The van was his idea. Something mobile - sort of. Something seedy, that did not require him to live cheek by jowl with innocent people who didn't deserve to get caught up in his mess. Somewhere quiet, in the noisiest city in the whole fucking world. Somewhere he could be alone. Bell agreed to let him have it because it was a hell of a lot cheaper than the city dishing out rent on an apartment every month, and she let him park it wherever he wanted. It took a little while to find the perfect spot, but when he did he laughed out loud, thinking about that old Saturday Night Live sketch. The late, great Chris Farley. All the good comedians were dead, Elliot thought.
So he parked the van down by the river, filled it with the bare essentials. Some bottles of water, some clean underwear. It didn't really matter that there was no plumbing; he could piss in the river, shower at the homeless shelter that used to be Sister Peg's and was now Sister Martha's. Sister Martha who remembered him, from before. Sister Martha with her sad eyes and her hair going grey. We're all getting old, he thought, when he looked at her.
He bought a tarp and a couple of poles and an igloo cooler and two plastic chairs from a home repair store, and set to work. It was a little harder than he wanted to admit, but in the end he had an awning, and a place to sit and look out at the water, and he walked himself down to the closest bodega - which wasn't really close at all - and bought a bag of ice and a twelve pack and lugged them all the way back, the ice slowly melting and leaving a sad, wet trail behind him the whole way. It was good, though. It was good because he poured the ice into the cooler and sunk the beer inside it and then plopped down in one of those chairs, and looked out at the water, and for the first time since Kathy died he took a breath.
It was almost peaceful, here. Some lights would have been nice. Some of those Eddison bulbs like the kind they used to decorate hipster restaurants that charged $18 for a burger. Or Christmas lights, but he didn't know where he'd find them in June. It didn't matter, anyway, because there was no way to plug them up; his only source of power was the van's battery, and he couldn't afford to waste the juice on ambiance. Maybe some tiki torches, to keep the fucking mosquitoes away. That might not be too bad.
The sound of the river was all the music he needed; it made him think of Van Morrison, made him think of Into the Mystic, made the song start playing in his head, good as any radio, while he looked out at the lights of the city sparkling over the water, the bridge soaring overhead. There was something deceptively attractive about all this. Just for a moment he could imagine this was his life, hardly any possessions, no responsibilities, just sitting, watching the river rush by, thinking about time, drinking a beer with no one telling him what to do. Just for a moment he could imagine this was his life, and that he liked it this way.
It wasn't his life, though. His life was a fucking shambles, and yeah, maybe he'd run like hell just to get away from it, but he knew, better than most, that it didn't matter how far or how fast or how hard he ran. He'd never outrun himself; you take yourself with you wherever you go, he thought. The ghost of Elliot Stabler hung in the air just over his shoulder, whispering in his ear. What about Eli, what about your children, what about the Wheatley trial, what about your dead wife, dead on account of you going back to the job you promised her once you'd left behind for good, what about Bell who needs you to get this right, what about the morning when you have to go back to work, what about Olivia?
He hadn't called her.
He had her number written on a piece of paper stuffed inside a sock beneath his mattress. Technically, he shouldn't have had it on him at all; what if Kosta's boys decided to ransack his van, pick apart his life? What if they had the means to trace a phone number? They had dirty cops on side, nothing was beyond them, and if they found out that Eddie Ashes had been in contact with an NYPD Captain, god only knew what would happen next. Whatever it was, it wouldn't be good, and Liv had Noah to worry about now, that sweet little boy who was her whole world. It was a risk he couldn't afford to take, getting her mixed up in his shit. He'd never forgive himself, if something happened to her just because he cared about her. There were people out there, people who wanted to hurt him, people who'd have no qualms about using her to do it, and he couldn't put her in the middle of all that. He'd already lost one woman that way, he would be damned if he'd lose another.
Still, though, he hadn't been able to cut himself off from her completely. He kept that phone number close, kept it in the same place where he slept, just in case he ever worked up the nerve to call her. He didn't, but he thought about her often. Maybe he ought to have warned her that he was going under, that it would be a while before he saw her again, but he'd balked at the prospect because he knew, he knew, that she'd tell him not to do it. That she'd tell him his family needed him, that she'd say his head still wasn't right and going under would only make things worse. He knew she'd look at him with those big eyes, dark and sad, look at him like he was broken, somehow, helpless, somehow, like he was just another victim she needed to save, and that was the last goddamn thing he wanted. He didn't want to be another burden she had to carry, he didn't want her fucking pity. It was easier just to go. Easier just to imagine that he was doing her a favor, letting her get on with her life.
