eats dinner, or waits to catch her when she collapses after a long day?
Who will notice if she doesn’t come home?
Loud, angry yelling suddenly splits the air, and the moment. Kathy jumps in surprise; in the bullpen, Olivia and Elliot straighten up and turn their heads in unison to the other doorway that is across the room from where Kathy remains unnoticed. There’s a commotion and then a man rounds the corner. He’s a big man, tall and solidly built, and his face contorts in anger as he sets his eyes on Olivia and Elliot.
“Mr. Derry,” Olivia says immediately, her tone calm and conciliatory and strong. She sweeps gracefully to her feet, discarding the file as she goes, and takes a step toward the angry man. “I know this is hard -.”
“Shut up!” The man interrupts sharply. “You lied to me, detective. You said you’d find her, that you wouldn’t stop until you brought Maggie home, and now I hear that you’re dropping the case?”
“We’re not,” Olivia starts, but the man is lunging across the space toward Olivia.
Elliot is quick, but Derry gets a thick hand around Olivia’s wrist before Elliot gets there. There’s a moment where Kathy’s heart is in her throat and then her husband has one hand on the other man’s arm and his other hand fisted in the front of his shirt.
“Let her go,” Elliot growls.
But Derry shoves his chest forward and Olivia tries to move back, her still captured arm extending in the space between them even as a uniformed officer shouts and rushes into the room to help.
Elliot decks him. The crack of his knuckles against Derry’s cheekbone is audible and surprises the man into releasing Olivia as the other officer yanks his now free arms behind his back.
“You lied!” Derry howls in anger even as Elliot shoves him and the other officer pulls him away. His eyes are fixed on Olivia. “You gave up, and one day, detective, I hope someone gives up on you! I hope you know what it’s like to be forgotten, you bitch!”
Elliot tenses like he’s going to move, but Olivia’s voice stops him.
“Elliot.” Her voice shouldn’t even be loud enough to be heard over the sounds of Mr. Derry’s yells as he’s dragged away, but he hears her just the same.
They always hear each other, Kathy thinks, even when neither is speaking.
“You okay?” Elliot asks immediately.
She ignores him and grabs for his hand, raising it to examine his knuckles. “Jesus, El,” she says. “You’re gonna break your knuckles one of these days.”
“I’ll have a few bruises,” she tells him. “You should ice those.”
They’re in love.
Kathy has wondered, and worried, and thought about it more than she wants to admit over the years. She’s had her suspicions.
But there’s no room for suspicion now. There’s no uncertainty.
Olivia is in love with her husband, and he’s in love with her. Kathy knows it the way she knows that a baby made her a Stabler, and a baby kept her a Stabler; she has seen it, has borne witness to it over years and years of moments that are nothing more than drops in a bucket that she can’t touch.
It hurts, but not as much as she expects. Not as much as it should have, or might have years ago. Because she knows - she’s not surprised. Of course they love each other. How could they not, after all this time and all the things that they’ve shared that Kathy doesn’t know about?
How can there be anything but love between two people who have built such a life?
Kathy turns to leave as quietly as she can. She shouldn’t be here; this moment isn’t hers, isn’t meant to be seen or lived by anyone but the two people in that room.
She hears them, though, as she turns her back on them.
“Olivia,” her husband says, and that quiet affection is back. “Stop.”
“I’m not -.”
“Stop. Look at me, Liv: she’s not you. Derry was angry; stop letting him in your head.”
There’s a sound Kathy can’t quite place, and Elliot’s next words sound … different, somehow.
“You can’t lie to me. I’m your partner, remember?”
Olivia’s answer is different, too. Muffled, Kathy thinks.
“You’re a pain in my ass,” Olivia snaps, but there’s no anger in it. “Now go get some ice for those knuckles so I don’t have to listen to you complain about them tomorrow.”
As if the words don’t have to travel far to be heard ... or they’re being said into a shirt, and it hits her, then, that maybe Elliot has pulled his partner into a hug.
Maybe Elliot is the one who holds her when she’s upset, and waits to catch her at the end of a long day.
Maybe, if it can’t be Elliot, then Olivia has decided that it will be no one. What kind of person does that? What kind of person can hold on so long without taking?
What kind of love can survive so many years incomplete and restrained?
Kathy goes home and puts the kids to bed, and Olivia sends Elliot home to her two hours later.
“What happened?” Kathy asks when she catches sight of Elliot’s hand.
His knuckles have already bruised, and there must be a cut on one because he’s sporting a bandaid. Kathy doesn’t have to try hard to imagine Olivia putting that band aid there. She knows that she did, because Elliot would never bother with a band aid.
