Actions

Work Header

Atlantis

Chapter Text

She's not sure what she expects, or if she expects anything at all.

It's been so long since she's allowed herself to feel anything but the crawling seethe of injustice that she has no idea what this is within her, if it's anything. Then again, it has to be something because she is having trouble breathing.

She's also having trouble holding her breath.

But she's trying. To hold her breath, that is. She's trying to keep herself together. She can't falter when she sees him. He can't think that she is a wreck of a person or that she can't stand on her own two feet. He can't feel guilty for what he did.

He had to leave her. He had to.

She gets that.

She has tried not to take it personally, but she battles that fight every day. Every day she pushes forward. Every day she misses the hell out of him. Every day she feels like she wasn't enough, because clearly if she had been, he wouldn't have walked away in order to find something better. He wouldn't have had to.

She hopes that he's found whatever it was that he'd been looking for, because Jesus, it's been eight months of working without him and enough is enough. Her patience, the smile she has plastered on, it's wearing thin.

She talks to herself a lot these days. She says things like he's happy and you want him to be happy. She tells herself that she was the best partner she could have been. She reminds herself that if she wants to be the person he thinks she is that she will give him the time he needs. That she will encourage him to keep doing what he's doing. Even if he is doing it away from her. Not with her. Without her.

Even if she doesn't know what Page | 7the hell he is doing.

Her hands grip the steering wheel. The sun is jarring, almost blinding -a little too brilliant- as she flies down the thruway. It's a Wednesday afternoon at two o'clock, and she's off for the next week.

A whole week. An eternity if he sends her home in a few hours.

She has a few things in a bag, but she doesn't know if she will be staying or going. She has no idea what to expect.

Which works out just fine, because living without expectation is a particular specialty of hers.

She tells herself there is nothing ahead, but truthfully, she doesn't care too much about what she's left behind either, and that means she's driving through the middle of some sort of purgatory.

She keeps driving. Eyes straight ahead. Breath tentatively held. The top is down on the Mustang, and she lets the sun pound against her bare arms. The simple, blue jersey dress she wears comes to just above her knees, and she has hiked it up as she sits to get some sun on her thighs. Her skin has been cold for so long, but right now the late June heat is seeping into her. Finally. She chalks up the lack of shivering to the weather and not to the fact that she is heading there. To him.

The wind whips her hair. It's longer than it had been when he'd last seen it. It falls just past her shoulders, and even tugged into a messy ponytail right now, strands lash at her face. Her sunglasses are aviators, and her Sig is in the glove compartment, as if she will need it out here. Of course she won't, but she brings it anyways. Maybe it's just the most tangible thing about her, the easiest thing to hold onto.

She doesn't have much to hold onto these days.

What she needs is the air. She is desperate for the thick, hot air that sinks into her. Her eyelids are heavy, lulled by the straightaway drive and the surprising lack of traffic.

The heat is relentless.

It is everywhere but inside of her. Her gut is still cold. Frigid. Even after the snow melted and the spring came, she hadn't warmed. She stays stuck in the ice of winter.

His winter.

Her foot rests a little heavier on the pedal as she drives. Behind her sunglasses, her eyes burn and she turns up the volume on the radio. For a little while it drowns out the rushing noise in her head.

Maybe it's the fear. Maybe it's the memories.

Maybe it's just because it's been too damned long and he had been devastatingly wrong.

She hadn't been just fine without him after all.

***

Eight months.

He stares out a hundred feet ahead at the Atlantic, the concrete pavement of the patio burning into the soles of his feet. At the edge of the water the seaweed is piling up, and the seagulls are swooping in on it, picking out whatever they can find for food. They squawk as they dive downwards, and he squints against the glare coming off the water as he watches a particularly aggressive bird indicate its territory.

He knows about this sort of thing. About claiming space. About thinking that there had to be inherent rights to something. To someone.

He thinks about having to let go in order to figure out what was actually his. He thinks about how it could take years for a life to change, or it could happen in just an instant.

His mom is gone now. She'd had a heart attack in the middle of the night early last November and she had never woken again. He'd gotten the call in the morning after a neighbor had found her and just like that, the choices he had to make had started to line up, until there was no more waiting, no more procrastinating, no more pretending.

He'd never said goodbye to his mother. He had never forgiven her, absolved her, understood her. But he knows now that he couldn't have given his mother those things because he had never learned to give them to himself.

It's been a long-ass eight months.

He misses the hell out of his partner. Olivia. He catches himself saying her name out loud every now and then, and these days there is no one to hear him. He sometimes stands under the spray of the shower and closes his eyes. In those moments he grits his teeth so hard he can feel the pressure of it in his temples.

He prays to God that he did the right thing by walking away. He waits for a sign but he's still not gotten an answer.

He'd left her just as the winter was rolling in, when the slush had already been thick on the streets of Manhattan. The failures had piled up in his chest, and the more he had looked at her, the more he had realized how little he had to give her, to any of them. If it had been up to him, he would have lived in the complacency forever, because it was easier than uprooting everything and everyone. But when he looked at her, at the way she still looked at him with a little bit of hope, of faith, of belief, he knew he couldn't just do what was easy anymore.

She needed something from him. He had to stay - to really stay - or to go.

He'd gone.

Leave of absence. Three words that said nothing at all, but that had one, singular result.

He had walked away from Manhattan. From his family. From his job.

From Olivia.

His mother had died and it had made him leave everything behind. His marriage had been the first casualty. His job, the second. The truth was that he'd even pulled back from his kids for more than a few weeks, because he couldn't be anything but sure of himself in front of them.

He'd asked Olivia to forgive him for leaving her.

He thinks she did.

He has never tried to forgive himself.

***

She remembers the house.

Of course she does. It had been his mother's, and she remembers everything when it comes to the details of his life. His face is more familiar to her than her own. Even now.

She kills the engine and sits back in her seat. She parked half a block down the beach, and she will trek across the sand to get to the bungalow-style home. Her head falls back onto the leather seat and she lifts her chin to the sun. She takes a deep breath and then decides what to do with it. Exhale, she thinks. Let this one go. There will be another.

She needs to get herself together, because she refuses to let him see her as less than she had been when he had left. He'll take on the responsibility of her in an instant, and she doesn't want that. She wants him to decide to come back on his own. When he's ready.

She doesn't want him to see that she is just biding time until he comes home. She presses her lips together and inhales again.

She holds onto this one.

She wants to be able tell him that things are good. She wants to say that after he left she managed to move on. She wants to tell him that she's found a rhythm that works with Fin, and that Munch doesn't seem to mind that she stole his partner. She wants to tell him that it is okay that he left, and that she understands.

She completely understands. That part is the truth.

It's easier to understand the leaving, and harder to reconcile why he had stayed with her for so many years. It's even harder still to comprehend just how much she counts on him coming back to her. Soon.

She ignores the small voice inside of her that has been cautioning her about coming out here. She knows it's dangerous. She knows that seeing him again will open the wounds, will make the need sharper. She knows that she is looking for signs that he is almost done with this phase, and that he is almost ready to be her partner again.

She is banking on all of this, even if she tries to remind herself otherwise.

Ahead of her, the waves roll in, and she listens for the sounds that announce each one of them. She hears the build and then the crash, and she pulls the rubber band out of her hair, running her fingers through the messy, tangled strands. She pulls off her sunglasses and twists the rearview mirror to face her.

She opens her eyes. Her face is pale, despite the last hour of sun. Her eyes seem too wide, her irises too monochromatic. She has no expression on her face, and if anyone were to characterize her at all, they'd say she looked exhausted.

She isn't crying. She hasn't in a long, long time.

He's her friend, she thinks. And he's happy here. When he had called her to ask her to come out, he had sounded so even. So unbelievably even. He hadn't fumbled over his words; instead his voice had taken on a soothing, confident cadence that had left her gripping the phone, as if she could hold onto the sound.

You feel up to a drive?

She closes her eyes now. She can do this. She can. She hadn't lost her composure as he had packed up his desk. So she can do this. They can do some catching up, if that's what they call it. At least she can catch up, so she is no longer left far behind.

Time has passed, she reassures herself. You're stronger now. She won't break down or break apart. It's just him.

She doesn't have expectations. She doesn't. She hopes maybe he'll make her laugh, because he is good at that, and if he does, then it was worth the drive. She ignores the small bag she has packed that sits in the trunk.

In case of emergency, she rationalizes. It's there in case of emergency. Maybe he will need her to stay a few days, help him pack up. Maybe he will decide to drive back at the same time as her.

The lies are hollow, even to her, and yet she is so willing to believe them.

She swings open the car door and gets out of the car. It'll take her a few minutes to put the top back up, and that'll give her the distraction she needs.

She doesn't think about who she will be when she makes the drive back home.

Chapter Text

He hasn't changed much about the house since his mother died.

Soon after her death, he had packed up most of the knickknacks and her clothes and donated most of them, keeping a few valuable things for his daughters. When he had finally decided not to try and save a dying marriage, he had put his things in storage. It had taken him a month of biding time in this house before he had made arrangements to have his things brought here. As a whole, it didn't amount to much - some of his furniture and the couch from the apartment he had once lived in, a few pictures, his clothes. He had thrown out the bed his mother had died in and had bought a new one, and he'd added a new television in the living room. All in all, the place was huge compared to the small apartments he could have afforded in the city.

It isn't a rental. The place is paid for. In essence, his mother had left him a home of his own.

There are two extra bedrooms in the house, and his kids have been out to stay a few times. Sometimes they came as a group, other times on their own. Lizzie came for a weekend after she had broken up with a boyfriend; Dickie had come out with a couple of friends. He is waiting until the start of next month for the twins to arrive again, because they've asked him if they can spend some time living with him. He doesn't mistake their fondness for the beach with their fluctuating, fragile fondess for him. But they will fill the house with welcome noise nonetheless. He even gets his youngest for a week, and he is anxious to take Eli to the beach in the mornings and watching his son build sandcastles.

He's gonna make damned sure those glorious monuments are constructed far enough back on the shoreline that they won't be ripped apart when the tide comes in.

He knows now he can change things. He's got a better handle on trajectory.

On the surface, he has left Manhattan behind.

But the surface doesn't mean everything, he knows this. He's tan now, and he has the time to take long runs on the beach. He's got his mother's life insurance money set aside and months of vacation accumulated, and he figures that after twenty-five years of not having a moment alone, he is entitled to this. But physically walking away had no bearing on his mental attachment to what he had left behind.

To whom he had left behind.

He wakes to worrying about her every, single day.

But other than that, his life has changed.

For the first few months, he had grabbed his keys to head back to the city at least once a day, thinking he had made a huge mistake. He had picked up the phone only to hang up, thinking Olivia had enough to deal with without worrying about his shape-shifting mental state. And then the gray of February had set in, and he had decided he needed something to do. Something that would occupy his time.

His father's old motorbike had been the perfect thing.

The bike was a '73 Harley Davidson FLH, and he remembers when his father had first bought it. He had been ten years old, and his father had been kicked off the force the year before for refusing to point fingers at other cops during the witch hunt perpetuated by the Knapp Commission. For a little more than a year, Joe Stabler had roamed aimlessly, his anger simmering like a live wire throughout the house. His mother's voice had risen over the months, until her false cheer made her sound terrified, and as a boy, he had taken to his room on most afternoons, praying that he wouldn't hear the heavy-handed knock of his father's fist on his door.

The bike had been a temporary godsend.

The old man had come home on it one day, and the smell of the exhaust had filtered into the kitchen. He had wanted to go out and touch the bike, but he had heard his mother's voice first, her shrill, angry tone berating his father for spending money on the used bike when he'd turned down every frivolous thing she'd ever asked for. The argument had escalated until his mother had grabbed the keys to the car and left, and Elliot had stayed cowered in his bedroom, the gleaming metal of the bike not enough to lure him outdoors.

His mother had stayed away for three days.

But the bike had ultimately proved useful to all of them. His father spent inordinate amounts of time on it, and every minute that bike occupied the elder Stabler was another minute that Elliot didn't have to worry about his father's volatile temper. His mother had eventually come around, and when her mood swings hit, she'd even try to cajole his father to take her out on it. When the old man had died, no one had bothered to sell it. And once Elliot had left that house, he had never wondered what had become of it.

The fact that he had found it stored beneath dusty blankets in the recesses of the detached garage had been a surprise. It had been rusted in some places, and the metal was dim with scratches and dents. The cold, winter months had been the perfect time to hunker down in the closed garage and see what he could do to restore it. He figured he'd maybe sell it when the weather got better and there was a market for it.

He hasn't put up the For Sale sign yet.

Somehow, the hours of working on the bike had calmed him. He's started it a few times, but never ridden it, and he doesn't know if he'll ever have the urge to sit where his father had once reigned. But now, for awhile at least, he's not chafing beneath the pressure. He's not one case away from throwing it all away. He's taking his time and figuring out what the hell it all finally is.

And then there is the now.

He waits for her, holding a fresh beer in his hand, and the condensation of it drips down over his finger and falls to the concrete. He is wearing jeans and a threadbare white t-shirt, and he should probably change for her, look decent at least, but he also wants her to see him as he now is. If he's being honest, the fact that he has put on a shirt at all means he's dressed up for her.

Not that she notices that sort of thing.

There are other changes in him. The only scars he gets on his hands these days are the ones he earns fixing up the bike, and he pretty much grills whatever he wants to eat. He's added muscle and lost half of the nightmares. He's thinking about building an addition to the house and he wants to do it with his own two hands. He'll probably fuck it up. He's always been far better with a Glock than with a power saw.

The suits and dress shirts have long since been discarded. He thinks every day about how his mother had seen him, how she had taunted him about how buttoned up he had been. He'd assumed she'd meant his clothes and he hadn't understood her complaints - the job had required that attire of him. But he has now spent eight months in the world his mother had created, and he sees more of her this way. He gets more of the things she had meant.

He wonders how Olivia will see him.

He knows what it is like to be a cop, and how there is a clear line of demarcation between the badges and the civilians. He doesn't want her to see him as no longer on her side.

He is afraid that he's been gone so long that she no longer needs him.

***

Olivia sees him before he sees her.

She's walking across the sand, close to the houses, when she spots him. He's standing on the small patio, his stance wide and his jaw set. He is staring out at the water, as if he is lost in thought, and for a moment, she just stops.

She wants time before Elliot sees her, but she only has seconds. He will sense her, just like she still senses him, and then her ability to just absorb the changes in him will be lost. He looks broader, if it is at all possible, and his skin is darker, as if he's spent a great deal of time in the sun. He hasn't shaved in a day or two, and she absorbs the familiarity of that particular detail about him. During the worst of the cases, he wouldn't have time to go home and shower and he'd end up looking tougher, more hardened with the days-old stubble on his face. She has seen him this way hundreds of times before.

It is the rest that is different. He looks calmer, yet he's solid as a fortress and she doesn't know if that will keep her out or lock her in.

He is barefoot, and his jeans cup the strong curves of his body. His t-shirt is thin and white, and it hugs the wide, muscled plane of his back. He lifts the beer to his mouth and she knows that her moment of privacy is over. She stands there, fifteen feet from him, waiting for him, for his eyes to -

There.

It's lazy almost, the way Elliot flicks his gaze to her. His mouth stays on the bottle as he takes a deep sip, but those glinting blue eyes are on her. The small smirk starts to form on his lips even before he has managed to pull the bottle away.

He finishes, and uses the back of his hand to rub absently at his wet mouth.

She can't move. She's never seen him like this before. It's as if the veneer he'd maintained for as long as she'd known him had been stripped, and here he is, at his core. He drags his eyes over her, making no effort to disguise his blatant appraisal of her.

Olivia's breath catches in her throat. She should go closer, but she forgets just quite how to do that.

His grin is half-assed, as if he is completely under control. His voice is low, almost a drawl. "If you're waiting for an invitation, I believe I already gave you one."

And just like that, the winter that had lived inside of her is gone, and she's thawing from the inside out.

***

He knows immediately.

He had wondered if he would feel like the one left behind when she showed up. If she would still be her and he would be someone else entirely and if that would make him feel like the world had left him out. The truth is that he was the one to walk away, but that doesn't mean he didn't worry like hell that her world would go on without him, despite him, as if he had never been there.

But all of that disappears when he sees her.

Olivia is the one who has stayed the same.

Granted, he has never seen her like this. Hell, he's seen her in a dress before, but it's always been for a case or a date and the dress had always looked untouchable. Olivia has always looked untouchable, as if she would flinch or disintegrate if he got too close. He's wanted to touch her for a long damned time now, but he's less afraid of her recoil than he is of the resulting accusation he knows he'd see in her eyes.

He likes this dress on her. It is essentially a long t-shirt that skims her body and her hair is so long that the wind plays at it. Maybe it's all the months away that makes him see her for the first time again, but he's knocked on his ass by just how unquestionably beautiful she is. Her eyes have always been painfully vulnerable, and her stance transparently defensive, but she seems softer in some ways right now. As if she is almost uncertain of him, wary.

Of course she is. You left, he thinks. You're no better than anyone else.

God damn it to hell if she doesn't realize that he is taking it all in.

He's missed the fuck out of her.

"You made it this far," he says, still not moving towards her. She looks like she's debating whether or not to leave. "Might as well have a beer with me."

At that, her eyes soften and the hesitant, frozen look she has been giving him fades away. She walks towards him, and he sees it, the brazen way she closes the space.

Just like that, she is here. With him.

Eight months. Two seasons. Thousands of fucking days.

Olivia smiles just a little bit as she finally stops right in front of him. She arches an eyebrow and then nods towards the nearly fresh beer dangling from his fingers.

"I'll take that one," she says.

He can't help it. He laughs deep in his throat and hands her the beer. She doesn't take her eyes off of him as she takes a long sip of it. He watches her mouth on the bottle, and he's sure she knows that he's watching. She's daring, always has been.

He may never let her leave.

"So," Olivia finally asks, holding the bottle between her hands and sizing him up. "How's life as a beach bum?"

Elliot's lips twitch. He's never felt like this around her. Totally free and absolutely positive that no one is watching or judging them. He feels wholly in control, even when it comes to this mutable thing that always sits between them.

He's not fighting anything or telling himself he's got too much to lose. He's got nothing to lose this time, and maybe it's the first time in his life he can really say that with any certainty.

"I got almost everything I want out here," he says, watching her reaction.

Her eyes widen again, for just a moment, but she doesn't look away. And instead of the haunted look he's so used to her wearing, Olivia gives him a rare smile.

"If my mother hadn't been such a drunk, she would have warned me about boys like you, Stabler."

He thinks this is euphoria.

"Good thing she liked to drink," he responds dryly.

He hears her tiny bark of surprised laughter behind him as he turns towards the house, and in just that, he's positive she will follow him in.

 

Chapter Text

She hates that she knows what this feeling is.

It was easier not knowing. It was easier when the lines were blurred and the denials were at the ready. It was easier when she could hide behind excuses like it's just the job and I spend more time with him than anyone else.

But she can feel the unease as it twists in her stomach and her throat seems to lock involuntarily. Twelve years of walking next to him yet she's completely self-conscious as she stands in the narrow, unfamiliar kitchen with him.

She is hyper-aware of each and every one of Elliot's movements.

He leans into the fridge and digs out another beer before setting it on the counter and opening a drawer to get out the bottle opener. Olivia watches him, and he is achingly familiar and yet startlingly new all at once.

He seems calm. His actions are fluid, and that rigidity she had come to know in him is gone.

It scares the hell out of her.

There is a voice inside of her that tells her this is who he is without her. The voice tells her that she is part of the grime he's been trying like hell to wash away.

Elliot must sense she is watching him, because as he pops the top off of his beer he looks over his shoulder at her. "How's work?"

It's meant to be a casual question, but she can feel the bottom drop out when he asks it. There is too much to be said. Too many details he doesn't need to know. She could tell him that she hates him on some days for leaving her, and she could try and make him understand that she feels like she's half the cop she had been when he had been by her side. Sometimes she misses things - clues - that she thinks she might not have missed if he had been there and despite the fact that Fin is an amazing cop, she often feels a crawling sensation on her skin, as if there is no one at her back.

Olivia presses her lips together even as she smiles, and she knows that her eyes have taken on a sheen. She lets out a breath then and shakes her head. "Can we talk about something else?"

Elliot stills then, and the amusement fades from his eyes. For a moment he lets all of the apologies become starkly apparent in his expression. "You can be angry with - "

"No." She doesn't want his platitudes. He doesn't owe her anything for needing some time on his own. Hell, she had thought about leaving a thousand times. She had even actually left a few times and every time she had always returned for her - for what she needed - never for him.

Then again, what she had needed had always been him.

Olivia shrugs and turns, walking into the small living room. She sees the touches of him in a few of the furniture pieces, but there is also evidence of his history. There are a few frames on one of the tables that hold old, faded photos and she knows she will want to look at those more closely later. The dining room table is still the one she remembers from the time she had picked up his mother here, and there are décor pieces that would only be appropriate in a beach house. An old oar, some fishing net, seashells in a jar on the shelf.

"If you're pissed I took leave, I have a right to know."

Olivia stops in the middle of the room, death-clutching the beer. She thinks about picking up the small satchel she had come in with and leaving, because she certainly hadn't driven out here to rehash the past. He is still infuriating because he either gets everything about her or nothing at all.

She says nothing.

"I missed you, Liv."

Of course.

Leave it to him to say absolutely everything.

Her eyes dart across the room in front of her. She should be better at this. At talking to him about her feelings and emotions. But the truth is that she isn't sure what to do when she is in a room with him and the job doesn't sit squarely between them. There are no files, no cases, no theories to debate. There are no badges or guns or wedding rings. It occurs to her that this thing has no boundaries for the moment and that thought nearly makes her head for the door.

She's not sure if she is more afraid of nothing happening at all, or of everything finally bubbling to the surface.

She's not sure what the hell - who the hell - they are.

"Took you eight months to invite me out here. That your idea of staying in touch?"

Jesus. She couldn't sound more defensive and accusatory if she had tried. Olivia turns, expecting to see a shuttered expression on his face.

Instead, Elliot is giving her that maddening, self-satisfied half-grin. "I'll do better next time?"

Next time. As if he's planning on staying out here.

She is suddenly agitated. He's calm as shit and he's probably doing nothing all day except for sitting on the goddamned beach and yeah, yeah she's pissed. She's pissed that he walked away, that he left her. Elliot, of all people, knew better than to do that. He knew what it would take from her, how many times she's been left behind.

And he left her. Left.

