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Like Water

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{and you move like water
I could drown in you
and I fell so deep once
until you pulled me through
you would tell me
no one is allowed to be so proud
that they never reach out when they're giving up}

The last weekend of August is almost unbearably humid. A hot wind blows without stopping and the sun refuses to shine, concealed by black clouds that promise rain but never make good on that threat.

Fortunately, the stars are also in some sort of once in a lifetime alignment and you and Brian actually both have the same weekend completely off. You bid farewell to your overheated apartment, currently a monument to cardboard boxes and packing tape and several pairs of scissors that seem to vanish at will, and set out for this house a few hours upstate that has been in his family for generations. It is positively tiny and the electricity is less than reliable, but it is at least ten degrees cooler up there and you don't have to see a single other human being if you don't want to.

Neither of you want to. You barely want to see each other, not that you've been doing much of that lately in the first place. For once you are actually home more than he is, Cragen being on one of those let's-play-by-the-rules binges he goes through whenever you crazy kids do something that attracts the attention of the overlords at 1PP. You get sent home every time there's a lull in the action, and your long-suffering captain just shrugs and says it's out of his hands when you complain. Officially, you've only been cleared for 30 hours a week, and there's a limit to how much he can overlook.

Being alone in the apartment gets increasingly uncomfortable as things get packed away, as if the more inanimate objects you could surround yourself with, the better protected you would be. You're not even exactly sure what the powers that be think you are gaining from this whole part time thing. All that they've done is give you extra time to think, and that is much more dangerous than any pervert out roaming the streets could be. You distract yourself by planning how you're going to organize your new kitchen and you debate whether your mismatched dishes would take away from the aesthetic of the dining room. They really would, you finally decide. In a matter of a few clicks, you have a new set, bright white with platinum edges that will look perfect on your new table.

Brian comes through the door and shakes his head when he sees you with credit card in hand. "You're gonna have to find places to put all that shit," he warns, nodding toward the rapidly growing corner of the living room where you stack all your recent purchases, but you know he is content as long as you're doing anything at a reasonable decibel level. His mood as of late almost rivals yours in terms of unpleasantness. He leans against the kitchen counter and bitches about the job, how it's a dead end and the higher ups are completely incompetent and he's going to lose his fucking mind if he has to set foot in that goddamn courthouse one more time, and you know he's not exaggerating. He's never been that good at standing up for himself. He would usually rather cave to someone else's demands than be assertive and risk getting into a conflict, and so he ends up letting himself get screwed over again and again.

You commiserate and nod and let him vent, both because you genuinely sympathize- and because if he's bitching about other people, it means the two of you aren't bitching at each other. There's been a bit of an unsteady truce between you ever since the fight you had on the day you went back to work, the whole «it doesn't really matter to me» incident. It helps that the majority of your time together is spent sleeping. You still can't sleep on your own, so you're left to get by with a few hours before he has to head out and, if you're lucky, a quick nap when he gets home. When you're actually awake together, you give each other a wide berth, with conversations limited to a few safe topics. You sit on opposite ends of the couch and drink in near-silence, and sometimes you'll end up fooling around for a while but it's obvious that neither of you are really feeling it.

There's no doubt that he's miserable, and you are not all of it, but you are part of it, and there's nothing you can do about any of it. So you spend your sleepless nights packing up so he doesn't have to, and you cook like an insomniac housewife so he'll have something decent to eat when he comes home, and you silently tear yourself apart for being too goddamn needy to let him go.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You worry that spending so much time together this weekend will only serve to revive the same arguments in a different venue, but as you get farther away from the city, the air cools and the tension gets left behind with the heat that sizzles from the blacktop. When the first chords of Baba O'Riley blast through the car stereo speakers, you look over at him and he grins back at you in a way you had forgotten he was capable of. It was one of the first things you learned about him after you officially unofficially started seeing each other- that to him, proper road trip music meant anything with a chorus you could belt out, and that everyone in the car was expected to participate. You tried to explain to him that you don't sing. You barely lip sync. Even your humming is notoriously tone deaf. But he was not having this, so for him you sing. Quietly.