“Angry parent,” Elliot replies. Then, quieter, “Hard day.”
Elliot sighs. Kathy thinks of how he’d been a few hours ago, when he didn’t know she’d been watching: stretched out in his chair, hands behind his head, eyes closed. He’d been tired then; he’s exhausted now.
“She’s fine,” he answers.
Is he wishing that he’d been able to go home with her? Is he thinking about her as he drops onto the couch and closes his eyes, worrying about her wrist that’s likely bruised, or that dead girl they can’t find?
Does it hurt him, Kathy wonders, to know that Olivia goes home alone when he comes home to her? To know that he could be with her right now, if Kathy hadn’t asked him to come back to her three years ago?
Would he go to Olivia now if Kathy let him - if she told him to?
“Don’t you ever get tired of it, Elliot?”
Kathy’s not sure what “it” is. The job, the fight, the losing; the pretending, the denying, the restraint.
Loving her, and being in love with Olivia - trying to exist in the in-between without hurting anyone, and hurting all the same.
“Yeah, Kath. I’m tired.”
Yeah, me too, Kathy thinks but doesn't say.
“When is it enough?” Kathy asks, but she’s not really asking Elliot.
She’s not asking about the job, really. Or not just the job, anyway. When will the years and the near misses be enough? When will all the nights that Olivia sends Elliot home when she wants to keep him be enough; when will Elliot have given Kathy enough, kept his silence and sacrificed enough, for her to realize that it’s time to let go?
But, Elliot answers anyway, and the way he says the words tells Kathy that he’s not really answering her the way she wasn’t really asking him.
“I don’t know.”
Door or no door, lock or no lock, Kathy knows that the breaking is coming. No one can maintain this tension indefinitely; no one can live in the in-between without losing something.
No one can pretend not to love someone forever.
In the end, it’s not a break at all: it’s a rupture, a violent tearing that rips the fabric of what has been their lives for more than a decade.
Rips the fabric of reality, because that’s the only way that Kathy can reconcile what happens.
Kathy has been preparing herself for the end. She’s accepted that one way or another someone is going to open The Door - Olivia is going to walk through that final, lone wall - and their lives will be rearranged into something new. No, something old, but ignored.
Elliot comes home one day in the middle of the day, and Kathy is so shocked to see him that she doesn’t immediately register anything else.
Then, she sees his face.
This is it, Kathy thinks, and it is, it is …
She doesn’t think anything will be worse than losing Elliot, and she’s right - but this loss is so much worse. This loss isn’t something she is prepared for, or has even considered.
Kathy doesn’t lose Elliot to Olivia. She wishes she did; it’d be easier if she did.
It takes her days to understand what’s happened. Kathy has never seen her husband like this: he’s unreachable, lost and drowning and unwilling to even try to tread water. He drinks during the day and doesn’t bother trying to sleep at night; he stares unblinkingly at white walls and doesn’t speak for hours.
His phone rings, and rings, and Kathy sees her name on the caller ID: Olivia. But Elliot doesn’t answer, doesn’t even reach for his phone.
Kathy hears about it on the news. Fatal shooting at Manhattan’s sixteenth precinct: five dead including an officer, a nun, and a teenage girl.
“I killed her,” Elliot mutters one night. It’s the only time he’s acknowledged what happened out loud, and Kathy aches for him. “The girl.”
He says nothing else.
Elliot retires. He doesn’t tell her he’s done it until the papers have been submitted, and it’s another tidal wave in the hurricane that their lives have become. Kathy has asked him about retiring before, has wished that he would give up the job that keeps him from his family and chips away at him more each passing year, but this … she can’t be happy about this. She can’t be grateful now.
The first thing that Kathy manages to ask when Elliot tells her that he wants to leave New York is, “Have you told Olivia?”
Elliot locks down like Fort Knox on high alert. He tightens in on himself like a spring that’s too compressed, and Kathy fears what will be broken in the inevitable uncoiling.
She can’t imagine how much more they can survive.
Kathy loves her husband - has always loved her husband - and she will do anything to help him through this pain. She has nurtured and protected their family for going on three decades; family is everything to Kathy, and it’s everything to Elliot, and they can navigate this challenge just like they have all the rest.
But Kathy can’t help it. She’s spent twelve years learning how to co-exist with Olivia, both the woman herself and the impossible shadow that she casts; she’s spent years sharing Elliot with a woman who loves him so selflessly that she is, perhaps, the only reason that Kathy is on the plane with Elliot instead of Olivia herself.