He doesn't realize that every time she introduces herself and Fin to a vic or a suspect that it grates on her ears. He doesn't realize that Manhattan is a clusterfuck of depravity and he just sailed right on out of it. He acts like he owes her nothing, and maybe he doesn't, but it sure as hell had felt like he did. Asshole. Asshole.

Screw this.

Olivia sets her beer down hard on the dining room table. She doesn't need this. Elliot calls every now and then, that should be enough. It is enough. They aren't the same people anymore. Clearly all that bullshit about other-halves and being inseparable and co-dependency is just that - bullshit. Out of sight, out of mind seems to work for him. She needs to buy into the concept.

Olivia doesn't look at him as she moves to brush past him. She'll grab her purse and -

Elliot's hand is hard around her upper arm as he stops her. "Why'd you take the week off?"

Olivia stills. He had to have called Cragen. "Needed some time away. You of all people should get that." She pulls out of his grasp and narrows her gaze as she looks up at him. "And stop spying on me."

"So," Elliot says, his voice dropping until it grates. "This is away. Stay here."

She hadn't expected this. Yeah, she'd put a bag in the car, but the actuality of staying here with him is jarring. There are a thousand scenarios she had imagined where she would need that overnight bag, but none of them involved him asking her to stay here within ten minutes of her arriving.

"I can't." The words come easily. Instinctively. Self-preservation isn't shed in an instant.

He looks amused again. His eyebrows arch and he looks too damned smug. Elliot always had a way of seeming like he was the only one in on the secret. "Why not?"

Olivia's chin comes up. "Why should I?"

His laughter rumbles. "'Cause I've got a beach house and I'm good company and you've got nowhere to be." His grin is so wide it is nearly infectious. "Fine. Two out of the three are true. B'sides, I got ten bucks on the fact that you've got a bag in the car."

She hates him. She really does. Only he disarms her every time.

"Asshole," she mumbles half-heartedly. At least he ought to know what she thinks.

He doesn't push her about staying. Instead he reaches around her and grabs her beer, shoving it back into her hands. "No argument ‘bout that. Now grab your beer and come with me."

"Where are we going?"

He's already halfway out the door.

"You'll see."

***

She's two steps behind him as he walks out towards the shoreline and he thinks about slowing down for her, but he realizes he's never done that before. Not since the first day he met her has he ever slowed down, stepped back, pulled rank. He's told her no a few times, but she's done the same for him.

So Elliot walks across the hot sand and he lets her trail by a foot or two. She'll figure it out. Olivia always does.

The seagulls scatter as he gets closer to the water. Within seconds they regroup and he knows they will descend again. Something about habit. About need. The water is loud here as the small waves roll in. The day is fairly calm, and the sun is unhindered by any clouds. She didn't bring her sunglasses out here and neither did he, and when he turns, she is squinting at him against the light.

"So what are we doing out here?" she asks, cocking her head.

"Jesus, Benson. You need a plan for everything?"

He loves the way the wind tangles her hair. The way he can almost see the color of her skin warming beneath the sunlight as he watches. He notices the way she is flirting with the idea of teasing him.

"Pretty much," Olivia admits. "So?"

He can't believe she is really here. He can't yet fully reconcile that they aren't shadowed by the pall of death or victims or rules. Not anymore. He left her, yeah, but he had never intended not to come back for her.

He hopes she knows that. That there was never a question that she was his best friend, the one person he fully trusted, the one person he couldn't see himself without under any circumstance. He has done just fine without the woman he once called his wife, and he knows that his kids will all grow up and lead their own lives one day.

But.

Olivia is the only one. He won't give her up. He can't let her go. He knows. He's tried.

The months have been long. Grueling.

In her absence - in his - he has made her into everything.

"So what?" Elliot fires back.

Her smile is slow to unfold on her face. But when it does, and her eyes meet his, he can see the stiffness in her shoulders ease.

"So what's your plan?" Olivia presses.

She is belligerent and type A and a pain-in-the-ass. He doesn't expect any of that to ever change. He won't let it. "This is it."

One eyebrow cocks. "We're gonna stand on the beach all afternoon and look at each other?"

Elliot shrugs. "We could sit. Hell, we could drink our beers."

Olivia's eyes narrow as she comes to stand directly in front of him. She seems to be searching his face for something. "Did you lose your mind? Is that why you took leave? You didn't want anyone to know you'd turned into a lunatic?"

Fuck. If she knew why'd he'd left, she'd probably be back in the city before nightfall. Her mouth looks goddamned incredible. "Maybe I was tired of working with a lunatic."

She takes the step to come stand next to him, both of them watching the endless rolling in of the waves. "You shouldn't talk about Munch when he's not here to defend himself," she retorts.

He can feel her eyes on him. He doesn't face her. He knows it is sometimes easier for her to talk to him when he doesn't look her in the eyes. Only she doesn't say anything. He realized this about her very early on - that she chooses all of her words very carefully, and when given the opportunity to just listen she does that over offering her own commentary. It is one of the things that makes her such a fucking phenomenal cop. Of course when it comes to her own life, she can't communicate worth shit.

Not that he is one to judge.

"You know what the docs told me about my mother?" He still can't look at her. He examines the endless horizon instead. He figures he is the one who owes her the chatter, the conversation. He is the one who walked away after all and if she's gonna stay, he's got to give her something to make it worth her while.

Olivia is silent.

"They told her three years ago she could die of a heart attack." Elliot shakes his head because this will never, ever make sense to him. "She had coronary artery disease, and they gave her medication. She filled every prescription, and when I was packing up her stuff, I found a box under her bed with over two dozen bottles full of pills."

"She never took any of them." Olivia doesn't sound surprised. Instead she sounds like she expected it.

Elliot turns to face her, and Olivia must sense that because she looks over her left shoulder at him. She doesn't look away.

"The hell is that?" He bites off a curse. "I mean, I get she was sick in the head, but these meds weren't about whether she was gonna be happy or sad. There were about whether she was gonna live or die. Didn't that make a difference to her?"

Olivia's eyes are so black that he can almost see himself in them. Even out in the brilliant sunshine, her voice takes on the dark, dusty quality that lulls him. "You couldn't have made her take those pills any more than I could have made my mother stop drinking, El. We couldn't physically force them to do anything so we tried to compensate. If we could just get them to love us enough, be inspired enough, whatever it was - it would make them change." She lifts her beer to her mouth and shrugs. "Truth is, neither one of them was looking to be saved."

There are moments - each of which he remembers with distinct clarity - that he wants to crawl into her.

This is one of them.

He feels his throat lock because here he is, standing at the edge of the ocean with her. Ahead there is absolutely nothing or the Promised Land, dependent upon one's point of view.

"How do you know if someone wants to be saved?" he finally asks.

He has to know.

Olivia looks up at him, and the corner of her mouth lifts in a quirk. Just like that, he feels bigger, stronger. The sand beneath his feet is suddenly solid ground.

"You'll know," she says. And then, a moment later she sort of smiles as she stares out ahead. "You'll know."

He believes her.

Chapter Text

Olivia stares at the countertop in the kitchen, her hand gripping a rather large knife.

She doesn't know where to start.

The counter is covered with vegetables and thick steaks and fresh bunches of herbs. They had spent over an hour walking the beach, not saying too much or too little, and when they had come back, Elliot had asked her if she was hungry.

Fuck yes, she is hungry. She is always hungry. It probably isn't a very delicate trait, but she is who she is, and that means she loves food.

He knows this, of course.

So he had promptly pulled out the contents of the fridge, dumped them on the counter and very nonchalantly told her to figure out what looked good while he took a shower.

Good to know that he is as infuriating as ever. Then again, she does have a knife in her hand. Maybe she can just stab him with it.

He knows she is just a so-so cook. There are a few things she can manage - basic lasagna, for instance - but on the whole groceries and things that simmer for hours and chopping blocks covered in herbs are not her forte. Half of her wants to know what the hell he is doing with a fridge full of this stuff, the other half wants to know if he actually knows what to do with it all.

Being out here is weird as hell.

She can't shake the uneasy feeling that he is settling further into his life out here instead of getting ready to come back to Manhattan. She wants to ask him outright if he's coming back soon, but she knows that if he senses her need, he will come back before he is ready and in the end, that will only make him resent her.

She lets the knife clang out of her hand and onto the counter. She runs her hand through her hair instead, letting her palm come to rest on the back of her neck. She massages the sore muscles there and looks up out of the small window in the kitchen that overlooks the beach beyond. The New Jersey shoreline.

New Jersey.

Christ, he's been living in a different state for the better part of the last year.

Olivia closes her eyes. She's already too comfortable here. Her shoes have long since been kicked off and the windows in the sunroom to her right have been opened to let in the sea air. Elliot must have moved the dining table into the still sunlit room - a place that had once been filled with his mother's paintings - because it now occupies the small space. She'd only been here a for a short while that afternoon she had come to pick up Bernadette Stabler, but it was long enough for her to notice the changes Elliot has made.

Surprisingly, the place feels like him.

Gone are the few coral upholstered chairs and the delicate knick-knacks. Instead she can see evidence of his life everywhere. His sneakers are tossed by the door, a couple of sports magazines sit on the table. The bright purple gauze curtains his mother had hung have been replaced by beige blinds and the light yellow walls are now painted a light, soothing blue.

He is living here. This isn't a place in which he has been hiding from the world. This is a place he has made his home. It isn't the messy, dark respite she had expected to see.

Just like that, her throat feels thick. She can't relax here. She can't. He might stay out here forever, but she has to go back to New York. With or without him.

She's got no place here. No reason.

The gnarling sense of displacement crawls on her.

"You tryin' to use your brain waves to cut the veggies?"

Olivia spins to her right, startled out of her reverie by the husky sound of Elliot's voice. As soon as she turns, she wishes she hadn't.

Elliot stands in the lone entrance to the kitchen, his hip propped against the wall and his arms folded over his bare chest. He is wearing a pair of summer shorts and an amused look on his face. He looks entirely too comfortable in his state of undress.

"If you can sear a steak with your mind, I'm gonna be a little afraid of you," he quips.

Her mouth is dry and she prays to God that she isn't ogling him. It's a little impossible not to look at him. He's cut, everywhere, and he's got that sultry, summer-heated warmth to the color of his skin. Everything about him out here is relaxed, so much so that for a moment, she almost misses his raging anger and the scowl she knows all too well.

"I'm the guest," Olivia says, drawing her lower lip into her mouth before she realizes what she is doing. Fuck. "Shouldn't you be cooking for me?"

"Maybe. But you're the woman-" Elliot starts teasingly, walking into the kitchen.

Olivia picks up the knife and cocks an eyebrow at him. "Sure you want to finish that sentence?"

Elliot's eyes crinkle at the corner as he grins. He passes behind her into the kitchen, but not before he leans in towards her ear. "I'll take my chances."

Her skin prickles with awareness. Everywhere.

You're the woman.

Maybe that is what is so unsettling about being out here. She feels that way today. Feminine. Not like his partner. Not like his physical equal.

"I take it you can make a salad?" he teases. "Nothing to burn, char or oversalt about that."

She stands still, awkwardly watching Elliot as he starts to unwrap the steaks onto a plate. He reaches into a cupboard and pulls out some balsamic vinegar and sets it on the counter, and then opens a drawer to pull out some grilling tools.

Olivia doesn't move.

She feels like a fish out of water. He is remarkably in control here, and he seems to be taking up all the space wherever he is. She can't reconcile the man she remembered - the steely, tight expressions and the exhausted eyes of Elliot - with who he is now.

She feels like she's missed years with him, not months. Her heart picks up its pace just a little bit as the anxiety takes hold. She had thought she'd felt left behind in Manhattan, but here, the evidence of his moving on is all around her and the reminders are unavoidable.

And then, just when she thinks he doesn't even realize she is here, Elliot stops rummaging.

When he fully looks at her, all of the playfulness in him is gone.

"Liv?"

She can't breathe all of a sudden. She feels an agonizing need to tell him about the last eight months. She wants to tell him about seven-year-old Lindsay Folsom, who disappeared from the neighborhood pool and who still hasn't been found. She wants to tell him about sixteen-year-old Farhid Azzari, whose father burned off half her face because she had shamed him by falling in love with a Catholic boy. She wants to tell him about Bobby Lillingham, Charles Adami, and Rashida Lopez. Names who mean nothing to him. Nothing.

He doesn't know anymore.

Elliot had walked away, like none of it had ever happened. He doesn't wear the guilt of the times they had failed on his skin; he doesn't look like he loses sleep.

That's her world now. Not his. And she can't bring him back into it before he is ready. If he is ever ready.

She can feel it. He's not acting like her partner anymore. And if he's not that, then he doesn't have any ties to her. Olivia watches him as he comes closer to her. She has to say something because she's acting like an idiot.

Liv, we have to talk.

Eight months ago. Eight-fucking-months.

It's just for a little while. I'll call you. I promise.

It was all bullshit. He had called her three times. Exactly three. And by the third time, she'd had nothing to say.

Just need to clear my head.

"Olivia-"

Elliot's voice is harsh now, almost commanding. He's got the slightest bit of urgency in his tone and she feels an odd satisfaction that he's feeling some sense of discomfort at least. This isn't comfortable. Making dinner in Jersey at his mother's beach house isn't them. It's not.

Fuck. That's because there is no them.

How the hell hadn't she moved on? Even around the squad they've been referring to Elliot as her old partner. Her former partner. She's heard people talk about them. How they'd once been great.

As if it was all in the past.

The past.

She hasn't moved on. Not like he has. She's been waiting for him. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Elliot's hand lands on her arm, but unlike when he stopped her earlier today, his touch is unwaveringly gentle. "Hey," he nearly croons. "What just happened?"

Olivia doesn't know this man. This man with the freedom to touch her, this man with the time to read magazines and run on the beach. He is now someone who falls into bed at night with the assurance that he will sleep the whole night through.

And the thing is that if she doesn't know him, then he probably doesn't understand her anymore, either.

It leaves her with no one.

She looks up at him, but she doesn't trust herself to speak. Olivia watches Elliot carefully though, praying he doesn't make any sudden moves. The fire in her chest is smoldering, and she's afraid that if she opens her mouth too soon, she will fuel that fire with the oxygen that will rush into her starved lungs.

He'd once been hers, she thinks. Not in any way that the world recognized. He'd been married to someone else, and their friendship was always carefully characterized as second fiddle to their partnership, but he'd been hers.

Once.

And when he had sailed out on his fairytale break, she had believed with everything in her that he would be coming back. Surely he couldn't leave her that easily if he had been planning to never come home?

But it had been that easy for him, and now he was flourishing while she was floundering. It was one thing to put her life on hold for him while he'd been by her side every day, but it was another thing entirely to put her life on hold for a man who had left.

"Christ," Elliot swears under his breath.

Olivia is mute. She is someone she doesn't recognize at all. She presses her lips together because the realization that she is weak, so fucking weak, is jarring. She is a grown woman who is acting like an abandoned child, and there is no modicum of pride that can be salvaged from this.

Behind the badge, the gun, the glare, this is who she is.

She is frozen. It's as if life has dumped her off here and she has no idea where the hell she is.

"What the fuck is going on?" Elliot whispers harshly. It's finally a tone she recognizes. "Is it work? Is it bad? You wanna talk about it?"

He blocks the window in the room because the sheer size of him. It makes the room feel darker. Shadowed.

"I should go," Olivia finally manages.

He locks eyes with her. He doesn't even blink. "Stay here."

She shakes her head before she even realizes what she is doing. "I thought-" It's the break in her voice that gives her a burst of composure. She can't do this. She can't sound like this. She clears her throat. "Never mind. It's two hours back, El. I should get on the road. It was good to-"

He finally gives her an expression she recognizes. He narrows his eyes and his jaw flexes. "Save the shit, Olivia."

He riles her immediately. "You think I'm the one who's dishing out shit?"

"Yeah. You drove two hours for what? For a beer?"

To see you. To see you, goddammit. I've been waiting and...and nothing. It's nothing.

"Guess so." Her purse is in the living room and she tries to move past him.

Elliot surprisingly backs away and lets her pass. He watches her in silence as she finds her shoes and walks towards where she had set down her purse.

"I found this journal of my Mom's," he says quietly. "Don't have the guts to read it."

This is always how he breaks her. He starts talking and he has to know that she has never, ever been able to walk away from him when he does this. When he talks about himself, or when he shares things with her. It's his holy grail of influence over her because the instances are so rare.

Olivia stills, and when she looks at him, she knows he can see that something inside of her is breaking. She's missed him so damned much that it is a physical, pounding ache inside of her. She's terrified of him now; terrified about what he could make her want.

Elliot glances at her, and for the first time today she can see that he's trying like hell for something, only she doesn't know what it is. When he's sure she isn't moving, he walks over to the table and picks up a small, leather bound book. It is a faded, pale and cracked orange color that is tied shut with a brown leather string.

Elliot's thumb slips over the surface. Once. Twice. He looks down at it and then up at her, and without hesitation he settles the journal into her hand.

It's a heavy, heavy weight even though it can't be more than a few ounces.

Olivia can't think.

She says the first stupid thing that comes to mind. "What do you want me to do with it?" Her breath is shallow.

Elliot's grin is barely perceptible. "Tell me if there's anything I need to know?"

Olivia flinches - hard - and she can feel the rush of adrenaline spike through her as her heart rate accelerates. He can't possibly mean -

"Will you read it?" His voice is barely a rasp.

When Elliot's dark lashes lift so that he can look at her, she sees that whatever lightness he'd worn earlier today has been eroded. The smallest voice inside of her tells her that he's faded a little bit since she'd announced she was leaving a few moments ago.

But he's asking something of her. Something he's thought about. Planned. Had time to consider.

She can't do this. She can't. She has never been able to go through her own mother's things - her own mother's psyche - so she doesn't know how Elliot could expect she will be able to sift through this. She's scared of what she is holding onto. She's terrified of it.

His mother's journal. Jesus. Jesus. They've gone from stay out of my personal life to this. This.

She wants to tell him it's none of her business. It can't be. Couldn't be. Shouldn't.

Elliot forces a tight smile. "It's been sitting there for months. I just...you're the only one...." That forced smile fades and he stands there for a moment before shaking his head as if trying to clear it. He worries his lower lip, chewing on it again and again, his eyes focused on the worn leather in her hands.

He finally stops speaking. Instead he just lifts his gaze and looks at her. Something in him is pleading; he's just given up on using his words.

Olivia can't look away. She sees him then. The familiarity - the stabbing, consuming familiarity - of Elliot is suddenly there in front of her. It feels like she is slamming into a brick wall of him, only she is standing still.

So is he.

Something finally pieces together for her. The ridiculous quantity of groceries he had on hand, the recent coat of paint on the walls. The shelf in the fridge was full of her favorite beer and there was fresh soap on the sink in the bathroom. She had even noticed a folded set of towels on the bed in the guest room when she had used the bathroom earlier.

She is almost dizzy with the realization.

"Did you-" Olivia's voice cracks. She stops and takes a deep breath, trying to get past the butterflies that are forming deep in her stomach. Her fingers tighten around the bound book in her hands. "Did you do-"

It hangs in the air.

He'd done this for her to see. To experience.

"Didn't want you here until I had it together, Liv. Figured you'd had ‘nough years of watching me lose my shit."

She can see the lack of movement in his chest because every crevice of him is on display for her right now. Elliot is holding his breath and the only things moving on him are the muscles in his jaw and his fingers as he clenches them once, then twice.

"We got nothin' to lose if you stay," he encourages softly.

Olivia grips the book. She can't take her eyes off of Elliot. He is all ridges and planes and powerful curves lit in the ribbon of colors that signify the glorious dusk. Hers.

Hers.

She's got nothing left of defense when he lays himself bare like this.

Olivia nods. "I could maybe stay just tonight and then-"

The light in him comes back and she almost gasps with how obvious it is. Elliot exhales and the smile is back in him and Jesus Christ, she's done that. He changes like that because of her.

Just like that, she falls over the edge for him.

***

He's heard that the ocean never sleeps, and he thinks that is entirely wrong.

He has been out here long enough to understand the changes in the tide, the pull of the moon. He's seen the ocean thrash in the throes of a frigid, winter storm and he's arisen in the morning to the startling sight of a sea of smooth glass. In the afternoons, when the birds make the surface their playground, the white-tipped waves seem to play along, yet by evening the waves roll in with a slow, easy rumble as if preparing for nightfall.

Sometimes he sits and stares at the endless miles of it all and wonders what it would like to be out there, at the mercy of the power and seemingly whimsical pull of the ocean. He wonders what it would be like to live aboard a freighter for months on end, his hands chapped by the calluses of a life earned at sea. He thinks about what it would take from a man to live beneath the surface, without daylight, for six months at a time. He'd met guys like that - the sub guys - back in his days with the Marines. He thinks about how there is a whole world beneath the water that he has never experienced. There are ridges and peaks, mountains and colonies. There are unexplored, watery black depths that he wonders if any man will ever see.

You're just like your father. All buttoned up, no imagination. No spirit. If anything is just a little out of the ordinary it scares you to death. Anything that doesn't fit into your neat little boxes, you just can't take it.

He hears his mother's voice a lot these days.

Her death had been starkly different than his father's. When his Dad had died, he had felt no remorse. The old man had been especially brutal and caustic in the last two decades of his life, and there was nothing Elliot wished he had said or done differently.

But his mother - losing his mother was another story entirely.

The first few weeks out here had been the hardest. He'd seen jarring physical reminders of all the ways in which he had failed her. The screen door to the patio had creaked almost obscenely; the faucet in the sink was rusted. Then had come the emotional barrage - he'd boxed up photo albums that had chronicled his childhood, and he had gone through storage chests in the garage that were filled with the rudimentary artwork and essays he'd brought home as a kid. He'd started to see a pattern in the things she had saved. Every single thing his mother had held onto about his childhood had been something that had depicted a happy moment, a childhood dream, an uninhibited smile.

His first instinct was to curse his mother's inability to live in the real world; his second was to realize that as a parent, it had been her job to wish he had been afforded the freedom to follow every dream that had ever even crossed his mind.

Somewhere around month three of being out here he had forgiven his mother for everything she had ever done, and started to blame her for the one thing she hadn't. She hadn't saved herself. She'd let herself die, and to this day that is the one thing he can't reconcile.

The truth is that he wonders if she didn't see much to live for.

That is his fault.

