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Happy Birthday Noah!

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Launch Trampoline Park, Queens

I acknowledge, understand, and appreciate that the ACTIVITIES are inherently dangerous and that the participation by me and/or my minor child(ren) in the ACTIVITIES entails known and unknown or unanticipated risks that could result in serious physical or emotional injury, illness, or death.

I’m way too old for this shit, he grumbles under his breath as he hits ACCEPT and then uses his finger to sign the required release form. The iPad is sticky, and the thought of how many people have touched it has him reaching for the hand sanitizer. Legalities complete, he picks up the birthday card he’d placed on the counter and mentally prepares himself to walk through the door and find the party he knows is already well underway.

“Excuse me sir, but no shoes allowed. We are a socks only establishment,” admonishes the baby-faced teenager behind the counter. He must have seen the argument forming on Elliot’s lips because in the most authoritative voice he can muster the teen adds, “It’s for the safety of our guests.”

After a quick calculation and deciding it’s a losing battle, Elliot crouches down and begins to undo his laces. What the fuck are you doing here again, he asks himself, noticing the hole in his sock that he swears wasn’t there when he got dressed this morning. Baby face notices his plight, and in what is clearly a big money maker for the owners of Launch Trampoline Park, offers a solution. “Sir, we do have socks available for purchase. Adult pairs start at $10,” and helpfully points to the vast array of hideous lime green, branded options behind him.

Left with no other choice, Elliot wordlessly pulls out his wallet and tosses a few bills toward the teen, pointing to the least offensive pair they have available. He shoves his feet into the socks with all the resentment he feels toward his new purchase, and dutifully stores his old socks and shoes in a cubby. Finally, mercifully past all barriers to entry, he squares his shoulders, walks through the door, and is immediately assaulted by the scent of rubber, sweat, and chaos.

The noise is deafening, his ears are bleeding, and kids are quite literally bouncing off the walls. Aside from the walkway, the “floor” is nothing more than endless rows of trampoline after trampoline, with trampolines even lining the wall. There are basketball hoops, a giant hamster wheel, and even a globe that looks like kids can climb inside to have their brains scrambled, all in the name of fun. To his left there’s a sunken pit filled with foam blocks that reminds him of a swimming pool, surrounded by, yes, even more trampolines acting as diving boards.

He’s spared the indignity of wandering all over creation in his lime green socks, because if there’s one thing this hellhole has down pat, it’s crowd control for the myriad of parties taking place at once. He follows the signs screaming, “BENSON PARTY, RIGHT THIS WAY!!!” and keeps going until the hair on the back of his neck stands up. He’s always known when she’s close.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY NOAH!

He spies her under the giant banner wishing her son a happy birthday, an adorable little blonde girl about three perched on her hip. She’s in her element, chatting with the cute couple he recognizes from Fin’s non-wedding. Partners, he remembers her saying. His first partner.

“Hey, glad you could make it!” her eyes sparkle with amusement, as if she can’t believe he actually took her up on her ridiculous offer. She hands off the toddler to the woman — Amanda if he remembers correctly— and makes her way toward him.

This is what you’re doing here, he reminds himself. Suddenly this place doesn’t seem so bad.

She looks effortlessly stunning in a black top and white shorts. He racks his brain, but try as he might he can’t recall her wearing shorts in all the years they were partners. Well, aside from their occasional sparring at the gym which was always a treat. He’s captivated by this side of her. She looks…peaceful. The hard edge he remembers so well is still there, but the hint of emptiness in her eyes is gone. Filled by her found family. By the little boy they are celebrating today. She’s a mom now, and motherhood really suits her. He’d always wondered what kind of mom she would be, aside from a great one. Apparently Olivia is a Costco sheet cake and pizza kind of mom.

A lime green sock wearing kind of mom.

“Maureen and Carl had an extra ticket to the Mets game and took Eli. I’d rather chew broken glass.” She rolls her eyes at his crankiness. His hatred of the Mets was steady, unwavering, and achingly familiar. “Besides, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he adds, and to his surprise, he means it.