She'd done pretty well for herself, while he was gone. Made Captain, had a child, built a squad that revered and adored her, cultivated a reputation she could be proud of. All the anger and the violence and the fear and the grief that had been their life together, she'd put it behind her, and he didn't want to drag her under, didn't want her drowning right beside him. Surely she'd be happier, he thought, without him. Surely she'd be better off. Surely he owed her this.
You owe her a fucking phone call, the ghost of his conscience whispered to him. He'd walked out on her without a word, once, and he knew how deeply that had hurt her and he knew what he was risking, doing it again. There was every chance that by the time this thing was through she'd be through with him. Every chance she'd never want to see him again.
Maybe he deserved that.
The days turned into weeks turned into months, and Reggie - who was actually kind of an okay guy - started to trust Eddie Ashes, and things were going good. Too good; one night in August he came home and found Kosta and several of his boys tearing the van apart, the way he'd always feared they would. Shoulda seen this coming, he thought as he walked slowly towards his temporary refuge, watched them tossing his dirty laundry out into the grass, flipping over his cooler. Eddie and Reggie, they'd started the ball rolling on a chain of events that were gonna change the course of history for the Kosta organization, and Kosta, he'd been suspicious, and it was no wonder he wanted to know who he was dealing with. Just be calm, Elliot told himself. Breathe.
His hands were starting to shake, so he tucked them in his pockets.
"Evening, gentlemen!" he called out, not wanting to sneak up on a bunch of Albanian mobsters he knew would be armed to the teeth.
Kosta himself came walking out of the van, and two of his boys flanked him while two more continued to tear apart Eddie's life, searching for something, anything, that would make them believe he wasn't who he said he was.
"Eddie," Kosta said coolly. "It's about time. I don't like to be kept waiting."
"Sorry, boss," Elliot said, making a show of contrition. "Had to get something to eat."
"That's good," Kosta told him. "A man's gotta eat, gotta keep his strength up."
The way this guy talked made Elliot's skin crawl, but he tried to keep his eyes downcast like he'd been taught, and tried not to stare at the men wreaking havoc on his van. Chances were good that he was gonna get through this unscathed; in the jumble of possessions inside the van there was only one piece of Elliot Stabler there to give him away. Just that phone number, tucked away under his bed. But surely, he thought, they wouldn't find it. All they'd find was a sock, and they wouldn't look too closely at it.
"Can I help you find something there, boss?" Elliot asked, trying to play it cool.
Kosta frowned. Maybe he thought Eddie was being glib. Maybe he thought Eddie wasn't showing him the proper respect, the proper fear. Maybe he was thinking about shooting him right there.
This is going well, Elliot thought grimly.
"Hey, boss!" one of the men called from inside the van. "Got something!"
There's no way, Elliot tried to tell himself. There's no way-
The man emerged, holding a slip of paper in his hand, and Elliot's heart sank. Reggie's mother said his grounds were full of misfortune and Elliot was starting to think she'd been right about that.
"Found it in a sock, under the mattress."
"A strange place to keep a phone number," Kosta mused darkly, taking the slip of paper and examining it closely. "Why keep it there, unless you don't want it to be found?"
Elliot didn't answer; he couldn't.
"Who would be so important to you? So important you gotta have their number but you gotta keep it hidden?" Kosta continued. "Another boss, maybe? A cop? You informing on us, Eddie?" In the darkness his eyes were black and flat, like a shark, circling his prey.
"No, sir," Elliot said as evenly as he could manage. He had to come up with an explanation, and fast. Something they'd believe, something he could remember, something that would stop them looking up that number for themselves, and finding out just who it belonged to. If they connected him to Liv...shit, everything would go up in flames.
"It's my girl," he said. "Well, she used to be my girl, before I went upstate. She didn't wait for me. I been meaning to call her since I got back, but…"
Reggie's mother had seen the truth in the grounds. She wants to know why you don't tell her how you feel...the person that you love. Reggie's mother had told him that there was something he didn't know about his friend Eddie, about Eddie's heart. Maybe, Elliot thought, maybe Reggie had mentioned it to Kosta. Maybe Kosta knew that Eddie Ashes had a woman out there somewhere. Maybe he'd believe what he'd been told, about the phone number. Then again, maybe Elliot was fucked.
"Maybe you should call her," Kosta said. "Maybe you should have her come meet your new friends for a drink. Maybe you should do it on speaker, so we can all hear." This last he had added with a grim smile, and the boys behind him tightened their grips on their guns, watching. There was no maybe about it; Kosta had just delivered an order, and Elliot had no choice but to do as he'd been told.