The passing scenery reminds you of last fall, driving this same road on a trip borne out of irritation and desperation, holding hands over the center console because everything was still new and full of possibilities and even a few inches between you was a distance too far. You had been trying to (re)consummate the relationship for weeks only to be thwarted at every attempt by the phone ringing or the exterminator at the door or a child having the mother of all meltdowns directly on the other side of the wall. Normally you would've just decided that you would need to be quicker about it, but you had been building up to this for months (on top of a dozen or so years) and goddamnit, you wanted to do this right. Maybe you were becoming a romantic in your old age, who knows. Whatever the reason may have been, when he mentioned that he had a place where the nearest neighbors were twenty minutes away and cell reception was patchy at best, you were practically out the door before he could finish his sentence.

Everything felt optimistic back then- an adjective you hadn't been able to use in relation to your own life for God knows how long. ("Things are looking up for 'ol Gil!" he had said, deeply disappointed when you didn't understand the Simpsons reference). As for right now, you aren't ready to go as far as to call it optimism, but the windows are rolled down and he’s singing along to Carry On Wayward Son and when he reaches over and rubs your shoulder, you can honestly say you’re content for the moment. There's no one else on the road for miles and this is how the two of you work best, feeling that it's only you and you have something the world can't touch. You're both misfits in your own way and by outward appearances, it shouldn't work, but it does. It just does.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The afternoon is a quiet one, but not in the way that was typical for you as of late. Maybe it's the change of scenery, maybe it's relief at being outside without feeling like there’s a hairdryer blowing at full blast directly in your face, or maybe you've simply run out of things to fight about. You go on a long walk among trees that seem to brush against the clouds, holding hands and listening to stories of the childhood exploits of him and his siblings.

Frankly, you are surprised any of them survived to adulthood. You had been strictly a city child, where the dangers were in talking to strange men or not looking both ways, not in crashing snowmobiles and attracting the attention of bears.

He laughs at your remark. "There aren't bears around here. I think you'd have a better chance of seeing one walking down the sidewalk outside your apartment."

"Why would there be bears wandering the city?"

"Because they escaped from the zoo," he says, and whether he intended to or not, he couldn't have done a better imitation of Elliot's «isn't it obvious?» voice if he tried. All he needed to do was add 'keep up, Benson' and stalk off to the coffeemaker to wait for you to chase after him and admit he was right.

There's a steep hill not far from the house, and at the bottom is a body of water that could only be called a lake if you were feeling especially generous. You navigate your way down carefully, nearly falling on your ass more than once while your boyfriend, who is probably part mountain goat, seems oblivious to your plight.

"Shit," you groan when you actually do fall- ironically enough, you make it all the way down safely only to trip over a rock. Brian finally turns around and snorts as he sees you glaring up at him.

"Yeah, you laugh now, but wait until I blow my knee out and you have to drag me all the way back up there."

"No way, I'm leaving you for the bears." He sticks his hand out, but you purposely ignore it until you are back up on your feet and then reach toward him, pulling him close to you while your forehead rests against his chest. You are sure he's thinking you must have hit your head when you fell and that's what triggered this unusual random bout of affection, but there's truly nothing to explain it other than it just feels right. There's not much that does anymore, and you are tired of second guessing yourself every time something does, so you hold on tight and don't let go.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The two of you sit down on a fallen log and you gather up a handful of pebbles from around your feet. You start skipping them across the water the way he had taught you the last time you were here, almost hypnotized by the way they jump and then disappear below the surface.

"Do you feel like things are getting better?" he asks after several minutes of silence, and that is a loaded question if you ever heard one. You can tell he's asking honestly. He's not trying to goad you into a place there's no talking your way out of without a fight, but your hypervigilant mind instantly senses a trap regardless.

"Some days," you settle on saying, quiet enough that you can still hear the tiny splashing sounds of stones hitting water. "I think it's hard to tell when you're in the moment. It's one of those things where...when it happens, it'll catch me by surprise, like I'll be making dinner and realize that I haven't thought about it all day. Little stuff like that."

"Has that happened?"

You shake your head. "No. But sometimes...sometimes when it's not the first thing I think of when I wake up, I feel like- okay, this is progress. Maybe I can do this."

"I know you can. No maybes," he says, pressing a kiss against your temple after a second's hesitation. You wonder how someone can have so much faith in you, far more than you do, even after all he's seen.

"Bri..." you start to say before sighing, shaking your head to signal that you're putting an end to this line of questioning.

"Just trust me. Things are going to start looking up for 'ol Gil."