The look in his eyes makes her nervous. Things had been different since Fin’s wedding. Wheatley was locked up and awaiting trial, and without a vendetta to occupy him, Olivia could swear his focus was now on her. He’s invited her out several times. Casually. A morning coffee in the park after she’s dropped Noah off for his weekend dance class. A Target run to pick out essentials for his new place. Olive branches. Tentative attempts to reconnect. He’s always been a man on a mission, and his current mission seems to be making up for lost time.

She can tell he's particularly interested in getting to know Noah. She’s allowed the introduction, but has purposely kept their interactions brief and to a minimum. She knows better than most how easy it is to fall under his spell. How easy it is to get pulled under by Elliot’s all consuming focus, and she’ll be damned if she lets that happen to her son. Especially now that he’s getting older, and she’s acutely aware of his increased need for male attention.

If she’s being honest with herself, the invitation to Noah’s party was a test, her throwing down the gauntlet and daring him to take up the challenge. Never in a million years did she imagine he would actually say yes. After all, whose idea of a fun Saturday was an 8 year old’s birthday party at a trampoline park? And yet here he is. Standing in front of her, gift in hand, lime green feet. For her.

For Noah.

“Nice socks,” she teases.

“Thanks,” he smiles. “Yours aren’t so bad either.”

“I forgot to grab a pair when we left the house. What’s your excuse?”

“Hole.”

A real, true, thousand megawatt smile lights up her face. His favorite smile. The one he hasn’t seen in about ten years. The one that’s kept him up at night more times than he can count.

“Come on,” she says laughing. “I’ll introduce you around.” She takes his hand because that’s apparently a thing they do now, and he thinks their matching smiles are a lot cuter than their matching socks.

+++

He’s holding his breath as she makes the introductions. He can’t help it, every unfamiliar male is a suspect. Who is he kidding, some of the familiar ones are too. He’s scanning features with every handshake: cataloging eyes, nose, hair, overall build, utilizing every power of deduction and observation he possesses to answer one burning question: Which one is he?

The thought of coming face to face with the guy triggers the anxious tick in his jaw, and he doesn’t want to examine too closely the reasons that might be. The gnawing curiosity has been eating away at him since Fin told him about Olivia’s son, and its one of the reasons he came to the party in the first place. The Olivia he knew didn’t date, at least not successfully. He was the longest relationship she ever had with a man. Who was the guy she settled down with, at least for a time? Who was the guy who was finally able to scale the impregnable fortress around Olivia Benson’s heart? Who was the guy who was about to get punched in the face?

Don’t be a dick, he admonishes himself. You don’t have to like it, but you have to respect it. He’s told himself that so many damn times lately he wonders when it might finally click. He does the math. If Olivia’s not with Noah’s dad, the record is still his. That thought, selfish as it may be, takes the sting out. At least for now.

OOF!!

He swears he sees a hint of stars as the strike to his gut knocks the wind out of him. He braces himself against his knees and watches his blonde haired assailant leap into the foam pit behind him. Guess I deserved that.

“Jesse honey, you have to pay more attention!” her mother admonishes half-heartedly.

Elliot swears she looks more amused than sorry. “It’s all good,” he coughs, waving Amanda off. He gets the feeling she wouldn’t care if he wasn’t.

He watches Jesse ramp up for another jump, except this time she’s captured by the man he saw at the wedding -- Sonny, he thinks -- and spun around like an airplane before being thrown into the spongy blocks below, much to the little girl's squealing amusement. Memories of his own blonde haired little girls being small enough to toss around spring to mind. To the look of hero worship in their eyes. He’s transported to simpler times, times when his kids were little and he could keep them happy and safe with his brute strength. Times when he was their protector and they could count on their dad to make everything better, instead of having to rely on each other. Times he didn’t feel like he was letting them all down.