He should have known she would die like this, before she had to. He should have known he wouldn't be the one to find her, that he wouldn't be there at her side in the end. Avoiding her for the last seven years hadn't been the best way to look out for her and so that was it. All he'd get. He could fix the faucet and oil the door and none of it would mean a damned thing.

His mother would never know what he felt, how he cared, if he had at all.

And he had.

He had cared. He'd loved her and needed her and he'd been her son for every day of his forty-four years even if he had missed Christmas with her, avoided her calls, sent everyone else to see her instead. He'd been so afraid of his mother leaving him for most of his childhood, and yet in the end, his mother hadn't walked away from him.

He had walked away from her.

And that's the brutal truth of it. He leaves behind the things that make him scared.

Next to him, he feels a shift in the air that has nothing to do with the light wind. He knows who it is, the only person who he would let be with him.

Olivia.

He looks down, over his right shoulder, and her olive-skinned feet are the only thing he sees. She has light pink toenails, and there is something so unexpected about that that he feels himself exhale, if just for a moment. The sand is strewn across the top of her slender feet and he knows that if he looks up, her legs will be bare to her knees.

Olivia hands him a cold, already-opened bottle of beer before sitting down next to him, he takes it gratefully and stares straight ahead.

She doesn't say anything, and that is one of the things he likes best about her. She doesn't fill the silences with inane platitudes. She doesn't tell him that his mother knew he loved her, she doesn't tell him that he did the best he could. She doesn't make up the blanks in her life or in his; she has always only dealt with the things that she knows for sure.

"Dinner was fantastic," she says quietly.

He lifts his head and his fingers instinctively start peeling the label from his beer bottle. The wind shifts, and out of the corner of his eye he can see her hold back the long strands of hair that blow gently across her cheek.

He can't believe Olivia is out here, with him. It had taken him months to feel ready to see her again, days and days that had to pass before he could see past all the ways in which he could so easily fail her. She had been quiet at dinner, and they had lapsed into a silence so easy that it had bordered on unsettling. He'd grilled the steaks, she'd made a salad and every time he had looked up at her and caught her eyes, she had smiled just a little bit.

When Olivia smiles at him, she seems a little bit embarrassed by the expression. He senses a hesitancy in her that has become more pronounced after his months away. She looks at him some times as if he is a time bomb and she can't decide how far away she needs to stay back so that she doesn't get burned.

The sun has set, and the sky is streaked in the grays and blues that preface nightfall. It's still warm outside, but the breeze feels good on his heated skin.

"Company was even better," he murmurs.

Olivia ducks her head as she burrows her toes into the sand in front of her. "I'm glad, you know."

He shoots her a side glance. "'Bout what?"

"That you made me stay."

Elliot laughs then, and the feeling makes its way into his chest. "I don't think anyone's ever made you do anything you didn't want to do."

When Olivia looks at him, she is trying not to smile, but the light in her eyes gives her away. The effect makes her look almost mischievous. She doesn't say anything, but the beauty of it is that with him, she doesn't have to.

He hopes she knows that.

He looks back out at the water then, because looking at Olivia for too long is never a good idea. His instincts with her are less controllable than he'd like. He has a constant need to touch her, to provoke her, to want to feel her breathe on his skin and he's damned sure that if he tries any of it, she's gonna hightail it back to Manhattan.

She takes a sip of the beer and then rests her forearms on her knees. "I can think of worse places to be."

He is so profoundly grateful to her in that moment that he can't breathe. He looks at her while she looks straight ahead and her skin appears bronze and perfect out here.

"My mother knew about you," he says quietly.

The side of Olivia's mouth lifts. "I know. I came out here to get her before Kathleen's trial, remember? She told me you'd mentioned me."

Elliot shakes his head. "Not what I meant." He can't take his focus off of her. "She was mad at me. Said I lived in little boxes, and that I had no spirit."

Her head cocks so she can look at him. Olivia says nothing.

He gives her a wry smile and then uses the crashing waves as distraction. He needs to keep talking. It's the only thing that keeps Olivia next to him. "Most parents woulda been happy their son wanted to do the right thing and marry the girl they got pregnant. Not my mother. She was convinced I was throwing it all away. Even back then, she had big ideas for me."

"You did the right thing, El."

He loves Olivia's voice. When something affects her, the timber drops until her words are low, breathy, so damned earnest. He can't tell her that for as many times as he has imagined her tangled with him in his bed for hours, he has also imagined her sprawled on him, talking - just hours of her voice saying anything and everything she felt she had to say.

Elliot nods. "Yeah. Maybe the first time around." He laughs softly. "Second time around I shoulda known better."

The silence hangs heavy. The waves do their best to the cut the heavy summer air, yet still fall short.

He can't let the silence sit. Not now. He doesn't want Olivia to get up. Not yet. He's got to keep talking to her. He's got shit else but his words.

"When Kath and I split the first time, Mom called me a lot and I'd send all her calls to voicemail. She'd leave me rambling messages about how my sun was rising and how fate gave me a second chance. I'd get so pissed she didn't get it." He lifts his beer to his lips then thinks better of it. "But she'd end every one of those voicemails with askin' ‘bout you."

That brings a surprised bark of laughter from Olivia. "What?"

Elliot can't help it. The smile on her face and the shadows are too intoxicating. He lets his mind veer, and he imagines moving closer to her, feeling her hand slip up the back of his neck as he hovers on her, just enough so that she'd lower herself back onto the sand. He wants to touch the long, smooth length of Olivia's leg and gently pull it up, around his hip.

He tries not to think beyond that.

"She musta realized you were important. Didn't always mention the kids, but every time she'd end it with ‘be good to Olivia' or ‘tell her to watch my boy's back'." Now the smile tugs at his mouth, too.

Olivia is so fucking close to him. If he went for it, her lips would taste like beer and her hair would be just a little bit tangled from the wind as he pushed his fingers into it.

"El," Olivia says, and it's throaty and lazy. Her eyelids seem heavy.

"Guess she had somethin' right."

Olivia closes her eyes and instead of moving closer to him, she props her arms on her knees and lifts her beer bottle. She presses her forehead to her wrist and sits, quietly.

Elliot watches her, and he knows he can't tell her too much, too soon. It's the same with those who are buried in the rubble of a disaster for weeks, no food or water. If they are rescued the instant barrage of too much at once can kill them just as soon as the isolation and starvation could.

"You been buried?" he asks.

She must sense that for now the danger has passed because she turns her head to eye him. "You mean as in work? It's been bad, yeah, but no more so than-"

"No," he laughs. "I mean as in under the sand. Has anyone ever buried you?"

Olivia's face registers just a moment of shock before she realizes where this is headed. "What? No. And I swear to God-"

She is as fast as he is, if not faster.

By the time he's up, she's up and she's backing away from him, one hand clutching her beer and the other palm held out towards him, as if warding him off.

Even in the dark, Elliot can find her eyes. She is smiling, and it's one of those rare smiles that takes over her whole face. He knows they don't do this - they don't ever horse around - but fuck if he's all that concerned about what they used to be or used to do.

"Stabler," Olivia warns, trying unsuccessfully to look serious.

"Yeah, Benson?"

He's encroaching on her and he has absolutely no idea what he is gonna do if he catches her. But it's nighttime and the air is warm, the sand is soft, and hell if this isn't the most absurd, rare moment in time.

The breeze slides between his fingers and his ring finger feels bare. He's never been able to breathe like this.

"C'mere," Elliot says, trying to sound as trustworthy and encouraging as possible. He takes another two steps forward until she is nearly in his grasp.

She must realize that he's got nothing good on his mind. When he catches her he is gonna touch her and hold her and fucking slip his palms against her skin.

Olivia's laughter is spectacular as she shakes her head.

"Like hell I will."

She drops her beer in the sand and runs like the wind towards to the water.

***

It's dark out here now, and she feels the sand compact beneath every quick step she takes. Her lungs have opened up and she loves the way the air still warms her skin this late into the evening.

Olivia just wants to keep running, to just feel like this forever.

The beers have dulled her senses just a little bit, and she blames them too on her inability to outrun him. She can feel him gaining on her even as she makes for the straightaway of wet sand that borders the edge of the tide. To her right, the waves roll and tumble, the comforting sound penetrating into her stomach, her chest, her throat.

She feels a little bit tipsy, as if she isn't quite connected to the boundaries and borders she maintains.

Freedom.

The air is swirling deep inside of her. She's so awake. So startlingly awake. She forgets she is actually running and she just moves, pushing herself. She could close her eyes and just keep going and never hit a wall out here.

She senses him behind her before she even hears his roughened breath on the back of her head. His arm is thick and strong around her waist as he tangles his legs with hers and hauls her back towards him.

He's got her. He's got her. She doesn't think about don't touch and my partner and there are rules. She thinks about nothing except for the hot, hard feel of him. She listens to the voices inside of her.

You're safe.

"Gotcha."

She lets him take.

His feet and hers intermix and it sends them both tumbling to her left, and he breaks her fall by hitting the soft ground first, his arrogant, satisfied chuckle already settling over her.

Olivia is half on him, half off, her back to him when she catches her breath. She wants to laugh, to just fucking laugh at how ridiculous all of this is. Ridiculous.

Breathe, Olivia. Just breathe.

"Asshole," she retorts, trying not to notice the solid rock he is next to her.

Elliot smells like soap and beer and his hands are on her, in places they shouldn't be. She can't catch her breath as he rolls over towards her, nearly spooning her as his hot breath warms her jaw. Her eyes shut.

You've waited a long time.

The water is ten feet away. There is salt in the air and sand in her hair and above her, the sky is clear and endless and she could meld right into it.

He leans up over her. "Eight months away and I can still take you," he teases.

Olivia falls back onto the sand, her chest slamming. Elliot is too close to her. Half on her, half off. She should stop him, to push him back but the need for him is nearly debilitating. She opens her eyes and he's right there, inches from her face. The hard mass of his thigh presses against hers and his thumb and fingers are wrapped around the curve of her waist.

He's so close. So close.

It's been a hundred years since he's been her partner and it's so damned impossible to remember all the reasons why she can't have him. Manhattan doesn't exist, and neither does humanity. It's a cliché to feel like they are the last two on earth but that's what this is, it's simple and obvious and basic like that.

Let this be.

Elliot's skin is hot and he's breathing just as hard as she is. He'd put on a t-shirt right before dinner but the material of it is so thin that she can feel every ridge of his stomach against her torso, and he is tan and perfect and rough in all the right places.

He doesn't pull back. He doesn't create space or give her apologies for staying like this.

The want slides across her skin, through her belly and her thighs, her breasts, the sensitive spot on the side of her neck - it all aches. For him. For him.

For this.

"Jesus," Elliot mutters, his hand sliding lower, down towards where her dress is clinging precariously to the tops of her thighs.

She can't look at him because the relief of him on her is so sharp - so painfully acute - that her eyes prick. She can't do this occurs to her, but it's lost, forgotten because there is no one here to see her lose it, give in, just succumb to the sheer want.

She stares at the night-darkened sky. At a million stars. She thinks about floating up there, and about just staying with him. Just staying.

Her chest is crumbling up beneath the cinders. He's a burn. A goddamned burn on her.

Elliot's palm skims the top of her bare leg and he makes a guttural sound. She can feel him pulsing, controlled and almost rocking on her. Her back is flat on the sand now and she's still out of breath, but he's coming down on her, lowering his powerful body until she's pinned between him and the sun-warmed earth.

She makes a sound. He is so unbearably present in this moment that it reminds her of just how vicious his absence had been.

Eleven years sail by in her mind. Eleven years. Days, cases, nights, dying. She thinks of crying and of his family and of being on the outside for so, so long. She thinks about the city, and how without him it crawls all over her. Without him, it has its way with her. There is an ache inside of her. A desperation to belong to something, to someone, to anything. She's strong, yeah, but she's got a place inside of her that hasn't grown up, that hasn't caught up to what she's seen, heard, learned.

Elliot presses his forehead against hers.

His fingers slip into her hair. She can feel his knuckles against her scalp, can feel the way her body craves him. His eyes slip shut and she can feel his lashes then as they skim her cheek. She stays focused on the sky. Endless. Above her.

Eyes wide open.

Her throat closes. She blinks. She knows every inch of him and yet nothing at all.

"You left me," she says softly, her voice catching.

There are no clouds in the night sky. It is unblemished. Orion blurs.

Elliot's breath is hot against her cheek and his hand opens against the side of her face. She knows he won't kiss her. Not this easily. Not this soon.

It's okay.

"I'm so sorry, Olivia," he rasps.

She closes her eyes, keeps him against her, and the night stills.

Chapter Text

He had needed some time, and the walk to her car had provided the perfect excuse.

After he had rolled away from Olivia, Elliot had done his best to just breathe. His instinct had been to hold onto her, but that urge solely existed to save him. The need to save her had always been more powerful and because of that he was well aware he needed to give her space.

He'd helped Olivia up and then walked her back to the house in silence before offering to retrieve her bag for her from her car. Wordlessly she'd handed over her keys.

She wouldn't run, at least not for a few more hours.

It was a small bag, and it couldn't hold much, but he was relieved to see it nonetheless. There was something reassuring in knowing that even after all the months he'd been gone and the abrupt way in which he had left Manhattan, it had still occurred to Olivia that she might want to stay with him for a few days.

When he'd returned to the house, Olivia had been sitting on the sofa, her eyes shut and his mother's journal - still closed - on her lap. Her feet had been stretched out in front of her, ankles crossed, and she had looked so tired and comfortable sitting there on the couch that he had just stopped for a moment and absorbed the startling sense of completion that seemed to pervade the house simply because Olivia was in it.

The world they had lived in couldn't have seemed further left behind.

The corner of his mouth now lifts in a grin as he watches her, and she looks up drowsily. He tosses her keys on the side table, her bag still slung over his shoulder.

"You look exhausted." His voice is scratchy, almost hoarse. You look beautiful.

A million things he should say. Wants to. Will.

Olivia's hair falls into her face a little bit as she shifts. "It's all the sea air."

The silence seems to settle between them and he couldn't care less. He would be content to just watch her exist in his space.

But Olivia stands up, and as she walks towards him to get her bag it occurs to him that she could easily drive away tomorrow morning. If he had attempted too much too soon with her, he wouldn't be surprised if she tries to leave before he is even awake.

"You bring sneakers in this thing?"

Olivia nods. She comes to stand right in front of him and in her bare feet she is shorter than he remembers. She has to tilt her head up a little bit to look him in the eyes and he likes the effect because it means she has to gaze up through her lashes. She's a sultry sort of sexy and her movements are languid and it's the opposite of everything he had ever seen of her when he had been her partner. As a cop she's all fire and movement.

As a woman, she's a slow dance.

"'Course," Olivia acknowledges, reaching for her bag.

Elliot needs to make plans with her. She wouldn't easily let him down if they had definitive plans, and this is the only way he can feel marginally better about his chances of getting her to stay another day.

"Go for a run with me tomorrow?"

Olivia's grin borders on a smirk. Her hair is tousled and her skin is even darker now than it had been when she arrived this afternoon. She knows where the guest bedroom is and she makes no bones about heading there.

"If you can keep up," she agrees, one eyebrow raising speculatively as she throws him a look over her shoulder while walking away.

Elliot stands there long after she closes the door to his room. He looks at all the open windows he will need to lock up before he takes a shower and goes to bed.

He thinks about finding a way to lock Olivia in.

+ + +

The world is still.

At least it feels that way.

Outside, she knows things are moving. The water rolls, and it is an odd sensation to hear the constant movement but to remain steady on dry land. She has left the high bedroom window cracked just a little bit, and she can't remember the last time she's been able to fall asleep to fresh air. Elliot would probably tell her to lock the windows - their job lives in them, it's always their job - but she's a cop and she's quick and besides she feels a little bit invincible out here.

He is in the next room.

Elliot.

Olivia is exhausted and her body aches from it. She can feel herself letting go of the week, the month, the city itself. The white sheets are crisp against her skin and the light yellow duvet is the perfect weight on her, but still she can't sleep. Instead she stares at the ceiling, unable to calm the thoughts that skitter through her mind.

She is too aware of Elliot. Of being in this house. His house.

In Manhattan - as his partner - she's found herself attracted to him but she has always attributed that inconvenience to Elliot's overwhelming presence, to her natural human instinct. He is strong, dynamic, commanding. He has a way of sucking the air out of a room and then burning up everything in his presence as if he is a flashover fire. She'd stick by him in the cold just to stay warm. She's stuck by him for years.

The sheer scope of their tangled, mangled history is overwhelming.

Olivia takes a deep breath and blows it out, fascinated by the rough surface of the ceiling. Being Elliot's partner has never been easy. Not being his partner has proven impossible. She is so inextricably linked to him that she couldn't unravel them if she tried.

It scares the hell out of her. She's dependent upon him. Dependent. The thought is so frightening, so utterly debilitating, that she almost gets out of bed just to move.

Hush, Olivia.

You need to sleep. Just rest.

She knows this. She needs to close her eyes. She hasn't slept properly in months and even she knows that she is two steps from fucking it all up back in Manhattan. Leave had been her choice, but she had been days away from Cragen forcing it under his orders. She presses her eyes closed now and wills away the panic she still feels because Elliot is not at his desk across from her every morning. She starts every morning with a numbing kick to her chest, and she does everything she can to stay away from the squad room as much as possible. Out on the streets she can pretend he is still back at the house, waiting for her, doing paperwork, ready to...

The lies she tells herself are even clearer out here.

Olivia can still feel his hand on her skin.

She remembers Elliot being on her a few hours ago. She remembers the way he had grunted and held her so tightly. His arousal had been evident in his tightened expression and in the fierce way he had looked at her. She imagines him in here with her right now, the dark places in Elliot's eyes growing as his mouth closes in towards her. Olivia's arm lifts until it rests over her head and she imagines his hands and his mouth and the sound of his voice as he slips his rough palm up the hem of her t-shirt.

Let him hold you.

She's thought about Elliot like this before, but usually when she's thought about this - him - she is trying to stop being angry, trying to block out something painful that is invading her mind, her heart. She has thought about him on her - hard, fast, deep - and she always imagines it as something they would regret. As a mistake that could be made in their darkest moment. She has imagined him touching her out of their frustration, their anger, their indignation at the sheer, blinding injustice of it all.

But she has never, ever imagined Elliot touching her out of love. Even the dangerous, nearly inconceivable idea of it makes her draw deeply on every breath. He is her partner. Her friend.

Olivia keeps her eyes closed and her hand slips to the bare skin on her belly where her shirt has lifted beneath the covers. Her hand is his, and she thinks about Elliot's mouth there, on her abdomen.

Friends.

Friends.

She wonders what the moment would be like, just how overwhelmed she would be if Elliot were to actually make love to her. It is one thing to sleep with a friend; it is another thing entirely to finally have the man who has been absolutely everything to her find his release while buried inside of her. That she could pleasure him like that - that she could be the one to arouse him - Elliot - is too much to consider.

She inhales so sharply that she can feel the air swirl in her gut. Her pulse picks up speed and her breathing becomes shallow.

Easy.

Her chest is tight and brittle and she is so starkly aware of how alone she has been these last months. She doesn't cry, and she vaguely realizes that she has stopped crying over anything or anyone. Even the victims don't get her tears anymore.

I felt like an empty shell. Like someone had reached inside of me and scooped out my soul.

His mother had once said that to her.

Numbness has a silence, Olivia thinks. It's been too quiet inside of her.

Until now.

Maybe that is what this is. Maybe this is the sound coming back. She can hear herself think, can hear the voice inside of her. She can hear the ocean and the sound of Elliot taking a shower and in the morning she knows she will hear the calls of the sandpipers and terns as they sail by outside of her window.

Listen.

There is a cadence to the ocean that rocks her. Every few moments the shoreline is being washed clean. What the tide takes, it gives. Even the darkness is bright out here by the water, outside the moon reflects on the ripples again and again and again.

His mother's journal sits on her end table and Olivia rolls her head to look at it. The lamp is still on and she knows she won't sleep just yet. The fact that Elliot asked her to read it is also too much to dissect. She doesn't know yet if she is supposed to tell him only the positive or if she should abbreviate the negative, but she knows that either way she will read the words. She couldn't refuse him something like this. She wouldn't.

Her hand reaches out and settles on the soft, buttery leather. She pulls the book towards her and with her fingers unwraps the leather ties. She can hear his mother's voice as clear as a bell as it had sounded on a chilly afternoon while they had sat at a local crab shack.

Olivia Benson? I never thought we'd meet.

It is strange that she will probably know the woman better than her husband or son after she is done reading this, when once she hadn't known of the woman's existence at all.

Olivia sits up a little in the bed, and her fingertips find the grooves in the leather. From what little she knows of Bernadette Stabler, she knows enough to realize that the woman would have wanted her son to know about his mother. If the journal would give her son even one iota of understanding about how she had lived and why she had died, then reading these private words would be encouraged.

The journal feels fragile, as if the sea air has taken its toll on the softened paper. Olivia lets the pages slip through her fingers, fanning them. The handwriting is a looping scrawl, with some pages written in blue ink, others in black. Just by the brief glance she knows that Bernadette Stabler did not journal every night. The words span years and the entries are sporadic.

Before Olivia reads a single line, she recalls his mother's apologetic words from that afternoon, eons ago.

I made certain choices and I lost my son.

In the room next door, the shower shuts off and the pipes creak loudly. Olivia hears the curtain being pulled back and the rattling of the towel rack as Elliot pulls a towel off of it.

There is a wall between them as they go to sleep tonight. He left Manhattan so, so long ago.

She had stayed.

She's made choices too.

Only she doesn't have the strength of his mother, because she doesn't think she will survive if she loses him after all.

+ + +

His bedroom is simple. He likes it that way.

When he had been married, Kathy had preferred thick curtains and throw pillows, just a little bit of clutter to make the home feel lived in. There is no clutter in this room, but he doesn't feel the lack of anything despite the absence of the stacks of books and laundry baskets and ironing boards.

This room is him.

The king-sized bed has a sturdy oak frame and the sheets and comforter are plain white. He's got an alarm clock on the end table and a couple of silver picture frames that hold photos of his kids. One wall is covered in closed beige blinds because the windows overlook the side of the neighbor's house and on the far side he has a small bathroom with a decent-sized shower stall in it. There is a full bathroom with a tub off of the main hall.

He gets that this place needs no décor. The ocean is the attraction, and it sets the tone for the whole house. After his mother had died he had cleaned out the housed - simplified - but left intact more than he cared to admit. Most of the furniture remains and there is a comfort in that.