"I thought you were supposed to be Gil," you complain, but you squeeze his hand as a silent thank you for knowing when to quit- which is progress in and of itself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Later on, while you are watching him start a fire in the pit in front of the house ("Man, nature. It's beautiful. Let's torch some of it," he had decided), you shiver and realize you had left your hoodie down by the water. He offers to go retrieve it for you, but you assure him that you'll be fine and head back down the hill, leaving him to play with matches on his own.

You make it to the bottom without injury this time and step toward the water's edge, reaching down to test whether it truly is as cold as he claimed it was. He apparently was not kidding. It was all runoff from the winter snow, he said, and no amount of August sun was going to warm it to a tolerable level. They had held contests as kids to see who could tough it out for the longest, but no one had ever lasted more than a minute or so and it was obvious why.

Deciding you won't be missed for a bit as long as he can keep setting things on fire, you sit back down in the place you had been that afternoon and look to the sky, the smell of burning wood starting to waft down the hill. He had been so careful, making sure you were inside before he pulled out the matches because he knew how the sound of them being struck nauseated you. You wonder how much more he can take. It's clear now that there are three people in this relationship, and that is always a doomed number, even if one of them is only this shadowy uninvited presence that lingers over everything like the odor of stale cigarette smoke.

Maybe you are lying to yourself when you dare to hope that someday it might finally be just the two of you again. It's hard to imagine things getting better when you watch the sun sinking into the water, pink and orange streaking the sky, and your first instinct is to close your eyes and turn away. The sunset had been amazing like this on that awful night at the beach house, the evening's last rays shining through the trees and onto your face as you stared out the window. Anything to distract yourself from the monster in front of you and the gun he was holding, dragging up and down the already burnt skin on your inner thighs. He was grinning madly at you like he had just figured something out, and you had absolutely no fucking idea what was going to happen next but this was going to be bad. For all his faults, being secretive was not one of them. He liked to describe in great detail exactly what he was about to do to you, and his sudden reticence made you fear the worst, especially when he jabs you with the muzzle of the gun and you struggle to pull away from him but it's no use, he's got you trapped and nonono, «why the hell you gotta be like that, huh? After how good I've been to you?», and there's screamingscreamingsomuchscreaming and it won't stop and ohgod it's you it's your voice and it won't stop and-

You force yourself to open your eyes and remember what Dr Lindstrom had told you. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. Focus on your surroundings. Concentrate on the present, on what you can see and hear right now.

The lake stretches out in front of you, clear and frigid, and you think of the afternoon when you came home from the hospital. You had sat down under the shower head and turned the knob all the way to the right, bitingly cold droplets raining down and not letting you forget where you were, that it was over and you had survived- at least in some sense. There wasn't enough water in the world for you to ever feel clean again, but you froze out what you could and prayed to a god you'll never believe in for the numbness to overtake you like an icy protective cocoon.

You know what you need to do now. Rolling up the legs of your jeans (as if that would make any difference), you toe off your shoes and clench your jaw in preparation for what is about to come. Quickly, before rational thought has time to set in, you run into the water the way Brian had described, waiting until it was about waist-high before diving underneath.

The chill doesn't hit you until you have stopped running and submerged yourself completely. Then it suddenly becomes all encompassing, every nerve ending in your body now awakened and firing and there is nothing else here but coldcoldcold. It is an exquisite agony, but it instantly strips away any remnants of the outside world. There is nothing to hide from, nothing to escape, because this is a place that he cannot touch. The memories you battle with every second of the day and night have been left back on land because there is no room for them here. You let the water cradle you for another fraction of a second, long enough to commit the sensation of nothingness to memory, before you give in to instinct and let your limbs propel you to the surface.

It is a struggle to fight back a scream once your head is above water and you've taken that first giant gulp of air. All your muscles are quivering violently in a desperate attempt to warm up as you reach the rocky shore, not stopping to put on your shoes before you start sprinting up the hill. You have the mother of all ice cream headaches, and you still can't breathe in fully, and you have never felt so alive in your entire existence.

There are no words to adequately describe the expression on Brian's face when he looks up to see you soaked through to the skin and running toward him. "The fuck happened to you?"

"It was an impulse," is all you say, gesturing toward the house. "I'm gonna go get changed."

You can tell he thinks you have well and truly lost your mind. "I told you it was fucking cold!" he calls out as the screen door swings shut behind you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"And so I'm halfway to the top of this tree, right, and then I look down at the ground and shit. Total panic. There's no way in hell I'm moving now. So my cousin gets the idea to go back to the house and get a ladder so he can rescue me like a cat...and that's where things start to get out of hand."