Kosta held out the slip of paper to him, and Elliot took it, his heart pounding like mad in his chest.
Most of the time when Liv answered the phone, she said Benson. Identified herself by her last name, the old habit of a long-time cop. If she did that now, they'd be suspicious. Who else but a cop would answer the phone that way? What if she called him Elliot? He'd have to find some way to clue her in, and fast, some code that wouldn't alert the five men currently staring at him with guns in their hands. There was no fucking time; Kosta was watching him expectantly, and the seconds were slipping by. If he tried to make a run for it they'd shoot him. If Liv called him Elliot they'd shoot him. If he didn't do this, they'd shoot him.
He pulled the burner phone from his pocket, dialed the number on the slip of paper, and hit the speaker button, and the sound of the phone ringing filled the still air.
Don't pick up, he prayed. She'd ignored his calls enough times for him to know her voicemail off by heart; you've reached Olivia Benson, please leave a message. Short and sweet, nothing to identify her as a cop. But shit, if that happened, all they'd have to do was google her name, and they'd find out exactly who she was, and that would be worse, wouldn't it? If they knew who she was they could go after her, and -
The sound of her voice made him jump. Throaty and warm and just a little bit harried, she hadn't given her last name, and he thanked god for small mercies. The corner of Kosta's mouth lifted into an ugly smile.
"Hey, baby," he said into the phone. "It's me."
Maybe that would be enough. Hearing his voice for the first time in three months, hearing him call her baby, maybe she'd know. Realize that he was in trouble, that he couldn't talk freely. Jesus, he thought, please let her hear-
"Where the fuck have you been?" she asked after a long pause, and Elliot breathed a sigh of relief. Good girl, he thought. She was asking for herself, he knew, asking why he'd just up and left her without a word, why he was calling her now, what kinda mess he was in, but she'd done it in just the right way. She sounded like a put-upon ex-wife, and Kosta was looking at the phone thoughtfully, like maybe he was buying it. It's a good start, Elliot thought. We just gotta keep this going.
"Listen, I'm sorry, I been working," he said. "But I miss you. I wanna see you."
"Do you know what time it is?" she fired back. It was late, late enough that she was probably at home, with Noah, with no one else to watch him while she went gallivanting off into the night to save Elliot's ass. He wouldn't blame her if she didn't come; he'd walked away from her too many times now and he couldn't expect her to just show up every time he called. Not any more.
"It's not too late for a drink," he said. "Come out with me, meet some of the boys."
That ought to be enough. Enough to tell her that he wasn't alone, that something was going down, that he needed her. Just hear me, he thought. Please. If he could have seen her face it would have been easier; if he could only look into her eyes he was certain he would have been able to tell her everything she needed to know. It had always been like that, with her. One look and he knew, and she knew, and they'd be solid, good, moving forward together, but he couldn't see her eyes, just now, couldn't do anything but offer her these words and pray she'd hear the meaning underneath.
"What if I don't wanna meet your boys?" He couldn't tell if she was playing with him or not. Maybe she was just asking him if he really did need her to do this; maybe she was just trying to figure out how desperate he was.
"Come on, baby," he said, letting his tone take on a wheedling note, hoping she'd hear the desperation there. "Please?"
"Fine," she said. Message received; she knew this was serious, knew he needed his partner, and she was willing to step once more into the fray for his sake. Relief flooded through him; they'd made it over the first hurdle.
"Maybe I'll bring some of my girlfriends," she added. It sounded almost teasing, but Elliot knew better. That light tone was a piece of performance art for the sake of the men listening in, but her words were her way of asking him if they'd need back up, if she ought to bring a few of her people along, if this was gonna turn into a shootout.
"No, just you. I'll take care of you, baby." And he would, he swore to god he would; whatever happened tonight, he wasn't gonna let anybody hurt her. As long as he drew breath, he'd never let anybody hurt her again. This was just a meet, a chance to convince Kosta that Eddie Ashes was legit, and if they played their cards right there'd be no need for guns and backup. Just the two of them, working together, that ought to be enough.
"Wear something nice for me," he continued. She couldn't turn up in a suit; that would only raise questions. He wasn't sure if Liv owned any clothes that would make her look like a mobster's pissed off ex, but surely she still had a leather jacket hanging in the back of her closet.
"You're a son of a bitch, you know that?" she grumbled, but it was half-hearted at best. She'd heard him. She knew what was coming. She was willing to do it anyway. Why, he couldn't say; he didn't deserve it, not after all the shit he'd put her through. When he needed her she was willing to show up for him; how many times had she needed him, and he was nowhere to be found?