Despite his mother's chaos, a sense of calm resides here.

If you could just take a deep breath. Smell the ocean air. Feel the sun on your face. The wind.

The sand beneath your feet.

His mother's words. It still shakes him that she is gone. He hadn't understood why his mother had left New York after his father had died. He'd assumed she had needed to leave him, but the truth as he understands it now is that the need to find herself had been the strongest instinct of all.

Elliot gets it these days. Eight months away could change a man. The ocean took the rage, the sand absorbed the bloodshed. And the air....

The air taught him to breathe again.

The thing that scares him now is that he has done to Olivia what his mother had once done to him. He had walked away from Olivia - trying to save himself - and he knows now how deeply he hurt her. All of these months he has tried to pretend that she was stronger, more resilient, tougher. He wanted to pretend that she couldn't hurt. That she wouldn't. But he heard the crack in her voice tonight. He heard the accusation. He deserves all of that pain and more.

She deserves none of it.

His skin is still warm from the shower, and he pulls off his towel from around his waist and walks naked towards the bathroom, throwing the wet fabric over the top of the shower rod. The mirror over the sink is still partially steamed up and he scrubs down his face with his hands, looking at himself in the blurred reflection.

He's spent years being the man everyone expected him to be. He's been a husband and a father, a son and a decent cop. He's tried to be her partner too and that is the one role that hasn't come with any rules from day one. Or maybe it is Olivia. Maybe it is Olivia who hasn't come with any rules.

He feels stronger tonight, having her under his roof.

Years of being her partner did not made him feel like he could protect her, keep her safe, but this does. This does.

Elliot turns around and heads back to his bed, peeling back the sheets and comforter. He sleeps soundly these days, but tonight he tells himself to forego the deep sleep and instead to listen for her. If she is scared, she will pace, if she is anxious, she will head to the kitchen for water. If she is terrified, she will leave and there is no way in hell he won't do his damndest to stop her.

He shuts off the light and slips into the bed before rolling over onto his stomach, sprawling across all of his space. He shoves his hands under two of the down pillows.

By the faint rustling he can hear coming from her room he imagines that Olivia is awake, maybe reading. He bets she hasn't locked her windows and that she thinks she is tough enough to stop any unlikely intruder.

Tonight he will sleep while half-awake.

No matter what, from now on he will always be the first to get to her if she needs him at all. She's been there for him for too many years without getting anything in return.

My turn, Olivia.

+ + +

 

Chapter Text

 

April, 1969

I find it funny that Joe is embarrassed when I talk endlessly to myself, yet he has been encouraging me to write in this journal. I think he's just so relieved that I'm willing to be occupied with something that he doesn't see the irony. Isn't this talking to myself? Never mind, I've long since given up trying to understand the man. At least he is a good husband. He works constantly and Elliot and I can stay home together. Joe doesn't have fancy ideas about wanting me to work. I know that women are fighting for equality, but I don't want it. I want to stay home with my baby and watch him sing as he slams his hands and my wooden spoons into the pots and pans.

He loves to make noise, my baby boy does. I've seen him change so much this year. At three he is already showing signs of his remarkable talent. He loves his building blocks and I am always amazed at how high he can get them to stack before they come crashing down. He cries when they fall, each and every time, and I sit there and rock him and we let the destruction break our hearts. Every time we make plans to build them higher next time. Higher and higher. One day, we imagine, we will get these towers to rise into the sky. Get them to the sky, Mama, Elliot says.

I promise him that we will.

Today I heard on the news about this English sailor who made a world record by sailing around the world alone. I've followed his journey and I'm amazed that a man can live on a 32-foot boat for so many months and live in isolation like that. Then again, he had the ocean as his companion and I've always felt at home by the water. Maybe it's the same for him. I imagine that he would recline on the deck of his boat and watch the skies and daydream for hours. Joe says I'm wrong, that the man was in a race and had goals and that I am full of frivolous nonsense. I pretend this is how it went nonetheless.

Maybe Joe is right and this journal thing can be an outlet. I think of one day writing a book, so this is good practice. I'd ask you to tell me how I am doing in terms of sharing my feelings, but you can't talk back, now can you? You need a name I think. Something fantastic and exotic. Oh! I know! Suhaili. It is the name of that man's boat that he so bravely captained. I will imagine you as my great white sails. Suhaili it is. I hope you like it.

He is turning out the lights now, so for now I'll say goodnight.

Goodnight sweet Suhaili.

Love, Bernie

 

She is awake before she even opens her eyes.

There is nowhere that she has to be today, no place that she has to go. She should probably head back to Manhattan this afternoon - maybe this evening - but there is no rush in her blood, no one to tend to but herself. She burrows into the pillows and realizes that she has kicked off the comforter. The air is warm already though she knows it is still early. She can feel the humidity on her skin and even the daylight feels different out here. In Manhattan the sun bounces off the cement and the glass windows of the high-rises before it gets to her. Here, the sun slips down uninterrupted.

She can feel it seep through the closed blinds. Onto her.

Olivia groans and shifts in the bed. Vacation. She is starting to feel like that is what this is, but it's a strange word to use because Elliot is here. She can't go on vacation with him. It's not allowed. It doesn't fit.

You're a funny girl, Olivia.

The voice in her is so loud that she smiles in response. She does tend to over think things. She's accustomed to assessing the situation, evaluating the options, minimizing the damage. Her job requires those skills of her and she has never bothered to develop an independent set of life skills.

Beyond her door, Olivia can hear movement. She swears it is the sound of pots and pans being used gracelessly in the kitchen. She grins, eyes focused upwards. Apparently Elliot's fascination with making noise hasn't abated in the last forty years.

She knows that there was a horrible darkness in his childhood, but for now she wants to indulge in the images of him as a child, as yet unaffected by what was to come. She likes the idea of him building towers, dreaming big. For some reason it makes her want to touch his face with her fingertips and learn all of the crevices on his skin.

Christ.

She wants to be serious. She does. She wants to be careful and cautious and not make an absolute ass of herself. The goal is to make him come back to the city soon, to get him to stop hiding out here in the nothingness of his days.

But the truth is that she wants a few days of his brand of nothingness before she has to go back, too. Olivia wants to let her mind rest, and she wants to soak up the sunshine and the water and the way he seems to smile all the damned time out here. Elliot's grins come easily now - he always seems like he is up to something - and God, yeah she could fall head over feet for him in another lifetime.

She feels like a little kid. There is something inside of her that is wrapping around her, and she doesn't want to protest. She thinks about Elliot and how this - all of this - it doesn't make sense and yet there is a part of her that doesn't care. It's also the most logical thing in the world. He's her best friend, and as childish as that seems, the basic definition fits. He makes her laugh and he is impossible and he's so gloriously sexy. She begins to remind herself that this will change things - spending this kind of time together - and that when they go back to Manhattan and are partners again that they will have to find a way to place this friendship second again. But then the moment passes and she doesn't want to think about the city or work or rules.

God.

"I hear you tossing in there. Get your ass up," he calls from the living room. "Days a'wasting and breakfast is ready."

She rolls her head to the right and stares at the alarm clock. It's not even a quarter to seven.

He is a pain in the ass.

She smiles and feels the intoxication in all of her extremities.

Elliot is also the respite in her chest.

+ + +

When Olivia emerges, Elliot almost forgets to keep doing what he is doing.

He had intellectually known she was sleeping in the guest room, of course, but the physical reality of her being here still startles him. It feels like he has waited so long for this - to have Olivia all to himself - that he is having trouble getting used to it.

And then there is the picture she makes. She is wearing a fitted t-shirt and short cotton shorts and her hair is mussed. Olivia is all ridiculously perfect, lush curves and golden skin. He's spent the last twenty-odd years used to the nearly frail frame of his ex-wife. He's used to worrying about hurting Kathy, about feeling her small bones beneath his hands.

But Olivia is made for sex. Every inch of her.

Her breasts would fill his hands and overspill just a little, and on top of her he'd worry about getting deeper - pushing harder - and he'd let go of control. She could handle him as he was. As he wanted to be.

Elliot can't help it, his eyes slowly trail over the length of Olivia's long legs and down to those polished toes and he actually hears her take a deep, surprised breath.

It is that sound that makes him connect with her eyes again.

Olivia is smirking. Fuck. Of course she is.

"Are you done?" One of her eyebrows arches in a slightly awkward amusement.

Christ. No. He's not. And if she's gonna let him look, then he'd rather continue his perusal while they're both horizontal. He'd also be able to far better explore her with his mouth.

Then there is the biggest revelation of all. She's letting him look.

That idea needs even more time to set in. After all the years of watching Olivia date dozens of men, and watching her dress up for other fuckers, he's damned sure he wants to put an end to her options. The truth though is that he never expected that she might actually let him. He's thought about how he'd make a move on her - hell, he's had months to think about that - but now that he has the opportunity he's sure that none of the ways he imagined it going down would actually work.

"Stay."

Fuck again. That's not what he had planned to say. He had definitely not planned to say anything that way either. His voice had been hard. Harsh. Commanding. She isn't going to respond well.

But even though the smile falls off her face, her eyes widen. She's leaning against the wall at the edge of the hallway across the room, and she's frozen.

He's got to say something.

"Just tell me you're gonna stay. Today. Tomorrow. A coupla days at least. Hell, maybe for your week off. I don't wanna worry every-"

He's rambling. Fuck. Fuck. He just doesn't want her to leave. He needs time with her. He's been alone out here for the most part and everything in his whole goddamned life makes more sense when she is nearby. He just wants her to give him a timeframe - three days, four, a week - so he can relax and just enjoy it without living on eggshells.

Olivia doesn't come closer. But she suddenly seems hesitant. "El." She tries to talk to him with her eyes, but then even that falls away. "You and I? Out here? It-"

"Could be a good thing," he finishes.

He expects her anger. He expects that she will accuse him of fucking everything up, even though he has no bloody clue what everything even consists of anymore.

Instead, Olivia gives him a look that says she wants to understand. "How?"

Well, if that isn't the million dollar question he doesn't know what is. He should have answers. He has spent eight months away, he should have had some blasted answers that would make sense to her.

But if he tries to paint the big picture she will leave. He has to make sense to her, appeal to her logical side. "Did you sleep good?"

Her smile is slowly - so slowly - unfurling. "Well."

She says nothing then, but her half-grin is almost sheepish. Flirtatious.

‘Well what?" he prods.

That does it. Her smile hits full stride and it makes her eyes squint. "Did you sleep well." She shrugs. "It's proper English."

He stares at Olivia for a second, and he realizes how much she is amusing herself with her grammatical lesson. She is very, very proud of herself. The mischief is back in her expression. "You done?" He says it dryly, but it's clear he finds her spectacular. Jesus, she can make fun of him all she wants if it'll light her up like this.

Olivia arches one eyebrow and tries to keep a straight face. "Technically it's ‘are you done' but yes, I slept well and yes, I'm done."

She thinks she's so smart. He's got the ace card. "Good. Then that's reason enough for you to stay here. You need a few nights of sleeping well."

Her eyes lose a little bit of their spark as they deepen, becoming even darker. She seems wary almost. Scared. But she doesn't look away.

And she doesn't say no.

+ + +

 

 

June, 1969

I don't remember the summers being this hot when I was a child. My earliest memories are of playing in the streets and opening the water mains to flood the alleys. My daddy was lucky, he didn't lose everything in the Depression, but besides a roof over our head and food on the table we didn't have much. Those days spent barefoot in the spraying water were miracles, and it seems to me that the older I've become the less joy the heat seems to bring.

The last few weeks have been especially brutal and the humidity is eating at my skin. Elliot is in a constant state of motion now and he's changing right before my eyes. Instead of the baby who had looked up to me with curiosity and unabashed adoration, he now seems to eye me more, as if he is waiting for the shoe to drop. I've told Joe that we can't fight in front of our boy like this, but Joe pays me no mind. He tells me that if I would just act more like his wife and less like a lunatic then we wouldn't fight and the problem would be solved. I don't know what he means by lunatic. I have ideas, places I want to go, things I want to see. Sometimes I feel like I am dying when I am standing still and my skin is prickling to just move. To just fly. I tell him these things less and less. He is beginning to look at me as if I am something that is very far away and I don't like it.

I wanted to rent a sailboat for the summer. I brought home brochures and ads from the magazines that would help us do it but Joe threw them away. I know we don't have a lot of money, but we're not poor either. If we saved - really saved - we could at least get a boat for a week. Elliot could run around in his bare feet on the deck of the ship and the sun would glimmer and sparkle on the water. I just know this is meant to be, and I'm starting to think I may have to just take Elliot and go and do these things on our own. Maybe I should learn to sail.

I look at people sometimes and I wonder if they feel like I do. If they feel like the blackness is just hovering at the edges and only if they run, really run, can they escape it. They seem so ordinary as they walk their dogs and make dinner and go to the store that I wonder what is in their minds? I have so many thoughts that happen all at once that sometimes I forget where I am. I'm working hard to concentrate on one thing at a time, but I get distracted. Sometimes the sun is just this golden, simmering color and sometimes Elliot's crying makes me want to weep for days. Joe says I just need to focus, but that makes me feel like I am suffocating.

Elliot is asking me what I am writing and he wants to know if I am writing him a story.

Maybe I will.

Til later, Suhaili.

Bernie

 

Olivia looks up from the pages and beyond the wire fence that borders the patio, she can see the ocean stretch for miles. Her stomach, her chest, her throat, they are all constricted.

As she lies on the lounge chair in a pair of shorts and a tank top, Elliot is less than ten feet away scrubbing and scraping down the grill. He's wholly focused on the task, and the concrete near his feet is littered with bottles of disinfectant and soap. The hose is half-on, half-off, and it is trickling water around his bare feet as it lays discarded.

His back is to her, and she is grateful he chose to wear a t-shirt today. His body is a searing distraction, and even though the flimsy light blue t-shirt does nothing to conceal the power underneath, it helps her to refrain from staring.

It's hard to imagine that she is now holding a book that once drew his curiosity as a child. It's incredibly easy to lose herself to the images of him as a little boy. It's impossible to fathom that the child she is reading about has now grown up into the hard, outwardly indestructible man next to her.

"You asked her about her journal," Olivia says softly. "You were three and - " she stops. She's got to figure out a way to talk to him about what she is reading. There is no point if he doesn't know.

Elliot's back is bent a little bit as he scrapes at the wrought iron, but at her words, the muscles in his back stop flexing. He stills.

He doesn't move.

The sun is a distracting glare, so Olivia shields her eyes as she watches his frozen form. "You asked her if she was writing you a story."

Elliot straightens. After a moment he looks back at her over his right shoulder. "That would have been too normal an activity for my mother."

Olivia doesn't hear anger in his voice, but the clear tones of resignation come through. "She didn't realize she was sick, Elliot. She seems to know she's different, but no one ever told her why."

He blinks once, twice, almost as if he is fighting the pressure of the sun's light on his eyelids. Elliot draws his lower lip into his mouth and scrapes his teeth over it before turning back to the grill. His movements are precise as he starts the scraping again.

Olivia sets the journal down, keeping her place in the book by setting some of the leather ties into the seam of the binding. The pavement is burning hot on the bottom of her feet when she sits up and swings her legs around. She thinks better of it and draws her legs up Indian style.

"She would have been different if she'd been afforded the help early on that you've given Kathleen, El."

He tosses down the scouring pad and straightens, keeping his back to her. "She wouldn't have taken the medication, Olivia. Even Kathleen had to be forced. They like the way it feels, being outta their mind like that."

She finds her flip flops and slides them on so that she can cross the patio to him without losing the skin on the soles of her feet. He must sense her coming because he goes purposefully back to the scraping. The cleansing.

"You ever ask Kathleen about that? If she was happier before or after the medication?" She keeps her voice low, gentle.

Go easy.

She can see the answer to her question in the way his spine stiffens. If she knows him at all, she knows that Elliot has never once spoken to his daughter about being bi-polar. He'd been devastated by the diagnosis and terrified about Kathleen's tendencies, and once he had found her help he likely didn't want to face it again. Didn't want to acknowledge it.

"I think your mom regretted losing you, Elliot. I think if she knew what it was going to cost her, she would have made different choices."

The grill is no longer in need of Elliot's attention. It's clean and if he'd just hose it down he'd be done, but he keeps going. Nearly attacking it. His t-shirt is sticking to his body now, and from where she stands, just off to the side of him, she can see the way he is eating at his lower lip.

She just stands there, waiting.

Finally he throws the scrub pad against the hood of the grill and bites off a low curse. Elliot grabs the scuffed dishtowel next to him and wipes off his hands, still not looking at her.

"What happened?" he bites off.

Olivia flinches just a little bit. The tone is familiar to her. This is the voice he used back in Manhattan, but he's been so even - so calm - out here that she needs a moment to adjust to the switch. "What do you mean?"

Elliot finally looks at her. His eyes are framed by thick, hazel-colored eyelashes and behind him, the ocean sways. Moves. "When you decided to save the day. When you did whatever you did to get my mother to talk to my daughter so she'd get help. I didn't ask you to do that and you did it-" He stares at her and she can't move. Her eyes are locked on his and not even the sunshine registers on her chilling skin. His eyes are apologetic but his words keep coming. It's as if he can't stop himself. "You came out here more than once, didn't you?"

The accusation is so sharp that she steps back, the nausea instantaneous.

Olivia's silence admits her guilt. She had interfered. She had. And she hadn't told him the truth of it. She had hid behind the excuse that he had never asked, but the truth of them is that they never do ask. He didn't ask about Sealview and she didn't ask about his divorce. Maybe the reason they've gotten along all these years is because they are the only two people in the world who don't ask questions when it comes to their personal lives.

She nods, her eyes locking with his. "Yeah. I did."

Something in Elliot snaps and he throws the towel down and maneuvers past her, stalking back into the house. The screen door slams shut behind him, clanging against the doorframe.

Olivia closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. The odd thing is that she knows better how to handle him when he is like this. Calm, serene Elliot is an anomaly to her. When he festers in his anger, she knows exactly what to do. She counts to ten and exhales, giving him a moment alone before she turns and follows him in. Before she even steps foot in the door she can hear Elliot angrily rattling around the kitchen, opening the fridge and then shutting it hard.

By the time she makes it to the kitchen and leans against the doorway he has the top off to a cold beer and is tipping it back.

"I'm not going to apologize to you, Elliot," Olivia states quietly, watching every rigid line in his frame. The vein in his neck is pulsing as he drinks, and he doesn't look at her, instead choosing to stare out the window at the ocean instead.

When Elliot finally pulls the beer bottle away from his lips and lets the bottle settle hard on the countertop in front of him, he turns his head to look at her. His eyes narrow in anger. "What did she tell you, Olivia? She tell you what a shitty son I was? She pull out the picture albums and tell you what a great a mother she was? That's where you saw those pictures from when I was a kid right? You two have a cozy little chat behind my back about me?"

She knows what this is. Elliot is trying to rile her up, and he is waiting for her indignation or righteousness to kick in. She'd done what she had to save his ass - to save his kid, same difference - and she would make no apologies for it. Somewhere inside of him he knows that. He gets angry when he thinks he owes her.

He doesn't want you to know. Pride. It's his fierce pride, Olivia.

"Your mother didn't talk about you as much," Olivia practically whispers. "Not until I brought her to the holding cell. Then she did. She talked about you to Kathleen."

Elliot's head whips towards her and she can feel him struggling to breathe. His back rises and falls with each belabored breath and his eyes are nearly slits. His fury is palpable. "What did she - " He licks his lower lip. He faces her, his back against the edge of the countertop. "What the hell did she say to Kathleen?"

There are moments in the past where this would have been the tipping point. For years she confused Elliot's anger and rage at the world as being directed at her. There are remnant instincts in her that are telling her to run - to let this go - but there is a greater need in her to honor his request of her to read his mother's diary. There is a reason he's asked that of her. He needs someone to explain it. He wants to understand or he would have locked the journal away.

She can't run.

Olivia looks Elliot in the eyes, silently begging him not to look away. He has to stay with her on this. He has to listen. "She told Kathleen about the night she took you driving in the snowstorm." The night your mom didn't listen to you. The night you broke your arm in the car accident that followed.

The fight drains out of Elliot as he looks at her. His color pales just a little bit and she sees the way he starts to shutter up. He rocks back on his heels as the silence settles over them.

He says nothing. He doesn't move.

The implications hang in the air. It was abuse, Elliot. You were a little boy and your mother scared the hell out of you. Mine did too.

Maybe this is when he will ask her to leave. He's never wanted anyone to see too much of him. His mother had once told her that Elliot had blocked out his childhood, and in so many ways he has faced less of his past than she has.

He gave you the journal to read. He trusts you.

Olivia swallows the fear, the trepidation that is permeating her skin, slipping into her bones. She takes a step towards Elliot, praying that he doesn't recoil. She can't take his rejection. She's never been able to withstand his retreat.

The ocean rolls. It's there, the background to all of this. It's a reminder that things will go on long after this moment. She focuses on the rhythm of it, on the cawing of the birds and the crashing of the waves. Outside there is the warmth of the sand and the promise of a lazy day. She focuses on the wind that drifts through the house, though her. Through them.

It's clean out here. Everything is wiped clean. Even the impressions in the sand can't hold their shape forever.

It's time, Olivia.

A step forward. Her heart is racing and she can't stop staring at him. Assured by Elliot's lack of movement, she reaches out and sets her hand on his forearm.

Elliot's muscles are taut beneath her palm. She can feel the rough hairs on his skin, the warmth of the sun still trapped on the surface. She resists the pulsing urge to slide her hand upwards, towards his elbow and further. Her fingers want to dig into him and her chest caves in a little bit. Touching him is always, always too much.

His blood pulses through the thick vein that press against her lifeline.

"I don't know why things happen, Elliot." This is the voice she uses on victims. The voice they rarely use with each other, even when their past - their scars - justify the tone. "All I know is that when your mother told Kathleen about how she had hurt you, your daughter made the decision to get help. If there is any value at all in what you went through, maybe it's that it helped to save your little girl."

Elliot blinks, and despite the pain she can see in him - feel in him - he is still big, solid, raw. His arm turns beneath her hand and then his palm is wrapped around her forearm and he's pulling. He's so damned gentle but he gives her no options.

He replaces his response with this.

Olivia is against him then and she doesn't know who is saving whom. His chest is hard - hot - against her and her chin hits his collarbone. He's breathing deep. Deep. She can feel his breath on her hair and she wants to close her eyes, to turn her face into him but they don't do this, not unless her life depends upon it. They don't do this. They don't do this.

