By the time Elliot arrives at Olivia's door to pick her up for Fin's wedding, she's already considered opening up a bottle of wine and polishing it off in the same breath in a misguided effort to calm the nerves that have decided to take up permanent residence in her system since she woke up this morning.
And the way he's standing in front of her now with a heated stare that undresses her from head to toe is um, not helping matters.
"Jesus Christ, Olivia," he croaks, his blue eyes darkening considerably as his gaze travels the length of her. "You look incredible."
She flushes under the praise. "Thanks, El," she replies, biting her bottom lip. "You're looking pretty sharp in that suit."
Though she can't help but note with just the slightest dismay that it's three pieces, making it that much harder to tear off him at the end of the night if things go well.
"What, this ole thing?" He grins, preening.
And just like that, relief floods through her because — despite the weight of tonight — he'll always be the same old arrogant asshole who walked beside her for more than 12 years. She rolls her eyes with the shake of her head, spinning around on her heel to walk back toward the hallway, an open invitation to follow.
Elliot coughs in surprise just then and she's so grateful that he can't see the full-on smirk on her face right now.
"Liv," he chokes out. "I think you forgot to zip your dress."
She sashays into her bedroom, lifting a pair of short dangly earrings off her dresser as he lingers in the doorway.
"I didn't forget." She slips one earring on. "Just couldn't reach. You mind?" she asks, lifting an eyebrow towards him.
The smolder in his gaze shoots fire through her veins before her eyes fall to the rough bob of his throat as he swallows. She fights the urge to smooth a thumb over his Adam's apple, wanting desperately to know if his throat would ripple under her touch.
He takes a step toward her then and she gasps quietly, could fall into him so easily, press her mouth against his and fit her hand to the back of his neck in that freckled spot she often catches herself staring at.
His lips part slowly and her mouth goes dry. "Turn around," he commands in a low rumble.
Fuck, she thinks she would do just about anything he said right now if he promised not to stop talking to her in that voice.
She turns around slowly, offering the bare slope of her back to him before she meets his eyes in the antique mirror in front of her.
Elliot steadies himself with his hands at her waist, his fingers slipping through the dark purple silk that lays draped there. Even through the fabric, his touch scalds her and she has to bite down hard on her lip to suppress the whimper that wants to escape.
Olivia sucks in a breath as his calloused hands slowly brush across the nape of her neck to gather her hair to one side, the waves falling across one shoulder.
"You look beautiful." His breath caresses her skin, sending a shiver tingling down the length of her spine.
She'd only meant to tease him a little — it's been so goddamn long — but she wasn't quite prepared for the levity of this moment to hit her with such force. She's never been more ready for these unchartered waters they're navigating, but that readiness doesn't dampen the nerves that zip through her blood, up through the flush of her cheeks.
He takes his time zipping her up, sliding tooth by tooth, and his lingering touch makes her feel drunk, swimming every single one of her senses.
When he finally reaches the top, he smoothes his hands across the top of her shoulders, boldly pressing his lips in the gentle curve of her neck before he reluctantly lets her go.
She licks her lips, expelling a slow breath as she watches him struggle to tamp down the want in his eyes.
He clears his throat, shooting her a crooked little shy smile. The enigma of him — the way he's able to flit between sexy and commanding to shy and gentle — will never get old for her. "We should get going. Don't want to be late."
Olivia turns around to face him, her eyes cast low at his chest as her fingers slip down his tie, smoothing away nonexistent wrinkles. She just needs a moment to gather herself, fight back against the array of emotions she's battling right now.
He seems to know — of course he does — because he goes quiet, taking a long slow breath as he busies himself too, his hands gentle and playing at the curled edges of her hair.
"You - " she starts, but chokes on it, swallowing it back down. His thumb slides down to brush against her clavicle in soothing, hypnotic circles. He means to calm her, but it only lights her up more.
She wants to try again, but settles for lifting her gaze to his. She swallows roughly, throat tight, at the history that flickers through his blue eyes as he searches her face. She doesn't know what he's looking for, but his lips flirt with a smile, eyes crinkling at the corners as his hand coasts down to press over her heart. Can he feel it thrumming as loudly as she can?
"You ready, Benson?" he rumbles and all of a sudden she is young and green again, eagerly matching him step for step down the streets of their city.
A watery laugh ripples through her, breaking the heavy spell that settled over them.
"Twenty-three years, Stabler." She settles her hand over his, squeezing. "I couldn't be more ready."
He grins. "Good." Their hands fall away from their spot on her chest, but they don't relinquish each other's grasp. He links his fingers through hers and it burns warm and bright in her belly.
She will not survive this night.
"What a way to go though, huh." His deep voice caresses the shell of her ear and fuck, she should not still be surprised that he can read her so easily.
Elliot is grateful that he's behind the wheel tonight, if only for the brief reprieve it gives him to attempt to get both his emotions and his libido under control.
God, she looks fucking unbelievable and he has no idea how he's going to get through the next few hours without tugging her into the nearest secluded spot to sink his mouth onto hers and drown his hands into the waves of her hair that he spends nights dreaming about.
Christ, he's already thinking about getting her under him and they haven't even kissed yet. But he supposes that's the nature of the two of them — decades of slow burn and yearning culminating in one explosive evening.