“My turn!” Noah screams while pushing past Elliot, racing as fast as he can toward Sonny and launching at him before the other man’s even ready to catch him. He’s quick on his feet though, and Sonny’s able to brace for impact so he and Noah don’t go flying. He even manages to get in a weak spin before heaving the birthday boy into the ocean behind him, but he doesn’t go nearly as far as Jesse did -- flinging an 8 year old is a lot harder than flinging a 6 year old.

He watches them for a while, with Jesse and Noah taking turns beating up on Sonny until he can’t take it anymore.

“Sorry guys, Uncle Sonny’s had enough,” he announces to whines of disappointment from the children, and a serious pout from the birthday boy.

Elliot knows it’s a crazy idea, but he’s feeling brave and a little insane, and the nostalgia is crippling and he’s in his old neighborhood, and he’s let his kids down, especially Eli, and for one brief minute he wants to see if he remembers how to do this and before he can give it much thought the offer forces its way past his lips, “Hey kid, let’s show these two how it’s done.”

Noah takes in Elliot’s size and his eyes light up, but before making any moves he glances at his mom, seeking permission because a healthy trepidation of strangers has been drilled into him since birth. She cocks her eyebrow at Elliot, and he recognizes the look instantly. It’s one he was so used to seeing throughout their partnership. The one that said, “if you insist on killing yourself I’m really going to enjoy watching.”

Noah must be raised on that look, because he senses permission has been granted and barrels full steam ahead at Elliot, who catches him, spins him, and sends him soaring much further and higher than Noah expected.

“Mom, did you see how high I got?!!!?”

“I saw honey. It was really high! Maybe take it down a notch,” Olivia says, and Elliot can see the thinly veiled threat in her eyes. It’s not an Olivia look, but it’s one he knows just as well. It’s a stop playing so rough Mom look. Every dad’s favorite to ignore.

“Copy that,” he says with a wink and a smile, and turns to catch her son once more.

Olivia watches their horseplay, trying to work through the mixture of irritation and nervous energy suddenly coursing through her veins. It’s starting. She can see the beginnings of the Stabler spell taking hold of her son. Deep breath. Baby steps. Olive branches. He showed up to the party. He’s earned a little more access. He’s also got a litter of children, he’s not going to hurt Noah physically. And if he does, she’ll shoot him.

She can’t watch the roughhousing, so she takes a minute to survey the room and start prepping the cake. For her, Noah’s birthday is always a day of intense gratitude. Gratitude for her son, who is worth every agonizing minute she spent waiting for him. For Amanda who’s currently racing Billie to the bathroom for the third time in an hour. For Sonny and Jesse, who are bouncing and attempting to shoot hoops. And Lucy. Lucy who is holding court with the processed blonde dance moms from Noah’s studio so she doesn’t have to. She might be grateful for Lucy most of all.

And then there’s Elliot. She’s so grateful for her found family, but she remembers when it felt like he was her only family. On birthdays past she often wondered what he would think if he saw her as a mom. If he would think she was doing a good job. When Noah was little, it was his unsolicited advice she wanted to ignore. And now he’s here, trying to charm her son and trying to be welcomed back into her circle. Yeah, she's grateful for him too.

After countless spins, Noah’s finally decided he’s had enough and bounces off to play with his dance friends. Elliot pulls himself out of the pit, muscles aching. No matter how much he works out, or how many perps he’s taken down in his career, four decades of parental experience has taught him one thing: not even 250lb meth heads are a match for 8 year olds on a sugar high.

“You look thirsty,” the blonde says, handing him a bottle of water from the snack table.

“Thanks.” Elliot takes the offered bottle of water and downs most of it in one gulp.

“I haven’t seen you around,” she says, extending her hand. “I’m Paige, Mackenzie’s mom.”

“Elliot. Nice to meet you.”

“So which one is yours?”

“None of them actually. My kids are a little too old for this place.”