Do this.

He smells like the salt air and he's so, so masculine. Every nerve ending on her body relaxes. She's not on fire, she's sinking instead. Elliot doesn't move and she doesn't and she can feel his heart beating against her chest. The moments stretch and she's too overwhelmed to even be aroused by the thick, unmovable presence of him. Olivia's eyes want to close, but she pushes against the urge, keeping them open instead. Behind him, through the window, she squints against the incessancy of the ocean.

Olivia fits against him. This is the thing she always remembers. Elliot doesn't close his arms around her and aside from the pressing of her body against his - his against hers - and the grip of his hand around her arm they are not holding each other.

It occurs to her that she is tired. Bone-achingly exhausted. His t-shirt is soft beneath her chin and she can feel him turning his head so that his lips are near her ear.

Her gaze is so ruthlessly focused on the sea beyond that her eyes water from the strain. Olivia presses her lips together and the horizon sways. It's so bright outside. The light is blinding. Curl after curl forms and crashes, and the white froth bubbles on the surface and then disappears. She watches every wave form, making sure that another is coming. The tide cannot stop because of this.

Elliot's stomach hits hers as he exhales. She wants to remember this but the relief is so sharp that the details are lost. She is not going under. Not now. The surface of the ocean rocks. Dances.

"You remind me," he mumbles cryptically into her hair. "You always remind me."

You always remind me.

Olivia closes her eyes and lets the ocean go on without her watch.

+ + +

 

Chapter Text

It had been late in January when the worst of it had hit him.

He'd been off the job for over two months and the holidays had been behind him. He'd gone into the city for Christmas Day to see his kids, and it had been the first time he'd been with them since he'd taken his break. Almost two months without his kids had taken its toll on him, but for the first time as he had sat there watching the kids open their presents, he had realized that no one was accusing him of anything anymore. He sensed that Maureen respected his choice to go and get his head together. Even Kathleen seemed to identify with him, as if he'd finally revealed himself to be more of a human being. He had left Kathy's house that night feeling less like a failure and more like one of them.

Until the cold, gray, overcast days of mid-January had rolled in.

As vibrant as the summers are at the shores edge, the winters are equally as desolate. Against the edge of the ocean, the oppressive clouds had seemed to settle almost against the sand. One storm had rolled in after the other and the water had been rough, almost angry day after day. There had been a chill in the house that even the fireplace with its sturdy, copper chimney couldn't eradicate and the heaviness had settled into Elliot's skin. His mother's easels had still sat in the sunroom, and he'd packed up the last of her paintings, wrapping each of them carefully before storing them in the garage. He had thought about the last time he'd been to see his mother, and how he had dismissed her when she had proudly told him that she sold some of the canvases on the boardwalk.

He had missed all of the signs. The chances. Not just with his mother, but with his children. His ex-wife. With Olivia.

Chances he wouldn't get back. Couldn't.

He had grieved then. He had grieved for the things he hadn't seen until it was too late, and for the years - the goddamned years - that he couldn't recover. Maybe he'd felt sorry of himself, or maybe it was the first time he'd actually paid attention to who he was - and to who he wasn't - to this day he doesn't know. But he had finally cracked, as if his weathered body had could no longer contain him.

Elliot had cried. Sitting with his back to the wall in the sunroom, surrounded by the shadowy, empty easels, he had broken. No one could hear him, see him, witness the pathetic show of it. He couldn't be judged for splintering, couldn't muster enough anger or strength to once again shove the agony aside. The pain had fed grotesquely upon itself, until the memories had blended into one faded, murky reel in his head. He had seen himself as a terrified child, had recalled the image of his mother in the thickness of her disease and holding a gun towards him. He'd seen his daughter dancing in a white sheet in the darkness of midnight in a deserted park, had listened to the arguments - the endless arguments - that now comprised too many memories of his ex-wife. He'd seen Olivia sitting stoically across from him, never meeting his eyes. He'd felt the bullets, smelled the dead bodies, heard the hollow voices in his ears until it was a drumbeat, an eerie consistent drumbeat that looped over and over in his mind.

In the haze of it - the worst of it - one thing had become clear.

Beneath the calcified shell of his skin, he'd let himself die inside.

In the darkness of winter, with the furious lashing water twisting just feet from the house, he had slept for the better part of six days. At night he hadn't bothered to turn on the lights, and during the days he had drank his way through the cases of beer he'd stacked in the garage. He hadn't shaved, had barely showered and he still has no idea if he had bothered to eat during that time. He had gathered up every nightmare he had ever had and succumbed to them, night after night. In his dreams he had seen his kids die, his ex-wife brutalized, his youngest son go missing. They were all nightmares not borne in truth, and he'd wake and then try to dismiss them. They're not real. They're not real.

But then came the nightmares about Olivia.

The first night she came to him in his sleep, he'd watched her clawing at the concrete walls with her bloodied fingers. She had been trapped, her damp hair sticking to her face as she had screamed. Screamed. His throat had burned as he'd tried to reach her, to make her hear him, but she didn't seem to know he was there. He had felt the crawling presence before he had seen it, and when he had turned he had watched Harris come at her. He had been repelled, his reaction vicious yet futile. Elliot had been trapped inside the rough stone walls around her, unable to break through. Harris had been on Olivia, his filthy hands grubby on her skin as she had doubled over, recoiling and fighting. Fighting. She was always fighting. But she was alone. It was just her and the monster and the blackness and he could hear her begging. Begging. The sound of her fear was so violent that he had been convinced it was the sound of God dismembering his young.

In his dreams Elliot couldn't breathe, he was starved for oxygen, and the lack of air had made him lose focus. But what the dream didn't let him see, he had instead heard, smelled, touched. When he had reached out, Olivia's slippery, clammy skin had slid out of his weakening grasp. The vile smell of sweat on Harris' clothes permeated everywhere, and the screaming - her screaming - it hadn't stopped. Help me. Help me. Help. Her voice had cracked and disappeared then and his hand had come away, slick - too slick. Elliot! When he had closed his empty fist his fingers had been sticky with her blood. And then the cold had settled in. The bone-chilling, frigid cold that turned the damp film on his skin to ice until his skin was actually peeling and his blood had frozen still.

In every dream about her, he always ended up being the one who died.

Elliot had awakened that night to the howling January sea winds rattling the windows. His skin had been bathed in perspiration and his throat had been hoarse. He'd roamed the house then, turning on every light and playing the radio as loud as it would go. He had to erase the sound of it. Of her. Olivia. Screaming. He had scrubbed his hands down his face, tried to cool his skin by touching it to the cold glass of a beer bottle, yet nothing had worked. Olivia's pleading was a haunting that wouldn't abate.

Elliot had sat on the couch and bent over, his arms resting on his knees. He had recalled every calming technique the Academy had ever taught -breathe from his core, evaluate the fear, exhale deep - and had tried to erase the memories. Only the memories of the reality of his dream had been starkly etched into him. Three weeks after she had been attacked, Olivia had walked by his desk and dropped her case report. He'd seen the tag on it. Harris, Lowell. When he'd lifted his head to look at her she'd been stoic. Don't ask me about it. It's all there. And then a long moment later, when she still hadn't moved from the edge of his desk. I'm talking to someone so let it go.

And that had been all. She had walked away and he had been too terrified of what it would do to them if he pushed it, so he had tried to move on.

Only the dreams were in him. The images.

He had talked to no one at all.

And now she runs next to him. The endless miles of the Atlantic begin just a few feet to their right and the late afternoon sun is warm on his bare arms. He is wearing a backwards baseball hat and his favorite running shorts and there is nothing but open shoreline ahead. They could keep running. Just keep going. He is sure she could keep up if they never stopped.

Elliot tries to focus on the sure, even, muffled pound of her sneakers on the packed sand. Olivia's strides are long and even, and when they do this she can always keep up with him. Her legs are long - strong - and he can hear her heavy breaths despite the fact that the water is tumbling so close to them.

He chances a glance at her.

Olivia's hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail and her cheeks are flushed red. She is covered in a sheen of perspiration and there is a glow to her skin because of it. She is pushing herself, he can tell, and she is using her breathing and fierce will to keep moving ahead.

He feels the rising, compelling urge to just grab Olivia and pull her with him into the cool waters next to them. He needs to touch her too much, so much, and sometimes he just wants to run his fingers over her skin to make sure that after all of it she is still intact.

He runs. He runs because the bitter isolation of January has somehow led to this. He runs because the cold has been chased by the heat, and because she has survived despite him. He runs because he thinks she might let him hold her soon and because he isn't - absolutely isn't - done with his life yet.

He runs because with her he is tracing the edge of the world with his footsteps.

He runs because there is a balance. He can be given the thousands of nightmares, because he can still run. Just outrun them.

He is faster than the nightmares when she runs beside him.

+ + +

There is something reassuring about the creak of the floorboards as she walks through the house.

No matter where Olivia is in this home, the hardwood floors give just the slightest millimeter, as if yielding to the years of use, the salt and humidity in the air, the simple presence of a being upon them. She likes the sound, and she finds herself deliberately choosing paths through the house that will trigger the soft groans of the faded wood.

There are more than a dozen spots in her bedroom alone.

Olivia walks across her room towards the edge of her bed. Her muscles ache, but it's not a result of exhaustion. If anything she feels as if her blood is finally reaching all the way into her extremities. She runs her fingers through the damp strands of her freshly washed hair as she stands there for just a moment, wrapped in her towel. After the run Elliot had said he was going to take a quick swim out in the surf, and she had decided to come in to get washed clean.

She is not sure what the hell all of this is. The house, the quiet, the way they have just settled in. It scares her that being with him is this easy. It is a constant battle to remember who Elliot is to her in Manhattan. Her partner. Her friend.

Friends.

The word chafes on her skin.

Olivia sits on the edge of the bed now and breathes deep, closing her eyes. There is something releasing inside of her and it's a nearly painful thing. It is only now that she is starting to realize what the last few years have taken from her, what the price of just existing day after day has been. She hasn't really let herself feel anything in so long that every little nuance of emotion right now is overwhelming.

The last eight months have been the worst of it. Olivia had worn his abandonment on her, in her. All of the logical, truthful reasons for his leave hadn't convinced her of a damned thing.

Without Elliot she had walked into the squad room every day feeling the throb in the dark circles beneath her eyes, feeling the abrasive way the air slid over her skin. She had been jumpy and had startled easily, and even the worst of the cases hadn't drawn the fire of her indignation. She had finally, after all the years, felt exposed and vulnerable, as if the world could see what a sham she was. She wasn't a great cop anymore - the legendary invincibility was in the past - and she had been left just as ordinary as the rest of them.

She had been left.

Olivia head bows forward and she tries to breathe through the sharp pain of it. The instinct to blame herself for his leaving is so visceral, so overpowering that it takes everything in her to defeat it with the truth. He'd left for him. He'd left to get his head together. It wasn't about her. It wasn't that she was too little, not worth staying for, someone he wanted to forget.

The lessons of her childhood are sometimes so deeply ingrained into her that she can't separate the past from the present, even when logic tells her differently. She hadn't been a burden to Elliot; she had made sure of that over the years. She hadn't made demands, hadn't asked anything of him but one time. What about me? The one time she had made that mistake she had rectified it, apologized for the indiscretion by walking away.

Olivia presses her lips together and stares at her toes as they rest against the faded throw rug. Out here she is losing the battle of containment with herself. Without Manhattan as her backdrop, she is becoming too painfully aware of what she needs. Of just how much she needs. She let years and years go by without admitting she had been fading. Deep inside, she has been retreating. Isolating. Conceding.

And now.

Now he's touched her out here so much, and every time Elliot does it Olivia just wants to close her eyes and sleep like that. Against him. With his solid heartbeat against her skin. She wonders if he knows what he is doing. If he knows that she is coming awake beneath his fingertips, if he can feel her try to control the shaking.

Her mind can't integrate all of the details of their complicated history with this. This. But there is also a growing realization in her that he could draw her out again. There is no one else who has that ability. There is no one else who is worth it. Who understands her. Who has that influence over her.

After all those years of walking next to him maybe it is perfectly logical that when all is said and done, no one else stands a chance when measured up against him. She has loved him for a long time. He's been her family. But this is different. So different.

This is the falling.

Despite the terror, she can't help marveling at the irony a little bit. After all of Elliot's teasing every time she had a date, all of the knowing smirks when she had been called in and had to work a case in the dress she had been in, it has come to this for her. She wonders if she has always known the search for someone would be futile. She wonders if Elliot ever realized that everyone else would fall away for her because of him.

Outside her closed bedroom door Olivia hears the crack of the screen door, and then the heavy footsteps of Elliot. The floorboards groan beneath his purposeful steps, and in moments she hears him in his bathroom, starting the shower. It's so domestic, this thing they are doing. She had always imagined that a life with Elliot would be volatile, but the truth is that it is being without him, away from him, that is the most unsettling.

She eyes his mother's journal sitting on the end table. It's a tether between them. Something he has asked of her, something that binds them. Olivia's fingers are on the leather before she realizes it, and once again she is opening it. Her fingers trace over the impressions made by his mother's pen.

The woman had suffered because of her illness, but there was also something so ordinary about Bernadette Stabler. Beneath the mood swings and the impulsivity, she was a woman who had wanted more from life, who had felt an emotional void.

She was a woman who had spent her life searching.

 

 

 

 

November, 1969

Dearest Suhaili,

I know it's been so long since I've written.

The truth is I'm not sure what to say anymore. I feel like the blackest of clouds has rolled in and like Dorothy, I'm swept up in a tornado. Only in my tornado, the wind doesn't move, it just makes everything around me dark and oppressive.

Sometimes I see Elliot playing and I feel like I'm watching him from high above. He calls to me and says it again and again - mama, mama, mama - because I'm sure he needs something, but I can't get to him. A few days ago Joe came home from work and Elliot was still in his pajamas. I forgot to send him to preschool and I think I forgot to make him breakfast or lunch. I had been so tired I had stayed in bed, and I heard Joe yelling at me when he got home from work but I couldn't seem to wake up. My husband slept in the guest room that night and the next morning Elliot was gone to preschool with Joe before I had even gotten out of bed.

I feel like Joe is a stranger to me these days. I am sure there is something going on at the precinct because he leaves early and comes home late every single day. He frowns so much and his words are short, and he is losing his patience with both Elliot and I. Sometimes I suspect that he has found another woman, but I don't think I am strong enough to learn the truth so I don't ask. It is better not to know, I think. But I worry because he is changing before me and the man I married is long gone. I wonder if Joe feels that way about me, too. He looks at me like I'm gone. I don't think he knows me at all.

I know that he doesn't dream about things, not like I do. He doesn't understand why I sometimes need to spend hours in the dark, and he doesn't believe me when I tell him that my bones are sometimes so tired I can't force myself awake. There are times when I want to sleep for days and days but I put on a good show. I make dinner and I clean the house and take Elliot to the store with me. But Joe doesn't compliment me anymore. He doesn't mention my pretty new dresses and he doesn't want to hear about the art classes I want to take at the Y. It is like we are two strangers living in the same house.

The only saving grace to all of this is that Christmas is coming. My heart races when I think of the lights, the presents, the fairytale of it all. I can't wait to buy a Christmas tree, and I'm going to cook everything in my recipe book. I'll play Christmas carols all day long and Elliot and I can practice the words to the songs. I saw a train set at Macy's last week and I'm going to buy it and set it up as a surprise for my boy. He deserves surprises. I want my boy to have a better life than this. I want him to live grandly and I just know he will have great adventures. Maybe one day he will be a train conductor and he will take me far away. I could be one of those women who wears glorious hats and travels by train to the farthest reaches of the world. I could take a train across Africa and wear flowing white headscarves, or I could go visit the Taj Majal. It makes me happy when I hear Elliot playing with his toy rockets. He calls out ‘Pollo! ‘Pollo! Come in! and then jumps around his room as if he is on the moon. Sometimes I stand just outside the door and watch him without him knowing. He plays by himself for hours, lost to his imagination. I just know he will do big things one day.

There is so much I haven't seen and I feel like I am trapped in a tiny little box. I think I am suffocating. The rules are killing me slowly. There are too many rules. What I should do, what I can't do, where I should go, where I can't be. I want to laugh. I want to laugh deep in my belly. I want to feel glorious and euphoric and free. I just need to live. I need to follow my heart without anyone watching.

I want to exist in a place where my life doesn't keep choking me.

Please help me.

Love,
Bernie

 

Olivia closes her eyes and lets her head drop back for just a moment. The shower in Elliot's bathroom is no longer running, and she should probably get dressed. The wind has changed just a little bit, and through her open window she can feel the afternoon heat giving way to the lightness of early evening. It's amazing to her that she has no idea if it is three o'clock or four o'clock. Instead time is measured by the ferociousness of the sun, the shadows on the wall, the grumbling of her stomach because it's now been hours since she last ate.

The floorboards outside her closed bedroom door tell her Elliot is there before she even hears the light knock on the door. It is surprising to her that his presence can make her pulse speed up at the same time that it makes her breathing slow down, even out. He has always been an anomaly.

"Liv?"

His voice is a low, familiar rumble that comes from the other side of the door and it makes her clutch the towel wrapped around her just a little bit. She doesn't get up from the bed, instead she just sits. "Yeah?"

There is a pause and then, "Can I come in?"

For one moment she wonders what that would be like if she were to just say yes and let Elliot walk in. Her towel covers most of her, but it still leaves exposed the tops of her breasts, her thighs, her legs. Technically a bathing suit would reveal more, but there is something more intimate about this. She imagines him opening the door, and she wonders if his eyes would openly roam her skin.

It scares her that she wants that reaction in him. It scares her that she wants for Elliot - her partner - to find her attractive. She wants to make him hungry for her, and she closes her eyes against the pulsing danger of it.

"I'm not dressed." Her voice sounds too breathy. Almost as if she is daring him to do it. The door isn't locked. He could ignore her and twist the handle. Let himself in.

Then it would just be her in a towel and Elliot Stabler and a room with a bed in a corner of the world where no one could see them.

But it's Elliot. It's Elliot of the last twelve years. Her partner. The one she wasn't supposed to touch, the one who spent the better part of the last decade leaving her to go home to his wife and kids. It would be against the rules for anything to happen.

The rules are killing me slowly.

His mother's voice. Olivia's fingers press so hard into the journal that her fingertips turn white. She stares at the closed door.

She knows he is still standing there, but he hasn't said anything for the last few seconds. She ought to get up and pull on a shirt and some shorts and open the door to talk to him. She ought to go home, for God's sake. It's only late afternoon. Staying here is going have consequences.

There are too many rules.

"You wanna go to the boardwalk for dinner tonight?"

She can hear the hesitation in his low timbre and Olivia closes her eyes again. Elliot is offering her something so normal, so ordinary, that she could wrap herself around him just for offering it. He makes her feel like she fits somewhere. Like she belongs.

I want to laugh.

She doesn't want to go home yet. She doesn't want to spend the next few days in her apartment by herself. She doesn't want to suffocate in the humidity that burrows down between the skyscrapers and she doesn't want to give up. She can't. There are so few opportunities to just forget the rules for a little while and to just live.

I just need to live.

She is feeling brave right now. A little reckless. Maybe later she will berate herself, but for the moment she needs to feel alive. She wants to take a chance and deal with the consequences later. She wants to feel her heart race and her skin flush and she knows, she knows that this isn't any sort of sustainable reality.

But her blood is warm now. The sun has already had its way with her and the burnished color of her skin makes her feel different, protected. Olivia stands and holds her towel against her. She can't do too much, too fast. This is just one moment. One. Later it won't mean anything.

The floorboards sound. Once. Twice. He must know now what she is going to do. The last floorboard creaks right by her door and her hand settles around the brass knob. She twists it and the door opens. Not all the way. Just a little bit. A few inches.

Enough.

He's right there. Elliot is in front of her and Olivia watches him - hears his immediate intake of air. He looks her in the eyes first, his pupils dilating as his breath picks up. His nostrils flare just a little bit as he clenches his jaw, ruthlessly focused on her face.

Olivia knows what he's doing. He's not like other men. He doesn't take what he isn't sure is his. He's rigid, the plane of his chest rising and falling beneath the clean, tan-colored t-shirt he is wearing. But Elliot is waiting. He's waiting for permission to look at the rest of her.

Even with her hair wet and without makeup on, she feels stunning when he looks at her. So she does it. Gives him what he needs. What she does. Olivia looks up at him and smiles just a little bit. Her eyelids feel heavy from the immediate rush of arousal that flushes across her skin. It's the way he looks at her.

The way he looks at her.

He sees you, Olivia.

Elliot knows he's got permission now, but he gives her one last look of apology.

And then Elliot's gaze falls. She can feel it as he takes in the dips of her collarbone, the curve of her shoulder, the rise of her breasts. His perusal stops where her fist holds the edges of the towel together and his eyes narrow for a moment. Darken. He drags his teeth over his bottom lip and blinks, the rest of his body utterly, perfectly still.

Olivia can't breathe.

She lets Elliot look at her, and she feels every nerve-ending in her skin. The adrenaline that had pulsed through her during her run had nothing on this. She grips the door with her free hand and stands there, waiting. Waiting until he's done. Until he's looked. Until she knows for certain that it is the same for him.

This is their living.

At the hem of Olivia's towel Elliot stops his gaze from going any lower. He's frozen. Staring at her. And then back up, over her fist, her bare arm. She's covered, yeah, but she feels exposed. They don't do this. They don't do this. Her thighs are clenching, her toes want to curl and she is sure that it isn't the lazy wind that is causing the goose bumps to dance the waltz across her skin.

"Liv." It's a drawn-out, rough groan. He's apologizing and asking and telling her everything in the way he says it.

Olivia can feel it in her. What she's done. She's given it life in a moment of impulse. She's sparked the unspoken. "Dinner on the boardwalk sounds perfect," she says quietly, and she thinks it's probably flirting when she looks up through her lashes at him.

Something changes then. Even though he nods just once and then doesn't smile before he turns and abruptly walks away, she knows. She knows what this is.

This is what it's like to step back into the world.

I need to just live.

Out here on the Jersey shoreline, beneath the open sky and against the backdrop of the meandering, lethargic waves of an eerily calm day, she is going to let him remind her that she is a woman who deep down truly wants to live. She is a fighter, and this life isn't done yet. She still wants things. She's not so jaded - so defeated - that she is devoid of the daydreams.

You remind me, he'd said earlier.