Well, not just one. There's no way in hell he could possibly get enough of Olivia Benson. And he's certainly not letting her go once he has her.
He already made that mistake once.
After he returned to New York just over a year ago, it took months for them to find solid ground again. He knew he'd have to really work to earn her trust again — as friends first, let alone as anything more. It grew easier the more honest they were with each other and the more time they spent working cases — first his and then the other ones they'd found excuses for to keep working together.
And he'll never forget all the innumerable ways she was there for him and his family when he was struggling with PTSD.
They're finally good again, seem to be in sync once more and back to finishing each other's sentences and knowing what the other was thinking with just a glance. It isn't quite the same as it was before —
Better because he knew the two of them were inevitable — there's no possible way they wouldn't be, not when they were both single and didn't have to worry about fucking up their working partnership.
He still struggles with waves of guilt for having feelings for her while he was married, for moving on after Kathy passed. But that's what therapy is for, which he has her (and Kathleen) to thank for, too.
God, he owes her the world and then some.
Over the last few months after they regained their footing, they'd spent more and more personal time together when they could — cozy dinners in or drinks out when they were able to manage it with Eli and Noah. And at least once every week or so, they'd break from their workday to have lunch or coffee somewhere.
Eventually, when Elliot stopped looking, he could feel the final broken piece of their friendship slide back into place.
It was only a matter of time before it turned into something more and he knew she felt it too — it was all there written in the curve of her smiles that had become more and more frequent, the lightness in her step when she walked beside him, and the way she trusted him so completely with her son.
After everything they'd been through, all of the obstacles he had been responsible for, he knew he needed to be the one to make the next move.
He'd been at a total loss, anxious and torn up over how to make it perfect. He didn't think she exactly would've minded if he just said it all with the surprise of his lips against hers, but she deserved more pomp after all these years.
Elliot found the answer he'd been waiting for when Fin's wedding invitation arrived in the mail.
He propositioned her one warm and rainy Friday night when they were tucked into her couch eating a late dinner, windows open and wine on their lips while her son slept soundly in the next room. She was extra flirty that night, knowing exactly what she was doing to him as her fingers drifted lazily along the back of the couch while Coltrane filtered through her kitchen speaker.
He cleared his throat nervously, lifting a hand to rub at the back of his neck. "So, what would you think about going to Fin's wedding together? You know, as like a plus-one type of thing."
Olivia grinned over her wine glass, eyes sparkling. She always could see right through him. "Plus one, huh?" She cocked her head. "You know we were both invited, right? Kind of negates the whole need for one of us needing a plus one for the other."
He groaned. "Jesus Christ, Liv, you're really going to make me come right out and say it, aren't you?"
"It's been 23 years, El. If you wanna ask me out, I think I deserve something a little more official," she huffed playfully, narrowing her eyes at him.
"You're right. You deserve it," he agreed gently. Her brown eyes went soft on his and she somehow managed to look both powerful and vulnerable — an enigma, as always — at the same time, sitting in one corner of her couch wrapped in leggings and a sweater, her hair piled on top of her head.
"Will you come with me to Fin's wedding?" he asked. "As my date," he added pointedly, sweeping his thumb rhythmically across the curve of her knee to tame the erratic beat of his heart.
She bit her lip, barely touching the wide smile behind it as she shrugged.
"I guess, since you asked so nicely," she teased, reaching down to settle her hand over his.
He's pretty sure his heart hasn't resumed beating since that night.
They're 15 minutes early to the ceremony, so Elliot finds them an empty couple of seats near Munch while Olivia dashes over to Ken Tutuola to say hi and fawn over Fin's grandson. She's practically floating on air in her 2-inch heels, the corners of her eyes crinkling with her laughter as she coaxes the shy child out from behind Ken's legs.
If this woman is what he has to look forward to for the rest of his life, he thinks he could die with (almost) minimal regrets.
"I see you finally manned up and asked Liv out," Munch says by way of greeting, clapping Elliot on the back.
Elliot narrows his eyes, amused. "She tell you?"
Munch peers at him over his glasses. "No. You did, just now. But it doesn't take a genius to figure it out, my friend. She's just…" he trails off, shrugging as his hand gestures in her direction.
He doesn't need to finish. Elliot knows. She's...well, radiant. And he can't believe what a lucky son of a bitch he is that he has anything to do with that.
"Hey, but don't screw this one up. I've got a lot riding on it."
"Hold up. You can't possibly tell me there's a 23-year-long pool on me and Liv."
"Don't be ridiculous." Munch scoffs. "We stopped it after you left and started it back up when you came back into town. So it's only been 13 years," he jokes.
"That makes me feel better."
"What makes you feel better?" Olivia asks, sliding into the pew next to him.
Elliot turns to her. "Did you know they've got a pool going on us?"
"Know about it? I've got 100 bucks riding on it. Double if we sleep together tonight," she says casually, winking at Munch. Elliot's jaw drops.
"Relax, I'm kidding." She laughs, patting his knee.
"Jesus," he grumbles.
A flirty smile lingering on her lips, she leans into his ear. The subtle notes of her perfume — all feminine, pure Olivia — leave Elliot curling his fingers into his palm. "Let's hope you're as easy in the bedroom as - "
Munch coughs behind them. "All right, all right, children. Save somethin' for later."
At this rate, Elliot's starting to think that might be an impossible task.