Elliot is a nuclear bomb encased in bone. Eli is strapped into his carseat in the seat next to her, and Elliot is on her other side, and Kathy can’t believe that this is happening. She can’t fathom that they’re really on a plane and waiting to taxi - that in twelve hours they will be in a different country.
She can’t believe that they are leaving their other four children behind; that they’re leaving Olivia behind.
That Elliot is.
“Did you talk to Olivia?” Kathy ventures to ask.
“No.” A single, terse word is all she gets in response.
They’re on their way to another country. In all the years that they’ve been together they’ve never done this, they’ve never taken what should be a vacation - never packed their bags and run off into the sunset.
It should be fun. It should be an adventure, something to look forward to, but there is a pit in Kathy’s stomach and her husband is a calcified version of himself. He’s here with her, but he’s never been farther away.
He’s never gone so far into himself that he looks hollow when Kathy studies him.
He has never, ever abandoned Olivia.
He just needs time, Kathy tells herself. A change of scenery, a chance to breathe new air. They’ll come back. They’ll come back to New York and their life will be waiting for them. It’ll look different, have new shadows and twists and lessons to learn, but they’ll come back and it’ll be waiting for them when they do.
Except they don’t.
Life without Olivia is everything and nothing that Kathy expects.
It takes years for Elliot to truly come back to himself, or as much as he’s ever going to. The first few years after they leave Manhattan are some of the worst years of their lives, including the years that they were separated. Elliot gets into private security and it brings home good money, but it does nothing to fill the empty places that have taken root in him. He has better hours and Kathy and Eli see him more often, more regularly, but the ghost of that teenage girl follows him around.
Any time Kathy so much as hints at Olivia, Elliot erects another wall between them. There are so many of them, now, more than there ever were before, and without Olivia there is no one around to breach them.
With painstaking effort and endless patience, her husband finds his way back. He teaches himself to be present in ways that he’s never been before. Elliot delights in his youngest son; he teaches him to play catch and to swim, how to play pat-a-cake and propel himself in a playground swing with the momentum of his legs.
Elliot searches for something to give him purpose the way the Marines did, the way the NYPD did, and he finds it back in the government sector. It means another move but Kathy can’t complain because it takes them to Rome.
She has never imagined that she’d be almost fifty years old and living in Rome with her family. Well, most of her family.
In some ways, without Olivia, Elliot is the husband that Kathy has always wanted him to be. He’s attentive and considerate the way he was when they were younger. He asks about her day and listens when she answers; he has time to be interested in Eli’s development. For the first time in years, Elliot is actually with them when he’s home.
In some ways, without Olivia, Elliot is untouchable. It’s as if he’s sheared himself in half, into pieces, and Kathy doesn’t need to wonder where the pieces that aren’t with them are. She doesn’t need to see the ghost that lives between them to know whose it is.
Kathy has learned in the last few years to mention Olivia sparingly, if at all. He hides it well, but the thought of Olivia hurts him. They fight about it in the early years - Elliot blows up if Kathy pushes, or if he thinks she will - the way they used to fight about any mention of Elliot’s parents, and Kathy learns that her husband has hidden Olivia behind one of those impenetrable walls of his.
She is reminded again that only one person can come and go with impunity, and it has never been Kathy.
Kathy can’t regret finally having her husband to herself again. It’s not perfect and it’s not the way she wants, but after spending so much time preparing herself to lose him once and for all there is a joy to realizing that all the preparation was for naught. There is a sense of peace in knowing that they have built something that lasts, and that despite their unconventional and less than ideal start, their family is still standing. Still whole.
But in her more charitable moments, Kathy wants to yell at him. She wants to scream at Elliot and demand to know how he could do it - how he can keep doing it, year after year, when Olivia has given him so much. More than Kathy knows, or can know.
Twelve years of watching his back, of chasing demons and wading through unimaginable hell, and he just … walks away. Like it doesn’t mean anything.
Like Olivia doesn’t mean anything.
It’s strange to be upset with her husband on another woman’s behalf, but sometimes, Kathy is just that.
Sometimes, Elliot will tell Kathy to get a sitter and take her out to dinner. A date, he tells her, and it’s so nice to be wined and dined again after all of the sacrifice and struggle. But the memories strike her when she least expects them to, when she least wants them.
They go to dinner and Elliot pushes his olives to one side of his plate where they sit, untouched, until the waiter takes his plate away. It’s nothing, but Kathy stares at those olives and knows that if Olivia were here she would have eaten them right off his plate.
Kathy stares at those olives and thinks about macaroni salad, and a paper basket of fries sitting in the middle of a desk; she thinks of hundreds of meals she didn’t see, didn’t share, didn’t taste.