"You like that about me," he said.
"I really don't. Where am I meeting you?"
Elliot looked to Kosta, who quietly told him the name of a bar, and he relayed that information to Liv.
"I'll be there in an hour," she said. "Think you can stay sober that long?"
"Yeah, that's perfect. I'll see you then."
"You will," she said, and then he disconnected the call. All he could do now was hope that Kosta bought the lies he'd just been sold. All he could do was pray that he and Liv could keep this ruse up just long enough to save both their lives.
"It's been an hour, Eddie," Kosta said as they stood together outside the shitty bar, waiting for Olivia to turn up.
"She'll be here," Elliot said. She would be. He knew she would be. Olivia would come to him when he needed her, nevermind the danger, nevermind the cost, because she was his partner, and no matter how many times he forgot that, no matter how many times he did her wrong, she had always been a better person than him, and she'd never leave him behind.
"Reggie's mother, she says your grounds were full of misfortune," Kosta said.
"You believe that stuff?"
Kosta scoffed. "The superstitions of old women," he said. "The grime at the bottom of a coffee cup can't tell you shit about what's in a man's heart. His eyes can, though. You were afraid, when you were talking to your woman. You worried we're gonna hurt her, Eddie?"
"No, boss," Elliot said. "I don't think you'd do that to a woman. It's not you I'm afraid of. It's her."
That made Kosta laugh. "I wanna meet the woman who scares Eddie Ashes," he said.
And in a moment he got his wish; a yellow cab pulled up to the curb, and then she was stepping out of it, and Elliot's heart rocketed up into his throat. It was smart, taking a cab; if she'd brought her own car maybe they'd run the plates, find out who she was. Maybe they'd put a tracker on it while she was inside drinking. A cab was anonymous, and harder to trace. But Jesus, he'd told her to wear something nice, and she had taken the brief and run with it. She hadn't chosen something Liv would think was nice, some expensive black dress, high heels, hair pulled back. She'd heard the rough tone he was using, heard the name of the bar where he wanted to meet, and made up her mind about what his boys would think was nice.
Tight, dark jeans, tucked into a pair of black boots, showing off the line of her thighs, the swell of her ass, the curve of her hip, in a way that made his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth. A black blouse, silky and loose, cut low, too low, over her breasts, showing off more of her cleavage than he'd ever seen in his life - with the exception of that night when he'd been undercover and she'd come prancing out of the bathroom in just her bra and he'd damn near swallowed his tongue - a golden necklace with a sparkling pendant hanging low, nestled right in the soft crevice between her tits, drawing the eye there. Her dark hair loose, hanging in soft waves around her face, framing it so well he couldn't help but stare. She looked good, like this. She looked confident, and a little hard, and sexy as hell, and it took him a second to remember what he was doing there, standing on that sidewalk. Just a second, though, because then her dark eyes caught his, and she raised her eyebrow at him, and he was moving at once, reminded of their purpose in that place.
"There's my girl," he said, stepping up to meet her. He slid one arm low around her waist, drew her in close and leaned in to press his lips to hers, but she turned her head, let his mouth settle on her cheek, the perfect picture of a resentful former lover, willing to meet him but not willing to give him all of herself. It came to her too easy, and he tried not to let that get to him, tried not to think about how he'd wronged her, again. They had a job to do, tonight. The rest could wait.
"You gonna introduce me to your friend?" she asked him, and he swung around to her side, kept his arm around her, his hand curled around her hip. Maybe that would look possessive, to Kosta. It was only desperation, though; he was drowning, and he needed something to hold on to, and there was nothing in his world steadier than her.
"I'm Joe," Kosta introduced himself glibly, holding out his hand to her. "I wanted to meet this woman Eddie's been telling me so much about."
Thank God for that, Elliot thought, because now Liv would know what to call him, and that made one less thing for him to have to worry about.
"You been talking about me, Eddie?" she said to him coolly. She wanted to know. How much he'd told them, how much backstory he'd already built, what part she was gonna have to play.
"Only good things," he said. "Joe, this is Lorraine," Elliot continued, supplying a name for Liv before Kosta had the chance to ask. "My wife."
"Ex-wife," she corrected him, and he couldn't help but grin. She'd known. Somehow, she'd known already exactly how he wanted to play this. She always knew; one look, and she knew, and she was always perfect, and Jesus, he didn't deserve her.
"Come inside, Lorraine. Let's have a drink and get to know each other better, yeah?" Kosta gestured towards the bar, and Liv smiled, and Elliot tried to remind himself to breathe as they all went in together.