“I thought you were an old pro, the way you were throwing Noah around. You look like you barely broke a sweat.” She does nothing to hide the appreciation in her voice.

“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“So how do you know the birthday boy?”

That’s a loaded question if there ever was one. Itching to shift the conversation, he decides to offer the bare minimum, “His mom and I used to work together. You?”

“Dance. Noah and Mackenzie are partners.”

Partners. He flicks his eyes past Paige, looking for Olivia, and spots her setting out plates and candles. She catches his eye as if on cue, and shakes her head with a silent laugh when she sees who he’s talking to.

She’s such a bitch, Olivia thinks as she watches Paige rest her hand on Elliot’s bicep and laugh at something he says. You’re laying it on pretty thick there, Paige. He’s really not that funny. Of course she would hit on a married man. Well, technically he’s not married anymore, but Paige doesn’t know that. It’s not like you can miss his wedding ring, it’s practically blinding.

It’s not there.

Holy shit.

Her mouth is already dry when she sees Elliot bend over to chivalrously pick up something Paige “dropped,” and there’s only one word she can eek out.

“Cake!!”

+++

He sees her tearing up as she watches Noah blow out his candles. She doesn’t pull out her phone to try to capture the memory. Instead, she looks content to just live it. He recognizes the look of disbelief in her eyes -- the look of a parent who still can’t believe the child in front of them is theirs. She moves in to kiss the top of her son’s head, a luxury he knows Noah probably won’t allow much longer, and Elliot snaps a quick, discreet pic. Moms can never have too many pictures, he thinks, vowing to send it to her later.

“Cards before presents,” Liv reminds her son as she sees him making a beeline for the stack of brightly wrapped gifts.

Noah rips into the first few cards, indiscriminately screaming thanks for the gift cards, cash, and Robux he receives before tearing into the card from Elliot. “It’s a picture of LEGOs. Thank you Elliot!!!” he yells, mustering fake yet polite enthusiasm before throwing it aside and moving on to the larger and therefore more exciting presents.

Olivia’s cheeks turn the slightest shade of pink at her son’s actions, and she smiles apologetically, “yeah we need to work on that. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “I used to get so sick of tripping over kid toys after every birthday party. Started giving activities instead.”

She looks confused so he continues, “It’s four tickets to the Art of the Brick, the LEGO exhibit coming to town next month. Eli went through a big LEGO phase when he was Noah’s age. He still loves it, even though he'd rather die than admit it. Every now and again I can convince him to build with me though.”

“I never pegged you as a LEGO guy.”

“Oh yeah. I used to love to build when I was a kid. Skyscrapers, cities, you name it. I used to carry around a little notepad so I could sketch out my ideas,” his voice trails off, and she knows more than he realizes just how many of his childhood memories are laced with sadness.

“Anyway, I thought Noah might enjoy it. I got four because I figured he could take a friend or you could bring a date or something.”

Or something. Olive branch.

It’s hard to speak around the sudden lump in her throat. “That's really thoughtful El. Thank you.”

+++

“Here let me help you,” Elliot offers, organizing and stacking Noah’s birthday loot into easy to manage piles. “Multiple car trips are against the law.”

“Thanks,” she smiles at him appreciatively and tackles packing up the food. “You would think with a smaller guest list, there would be less presents. I don’t even know where I’m going to fit all this stuff. I’m starting to think you’re onto something with this activity idea.”

“Noah’s a great kid, Liv. He’s got a lot of people who love him. I’m sure they couldn’t help going overboard. Enjoy it while it lasts. Before you know it, the presents get smaller and more expensive.”

The easygoing parental back and forth with Elliot is a total mindfuck, but she thinks she might love getting used to it.

“Well, for some overboard is a speciality. Paige always gets him something obnoxious to annoy me.” She hopes the irritation in her voice isn’t too obvious, “you two seemed friendly though.”

“Friendly? I thought she was gonna eat me alive.”

“Mom, come bounce with me!” Noah’s suddenly at her side, tugging her toward the play area with no regard to the fact that she’s mid-conversation.