On hard days when Elliot comes home from another job that he hardly talks about and sits on their patio, staring out into the darkness with a beer in one hand, Kathy thinks about Olivia. She remembers how normal she looked sitting on the edge of Elliot’s desk, how tired but comfortable she’d been with Elliot in that quiet bullpen.
She hears that angry man’s words all over again, and sees Elliot snap to his partner’s defense with extreme prejudice. I hope someone gives up on you.
I hope you know what it’s like to be forgotten.
But Elliot has never forgotten her. He looks for her in crowds, in places she can’t possibly be, without even realizing that he’s doing it. In those first years, Elliot only eats half of his food and it’s a while before Kathy realizes that it’s not because he’s depressed - though he is - but because he’s accustomed to sharing his food. Switching it halfway through the meal, even.
He shakes the habit eventually, but there are holdovers. Like the olives pushed off to one side of his plate, waiting to be eaten by someone he’s left behind.
Only, Olivia doesn’t know that she hasn’t been forgotten. Elliot swears every time Kathy dares to ask that he hasn’t spoken to her since the day of the shooting. Not a single phone call, or email, and Kathy absolutely cannot believe that.
They were in love. Kathy knows it, she felt it like a ripple across water: subtle, and soft, but present. Real. They’re in love now, despite the separation, and Kathy would bet every dime she has on it.
Love like that doesn’t go away. It doesn’t end, although Kathy wishes it did; although their lives would be a lot easier if it did.
Olivia doesn’t know that Elliot carries her with him even now, eight years and several countries later. He has abandoned her without a word, disappeared like a thief in the night after she’s devoted so much of herself to their partnership.
Sometimes, part of Kathy hates him for it on Olivia’s behalf.
Most of the time, though, Kathy knows better. There was never a way out of that situation that didn’t include a betrayal of some sort, of someone, and she loves her husband and her family, so she thanks God or the cosmos for her luck and tries not to think about what has been left behind.
Who has been left behind.
It comes down to need, Kathy tells herself, and how can a woman who can walk through walls need Elliot more than his own wife does?
Kathy wishes she could say that she would make the same choices, even knowing how it would all end. That she’d do it again, given the chance.
She wishes she could say that she’s stronger than she is, but after a lifetime of lies and half-truths she is too tired for anything but the truth. She knows who she is, and who she’s not; she knows what she would sacrifice to be with her family. To stay with them.
Olivia is being honored at an awards ceremony, Elliot tells her out of the blue one day. A celebration of her accomplishments, of women in law enforcement, and Kathy absorbs that information in silence.
“We should go,” Kathy says after some time.
“Let’s go, Elliot. Let’s go to her ceremony.”
“I want to see the kids,” Kathy interrupts. Then, “Ten years is long enough, El.”
Elliot has always had a dangerous career. The Marines, the NYPD, the counter-terrorism task force … he’s always lived with some degree of danger. Despite that and all of those years, Kathy has never been in any real danger outside of a single car accident and that one time some deranged woman came to their house and waited for Elliot to come home with a knife in her lap.
In all the years that Olivia was part of their lives, Kathy was never in danger. Neither were their kids, except for the dangers of their own making.
Kathy doesn’t know why that’s what she thinks of now. She’s confined to a hospital bed because of a car bomb just a few short days after coming back to Manhattan, and she blames it on the painkillers in her system that she wonders if it’s always been her destiny to meet her end because of a car.
Her heart stopped in that ambulance, all those years ago, after Olivia pulled her from the wreckage of the squad car. Is it inevitable, then, that she has found herself here so many years later? Did Olivia stop that clock the first time; delay that end?
Has Olivia somehow given Kathy more time than she’s ever realized?
Ridiculous, Kathy tells herself. Painkillers have always made her loopy, that’s all.
And then Olivia is there, just inside the glass door to her room, and Kathy wonders how so much time has passed when Elliot and Olivia are still so in sync. She’s as beautiful now as she’s always been. Bigger, softer, older; timeless and stunning. Those same dark eyes that look like they could swallow the light but crinkle when she smiles. Her voice is deeper than Kathy remembers but it’s still gentle, still familiar.
“You really haven’t talked in ten years?” Kathy asks, because it doesn’t feel any more possible in this moment than it has in any other.
“I didn’t even know he was back on the force,” Olivia admits.
Elliot hasn’t been lying to her all these years, and Kathy is so thankful for that. She is grateful for this truth, now, despite the layer of hurt that she can hear in Olivia’s voice. For all of the walls that Kathy has never been able to scale and that have kept parts of her husband hidden, he has not lied to her about this.