"Start to?" you repeat skeptically, reaching over to steal a sip of his shitty beer. You had joined him by the fire once you had dried off, and even though you can feel the warmth it radiates, there is still this residual chill lingering under your skin. He frowns every time you shiver, but you don't know how to explain that you don't want it to stop. You are alive and awake and you can feel and there is no one on earth who can take that away from you now.

It's a bit of an awkward angle when you tilt your neck upward to kiss him from where you are sitting in between his legs, but his mouth is warm and his arms are wrapped around you protectively and you don't really notice anything beyond that. When you shift to try and find a better position, your back arches and your sweatshirt rides up a little, leaving a strip of bare skin underneath his hand. It's literally no more than a finger's width, but the surprise warmth on your cold skin causes you to let out this whimper that would be mortifying under any other circumstance.

He senses he may be onto something here and slowly his hand is creeping under your shirt until his palm is resting flat against your stomach. You're breathing faster now, short little gasps as he starts talking softly in the way he knows just kills you every time. His lips are barely brushing your earlobe, and it seems ridiculous that you feel so close to coming already until you remember that you haven't been touched like this all summer.

You groan when the side of his thumb brushes right underneath one of your breasts, but he just lets go of you and stands up, the fucking tease. "Inside," he says, and you follow obediently. He gives you a quick kiss on the cheek once you're back in the house, ignoring your disappointed frown as he walks away with a promise that he'll only be a minute, he's gonna shower because he smells like smoke.

The bathroom is tiny and windowless, with only a single working bulb above the sink to illuminate the darkness. You turn this thought over in your head a few times as you mentally replay your shower from earlier that evening- the first one you had been brave enough to attempt in months.

Mind made up, you wait until you hear the water running to make your move. He hears the door open and asks if everything's okay, and you assure him that you're fine as you undress quickly, not wanting to give your usual self-consciousness a chance to take hold.

The hot water feels prickly on your skin as you pull back the curtain and step into the tub. He hesitates for a second out of shock and then it is all a flurry of mouths and hands with you pressing yourself up against him, kissing him fiercely. He tells you that you're gorgeous, that you're so goddamn sexy, and you know he's only saying that because he can't see what the shadows are concealing, but for now you allow yourself to pretend. As long as he can't see, as long as the water beating down on you softens the roughness of the scars under his fingertips, you can almost forget.

Then he pinches one of your nipples between his fingers and there is no more 'almost' about it. He's got his other arm slung around your waist, holding you with your back against his chest so you can feel him sliding against your ass. You can barely hear anything above the roar of the water and your own moaning, but there's no mistaking the missed you missed this missed you he's repeating as he moves his hand away from your breast, taking you by the shoulders and turning you around until you’re backed against the wall.

Now he's got you on the edge of coming, shaking in anticipation. His hands are everywhere and his mouth is attacking your neck with open mouthed kisses and when the back of your head bumps against the tile it's too much and you can feel yourself slipping away. "Slow, slow," you choke out and he goes still, tilting your chin up with one finger when you try to squeeze your eyes shut.

"Look at me, babe. It's okay, you're okay. I've got you." You nod, the two of you watching each other as you fight to get your breathing under control. He doesn't move, close to you but not touching, quietly reassuring you until you lean against him and reach for his hand.

"I'm okay," you promise, calmer now even as your cheeks are still slightly flushed in anxious embarrassment. "Everything just got. Fuck."

"Intense," he supplies, and you nod again. You take a few more slow deep breaths until you're confident that you've completely returned to the present, safe and no longer being pulled into some past terror.

He hesitates when you go back to kissing him, the way he always does when this happens, but you think you are finally proving to him that there is a difference between «I need to slow down for a minute» and «get away from me, I'm done». You know you have won him over when you feel his fingers pressing on your hipbones in a way that will hopefully leave marks, deliberately grinding against you. His hand is where you want it at last, stroking cautiously, and you can tell he's surprised when he realizes how wet you are.

You reach toward him, wanting him to get off before you do because once it happens, you're pretty sure you're going to be far too gone to attend to such things. He keeps running his fingers back and forth over you and it's just the right rhythm, just the right amount of pressure, and he doesn't stop his exploration even as he's coming over your hand and stomach with a groan. You brace yourself by holding onto his shoulder as you slide two of your now-slick fingers inside yourself, open mouthed and eyes fixed on each other as you finally bring yourself over the edge.