Olivia closes the door and lets her forehead rest against the molding of the doorframe, her chest rising and falling. So this is it. This is it. This is breathing. Living. She begins to inhabit herself again, makes her way back into the shell she has maintained.

And you, me.

+ + +

Chapter Text

It's not until they are walking towards the center of the township that he realizes he may have exaggerated about the boardwalk.

As boardwalks go, the restaurants and shops that form the hub of Surf City are nothing more than a two block stretch of small, dark wooden buildings, some of which line the wide expanse of beach. Long Beach Island itself is miles long, but his mother's home is set just north of where the causeway ends in Ship's Bottom, and unless he needs something, he rarely ventures to northern tip of the island and the overpriced residential homes near Barnegat Light, or down to the southern end, past the township of Holgate. He's content to live within the few blocks that make up Surf City. Here he's got half a dozen restaurants, several small markets, a commercial grocery store and enough tourist shops that he can usually find the basics.

Not that he's ventured out much over the last few months. He's kept to himself. He had never intended to make friends or to settle down here. The purpose of coming out to the Jersey shore has always been for him to get his head straight.

Next to him, Olivia is quiet. The air is cooler tonight and while she had put on a sleeveless navy cotton dress that hugged all of her curves, she had also wrapped herself up in a fitted gray sweatshirt that she had left unzipped and slipped on a pair of flip-flops. He thinks it's amazing that despite the limited contents of her bag she manages to always fit in wherever she is. No one would guess that she was a decorated detective in the NYPD. No one would guess that she has a ninety-eight percent accuracy rating at fifty yards - even with his Glock - and that she's physically saved his ass more times than he cares to admit.

She looks like his date for the evening.

He is doing nothing to dispel that impression. Let the world think he's a lucky sonofabitch.

Elliot is fascinated by the way Olivia changes. He'd seen a softer side of her when she'd been around Porter and Moss, but this is different. With a badge on her hip, Olivia is stunning. Fearless. But right now, with the longs strands of her hair falling over her shoulders and a little color in her cheeks, she is entirely....female. Olivia ducks her head when she smiles and he forgets what she is capable of doing on the streets in favor of imagining what she is capable of doing to him.

Of course she's done it already. When Olivia had opened her bedroom door a couple of hours ago he had nearly sworn out loud. It had taken him an ice cold beer and a few minutes of standing at the ocean's edge to clear his head. And when the fog had dissipated and his body had settled he had consoled himself with the realization that Olivia was flirting with him. She was actually flirting. Just the idea of it, the victory of it, had settled him.

The sun is just starting to go down now to the west and in the next hour or so the light will fully fade. As they silently make the turn onto First Street and head towards the pier that links the beachfront businesses, he catches Olivia watching the sunset. Her chin lifts into it and her eyelashes tangle together as she squints into the intense reds and oranges that smear the sky. The warm light picks up the copper highlights in her hair and he doesn't know if he's a saint or an idiot for having not touched her all of these years.

Olivia catches him looking at her. She's always, always aware. "What?"

Elliot sees it. Her hesitancy, her discomfort. She tries to put on a show of strength for everyone, but he sees her more acutely than the rest of them. In a room with a gunman, Olivia would be everyone's best bet at survival. Alone with him she is tentative about everything.

He grins at her over his shoulder because he knows what he's about to do. She may have won the round with the towel, but he's going to throw her completely off track. "I like your hair like this."

Because he has earned her response, Elliot makes sure that he watches as Olivia's eyes widen. They don't do this. He's never done this. He doesn't tell her she is fucking gorgeous even when he can't focus because of it. He doesn't say or do anything to acknowledge that she is physically different than him. As partners there is no room for him to remind himself that she is a woman, because if he changes his choices on the street to cater to his instincts as a man he'll get them both killed.

She is uncomfortable, he can tell, but Olivia doesn't take her eyes off of him. She looks so startled by the compliment that Elliot wonders if she's gonna ask him what the hell he meant, but then her lips lift slowly. He can see the amusement start to dance in her eyes. "Are you flirting with me?"

Of course she would come right out and ask. She's always known how to turn the tables on him.

Elliot looks straight ahead, and they are almost at the end of the block. They can enter the shops straight ahead via the small parking lot, or go left and head up the steps of the attached pier. He is smiling, but he won't look at her. "Yeah." He says it casually, and he makes no apologies.

She is gonna have to get used it. Get used to him.

He heads left, across the street and towards the beach, and Olivia stays in sync. When she doesn't say anything for a few moments he looks back over his shoulder at her, wondering how she is taking it all.

At the same time that she ducks her head and flushes, she smirks. The contradictions are entirely Olivia. "Good to know," she says quietly as they ascend the steps onto the boardwalk.

By her simple acceptance, she calms him.

Ahead a few artisans have their crafts laid out on blankets, offering jewelry and paintings and small collectibles for sale. Some of the shops have racks that extend out of their storefronts and onto the wooden planks and at the far end, people are crowded around an ice cream stand. This is small town America, he thinks. It is the polar opposite of the dark corners and crevices that they crawl through in Manhattan. Here they are no longer defenders and they don't wake every morning knowing that their lives are the last priority. Here they are ordinary.

Just a woman and a man.

It hits him then just how content he would be if things never changed. If he had nights of just this, and he wasn't waiting for her to run, he could wait forever for the rest of it. If she told him it would take one day at a time for the next hundred years, he'd make sure that he lived long enough to see the day.

With her, his responsibilities are no longer stifling. With Olivia he is no longer waiting for his life to begin. It's here. It's this.

It's the world his mother had been trying to show him. She had spent her days on the pier selling her paintings, and her nights by the ocean, listening to the changes in the waves as the tide came in. It scares him sometimes that he is finding solace in the intangible things that his mother had valued. Ambiguous things that he had always attributed to his mother's sickness. He doesn't feel like he is sick or out of his mind. He feels like he is finally finding all of the pieces of him.

The sun is falling now and the ocean seems darker. The seagulls are screaming as they search for their last meal of the day in the shallow tide. Next to him, Olivia is silent. Her breaths are even. In a few days - maybe a few hours - it is likely he will give in and try to hold her hand.

You're living your father's life all over again. If you could only find a way to be your own man.

He wonders if his mother can see him now. Sometimes he can feel her near. He thinks that maybe she has her hand in this, because surely in heaven there is no illness. Surely there the colorful dreams no longer need chasing. Surely there she is complete.

He misses her. Despite how much he had distanced himself there had been a sense of being rooted simply by knowing she existed. He tells himself that she sees this. All of this.

Next to him, Olivia reaches out and puts a hand on his arm. Her touch is light, and she stops, expecting him to do the same. "Hey, El. You okay?"

She has always been able to read him.

There are children running at the other end of the boardwalk. An older child, maybe seven or eight years old, chases his younger sister as the parents stand in line for ice cream. The shop owner behind Olivia is tugging at the rack of postcards, pulling it back into his store for the evening. There is one bar in Surf City, and it is now less than twenty feet from them and the small cocktail tables that straddle the boardwalk are already filled with people. There is someone inside the seafood restaurant next door who is singing, and they are absently strumming their guitar as they croon a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song.

Olivia's eyes are endlessly dark as she watches him and he is overwhelmed by her. A year ago he had been suffocating, but now...

Elliot's throat is thick, and the background noises fade. Olivia's palm is still gentle on his skin. He chews on his lip and shakes his head. "I told my mother that her dreams were just fantasies."

Olivia's thumb brushes lightly over his forearm. She steps closer to him, and no one on the boardwalk pays them any attention. No one realizes that the world should have stopped because he's found some way to communicate.

His mother had always been filled with grandiose plans. But there is a part of him now that wonders if the dreams and her wild ideas had just been his mother, trying to find some measure of sanity in a world that had been too constricting.

Because that - that he would understand.

"I didn't validate any of her ideas," he admits, not able to look at Olivia.

The thing about Olivia is that she would have done everything differently. She would have been less judgmental of his mother. Hell, she had stuck by her own mother right until the end. She is different than him. She always does the right thing. At least that is how Elliot sees her.

He stands rigid. He's never been good with emotion or regrets. He is even less apt when it comes to explaining them.

Olivia steps so close to him that her toes bump into his. Her hands slide up both of his arms, until she is cupping his elbows. "Elliot."

He has so much right now. Too much. In this moment he is unhindered and free. There is a heavy, heavy guilt in him that he now is experiencing the very thing he had felt derision for when his mother had sought it. He doesn't deserve more than she had been given.

And for the first time in his whole damned life, he feels like it is possible to have everything.

"El, look at me." Olivia's fingers dig into his skin.

Despite the light winds, he can still feel her breath hit his chin. He is suddenly hyperaware of her. Of the pressure of her fingertips, and the nearly painful familiarity of Olivia. Her voice. The maddening hint of gardenia. The way she doesn't let him get away with anything.

He looks at her. She is endless and he could drift right into her.

"I've read her journal entries and you," Olivia rocks back for a moment, but then holds his arms tighter to stand still. She exhales and he knows she feels too much. She shouldn't ache because of him. But she does, that is who she is. She locks herself up and then bleeds out empathy. "You validated her just by existing. By living."

His mother had wanted him to build sandcastles.

He looks at Olivia and thinks that there isn't enough sand on the beach to build the metropolis that he sees.

+ + +

One strum after another. One note followed by another. Then another. The guy is maybe twenty, twenty-five and he's wearing a t-shirt and torn jeans. He's got nothing more than his acoustic guitar, a bar stool and a microphone, but the place is so small that he is still the focus of all of the patrons. He's mostly covering songs sung by the greats - Billy Joel, The Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Dire Straits. But every now and then he throws out a curve ball and mixes something up from one of her quiet favorites like Alison Krauss or Amos Lee.

Olivia knows the words to most of the songs. She loves music because it's the only thing that soothes her late at night. She's got no desire to watch the cop shows or reality nightmares on television. She'll listen to anything when she has some time alone - the radio, her iPod or anything from her massive collection of CDs.

She finds herself humming along as she looks at the laminated menu, but then she feels Elliot's eyes on her and catches herself. She also pointedly ignores his resulting grin. The man is infuriating sometimes, and he is acting like the cat that ate the canary all of sudden. He's a little too smug as he leans back in his chair. He stretches his shorts-clad legs out in front of him and into her space beneath the table while folding his hands over his stomach.

Elliot is watching her intently. Trying to get her attention. Smiling as if he's won something.

She has every intention of ignoring him.

The far end of the restaurant is open to the boardwalk, and the sea air permeates even the deepest recesses of the interior. It's a simple place, with plastic red and white checkered tablecloths and two waitresses who wear pocketed aprons filled with straws and their pad of paper and pen. The chairs are rickety and wooden, and the walls are covered in cheaply framed photos of shipwrecks and lighthouses and faded images of fisherman holding up their prized catches at weigh-in.

Behind Elliot, the sky has faded into the muted blues and grays of evening. She knows that over the Pacific the sun would be glorious until the moment it slipped behind the ocean and beneath the horizon, but she thinks she prefers this. It's heavier, less spectacular. On the Atlantic, the night seems to lazily roll in.

"Stop it, Stabler," Olivia finally instructs, her menu raised between them as she looks at it.

Even though she can't see him, she can feel it. He's laughing silently.

Sure enough when she puts the menu down he's rubbing one hand over his mouth and jaw. Trying not to make a sound.

Olivia glares at him. "What's so funny?"

His eyes remind her of the afternoon light as it glints on the ocean. Elliot is breathing evenly, and he's sprawled out in his chair. He doesn't answer her. He is just watching her. If she didn't like the way her skin came alive when he did it, she'd kick his ass or leave.

"Nothing," he says unconvincingly. He shrugs, then takes a long drag of his already nearly half-empty bottle of beer. "Just...You seem to know every cheesy song in the book." The smile tugs at his lips no matter how hard he is trying to mask his amusement.

In truth he doesn't seem to be trying that hard at all.

The problem with Elliot is that he isn't afraid of her. She can give him a death glare and snarl and generally ignore him, but he doesn't flinch anymore. There was a time when he would have, but they have moved past that. It is moments like these that she forgets that there is more to them than just this.

His good time is contagious.

"It's from Notting Hill," Olivia says, as if it's perfectly normal for her to know the soundtrack of romantic comedies off the top of her head. She makes it clear by her tone that he doesn't need to comment in response.

Of course he's never going to let this go, she knows that. But it doesn't matter. If there is one thing she is learning it is that she likes surprising him. She likes when he looks at her as if he is trying to figure something out, she likes that she seems to be the only thing that has his attention for the moment. It's taking a lot to get used to the idea that he is spending time with her because he is choosing to, and not out of some professional obligation.

It hits her then just how truly alone they are. No one knows them here. No one is paying any attention to them. He is here right now because he wants to be - she wants to be - and it's only Jersey but with the music and the beach and wind they might as well be in some exotic, foreign country.

All of those times that she had wished for the world to leave her alone she had been wrong. Maybe what she had needed was for the world to leave her with him.

The smile is flitting across Olivia's lips before she can help it. Her stomach is dancing on the inside and the beer seems to be working overtime because she is a little bit dizzy. She dares a look up at Elliot because pretending to read the menu isn't working at all. She has no idea what she's read. Not a clue. And that is a problem because she is starving.

The smug smile hasn't fully faded from Elliot's expression, but his eyes have deepened since the last time she looked at him. He is focused on her. Too focused. His expression is soft and he is just a little too comfortable here.

That's what this is inside of her. That is the slowing of her pulse, the warmth in her shoulders, her chest. It's the comfort of being here with him.

Elliot is about to say something that will cut the silence. Olivia can see him debating over it. She thinks it probably won't be partnerly but she's starting to feel the beer and to hell with it. To hell with it. Just this once he can say whatever he wants.

"You guys decide on something?"

The waitress appears without warning. She's in her mid-twenties and she's got dirty blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail and despite the music and the crowded space, she is kind and pleasant and patient. Which is a good thing because Olivia is so intrigued by the way Elliot is steadfastly looking at her that she's got no recollection of what type of restaurant this even is.

Elliot doesn't wipe the unexplainable expression off his face. He doesn't even look at the girl. "We'll take the blackened catfish, the broiled scallops and two orders of the crab cakes."

Olivia almost tells him she doesn't like someone to order for her, but then she remembers that Elliot knows this and he did it in any case so there must be a reason. This isn't like other first dates; she doesn't have to explain herself. Jesus, it's not a date. It's just dinner. Dinner between friends. And he's ordered for her.

He's different somehow. Something is different in him. Something she can't explain. But she can feel it taking over. She can feel whatever it is seeping into the last of the cold places.

Elliot's voice is a rumble. "And we'll take two shots of tequila with the next round of beers."

And then he grins and she knows what this new thing is. He's happy, she thinks. He's gonna be okay. This is Elliot without world weighing upon him. For the first time she realizes that she has been afraid for him. She has been worrying about where he would go in his head if left alone for all these months. But he's good. He's so, so good. He is tanned and he still sprawls out in his space as if he commands everything.

He's okay.

She laughs softly out of nowhere then because he is crazy. This is crazy. Or maybe it's crazier still that they are still new to each other, even after all of the years. She laughs because who would have thought New Jersey was beautiful. But it is. This place, this restaurant, tonight, it's a masterpiece.

Or maybe she laughs simply because he seems startled by the sound of it and that makes him watch her.

The truth of it is that she's got no demons at all when his eyes are on her skin. He watches her and watches her and watches her and she doesn't think she ever wants to move or speak or breathe if it will cause the moment to break. Suddenly drinking tequila sounds perfect, the music is award-winning and this is the fanciest place she has ever been. He watches her.

And tonight, without reservation, she watches him.

+ + +

She's never been able to hold her liquor.

So when Olivia gamely prepares to throw back the third shot of tequila, he briefly wonders how the hell he's gonna get her home. He doesn't have a car here, and this town boasts maybe one cab whose driver is probably home sleeping by now. It's almost ten and the sun has long since set. As soon as he'd thrown down some cash at their table, thinking they were going to head back to the house, Olivia had sidestepped him and sidled up to the bar, ordering another round of the Patron.

The music plays on. It's louder in here now and it's obvious everyone who remains has been drinking for hours. He feels the slightest current of danger in the air. He's been drinking, she's been drinking and he can see the way she is easing into recklessness of it all. She sits next to him on the worn leather barstool, and her hair falls over her eyes when she looks at him. Olivia's eyelids are lowering and her lips are lifting and she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.

"Ready?" The challenge is in her irises. It's the flash of mischief - of daring - that he is so familiar with. Olivia raises the shot glass full of amber liquid and ignores the lime wedge that had been placed on her napkin by the bartender.

He wants the lime with his but he knows she will call him on it. She'll call him a pansy and make pointed remarks about the way real men drink tequila and he'll be forced to think of a hundred ways to wipe that smirk off of her face using his mouth.

He leaves the lime wedge ignored on his napkin. Safety, he thinks. No reason to make this require more of his control than he's already using up.

Elliot lifts the narrow shot glass and clinks it against hers. "To your vacation."

Olivia's smile grows bigger and she taps his glass again with hers. "To yours. Been a helluva lot longer than mine." She tosses back the shot and shakes her head as soon as the liquor hits her tongue. He can see her throat working to accommodate the burn of it and he wonders if everyone else is watching her like he is. If everyone else is this fascinated.

"Do your shot," she laughs when she's done.

He forgets. He forgets what it is like to be without her. He forgets what it was like to lay in bed with a woman he should have loved better - longer - and to be lonely as hell. He forgets setting up the space heater in the garage and working on his father's bike, icy days upon icy days that he had spent all by himself. He forgets that Olivia locks him out too much, and he forgets that he has ever failed her. Most of all, he forgets how much he hated just being her partner. What that had done to him. He forgets the way he had just been roaming.

When Olivia laughs, she erases the darkest days he's ever lived. He wonders if her laughter is so much more spectacular because it's newer than anyone else's.

Elliot tosses back the shot and it's alternately smooth and searing hot as he swallows it. It's got a buttery aftertaste, and he wonders what it would taste like on Olivia's lips. On her skin.

The singer starts another song. This one is slower. The guy is crooning and all of the activity in the restaurant seems to slow down. It's one of those songs that remind him of jazz in the French Quarter in New Orleans, not that he has ever been. The wind tonight is gentle, and the front of the restaurant is still wide open to the boardwalk. He has no idea what day of the week it is; he's got no recollection of what day of the month they are on.

Olivia's elbow comes up to rest on the bar and her fingers spear through her hair as she looks at him. "So?"

Her lashes are lowered so much that she looks almost sleepy. But he can see her moving just a little bit to the music, and he knows she is just sinking into this. Into the nights on the boardwalk, into the soothing play of the ocean breeze. He finds himself praying that one day she will sink into him.

"So?" he counters, feeling the corner of his mouth tip up in response.

Sultry, he thinks. He can't even remember not looking at her this way.

Her eyes are devastating. Dark magic. Intent. "When do I get my partner back?" Olivia's voice is husky. She barely moves her lips when she speaks, yet they are all he sees.

He can tell by the easy way that she says it that she assumes it will be soon. She thinks he's got an answer but the truth is that he doesn't know. There is something nebulous in him that he hasn't sorted out just yet and he feels the constriction begin to coil around him when she asks. She wants answers. She thinks he's got them. He should probably tell her what he's been feeling, ask her to help him sort it out, but he's afraid she won't respond well.

Eight months he's been away and she still calls him her partner.

He ignores the uneasiness that is given life within him.

"Trying to decide," he says quietly, hoping it's enough.

Because he's never given Olivia much, it's all the answer she needs. It's all that she expects. He ignores the voice inside of him that tells him that she doesn't need more information because she's already got her expectations.

She grins at him. "Got a pen?"

"Why do you need one?" he fires back. "You've already got my number."

Olivia rewards him. She laughs and she's uninhibited and she's radiant. He feels sorry for every bastard who has ever taken her on a date and heard this sound - Jesus - and then never heard back from her again.

"Tic Tac Toe," She reaches into the small container on the bar that is full of napkins to use them as her paper. "Whoever loses has to buy the next shot."

Elliot shakes his head, fully intending on playing along "No one ever wins that game."

She shrugs as she sets the napkin between them. "Then we'll each buy our own shots."

By the time she has asked the bartender for a pen and received one, he is positive that he doesn't need any more liquor. But he'll never tell her no. He can't. It just isn't in him. "Just how many shots are you planning on, Benson?"

She arches one eyebrow and she's got that confident, kick-ass smirk on her face. "Gotta drink until you look good," she retorts. "Hope this place has enough tequila."

And then he's laughing. He's laughing and he could kiss her, yeah - but for tonight he feels lucky enough to just be the one sitting beside her.

+ + +

When she had been a kid, she used to watch movies about nights like this. There would be a guy and girl and a summer of no worries. The guy would fall head over heels and the girl would let herself trust him. They'd walk the boardwalk holding hands in some tiny town on the edge of nowhere and she remembers thinking that while it was nice to watch, things like that didn't really happen.

Only she's out here tonight and there is a small amusement park far down the beach. She knows this because she can still see the illuminated Ferris wheel that towers over everything, even though it has long since gone dark for the night. She's had too much to drink, but she doesn't feel like worrying about it. Tonight she won't get called in. There will be no emergencies. She's got nowhere to be but here.

She smiles. Jesus. New Jersey.

The tequila is making Olivia's cheeks warm. Her skin is heated everywhere and the wind has probably made her hair a mess but she doesn't want to go home just yet. Elliot is paying the bill at the bar - he's treating this like a date - but she couldn't wait inside. Instead she now leans over the railing that lines the boardwalk, and five feet beneath her is the endless sand.

She is making up for a lifetime of holding her breath when she breathes out here. She can see the change in the blackness where the sea meets the night sky and she thinks about all the things she hasn't done. Without her badge and her gun she's suddenly aware that being a cop isn't everything. She can see it now, how other people live. She understands that people come home at the end of the day and live by routines. They go on vacation and they make plans with the neighbors and at happy hour they have a little too much to drink.

They fall for someone else, and they let themselves go, because everything isn't always going to go to shit. They believe.

Maybe she isn't so different. Maybe.

He comes to stand beside her and the sheer size of him changes the wind patterns around her. Elliot leans over the railing too, his forearms pressed against the wooden bar as he looks at her. "How you feelin'?"

She knows he thinks she's drunk, but she ate enough and besides, she can hold her liquor even though she isn't a big drinker. She's tipsy - hell, yeah - but it's just enough that she doesn't feel the edges anymore. When she looks at him, she smiles just a little bit. She feels like she's got a secret that is filling her up and maybe she does. Maybe he doesn't feel like this.