She’s in pain and she’s tired. The pain medicine makes her drowsy and even though she turns her head toward her husband, she can feel Olivia’s presence. Ripples on the water, Kathy thinks, and then she hears the glass door closing.
“Sleep, baby,” Elliot whispers as she closes her eyes. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Kathy listens. She doesn’t want to - she has more to say, more to see, more to hear - but she’s tired, and her body is heavy, so she listens.
She dreams of the past as it is: of a positive pregnancy stick in shaking hands, and a simple wedding; of days on end of hardly seeing her new husband because they’re working opposite shifts so they don’t have to put their new baby in daycare; of the day that Elliot joins the NYPD, and the day he tells her that his new partner is a woman.
She dreams of a woman who can exist in two places at once, who sees the line that her new partner has drawn between home and work, and moves across it at will. Who discovers that her new partner has walls and, instead of being deterred by them, simply … moves right through them.
A woman who gives, and gives, and never takes what a lesser woman might.
Kathy dreams of the past as it could have been: a life without her youngest baby, where she shares custody of their four kids with her ex-husband and splits weekends and holidays, and sets two extra places at celebratory meals for that ex and his new wife.
Or another past as it could have been, where her youngest baby has two cribs in two different homes, and grows up knowing the love of two moms, where she shares custody of their five kids with her ex-husband and sets two extra places at the table during the holidays so that their family can celebrate together.
In both dreams, the other woman’s face is as clear to Kathy’s as her own. She knows it as well as she knows the faces of her children, as well as she knows Elliot’s.
Kathy dreams of the future, too. She dreams of her grandkids growing up, of the grandkids that are yet to come; she dreams of Eli going to college on a soccer scholarship, and how beautiful Lizzie and Kathleen will look on their wedding days. She sees them all at Christmas seated at a long and beautifully dressed table, the raucous laughter of children mixing with the voices of everyone Kathy loves.
She sees Elliot seated at the top of the table, quiet but happy … smiling as Olivia pushes a plate of food into the space between them.
Kathy dreams of Olivia too, at the end. She dreams of her in double, as if through a cracked mirror that returns two reflections. Kathy sees Olivia as she is now, and as she was that last year, as if she exists in both times simultaneously. There are so many blank spaces between them, so many things that they have never and can never know about each other. But there are memories there too, stepping stones that have led them from the wariness of the beginning to the unspoken understanding and mutual respect of the end.
Kathy wants to tell her everything. She wants to tell Olivia that she has worried about her, even feared her in some capacity, but that she has never hated her. Kathy wants to tell Olivia that she knows what the other woman has done for her, what she has given up and preserved for the sake of a family that she’s never fully been a part of. Not yet, anyway.
Kathy wants to tell Olivia that it’s okay, that dream of the future that Kathy sees but can’t be part of.
Instead, Kathy says, “Thank you.”
It’s just a dream, but those dark eyes are soft as they stare at Kathy from a dual reflection. Soft, and warm, and endlessly kind despite the pain they hide.
“You’ve always gone where I couldn’t go,” Kathy tells her. “And I used to think it was because of something I was missing, but now … I think it’s because you were always meant to be there, in those places. I just got there first.”
There’s a peace to these dreams. A pressure that settles over Kathy like a warm, weighted blanket and makes her feel like, no matter what happens next, she has achieved something wonderful. Her family is healthy, and whole, and protected.
She doesn’t know why it’s Olivia that she sees now, in these final moments.
Kathy doesn’t know why she understands it all so perfectly: that The Door was never locked, on either side, but kept closed out of love. Love for Kathy, and Elliot, and Olivia; love for a family that no one wanted to hurt.
Kathy has loved Elliot all of her life, and he has loved her, but it’s the love that Olivia and Elliot share that has ultimately kept that last door closed. An all or nothing love, undeniable, eternal; a love that has been restrained and repressed and set aside, but never forgotten. Never lessened.
The Door hasn’t been opened because what’s behind it is cherished, and infinitely valuable.
“I know you’ll take care of them, Olivia. You always have.”
Kathy knows that her family will get through this pain. She has seen them in her dreams, in places she can’t go - but she understands, finally, that it’s not because she’s lacking, but because those are places that she’s not meant to be.
“It’s time,” Kathy says, and both Olivias smile at her in the mirror.
She wishes she could tell them all one last time that she loves them; that they have built something they can be proud of, that will last, and that despite the pain this, too, shall pass.
Life goes on and so too will they - together.
Time to stop hiding, and denying, and pretending. Time to open the doors, and let in the light.
If Kathy had to share her family with anyone, she’s blessed to have shared it with Olivia Benson.
After all, Olivia is the only woman that Kathy has ever known who can walk through walls.