“Noah, I already told you it’s time to start getting shoes on. Let’s go.”

“Just five more minutes!” he whines, on the cusp of a sugar high breakdown.

“Noah Porter, I said shoes.”

Elliot’s head snaps up. Porter, what the fuck?

“Okay, just watch this!” the little boy pleads.

He sees it happening before she does. Noah’s bouncing, he’s flipping, arms and legs are flailing with no regard to space. Noah sticks his landing, but takes his mom down with him.

Chapter Text

Hospital for Special Surgery, Manhattan 

Hospitals. 

They always spent so much time in hospitals. For victims, for Kathy, and also for him. All those times he was shot, or stabbed, or blinded— she was the last person he’d see before things went black, and she was the first person he’d see when he woke up. He never got to return the favor though. Never had to see her being loaded into an ambulance, bloody and broken, or lying in a hospital bed, small and fragile. Even with Gitano and Rojas she was too stubborn for anything more than on-site treatment. 

“Kinda nice for the shoe to be on the other foot for a change,” he teases, breaking the easy silence. “For once we’re not here for me.”

It’s funny now, she thinks, but his recklessness was the cause of more sleepless nights than he ever knew. “I used to be able to fill out your forms in my sleep, I had to do it so many damn times.” 

He takes the clipboard from her hands. “Here. Let me try.” 

He starts to fill out the basics: name, sex, date of birth. Out of habit he starts with her old address, but she quickly corrects him. He remembers the cozy but small one bedroom she had on the west side. Not an ideal place for a family. 

“Blood Type — A positive,” he scribbles with a smile and the slightest of winks. “Marital Status…Divorced?” he tries to look nonchalant, or at least he hopes so. 

“Real subtle. Single.” 

“Sorry. Fin made it sound like—”

“I know what Fin said,” she says a little sharper than she intends. Her ankle is throbbing and every time she looks over at him all she can see is the white line where his ring used to be. It’s all a bit too much. 

“Then emergency contact?” 

“It’s my ankle, Elliot. Just put Amanda I guess.”

He knows he should let it go, that her love life is none of his business, but he just can’t. Jealousy is one thing, but Olivia as a single mom is another and his blood has been on a low simmer since he heard the name Porter . That asshole’s speciality was swooping in, upending Olivia’s life, and then ducking out of town leaving her to deal with the fallout. He knows he’ll never win any father of the year awards, had left Kathy holding the bag with their kids more often than not, but he was still there for his kids when it mattered. Was still there for Kathy when it mattered.

Who was there for Liv when it mattered? 

“Okay just tell me one thing and then I’ll drop it. Does Porter at least help you out with Noah? He wasn’t at the party.”

“Why in the world would Dean be at my son's party?”

“Noah Porter, I thought --”

“Oh god no, I haven’t seen that guy in years. Wait, did you think that--” 

“Well yeah, what else was I supposed to think?”

“Is that why you were so quiet on the drive over? Have you been stewing about this the whole time?”

“I wasn’t stewing. I was curious.”

The man was still so exasperating, and she feels a headache coming on to add to the throbbing in her ankle. There’s enough potential landmines between them, the last thing she needs is one more. “Noah is mine, Elliot. Mine, and no one else’s,” she says with a proud finality. “It’s a long story and maybe someday I’ll have the energy to tell it. But for now that’s all you get.” 

A cheery nurse saves him from putting his foot in his mouth further, “Captain Benson, I haven’t seen you here in a while! What happened this time? You didn’t aggravate that wrist did you?”

“No, it’s my ankle not my wrist. And it wasn’t a perp, just a hyper 8 year old.” She sees the look of skepticism on the nurse’s face and adds, “my son took me out at a trampoline park.”

Understanding dawns on her face, “that trampoline place keeps us in business. Let’s get you back here and back on your feet in no time.” 