He gives her a bark of laughter and shakes his head.

"What?" she asks defensively. He's amused by something, only she doesn't know what it is.

He looks out to the ocean and he's still got the slightest quirk to his lips. "That Mona Lisa smile of yours."

Her chest stops moving because of the gentle way he says it. As if he's spent time thinking about it. Elliot's posture is relaxed and sometimes it's hard to remember what he'd been like back in Manhattan. She remembers the mornings when he'd walk into the squad room. He always looked untouchable, with his suits and his pressed shirts and the perfect knot of his tie. Every move had been controlled, and every reaction had been contained.

Tonight his weight rests easily against where his arms are braced on the railing and Elliot seems content to just stand there, watching the shadows of nature's greatest scene.

Maybe it's just the tequila, but she can't feel the bottoms of her feet. Her shoulders aren't sore from the way she always holds them up and some of her hair tickles down into the back of her sweatshirt as it lifts and settles. A couple more shots and she'd probably end up dancing out here. She can still hear the music filtering out of the restaurant behind them and she feels the headiness permeate her veins.

It's the sea, she thinks. It's got something over all of them.

"Wanna go out there?" she asks.

He turns his head back to look at her. "Do you?"

Every now and then she feels herself stunned a little bit by how little guilt she feels. She doesn't think about his wife - ex - and she doesn't think about the job or what this will mean. She is captivated by his face, by the way she has watched him change over the years. She thinks he is gorgeous, and she flushes for a moment because by the heat in his eyes she can tell he's got an idea about what she's thinking.

Not so secret after all.

"Yeah," Olivia exhales. Yeah she wants to go out there. She wants to walk home on the sand. She wants to feel it between her toes, the grains still warm from the sun they had absorbed during the day.

Before she knows it, Elliot is slipping under the railing and jumping down the few feet to the sand below. He moves effortlessly. He's all muscle, but he's agile. Fluid.

And then he's standing beneath her and looking up at her and she's laughing.

"C'mon, Liv," he grins cockily.

The tequila has made its way into her soul. She feels ridiculous. She tries to think the words he's your partner but they won't form. For the moment she doesn't care what he is or what he isn't, just so long as she can stay with him a little bit longer.

"There are stairs, you know," she retorts, indicating the few wooden steps that lead to the beach which are less than fifteen feet down the boardwalk.

Elliot cocks his head. "You gettin' soft on me?"

His voice carries against the backdrop of the ocean and she thinks the movies had nothing on this. It's a small drop down as drops go, and she's got no problem with making the jump. He knows this. He is a shit anyway.

Olivia slips under the railing and she feels like she's breaking the rules. She kicks off her shoes and they fall to the sand below. He's far enough back that he's not planning on catching her and she's glad. She's still her. He still knows her. He hasn't forgotten that she is strong, that she will always take on the dare and that she is fiercely independent.

She feels free. Free.

She sends herself off the edge and thinks about things like the Mona Lisa and summer flings and about how maybe having a secret means she's finally got something inside of her.

+ + +

The ocean might be bottomless. Endless. If it wasn't for the white tipped waves that catch the moonlight, he'd think that he is staring at miles and miles of slick, black oil. The moon is full tonight and there are reflections of it on the surface of the water.

A night of a thousand moons, he thinks.

He is carrying his sneakers and she is carrying her rubber flip-flops and it's fucking beautiful out here. He's gotten used to the heat and the humidity and the way that the air is always thick in the summer by the shore. But the tonight the sky is perfectly clear and he can feel the slightest hint of a crisp edge to the air. It's easier to breathe tonight.

The winds are unnaturally calm.

He can still taste the tequila on his lips. He thinks that if he remembers nothing else of tonight, that in a hundred years he will remember just how she had looked when she'd thrown caution to the wind and just let herself go.

She probably shouldn't laugh out here. She is too luminous. He wonders what the moon does when it is jealous.

He's a bit inebriated and they are so close to the water that each incoming wave could overpower out the sound of his voice. That's his excuse for not speaking. He's deferring to nature.

"El?" Olivia says his name quietly and the waves don't stand a chance at drowning her out. He could hear her anywhere. Nature defers.

She is standing next to him, her shoulder nearly touching his. The water bubbles towards them and then fizzles out and retreats just inches before touching his toes. The granules are wet beneath his feet and he can feel the impression his weight has made in the sand. If he moved, the water would soon wash the imprint away, and he's not ready for that. He keeps standing there - in one place - holding his ground.

"Yeah?" He lifts his chin and looks out at the ocean. He's too drunk to drive and he thinks it's a good thing they walked to the restaurant. The lights of the boardwalk glimmer far behind them. They had decided to walk home on the beach, but the house seems miles away. He feels like they are in the middle of nowhere.

"Whaddya think it felt like to discover that th'earth wasn't flat?"

She is slurring. He grins because she is never out of control. Never. But she is losing her grip on it tonight and he likes it. He feels like he's got power over everything.

Another wave dissipates inches away. The water doesn't reach them. He could stand here forever. He thinks about kissing her. She'd taste like tequila. Like five shots of Patron. Or six. Maybe it was six.

They are still standing. They usually are.

In the face of them, the tide retreats.

It occurs to him that even though he's a cop, he's not like his father. His father would have never stood at the edge of the water and just watched the ocean sway. He wonders if his father would have been disappointed that Elliot spends a lot of time doing just this. And then he stops wondering. Tonight he doesn't care what anyone else thinks.

"It'd feel like everything you thought you knew turned out to be wrong." His throat burns and he misses his kids. He doesn't miss the city though, because all he needed of it is out here with him tonight.

He turns his head to look at Olivia. The lunar light illuminates her cheekbones, the curve of her bottom lip, her collarbone beneath the open neck of the sweatshirt. She is staring out at the ocean, at the furthest discernible edges of it. He knows that if she looks at him the only thing that will not catch the light will be her eyes. They are too dark. They are the night ocean without the waves.

She seems small when she stands next to the water. Tonight Olivia seems almost fragile, as if she is battling something that is draining her strength. Something is happening in her. He'd seen it rising in her all night, and now, now she is crashing.

The waves, he thinks. Her tide is coming in.

And then her lashes narrow and her eyes close, and she is squeezing them shut. He's scared for a moment, because Olivia's chin trembles. But then he remembers that he's okay if she cries. There was a time when he'd been terrified of it, but not anymore. He figures if she's gotta let something go, then now is as good as time as any. He's got her if she breaks.

Olivia's lips press shut and she ducks her head. He realizes that she doesn't know he is watching her.

Her breathing is uneven. Shallow. Sporadic.

It is so painful to watch her like this that Elliot's gaze drops. He hears the water hiss towards them, the last edges of what was once a powerful, crashing wave petering out. Again the water stops its encroachment just inches from them. Her feet make an imprint in the wet, packed sand just like his do. Two sets of footprints.

He ducks his head towards her. He wants to be gentle, but his throat is rough. "Tell me what-"

"I don't wanna g'home tomorrow," she interrupts on a rush, as if it is the most devastating of confessions. She keeps her eyes closed as if she is bracing for something. As if she is apologizing. Apologizing. "God help me," she chokes, using the back of her hand to cover her mouth.

He wants to tell her that if she stays, the person God has chosen to help is him.

But Olivia seems so afraid of her instinct to stay that Elliot can't stop himself. His hand skims over her back and over the hood of her sweatshirt and into her hair. Right at the base of her neck. Her skin is warm and she shudders as his fingers slip gently around her nape. He puts just the slightest pressure there, urging her towards him. He doesn't grab, he doesn't pull, he doesn't demand - even though his fingertips are throbbing. Instead he eases Olivia towards him, and when he turns his body enough so that he can feel her forehead come to rest against his jaw he exhales, finally allowing himself to slide his hand upwards just a little bit more.

His palm cups the back of her head and he gets her close enough that her breath is warm against his shoulder.

Their bodies do not touch anywhere else. His mind is screaming at him to haul her onto him, but he's got years of experience with Olivia that tell him too much too soon is the best way to lose her.

He can feel the long, satiny strands of her hair tickle him between his fingers and he wants to groan, but this is about her and not about him. His mouth is on her hairline then, just centimeters from her skin. He doesn't kiss her. Just kiss her. He closes his eyes and ignores the need. "It's been too much, Liv," he mumbles against her.

He doesn't know what he's referring to. Maybe he's referring to all of the things they have seen, done, felt. Maybe he's referring to how they've been fighting this thing that lives between them. Maybe it's all of it that he's talking about. By all rights, they shouldn't have lived this long. As human beings maybe they shouldn't have been exposed to such extremes.

Olivia nods almost imperceptibly. Once, twice, and just when he's trying to remind himself not to cover her lips with his mouth, he hears the ragged way she gasps at the air.

Elliot pulls her onto him then. All of her. He's got one hand in Olivia's hair and one hand around her waist and she's not gonna run - she's not gonna run - because he's gonna fucking hold onto her. He's gonna hold on until she realizes that he needs her more than anyone else does. He hates himself for it, but he wants to say to hell with everyone who has ever depleted her. Used her. He always blames himself, but tonight he's even angry that there are victims who need so much of her.

Olivia is not stoic, she's not invincible. He knows this because his hands are running up and down her back and she's soft and warm and she's just flesh and blood. She's not a superhero. She's not bulletproof. He can feel the column of her spine through her clothes, and she's lush and perfect and he wants to be inside of her - deep inside of her - but Jesus, Jesus beneath all of the armor she's just a woman, human. Beneath the nerves of steel she is someone who needs to be protected.

Olivia is shaking. He knows what this is. He's been through it. Their exhaustion runs so deep that when it starts to ease there are tremors. The weariness is a drug, and this is the detoxification.

The corner of his mouth is pressed hard against her temple. "I don't want you to go."

Over her head he can see the rise of the black water forty feet out. Another wave. They keep on coming. Keep on coming. He holds onto her and her fingers grip the front of his t-shirt. No one is drowning tonight. Not anymore. The sea will teach a man to find his second wind, and if that is what this is, then he's damned well gonna stay alive and kicking.

Olivia exhales against his collarbone. Once. Twice. And then she lifts her head. He wonders if she is looking back at the lights of the restaurant. There are still people roaming the boardwalk, he knows this - but he can't hear the sounds of them. He can't hear the music. He can only hear the rustle of the water and the sound of her breathing.

He can't last anymore. His willpower is fading. He can feel the dip of her waist and the press of her breasts against his chest and he thinks he's got to pull back too and figure out how to get his mouth on hers. He wants to taste her. He wants to hold her head in his hands and nip at her until she opens her mouth and invites him in. All the way. He wants her beneath him out here in the open air.

Olivia.

When Elliot pulls back, she looks right up at him. Her eyes are huge. He doesn't see panic but he does see the fear.

Her fear rocks him. It's more gripping than his arousal. It's the most urgent thing in the world. He has to ease it, just ease it.

Don't be scared of me.

The swell he'd been watching must have crashed and become a wave because he can't hear himself think anymore. The water is probably crawling towards them. It's only inches between her mouth and his, but she's faltering. It's Olivia and she's never had much. She won't easily believe in this, even if she believes in him.

"Elliot-" she starts in a ragged protest.

He can't scare her. He took his time out here. He's taken months. Years. He can wait for her. He can.

Patience.

He leans into her and when his lips are against her ear, he asks for the only thing he really needs. "S'okay. I'm not - " He stops. I'm not gonna kiss you yet. "Just give it some time and get used t'me."

She doesn't pull away. She leans forwards again and her mouth presses into the cloth that covers his shoulder. The moments tick by before she nods.

Agrees.

He is holding her then and it's not because he can't find the words. Holding her is not a replacement for anything. Touching her is the conversation.

The water suddenly gently rocks over his toes, then hers. The wave dances on their skin and swirls around their ankles before it disintegrates into nothing. She must be cold because she practically steps on his feet trying to get closer. She tells him it's okay to touch her by the way she burrows in.

He holds her against the backdrop of the Atlantic, and as the sand smooths out beneath them it erases the reminders of where they had once stood, and forms a new, tenuous shape around them.

The water retreats and leaves them be.

+ + +

Chapter Text

 

My boy plays it pretty close to his vest. Gets that from his father.

Olivia's eyes fly open and she stares immediately at the ceiling. She can hear Bernadette's voice resonating in her ears and she can't tell the difference between her memories and the dreams. Her skin is warm, too warm, and the air around her feels sticky.

Her room is flooded with light, despite the closed curtains. It's unnaturally calm outside and she can tell this because there is absolutely no breeze brushing over her skin. She can feel the thick humidity and she immediately kicks the covers off of her, lying still again in her t-shirt and cotton shorts.

She can tell it is long past early morning. She must have slept in.

Olivia's pulse is racing and her mouth is dry. She's got the slightest bit of a headache, but it's not too bad. She's slept most of the tequila off and besides her thirst she is no worse for wear.

The previous night comes barreling back at her. She closes her eyes again against the onslaught of recollection. The liquor had loosened her up a bit and she'd told Elliot she didn't want to leave. And he had held her - held her - right there on the beach.

If she had even the weakest line to God she would ask for some guidance right now. She'd pray for some sign that making the decision to stay here with him for the rest of her week off is the right thing.

She is worried about how far gone she will be if she stays. She is worried that she is already too far gone to leave. The pressure against Olivia's breastbone is unbearable when she thinks about him. She's been awake all of two minutes and she already wants to get out of bed and find him, touch him, make sure that when Elliot had held her last night it had all been real. She needs to make sure that he isn't spending the morning alone with his regrets.

He'd held her for endless minutes. She remembers feeling every second go by. Elliot's pulse had been strong, and he had smelled like tequila and summer. She had pressed her face against his neck and she could feel the movement in his throat as he tried to swallow, and everywhere she touched him, brushed him, he had been strong and solid and just granite - unbreakable, it seemed.

She had been the first one to pull away. She hadn't been able to look at him as they had walked home then, but when he started locking up the house, Olivia had stood in the doorway to her room and caught his eyes.

She'd whispered then, her heart racing. Goodnight, Elliot.

He had stood there, unmoving and expressionless, until after she had closed the door and changed to go to sleep.

Her skin is heated with want. It would be almost impossible not to fall for him - for this. It's the beach and Elliot's assured smile and the way he's confident and calm all the time. It's the fact that she knows him and she feels like she has a certain right to him and that if it's not him, it will be no one at all. It's the heady feeling of possibility that doesn't abate because of logic or rules or boundaries.

Olivia ignores the voices that remind her that she can't stay here forever, that he can't. There is a tiny part of her that wants to believe they could make something work between them back in the city. At least for awhile, until they both figure out what they want.

Want.

The problem with touching him this much - with being touched - is that her body is learning his, and the cravings run deep. She knows the parts of Elliot; his sleep-roughened voice, the breadth of his shoulders, the size of his hands and the dark inkings on his skin. Independently each one of those things would arouse any woman, but combined, Jesus, combined she doesn't stand a chance.

There is a voice inside of her that is growing louder. So loud. He's the one it says and she does everything she can to drown it out. It's Elliot, she argues back. He can't be the one. He can't be.

Only she is forgetting all of the reasons why.

She wants to strip down, to take a cool shower this morning. It's like trying to breathe in a sauna, and she needs to get out of this bed and pull her hair up. Staying in bed and fantasizing about her partner isn't going to accomplish a thing. Besides, it's not as if Elliot has even asked her if she wants to see if there is anything between them.

Just get used t'me.

Her head tells her that he is waiting for her to get comfortable with the idea; her heart tells her that she won't be able to withstand Elliot walking away when whatever this is dissipates.

She rolls her head to her right and looks at his mother's journal resting on the end table. Before she realizes what she is doing, she's reaching for it. Despite the cloying heat, Olivia remains on the bed, her fingers searching for the last page that she had read.

January, 1970

Dearest Suhaili,

I am only writing today because I am doing my best to stay awake. I haven't been able to keep my eyes open for days and Joe has stayed home from work to watch after Elliot. Joe looks at me like I am disgusting to him now, and I wish that I could blame him.

I've that that I've done a terrible, terrible thing.

It started out so far from where it ended up. Elliot and I were wrapping presents in the living room and the tree was gloriously lit. His small hands made a mess of the wrapping paper, and he had more tape stuck to the carpet than to the boxes that contained the gifts we had picked out for Joe. Elliot was watching me more than made me comfortable, and his little face was so serious, so solemn, that I couldn't take it anymore. I bundled him up in his parka and took him outside. It was nearly eight o'clock and the street was so dark, but the snow was coming down. Big, thick flakes of pure white snow. The flakes were so big that they looked like feathers that were trickling down from God's pillows.

Elliot had on his boots, but I was just in my slippers. It didn't matter though because the moment was so exhilarating that I didn't feel the cold. I ran onto the lawn and waited for my boy to chase me, but when he finally tried the snow was already so deep that his little feet got stuck in the thickness of it. So I told him to chase the snowflakes instead, to catch all of them. The snow was slower, surely he could get it. But he got stuck again and this time he fell. And then he started crying. He kept pointing to my feet and telling me that I needed to go inside and get my boots. When I looked down, my feet were bare and icy, my slippers lost somewhere in the white tufts that covered our lawn.

I couldn't stand my beautiful baby boy crying! I couldn't take it! It broke my heart into tiny little pieces that outnumbered the snowflakes. So I bundled Elliot in the car instead, and told him we would always be faster than the snow. The snow couldn't beat us. And we started driving. Just driving. We drove all the way to Broadway and I started singing to him. I sang Jingle Bells and Joy to the World. I sang Rudolph and God Bless Ye Merry Gentleman. I sang so many songs! So many. The car was our magic flying reindeer and we were going to bring good cheer to everyone.

Only Elliot started crying again. He wanted me to stop the car. I didn't understand. Why did he want me to stop? We were flying! He was such a lucky little boy to learn how to fly so young. But he cried, louder and louder and I just kept singing and singing, thinking he'd stop all his bawling and listen to my wonderful songs.

I don't remember anything after that.

Joe tells me that Elliot's little body hit the back seat hard when we crashed, and that I am lucky he didn't fly straight out of the car. He tells me all of the nasty things the ambulance drivers said about me when he overheard them as he walked into the hospital. He tells me I should have been the one to break my arm, and I heard him whisper last night when he thought I was sleeping that I should just do it already - just die - and that I need to leave our boy out of it.

I remember the hospital. I remember thinking I should die. No one looked me in the eyes. The nurses were rough with me, the doctors were curt. And when I finally slipped out of the room they had put me in and walked into the hall my bones hurt. But I didn't ache from the accident. I ached because I saw Joe, and his head was bowed as he stood near a young nurse. Her hand was stroking his arm and her palm cupped his face and I knew. I knew.

It's been twelve days since the accident.

Elliot clutches Joe now, and he seems to breathe harder when he is around me. His arm is in a cast for another six weeks they say, and when I try to do things for him he takes a few steps back as if he is scared of touching me. My little boy looks at me like I am a monster. I tell him I love him again and again but he just mutely stares at me.

I don't blame him.

Joe tells me again and again about how hard Elliot cried. He tells me that even with his arm broken, Elliot had cried in the hospital for hours because he had been worried about me. Until I went to see him in his hospital room, he had believed I had died and Joe tells that part like I have failed him. The both of them. Sometimes I suspect that I have failed them because I keep on living.

So I have been sleeping as much as I can. I am staying away from the two of them until they stop looking at me this way. I tell Joe that the roads were icy, that it wasn't my fault, but he says horrible things to me. He tells me I am an idiot, and that I am stupid. He tells me that I should never have been a mother. He tells me that one day Elliot will hate me and that I will deserve it.

There are moments when I wonder if he is right. I watched Elliot open his presents using his unbroken arm on Christmas morning, and he didn't smile once. He struggled with the wrapping paper that covered his train set and his colored pens. But he wouldn't let me help him. Not with one thing. I wonder if he is old enough to be done with me.

I'm tired again. So tired. Maybe now that I have told you this I won't dream of it when I sleep.

Goodnight, Suhaili.

Bernadette

 

The sound of the screen door slamming jars Olivia and she flinches, nearly blinking against the surprise of her surroundings. Her chest is pounding - hurting - and for the first time in a long time she feels the acidic burn of anger. She knows his mother was sick, she does, but she can't separate the clinical diagnosis with the effects it had on Elliot. For the moment she can't forgive his mother. She knows Bernadette had suffered in a time when medication had not been readily available, in a time when her condition was not easily identifiable, but that doesn't change what her illness did to Elliot.

She'd known about the car accident, of course. She'd overheard Bernadette telling Kathleen the story. But being given the detailed images of Elliot as a child is overwhelming. It's her job to protect him. Her job. Only she can't protect him from his past. She can't change that he'd been abused as a result of his mother's illness.

Abused.

The word evokes a visceral reaction in her. If she could fight the ghosts for him, she would.

It scares her how so much more about Elliot makes sense now. His nearly obsessive need to keep his family away from his job. His inability to walk away from his marriage. He had needed to keep something together, to just create the most protective, idyllic environment for his kids that he could - no matter what it could cost him. She'd always thought it was him separating his job from his family, but she realizes now he was separating his past from the present.

For a moment, Olivia feels a stab of inadequacy. He hadn't confided in her. Even after all of the shit they had experienced together - the moments their lives were on the line, the body count that they both kept as a silent number in their heads - he still hadn't trusted her enough to tell her the truth.

But then her own choices sit in front of her, glaring with the hypocrisy. She'd been silent all these years, too. In an effort to disconnect from her past, she had pretended it didn't exist. Maybe if she had talked more about her own childhood, in some way that would have made it okay for Elliot to talk about his.

He's erased his childhood.

It takes her breath away to think about just how locked up Elliot's been for all of these years. She wonders why they both chose to ignore their own demons. Maybe it's because every day they were faced with horrors on a grand scale, and it had seemed indulgent to revisit the bruises they still carried.

He had just been a little boy.

Olivia can almost picture him, his blue eyes too serious, too soon. For a moment she wonders if a child can possibly overcome a childhood lived in uncertainty to ultimately find some solid ground as an adult.

She hears Elliot's footsteps, heavy on the hardwood floors.

And then the house fills with music.

Olivia feels a punch of air escape from her chest when she realizes that he's just kicked on a Bob Seger CD. The easy sounds fill the air and Seger's grainy voice is singing about the summertime and his 1960 Chevy and cornfields. And then Elliot chases away both her memories and his.