There was no reason for it, the calm that settled over him as they crammed themselves into a sticky booth, as he ordered two glasses of bourbon for him and Liv, as Kosta watched them across the table. He should have been coming out of his skin, but Liv's left hand was resting on his thigh, and his arm was wrapped around her shoulders, and they were close, and warm, and it felt good, having her next to him again. The brush of her hair against him when she turned her head, the warm wash of her voice, the sight of her fingers wrapped delicately around a glass; he could do anything, take on any challenge, conquer the whole fucking world, as long as she was with him.
"What do you do for a living, Lorraine?" Kosta asked her as they sat together. His eyes were dark, and watchful, a hawk circling its prey, but Liv made a good show of ease, gave no sign that she was uncomfortable, though she surely must have been.
They hadn't talked about this, about the character they were inventing together out of whole cloth; sure, Elliot hadn't told Kosta anything about Lorraine, but Liv didn't know that. She'd have to be asking herself right now what sort of story Elliot would have told, if forced. What he would have said about her, what sort of wife he would have invented for Eddie, what sort of woman he'd think she could be, if she wasn't herself.
"I'm a nurse," she said, and Elliot had to close his eyes, just for a second, had to take a breath, and remind himself where he was.
Kathy had been a nurse. Olivia had been given a split second to decide what career Elliot would have chosen for his ex-wife, and she'd settled on nurse. The key to a good lie was to stick as close to the truth as possible, not to embellish overmuch. A lie too complicated was hard to remember, and easy to disprove. This lie, it came too easy. It came easy, and it came easy because she knew him, better than anyone else in the world. She knew him, and he'd walked away from her, again, and then dragged her into danger, and shit. She deserved better than this. Better than him.
"A nurse," Kosta repeated. It sounded like he was buying it.
Please let him buy it.
"A respectable profession for a woman," he continued approvingly.
Liv raised her glass to him in acknowledgment of the praise, and took a long sip.
"How did a nice girl like you get mixed up with a troublemaker like Eddie, huh?" The smile Kosta offered her was all teeth, but Liv didn't blanch; she wasn't afraid of him. Elliot was pretty sure she wasn't afraid of anything.
"We met when we were kids. Catholic school," she said, and Elliot tried not to flinch. It was not their story Olivia had chosen to tell; she was telling Kathy and Elliot's story. A story they both knew off by heart. A story they wouldn't have to invent details for. A story that belonged to him, and not to her. She couldn't tell their story, couldn't talk about work, and bloodshed, and bullets. Couldn't talk about her mother, or her brother, couldn't talk about Oregon, or a childkiller with a gun held to her man's head. She couldn't talk about the death of a teenager, couldn't talk about kneeling with Sister Peg's blood on her hands and looking at her man with horror in her eyes because she knew the whole goddamn world had come to an end right there and then. Their story was littered with bodies and grief, but Elliot and Kathy's story was softer - at least it was until the end - and it was the safer one to tell. Some secrets were meant to be kept hidden.
"He was sweet back then," she added, shooting him a dark look.
"I'm still sweet," Elliot murmured, leaning in to let his forehead rest against her temple.
I'm sorry, he thought, wondering if she could hear him. I'm sorry.
"I know, baby," she said, very softly. Maybe she could hear him, after all.
"She's a heartbreaker, Eddie," Kosta said, watching them, and Elliot pulled back from her slowly, tried to focus on the job in front of him. He needed to keep the boss happy; whatever was going on between him and Liv, he'd have to push it out of his mind, at least for a little while.
"You don't know the half of it," he said ruefully. He was thinking about Liv leaving him for computer crimes, Liv leaving him for Oregon, Liv calling him a son of a bitch in the middle of the station, Liv and her men, Liv always walking away from him, and him just stuck, having to let her go. She'd broken his heart a hundred times, but he'd broken hers right back, and maybe that just proved they were meant for each other, because nobody else would put up with shit like that from them. Even Kathy, she'd left him once, and would have stayed gone, probably, if he hadn't knocked her up, and tried to leave him a few more times after that, though he'd always managed to convince her to stay. Maybe he should have just let her go. Maybe he should have known that he didn't deserve someone as good as her.
"You're one to talk," Liv said sharply. "You're the son of a bitch who left."
This would be good, for their cover. Revive an old argument, make it plain that despite the affection they'd been displaying for one another there were still old grievances keeping them apart. It would jive with what Reggie's mother had told him, and it would jive with what Eddie had told Kosta himself. It would look real, he thought. It would look real because it was.
"I got picked up," he said through clenched teeth. "You think I wanted that to happen?"
You think I wanted to kill that girl? You think I wanted to walk away from you?