They’re out of earshot when Elliot realizes she forgot the clipboard. Before taking it to the front desk, he pulls his phone out to make a few arrangements. She might be used to doing everything alone, but that doesn’t mean she has to. 

+++

Benson Apartment, Manhattan

You didn’t have to walk me up, you know. I am perfectly capable of pushing elevator buttons for myself,” she argues as she pushes open the door and hobbles through on her fashionable new footwear. 

“And how were you going to bring up all this loot?” He lifts up his arms which are overloaded with Olivia’s purse, her prescription, leftovers, and a bag full of Noah’s presents. 

“It could have waited until the morning. It’s a secure building, they would have been fine in the trunk.” 

“And the food?”

“Fine. Point taken.” 

“Good to see you’re still stubborn as ever.” 

She hangs up her keys and flips the light switch. He remembers her old place vividly — warm, inviting, and feminine. He always found it fascinating how different it was from the way she tried to present herself at work, at least early on. Like the softer side of Olivia was only accessible to those lucky enough to be invited into her heart and into her home. 

He takes in everything that’s changed. It’s still welcoming and cozy, but he has to smile at the mom shit that’s everywhere: framed photos of her and Noah, chalkboard calendar to keep track of dinners, meetings, and practices. School artwork and report cards on the fridge. And the telltale signs that a little boy lives here: a Nintendo Switch charging under the TV, the shoe rack with Minecraft slides next to sneakers and dance shoes. 

“Nice place.”

“Thanks.” She starts patting the pockets of her shorts, searching for her phone. “Have you seen my phone? I gotta text Amanda and see if she can bring Noah home.” 

“She said she would bring him home in the morning,” he says, depositing the bag of leftovers and medication on the counter. “I texted her from the hospital. Kept her updated when I realized we were going to be there a while.”

Anyone else making sleepover arrangements for her son and she would have decked them. Even Ed, who was the closest she had ever come to having a co-parent for Noah, didn’t dare cross the unspoken boundaries she had when it came to her son. Noah was hers and there was something so intimate and presumptuous about Elliot stepping in and exchanging texts with Amanda, working out all the details so she didn’t have to. This shit is second nature to him, isn’t it , she thinks, coordinating pickups and dropoffs and sleepovers. She’s been doing this alone for so long, she never really let herself imagine what it might be like to do this with someone by her side. Is this it? The other person just picking up where you left off? Moving in sync and filling in the gaps, an effortless ballet of coordination that comes with raising a tiny human? 

“Thank you,” she manages, but it doesn’t seem enough.

He rips open the pharmacy bag and pulls out the bottle of pills. When did they make the print on these so goddamn small?” he scowls, squinting at the instructions. He pulls his phone out of his pocket, and swipes open the camera app in an attempt to enlarge the text. Her peals of laughter earn her a Stabler death stare, which only makes her laugh harder.

She decides to take pity on him, so she hobbles over to her purse and rummages through it for her cheaters. He sneaks a peek at the backside he’s missed so much while she’s digging through her bag, but he’s completely unprepared for the sight that greets him when she stands up. Olivia in the cutest fucking glasses he’s ever seen. 

“Don’t. Even. Start,” she threatens while pulling the pills from his hand. 

“What’s it say?”

“Says we’re getting old, Stabler. Kidding. Says I need to take them with food.” 

“Coming right up. You want the chicken fingers or the pizza?”

“Ugh, chicken fingers. Costco pizza gives me heartburn.” 

“You want me to get you a pill for that too?”

“I hate you.” 

She takes a seat at the counter, and watches as he helps himself to her kitchen, opening drawers and cabinets until he finds the plates and cups he needs. He pulls two chicken fingers out of the styrofoam box and searches through the remaining boxes for the carrots, celery, and dressing he knows none of the kids ever touched. 

“Still have your chicken thing?” he asks. 

“Yeah.” 

He knew better than to reheat any chicken item of hers in the microwave. She always claimed it tasted like a ‘dirty bird’ when he did it that way. He finished assembling her plate, and slid it to her across the counter. 