He sings a couple of the words. And he's into it. Jesus, he's into it.

No one can see her, so she lets the smile come. She lets the air back in. The humidity seems manageable for the moment and suddenly it's summer. It's fucking summer and she's at the beach and she's got no plans for the day. Her cell phone doesn't ring out here, and she hasn't fallen asleep beneath the sun for years, but she will today. She plans on it. She'll probably even go buy some clothes on the boardwalk because she can't live out of her overnight bag forever.

Forever.

She rolls her head to the side until the pillow cups her face and she forgets that she is forty years old. She forgets that she doesn't live here and she forgets that there are a million reasons why she shouldn't let him hold her.

Elliot must think he's only humming along. But he's loud as hell and he's apparently sung this song to himself before because he's got every nuance of the tune down pat.

Olivia wants to roll her eyes as she stares up at the ceiling, but the truth is that she wants to listen to him take on the whole song. Every word of it. She wants to know him. This Elliot. She wishes she could sneak into the family room and watch him undetected, because she's pretty sure that Elliot Stabler knows how to play the air guitar.

And then she laughs and no one can see her. The instinct comes from deep in her gut and her palm covers her stomach and she knows that this moment is a turning point. It's a moment she knows she will remember forever. It's the pivotal one, the one she will cherish. She'll understand the particular significance of the moment later, but she understands its importance now.

She is grinning at no one and listening to Elliot and she thinks about how it's amazing that he can teach her how to let go of her past simply because he is learning to let go of his.

Her fingers skim the leather, and she wonders if somewhere up there Bernadette Stabler knows that despite it all, her little boy grew up to be the most amazing man that Olivia has ever known.

+ + +

It's as if the sun is sticking its tongue out at the fierce storm that will roll in later tonight. It's the sun's last stand.

Going out in a blaze of glory, he thinks.

He's dripping all over the kitchen floor, but he doesn't particularly care at the moment. It's after ten and Elliot wants to wake Olivia up, if only because he's thrumming with adrenaline and she is sleeping the day away. Logic tells him she needs to sleep and he doesn't want to think about why she is so sleep deprived. He knows why and it still eats at him that he left her there in Manhattan doing that job.

Elliot looks up and out at the ocean though the kitchen window. He doesn't want to think about the past right now. The Atlantic is warm as hell today - warmer than it should be in June - and he wants to go back out there. It had been too hot to run, so he'd gone for a swim instead. There is something inherently invigorating about floating out past where the waves would break, with no one around. The nearest neighbors to his mother's home are older, so this stretch of beach is amazingly quiet.

He grins. He's gonna drag Olivia's ass out there today. He hopes to hell she brought a bathing suit because he can't let go of the image of her swimming with him, her hair slicked back and wet and the saltwater getting caught on her eyelashes.

His stomach growls in irritation and he expels a breath. He'd only left the water because he'd been starving, but now that he's inside, he's not going back out there until she agrees to go with him. Maybe the music will wake her up. Nothing like waking up on a gorgeous summer day to the gritty sounds of Seger. Sometimes when he's alone he'll sing this song and he'll imagine for a second that he's an old rock star who's strumming a beaten up guitar. He's never been able to sing, and maybe it's just middle age, but he thinks every guy at some point has to have imagined he was Seger or Springsteen or Ronnie Van Zant while crooning in the privacy of his living room.

Elliot reaches for one of the knives from the wooden block and grabs the cantaloupe. He can't stop thinking about last night. Olivia had stayed still as he had held her - held her - and...and...

Jesus, he'd held her.

His disbelief and utter satisfaction starts and ends there. He had been aware of how much he had wanted to touch her, but until Olivia was finally there, in his hands, he hadn't realized just how gut-wrenching the experience would be. He had underestimated just how powerful it would make him feel to get her to relax against him, if even for just a few moments. Soothing her had made him feel invincible.

Of course it had also turned him the hell on.

He's an asshole. He's clear on that. But she's also had plenty of time to find someone else - someone far better than him - and she hasn't fallen for any one of the guys she's met. He's watched them all come and go - the stockbrokers, the lawyers, the cops and the fucking reporters - and they've all been summarily dismissed by Olivia. He's spent a dozen years with her day in and day out; he has to have an inside track. He knows her better than anyone else, and that has to count for something.

He's got the cantaloupe in wedges on the countertop when he finally hears her bedroom door open. He knows she's bare foot just by the sound of her tentative footsteps on the wood floors. She comes to stand just at the edge of the doorway into the kitchen, and despite the music he hears her take a deep breath.

Elliot doesn't look up. He's cutting the seeds out of the center of his slices. "Careful on the floor. I didn't dry off."

Olivia doesn't say anything.

He shoots her a glance over his shoulder, and he almost laughs at her stupefied expression. "You doin' your best impression of sleeping beauty this morning??" He sets the knife down and turns around, opening the fridge. He can see Olivia out of the corner of his eyes and she is standing perfectly still. He's positive she's gotta have some shorts on, but her t-shirt is so long that he can't tell. He can't look at her legs. He can't. He's gotta focus on finding the vanilla yogurt in this overstuffed fridge and refrain from ogling her.

A ha.

He grabs the container of yogurt and lets the door slam shut, turning back to the slices of cantaloupe that are now leaking juice all over the countertop. Olivia's legs are still too visible, and unless he keeps his hands occupied, he's going to try and touch her again.

She hasn't moved.

He's gonna give her a second because she just isn't a morning person. Maybe she had too much tequila last night and she's hung over. Or maybe - maybe she regrets how much she let him touch her.

That stops him. He stops separating the cantaloupe from its skin and drops the knife onto the cutting board. He exhales, and tells himself to calm down. That can't be why Olivia is dead silent. She can't be thinking of ways to tell him that she's gonna leave today and -

"You went for a swim?"

Her voice is extraordinarily quiet and suddenly the music is too loud. Elliot grabs a dish towel and dries his hands, trying to regain his composure before he looks at her. He can't get angry if she tells him she's going back to the city. Getting angry isn't going to accomplish anything.

Elliot turns, and lets his lower back rest against the edge of the counter. He tosses the towel next to the cutting board and finally looks up at Olivia, straight at her.

She seems frozen, and she's staring at him.

He does nothing but answer her question. "Yeah."

Olivia nods and then her gaze fall away. In seconds though she's back, searching his face again. And then Elliot sees it, the nearly imperceptible way that she chances a glance lower only to immediately whip her eyes back up to meet his.

She looks guilty. Guilty. In fact she looks so damned guilty that she seems to almost flush, and in her nervousness she sucks her lower lip into her mouth.

Because God still takes mercy on him every now and then, Elliot gets it immediately. He hadn't thought twice about it, but now he realizes how it looks. He'd come out of the water and walked up to the patio before grabbing his towel and wrapping it around his waist. At this very moment, Olivia doesn't know if he's got anything on beneath the towel, and instead of walking away or ignoring it altogether, she's standing there. Unmoving.

She does it again then. Only this time it's slower, almost as if she is fighting it. Her gaze drops and he can practically feel her eyes on his neck, his chest, his abs. And then Olivia looks right at the knot of his towel and if he didn't want to keep her here so badly, he'd laugh out loud and call her on it.

She catches herself again and this time she whips her gaze back up and locks eyes with him so fast that he can palpably feel her absolute immediate panic at having been caught.

It's her expression that makes him feel just a little bit arrogant. When she looks at him like this, he doesn't feel the places where he's got scars. He doesn't think she sees the faint knife lines that form thin white trails across his chest and stomach. His left shoulder and arm have small puckers from bullet wounds and his right shoulder still has a tiny indentation from where he was once stabbed by a scared kid. His elbow bears the evidence of once having been fractured, his arm was once sliced open and his knuckles are misshapen. But the way Olivia is looking at him, with arousal instead of disgust - it makes him forget that he is battered from the ugliness. He doesn't feel the need to cover up around her just to save her from the reminders of who he has been. Who he still is.

The humid air has an electrical charge to it, as if the pending storm has inhabited the space around them, even before it rolls in.

The music is grating on their brand of silence.

He can't even describe how he feels about her right now. Olivia's classically beautiful face is devoid of makeup and her hair is long enough that she has it tucked behind her ear. The moisture in the air has made the strands curl a bit, and he's itching to know how those waves feel in his hands.

"Hungry?" he asks quietly, trying to break the stand-off.

Olivia smiles just a little bit at that, and he watches as the heat slips into her irises. Even though he knows she's trying like hell to ignore the thrumming chemistry between them, she's still feeling it. "Yeah."

He's got to move, or the evidence of his very real need to get his hands sliding up under her shirt is going to be evident to both of them. Everything around him feels slower, as if a barometer in the room has registered an intensification of the air pressure. The music feels like it's coming from far away.

There is no breeze in the room at all. He is so attuned to every movement around him that he feels like he can hear the hiss of the dragonflies that settle in the brush just past the patio.

Elliot turns and picks out one of the pieces of cantaloupe that he's cut away from the skin. He dips it into the open yogurt container and pulls it out, cupping beneath the now coated piece of fruit with his other hand. "Here." He moves closer to her, making no jarring moves.

He wonders what she's gonna do. By her expression, she seems to be wondering too.

And then Olivia catches his gaze and doesn't let go. She steps closer to him and when he holds the piece of fruit out to her, she doesn't reach for it. Instead she lets the smile form slowly. "You sure this combination isn't utterly disgusting?" Her voice is sweet, thick molasses, husky almost.

He has no idea who has the upper hand anymore. He's aching. Fucking aching for her. He knows far too much about how Olivia moves, and too little about how she would move on him. Beneath him.

"You'll like it," he says quietly. A drop of the yogurt drips off of the melon and into his palm.

The ocean is loud now. Just minutes ago he was out there, his body cold, his blood free-flowing. Only now everything has stopped. He'd think even time had paused, but he can hear the echoing ticks of the grandfather clock that sits in the corner of the living room.

Olivia steps closer, and nothing has ever been as sexy as just the way she looks at him. She tips up her chin and by some miracle he's not already all over her. By some miracle he doesn't already have her body up against the refrigerator, trapped between the door and him. By some miracle he lifts the piece of fruit to her mouth.

When her lips close around it and take a bite, Elliot feels the drops of juice slip down his fingers, but he doesn't pay any attention to it. Instead his focus is on Olivia. Even when her eyes slip closed as she moans just a little in appreciation of the perfectly ripe bite, he keeps his own wide open.

He watches her. Every movement. He notices the unintentional way the tip of her tongue darts out and over her lower lip and he notices the way she sways on her feet just a little bit.

This is when a man should die, he thinks.

Every man should die in the moment after he's been shown all he needs to know about living.

+ + +

It's amazing that she can feel paralyzed in the exact same moment that she can feel every inch of her skin come alive.

I'm through the looking glass here, Liv.

He'd once said that to her. Olivia remembers how she had been ready to walk away from him, so irritated by his choices with regards to Kathleen's future yet knowing she had no say in the matter. He'd stopped her with those words. It had hit home for her then how instantly people could be thrown off their axis. How the world could be completely transformed from one moment to the next.

She feels like that right now. Like she's through the looking glass and she has absolutely no idea what to do. Attraction to Elliot has always been the greatest taboo. He's married, he's married, he's married. She's said it a thousand times to herself, even when he had been separated. She'd said it even when she didn't know why the hell she was saying it. Why the hell she needed the reminder.

Only now he's not married. He's her partner - so it's still taboo - but absolutely, positively nothing is registering in her head right now except for the fact that Elliot is feeding her fruit while standing half-naked and still wet in front of her. She's dated dozens of men, but none of them looked like Elliot. Even if he had no other advantage outside of his physical appearance, he'd knock every blind date she'd ever been on out of the park. If anything, he's gotten more muscular since she'd last seen him. His skin isn't perfect - he's got scars everywhere that bisect his muscles - but she almost feels like those are her marks on him. He earned those scars because of their joined history and it's irrational but it makes her feel ownership over him.

Olivia wants to touch him. Even as she forces herself to swallow the sweet fruit, she can't think past what is right in front of her. Who is right in front of her. Her fingers itch to skim the hollows and shadows that form between the ridges of Elliot's muscles. She wants to use her palms to shape his skin, and the light scrape of her fingernail to trace his tattoos. The dips in his shoulders still seem to hold the slightest bit of salt water and she wants to taste it. Taste him. His skin. She catches herself just before she moans. She's thirsty, she thinks. It's sweltering in here. Sweltering.

She closes her eyes and grips the doorframe, not quite steady on her feet. The words this is wrong keep on a loop in her brain, but her body isn't listening. She thinks that by simply closing her eyes that she'll get some control but then the air around her intensifies.

"It's good, right?" Elliot rumbles in her ear.

Somewhere over the last twelve years she has to have shut down completely as a woman, because there is no other explanation for how she lasted this long without touching him.

Olivia forces her eyes open, and she can't tell if it's the outrageously thick heat or the lack of coffee or him, just him, but she is lightheaded. Elliot is too close to her. So close. And he is wearing a towel for God's sake.

It's just a cotton towel, she reminds herself. Don't look at it. Just don't. She starts conversations in her head about objectification and partners and working relationships but it's all a jumbled mess of nothing. She tells herself that falling into bed with Elliot would be a cliché, that his family - Kathy - would hate her. She tries to picture his kids, to think about how he'd told his wife he loved her just before the accident had happened a few years back. She draws on anything she can to clear her damned head.

But in the end, it's his presence that wins out. He's big. His body is chiseled. He's strong as hell and he moves like he's sure of himself.

He's so close to her that he is practically on her. He's so close that she has to look up at him to see his eyes. Twelve years, she thinks, and Elliot is actually going to kiss her. Her stomach knots and the fear makes her nauseous.

Only he doesn't. He doesn't make a move at all.

Instead the corners of Elliot's lips lift. "You bring a bathin' suit out here?"

Olivia can still taste the remnants of the cantaloupe on her lips. "Yeah." Her voice refuses to work properly. She's not sure if she is disappointed or relieved at the change in direction.

"Good. Go put it on."

While she's seen him in all his male-dominating glory, he's never really directed that attitude towards her unless her safety was involved, so this is new. Elliot seems to know that ordering her around is a good way to get himself injured, so he grins charmingly to get on her good side.

"I'm not going swimming with you," Olivia declares, and it feels good to argue with him a little bit. It cuts the tension, and it occurs to her that they have argued a lot over the years. She doesn't want to explore what that means.

He's a smug jerk. "Why not? It's hot as hell out there."

Olivia lifts her chin. "Unless you're hiding a pool around here, you'd be asking me to go swimming in the ocean."

He narrows his eyes, amused. "Give the woman a badge and call her a detective."

She ignores the slight rise of defense she feels slipping into her shoulders and her lower back. She can feel the knots forming again in her stomach, but in a perverse way it eases her physical reaction to him and gives her room to breathe. He's standing right in front of her, blocking her entrance into the kitchen. "I need coffee, Elliot. Move."

Elliot stands his ground, and the playful look on his face disappears. Now he's too close to her again, and his eyebrows are drawn together as he leans down, searching her face and suddenly serious. "You've never been swimming in the ocean." His voice is low, too self-assured. He states it like she's an open book, and she wants to hit him because it's unnerving to have him read her so easily.

"No. I haven't. And I have no desire to go out there. Now move." This feels like solid ground. She sounds like a cop again, and he can't disarm her when he's being overbearing.

"Why not?"

Olivia feels last night's tequila hit her temples. She's hungry and she needs coffee and now she wants to tell him to put a shirt on because he's too damned naked all the time out here. She looks up at him then and tries to convey all of her irritation in her expression. This isn't a subject she is going to debate with him. She doesn't want to explain to him that the idea of going out there makes her uneasy. She doesn't need for him to think she is weak or afraid of anything.

"Because I've got no desire to swim in polluted water," she says, thinking he can't possibly argue with that.

The music is making her head throb now, and she wishes he'd just turn it off. It's gone from a friendly debate to something deeper, and she doesn't like it. She can tell that Elliot senses that there is something she is hiding, and he's not going to drop it.

"Ocean water is cleaner than a pool filled with chemicals," he states matter-of-factly, shooting down her excuse as if he knows good and well that it is bogus. He's not even hiding his curiosity. "What's the deal, Liv?"

He's still blocking her way into the kitchen and she finally pushes on his shoulder. Elliot gives way immediately and Olivia walks past him then, ignoring the way the taut skin of his bicep brushes against her bare arm. The coffee pot is still on, but the brew is probably hours old judging by the condensation on the inside of the glass pot. She doesn't care. Olivia reaches for a mug and pours some of the liquid, ignoring the way he still stands in the entrance to the kitchen. Only now Elliot is facing her, his back leaning against the molding and his arms folded across his bare chest.

Olivia ignores him. The coffee is bitter, but she takes a long sip of it. She doesn't look at him, instead choosing to stare out the window. The ocean is rumbling today. The waves are curling and crashing closer to the shore, and the white foam is washing onto the sand in tufts. But just beyond the rise of the waves there is a deceptively calm stretch of water. It's that stretch that rises slowly, nearly imperceptibly, pushing water towards land.

"Come out there with me," Elliot presses.

Olivia wraps her palms around the mug, and prays he'll stops pushing it if she doesn't say anything.

She can tell that for him this now has nothing to do with going swimming. Now he wants to know why she won't do it. He thinks she's got some sort of secret and for some reason he's feeling confident enough to push her. Only there is no secret. It's not like she can't swim. It's not like she is hiding some sort of traumatic experience that she once had on the ocean. She just doesn't want to swim in it. There are too many variables out there. She isn't someone who likes to immerse herself in a place where she can't see her feet. She needs to see the bottom, to know how deep the water is.

Olivia wants him to just drop it. Elliot keeps pushing her though, and suddenly his pushiness is not just about this but about everything.

"I'll save you if Jaws comes after you," he jokes, but the tone of his voice makes it clear that he's only trying to cut the silence.

He's relentless.

It's too much then. It's too much change. Like a rubber band that's been stretched past its limitation, she feels herself snap back into place. The staying here with him, the lack of boundaries. The way he'd held her last night and the way he is mercilessly fanning her attraction to him. She's overwhelmed and he's pushing her and clearly being out here this long has changed him. Changed him.

She's afraid to death of changes.

She doesn't say a word and maybe that will make him give up. Her silence usually works with him. He usually gives up. Back in Manhattan he would have given up by now. When she makes it clear something is none of his business, he gets the picture.

At least he used to.

"Olivia, talk to me."

The joking is long gone and Elliot's voice is a thunderous rumble. It makes her think of the storm she's heard is coming in. One minute she thinks she could stay here for days, and the next she thinks she can't endure even a few more seconds.

She says nothing. The coffee sticks in her throat, but she forces herself to just keep drinking it. The beach is empty, but she can already see the seaweed accumulating on the edge of the shore, the sea plants that the pounding surf is churning up and discarding. Abandoning.

Maybe it's just too much togetherness. She's used to being alone and since she arrived here she hasn't had a minute when she hasn't been aware of him.

She's ignored him for so long that now even Elliot is silent. The CD must have finished, because there isn't even any music to buffer the oppressive quiet that hovers between them.

Maybe now he'll walk away. Leave her be.

"You scare the shit out of me," he finally whispers.

It hits her square in her stomach. Hard. It's so raw that she almost wonders if he meant to say it. Olivia looks over her right shoulder and directly at him, and Elliot isn't hiding from her. He's staring at her, and he's laid bare in that moment. She can see the fear in his eyes, and she remembers the last time he'd looked like this. It had been during Kathleen's case, when he'd been sitting on the lower bunk, terrified that he was losing his kid.

My boy plays it pretty close to his vest.

For the second time that morning, she hears Bernadette Stabler's words only this time she thinks his mother is wrong. Elliot is not hiding anything. He's not holding back. He almost sounds like he's confessing. She thinks about him as a little boy - locking up more and more year after year. She thinks about how he contains everything, holds onto his emotions because it's the only thing that feels safe.

Only he's trying right now. He's trying so damned hard. Olivia doesn't know what he's trying so hard for, what has prompted this stark moment of honesty. He only does this when it is absolute necessity. When he is desperate. Sinking.

She grips her mug in front of her with both hands. She is hanging onto it even as she looks at him, unable to pull away from the way he is locked on her.

Elliot doesn't look away. He doesn't blink. "I can't take it when you leave." Rasping. Grating. "And ev'ry time you shut up like that, I think that's it. You're gone again."

It's too much to watch him like this. Olivia's heart is slamming inside of her and she feels like years and years inside of her need to come out. She doesn't know if she wants to yell or cry or scream, but something has to happen. Something. She's suffocating on the inside, and hearing Elliot like this, seeing him like this - it's going to make her break.

She can't let her eyes water in front of him.

"I wasn't the one who left, Elliot." Olivia's voice is soft. She doesn't accuse him. She can't. It hurts too much to even muster up the energy to be angry. She can only think of the way she had readily accepted his abandonment. The way she had - deep down - felt a little bit like it was inevitable, deserved, to be expected. She is who she is, and while she knows she is a damned good cop, she doesn't have much else to give. She's aware of this. She's resigned herself to it.

His eyebrows draw together, and if Elliot has ever seemed fragile it is now. It's a horrifying thing to see a powerful man expose any weakness. "The kinda leavin' I'm talking about has nothing to do with being next to you, Olivia. I've been standing next to you plenty of times when you locked me out. It's when I don't know what the hell you're thinkin' that I'm..." He shakes his head as if warding something away. He scrapes his teeth across his lower lip, chewing on it. He swallows thickly. "I got nothin' to hang onto then."

Olivia can't speak. She's frozen. Inside she's crumbling. She knows too much about his past now to pretend she doesn't understand, even if he still doesn't. He's been locked out before, by a mother who was too sick to offer him any sort of explanations for her actions, any sort of assurances, any sort of stability. At least his mother's illness had been an excuse for why she had mentally retreated all the time. Olivia lives inside of her walls because it's easier. It's what she knows. She doesn't share anything because she doesn't want him to really see her, not like she sees him right now. Maybe she is afraid he will see that she needs too much or can offer too little. There is also the devastating possibility that maybe he will see nothing at all.

Olivia looks at the floor because the way Elliot is just ripping it all open is too visible in his expression. By the time she thinks she might actually be able to speak, she looks up and he's gone.

She flinches when the screen door bangs shut behind him.

And then she's alone in the kitchen, and she feels like she's rocking, teetering, even though she's nowhere near the murky depths of the mutable, unpredictable ocean in which she has never, ever been.

+ + +