Even though you insist on having a towel wrapped securely around you when it's time to get out of the shower, you don't bother to get dressed again, instead letting the towel fall onto the floor before you lazily climb into bed. You bury your face in the pillow and make sure to roll over onto your stomach- not out of any particular fondness for having your ass on display, but because you know that the only marks on your back were a few bruises that have long since healed.

There are noises coming from the kitchen, and you hope he isn't starting some late night culinary project because you've never seen one of those that ended well for him. "Get in here, I'm naked and lonely," you call out jokingly, laughing when he promises he'll be right there and he wasn't going to try cooking anything, honestly.

"You read my mind." You yawn, deciding to close your eyes for a minute while you wait for him to come back, and the last thing you remember is him kissing your bare shoulder as you drift off.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next time you awaken, you notice three things in rapid succession- you are in an unfamiliar place, completely undressed, and with someone holding on to you. That in itself is terrifying enough, but then you realize he's hard against your thigh and your instinct to escape kicks in before you can stop to think this through.

You can hardly breathe once you make it into the bathroom. Once the door is securely locked behind you and you've checked it once, twice, you sit down on the closed toilet seat and sob into your hands, hoping to muffle the sound enough to keep him from waking up. It is so tiring, feeling like you might be moving towards some semblance of a normal life...and then without warning you're knocked down again and dragged back into the past. Back into your old apartment, hands cuffed together and «your boyfriend's never gonna do it for you anymore after this» and he's yanking your head back to bite at your neck while his free hand is tugging at your pants yet again, «you're afraid you'll like it, aren't you? I'll be the best you've ever had» and after he's finished you can taste yourself on his tongue when he climbs on top of you, kissing you roughly, «I've ruined you for anyone else, sweetheart, you wait and see» and there's nothing you can do but lie there and cry...

Still naked except for the towel you had hastily wrapped yourself in before you fled the bedroom, you peer down at yourself through tear-filled eyes. The dim lighting does nothing to camouflage the scars that litter your skin from your shoulders to your knees because you've already memorized the sight of them all. It goes beyond vanity, your hatred of each and every one, although that certainly factors in as well. They're a reminder of feeling dirty and used, and that feeling is never going to change. You're sure of it. It's so simple to tell others that it wasn't their fault, that they don't have to carry this misplaced shame, but it's another thing entirely when it's your own life and your own self-disgust.

You quickly throw on jeans and a hoodie and go out onto the front steps in the hope that getting some air might help you calm down. You're okay, you repeat to yourself silently. Just because your stomach twists when you think about last night, that doesn't mean you did anything you should be regretting now- it's a ridiculous notion. There's no reason why it was wrong to let yourself go. It was what you wanted in the moment, god knows you wanted it, and now you're just a little overwhelmed by all these emotions hitting you at once. You're okay, you just need to stop thinking. Stop confusing things. One is not like the other, and the past is in the past. Easy as that.

The screen door opens behind you and your posture instantly goes rigid. "Liv? Everything okay?"

"Yeah, fine," you say, hastily wiping at your eyes. "Just couldn't sleep and didn't want to wake you up."

"You've been crying," he points out.

No shit, you think, but you're too drained to do anything but shrug.

“Another dream?" You can see him cautiously reaching out to you out of the corner of your eye, giving you time to prepare, and yet when his hand brushes your arm you still recoil like you've been slapped.

"Don't," you snap, voice low and serious. "Just stay the hell away from me. I mean it.”

He takes several steps back without protest and the tears well up in your eyes once more. You know he blames himself every time this happens, no matter how often you've promised it's nothing to do with him, and it only adds another layer of guilt to the mountain you already have.

Both of you stand there for a few minutes, silent and distant. You are so absorbed in your own mind, berating yourself for fucking up once again, that you don't even notice he's behind you until the smell of coffee eventually gets your attention.

"You're still here," you say, soft and surprised, because it doesn't make sense that he's stuck around for so long, today or any day. It's the reason your heart catches in your throat every time he texts to say that he's on his way home, this disbelief that someone would willingly keep coming back after all you've put him through when there’s no end in sight. One day that text won't come, you know, and when that happens you will be the only one to blame.

Now it's his turn to shrug. "Yeah...y’know. Gotta keep the bears away."