“Wow, you’re a lot nicer than Noah. He never lets me eat off Hulk. I always get stuck with Captain America.” 

“Let’s get one thing straight, no one gets ‘stuck’ with Captain America, okay? Cap’s the best. Besides, I thought all ladies were partial to America’s ass.”

“Eh,” she responds with a flirtatious grin, “I’ve seen better.” 

+++

The sound of her ice pack hitting the coffee table pulls his eyes from the television. She’s lightly sleeping, her leg elevated atop her decorative couch cushions, the combination of pain pills and ebb of adrenaline an effective sedative. He knows he should wake her, help her lock up and settle in for the night, but he’s always hated waking her when she looks so peaceful. If her sleep is mercifully free of demons, he wants to give her as much time as he can. Besides, the flickering blue light of the TV over the exposed skin of her legs gives him a chance to really look at her. His first since he’s been back.

The years have changed her, and for the better, he thinks. Her hair is longer than he can ever remember seeing it. A few more lines on her face, but he has them too. She’s still as beautiful as he avoided remembering. 

“What time is it?” she murmurs sleepily.

“Late,” he leans forward to grab the ice pack and readjust it on her sprained ankle, the feel of his fingers brushing her skin sending a jolt through her body. “I was going to wake you but you looked so peaceful.”

The softness in his eyes, the warm fingers on her legs -- it’s been a minute since someone’s doted on her the way he is. I could get used to this , she thinks, but she can’t bring herself to say it. “I should lock up,” she says instead, a hint of an invitation in her voice. She’s not ready for him to go, the intimacy of falling asleep next to someone watching old comedies on TV too intoxicating.

“Yeah, I should go so you can get some sleep.” He can see the disappointed acceptance on her face, “let me help you get settled and then I’ll head out.” 

He offers his hand to help pull her up from the couch, but the sudden change in position makes her unsteady on her feet. She can’t keep herself from falling into him, and he instinctively wraps his arm around her waist to give her leverage. He likes having her close, the feel of her body pressed tightly against his. He pulls back to look at her face, and her hair once again grabs his attention. He’s reaching out for a tiny tendril on her shoulder before he can help himself, rubbing and twisting it between his fingers before switching his gaze back to her face. Without thinking, he starts to push it back behind her ear, something he’s wanted to do for longer than he can remember. He curls his fingers under her jaw and cups her cheek, rubbing his thumb against it while lifting her mouth to his. 

“Can I kiss you?” he asks. His lips are unbearably close to hers. His voice just a whisper on her skin. 

It surprises her that she can even hear him over the pounding of her heart and the rush of blood in her ears. She can’t manage any words in this moment, just the smallest, almost imperceptible nod. 

He shifts his other hand from where it rests on her waist, and lets it travel up her side, grazing her breast ever so lightly before moving over her shoulder and up to cup the other side of her face. She reaches her hands up to grasp his wrists, partly because he’s making her dizzy, partly because she can’t stand the thought of him changing his mind. 

Then his mouth is on hers, and it feels like she’s waited forever, but also like it’s happening too soon. He’s tentative at first, his lips teasing and testing — giving her ample space and time to change her mind. She must sense his hesitation, because she moans so sweetly into his mouth, urging him on, so he presses himself against her harder than before. 

They stay there for an eternity, wrapped up in one another, exploring, learning, desperate to make up for every moment they’ve spent apart. 

“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” he confesses when he finally pulls away, resting his forehead against hers. “But you always knew that, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” she admits. It’s a truth she’s always known, even if she didn’t always let herself believe it. ”Yeah, I knew that.”

“Now that I’ve done it, I don’t think I want to stop.”

“I’d shoot you if you did.”

He draws her into him once more, and this time their kiss is lighter, playful. A new beginning. 

“El?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you. For everything. I’m glad you were there for me today.” 

“My pleasure.” 

“I missed you.”

“I missed you too.” 

Fin