Eddie's story was that he'd gone to prison. Elliot's story was that he'd gone to Rome. Maybe they weren't so different. Rome was prettier, sure, but he hadn't been free, there. Hadn't been home. He'd been locked up a world away from his own life, and he'd tried to find happiness there, knew that Kathy had, but beneath the Italian sunshine his heart yearned for the frost of a New York winter, and withered.
"I tried to reach you, and you wouldn't answer me. What was I supposed to think?"
She'd called him. She'd called him so many times she'd filled up his fucking voicemail. She'd called, and he'd never answered. One word from her would have sent the whole thing tumbling; one word from her and his whole life would have been wrecked and at the time he'd thought he was doing them both a favor, but now he wasn't so sure.
"I was trying to keep you clean," he said.
That would be good for Eddie. If Kosta knew Eddie wanted to keep his girl out of the life, he wouldn't be worried about pillow talk and Eddie letting secrets slip to her. If Kosta knew that Eddie's girl still resented him, he wouldn't be worried about her turning up places she shouldn't have been. But Elliot didn't say it for Kosta's sake, or for Eddie's, didn't speak those words for the sake of the lies he had to tell; he said it for Liv, because she needed to hear it. When he'd left, after Jenna, he'd chosen to go because he knew his own life was wrecked and he didn't want to do the same to Liv. And when he'd gone under without calling her, he'd done it because he knew he was about to get dirty, and the last thing he wanted was to bring that shit to her door. She ought to have been clean. She ought to be free of the stain of him. She needed to know he had his reasons, that he hadn't done it because he didn't care. Truth was, he'd avoided calling her because he cared too damn much, and he couldn't bear to see her hurt.
But she looked at him, now, looked at him with dark eyes full of accusation, and he saw how stupid he'd been, because whatever he wanted, whatever he'd intended, he'd hurt her just the same. And Liv, Liv was tough as hell and unafraid, and it was the damage to her hurt that hit her hardest. She'd take a beating over a leaving any day.
Liv hummed, and Kosta smiled, and they kept right on playing their game until they'd finished their drinks and the boss seemed satisfied.
"It was a pleasure, Lorraine," he said, reaching out across the table to take her hand in both of his. "You take care of yourself, yes?"
"I will," she answered. And of course she would. Liv always took care of herself, because no one else was gonna.
"Eddie," Kosta said, giving him a little nod, and then he slid out of the booth, and walked out of the bar with a few of his goons falling into step behind him, moving quietly as shadows out into the night. Elliot watched them go, frowning; three of the boys had gone with him, but two lingered by the bar. They weren't out of the woods yet.
"I'm gonna call it a night, Eddie," Liv told him. She nudged at him; he'd have to slide out of the booth before she could.
"Lemme walk you out," he said.
And so he did; he rose to his feet, offered her his hand and watched her refused to take it and swallowed back against the surge of guilt that filled him at that rejection. He deserved it, he knew. He'd dragged out of her comfortable home, away from her son, put her in the line of fire in an operation she didn't know a damn thing about, and she didn't know they were still being observed, maybe thought the time had come to drop the act and give him the ass-chewing of his life. Whatever she had to say to him he wanted to hear it, but they weren't in the clear, yet, so when she started to walk away he caught up with her, slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her in close, didn't give her a chance to distance herself from him. He waited until they stepped out into the night to turn to her, to press his forehead against her, his lips close to her ear.
"We got company," he said, very softly. "If you go home now, they might follow you."
Liv shifted against him, turned so that she was looking up at him, wrapped her arms around his middle and made a show of teasing him, but he knew what she was doing. She was trying to get a look at their tails, trying to suss out which of those men were paying too much attention to the couple standing together on the sidewalk.
"Where do you suggest we go instead?" she asked him.
"Come back to my place," he told her. "We can have a few beers. We can just talk."
And maybe they'll get bored of watching us, maybe they'll just leave, and then Liv can go home in peace and forget this ever happened.
It was a slim chance, but it was all the hope he had, at present.
"Lead the way," she told him, and so he did.
"You really know how to show a girl a good time," she told him, grinning, as they shuffled through the little path that ran from the road down to Elliot's fan, squeezing through stubby bushes and crunching dried leaves and old cigarette butts and god only knew what else beneath their boots.
"Only the best for you," he said, grunting. It was hard enough to navigate through the scrub on his own, but he was carrying the ice and the beers, too, and she hadn't offered to help and he wasn't about to ask her. She'd helped him enough, tonight.
"Jesus, Elliot," she swore, stopping short when she caught sight of the van.
It was broadside, from here, backlit by the city, the river ghosting along silently behind it, grim and dirty and not at all inviting. He knew what it looked like; depressing as all hell, that's what it was. He'd just signed a lease on a bright new apartment and it was sitting empty, now, while he chose to live instead in a glorified dumpster, far from everyone he loved, cut off and lonesome. Through her eyes, it must have looked like desperation. Maybe it was. Maybe he'd been so fucking desperate to hide from his mistakes, to do something that felt meaningful and distracted him from the disaster of his own life that he'd run all the way here just to escape himself. Maybe if he hadn't seen her tonight he would have kept right on running, but something about having her near made him want to stop. It made him want to breathe in this moment, this woman, the familiar warmth of her friendship. It made him want to be himself, for the first time in a long time.
"Not as bad as it looks," he said. "C'mere, lemme show you something."
Kosta had let him clean up, a little, before they left for the bar, and he'd put the cooler back between the chairs on the river side of the van, and that was where he led her, now, to a place where two chairs sat facing the water with the cooler in between them. He dumped the ice and the beer into the igloo, then popped the tops off two of the bottles. He tucked the caps in his pocket; somehow he didn't think Liv would approve of him chucking them in the river.
"Take a load off," he said, and so they did, each of them taking a chair, clinking the bottles together before taking a long sip, letting the quiet settle heavily on their shoulders. Oh, they could hear the rushing of cars on the road behind them, could hear the distant sound of sirens, the sluggish wash of the current against the shore, but Elliot figured he felt the same way about the lullaby of the city that people in other places felt about the hum of cicadas in the trees. It sounded like home.
"It's actually kinda nice," Liv said after a while, stretching her long legs out in front of her. "Can't remember the last time I just sat and looked at the water."
She was like him, he knew. Her life was too goddamn loud, and there was never any peace, never a chance to catch a breath, never a moment to sit, and reflect. One crisis after another, the hits just kept on coming, waves rolling and rolling and rolling and she'd no sooner crested one than another came to take its place, came to buffet her against the rocks once more. Don't you ever get tired of swimming, Olivia? He wanted to ask her. Don't you just wanna let the water take you, sometimes? Maybe that's what he'd done, coming here, walking away from his life, from his family, from her. Maybe he'd given up, and sunk beneath the waves, and let the current wash him out to sea. Maybe that wasn't the worst thing that could happen.
"I'm still pissed at you," she told him when he didn't speak. She wasn't looking at him, was instead addressing her grievances to the river, letting the water bear them downstream, carrying them out to the vast grey of the Atlantic, never to be seen again. "I'm so fucking pissed at you, Elliot."
I can take it, he thought, looking at her. Looking at the city lights throwing shadows across her skin, looking at that necklace lost between her tits, looking at the tight set of her jaw, the line of her legs, just looking, the same way she was looking at the water, indulging in a quiet beauty he'd too long denied himself. Whatever she had to throw at him, whatever accusation, whatever rage, whatever disdain, he wanted her to let it loose. He was stronger now than he had been, before, and he knew he deserved every bit of it, and he wanted her to let him have it, because the only way she would be willing to unload on him was if she trusted that he was strong enough not to shatter under her. She wouldn't kick him when he was down, had swallowed her own fury for the sake of his grief for so long now, but he wanted her to see that the time for holding back had passed them by. He wasn't crumbling, any more.
"But I had fun with you, tonight." She wasn't quite smiling, sounded almost rueful, but she wasn't yelling at him, either. Maybe he wouldn't get her anger, now. Maybe she'd save it for later. Maybe that was better. She'd know; she always knew, what was best, what was needed. He'd follow where she led.
"Yeah," he said. "Me, too."
It's like the old days. The two of you together. Always so in sync.
There was never gonna be a day when that didn't hurt, he knew. There was never gonna be a day when the thought of Kathy didn't stab him like a knife. There was never gonna be a day when the memory of her didn't wreck him, because she had been the center of his life for as long as he could remember, because she had been good, and he had tainted her, and his love had killed her. She'd deserved better than his love but she'd taken it anyway, and clung to it, and that love had burned her to ashes, and left her dead and gone. A life, a whole life, snuffed out, as payment for Elliot's sins. Blameless, and dead, Kathy haunted him, and always would. He'd made room in his heart for her ghost now, though.
"What are you doing here, El?" Liv asked him softly.
That was the question, wasn't it? Why he'd taken this assignment, why he'd just left her, why he was here, sitting in a shitty half-broke plastic chair by a river that smelled faintly of sewage, why he was sleeping on a lumpy mattress in a converted van instead of in the apartment he'd promised her he was looking for. Why he'd left, and why he'd only called her when he needed something.
"When Kathy died," he said, and it still tasted like ashes in his mouth, that word died, but he wasn't gonna let himself be afraid of it, any more. Everyone died. Everyone, everything, always; there was no life without death, and he wasn't gonna pretend like he didn't know that. Liv knew that. Liv wouldn't be afraid of it, either. "Going after Wheatley gave me purpose. It gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It made me feel like I was doing something, like my life...like I was here for a reason."
"Your kids didn't do that for you?" she asked him. A little sharp, a little angry, a little disapproving, like maybe she thought he was just being selfish. Maybe she was right.
"I'm not sure I'm good for them, Liv," he said honestly. "I'm not sure I ever have been. Maureen and Dickie and Lizzie and Kathleen, they're grown. They've found their feet. They don't need as much parenting as they used to. And Eli...Mo and Carl are taking better care of him than I could. And right after we lost Kathy, I wasn't doing anything but hurting them. Every time I looked at them I remembered I was the reason they lost their mom."
She was gonna tell him it wasn't his fault, but he wasn't about to hear that, not from her. It was his fault; he hadn't pulled the trigger, but if he had just settled into a quiet retirement with his NYPD pension and the money he'd saved up doing the private contracting work, if he hadn't taken the liaison job, if he hadn't gone digging around in Wheatley's work in Puglia, if he'd just settled, it never would have happened. If he had been a better man, a better husband, Kathy would still be alive. If he'd been able to let go of his past and the longing he'd felt for the rush of the job, he wouldn't be sitting here next to Liv, and Kathy wouldn't be in the ground. He didn't want to hear Olivia tell him it wasn't his fault; he didn't want to hear her lie. So instead he bulled ahead, kept trying to explain himself to her.
"So I worked. Maybe too much, I don't know. You'd say I was working too much."
Her lips quirked up, wry and knowing, and she didn't contradict him.
"But then we caught him. We saved Angela, Morales went down, and it was over. And there was just this great big silent hole right in the middle of my life."
No wife, no job, no reason to keep going. There'd been a whole lot of nothing, after that.
"I need something to do, Liv. You know how it is."
She would know, he thought. She'd know, because he'd been gone ten long years and she was right where he left her, in the trenches, still slogging it out, day after day, still fighting like hell and spending more time at the station than at home. She'd understand the need he felt to keep himself busy, because she was never still, either. In the quiet, in the stillness, all the ghosts came walking, and she wouldn't want to face them any more than he did. She still wasn't willing to forgive him for it, though.
"So you picked this? Jesus, El, you could just get a fucking dog."
"Look, it's not forever, Liv-"
"No, it's just until the next time. There's always another case. I know you know that. You gonna take the next one? And the next? You gonna keep hiding yourself away in someone else's life? Going UC changes people. You stay under too long, and…"
She trailed off, like she'd just realized maybe she'd said too much. Like she'd drawn close to a revelation she didn't wanna make, and decided silence would be better than revealing her vulnerability. That made him curious, though, because for so long she hadn't kept any secrets from him. For thirteen fucking years, every dark truth she harbored in her heart had belonged to him, too, and he didn't like the way that things had changed, didn't like the thought that there were things in her past he didn't know about.
"Yeah?" he challenged her grimly. "What would you know about it, Liv?"
"I know Brian Cassidy went under too long and it cost him his shield and damn near killed him," she snapped, suddenly furious. "I watched my partner deal with the fallout from going under ten fucking years after he came out. You really think you can just forget your problems, Elliot? You really think it's easier being Eddie, the piece of shit lowlife who lives in this fucking van? Talk to me in six months when you're bleeding out on the street somewhere and can't even remember your own fucking name."
She rose to her feet, started to pace, and for a second Elliot just stared at her, dumbfounded. He didn't know what she was talking about, Cassidy or her partner - Jesus, that hurt him more than he thought it would, hearing her call a stranger partner when the only partner she ever should have had was him. But he knew that tone, recognized that she was grieving, for men whose stories he didn't even know, for him, too, maybe. Recognized that the bit about bleeding out on the street, that wasn't just for dramatic effect; something had happened. She'd seen it go bad, seen someone she cared about get so lost in a cover that they forgot themselves, and she was scared out of her mind that the same thing was gonna happen to him, and he wanted to promise her that it wouldn't but he didn't want to lie to her, either.
"You've done this before," she said accusingly, standing over him, a shadow of vengeance in the dark. "Shit goes sideways and you try to run-"
"You wanna talk about running, Liv?" he fired back, setting his beer down on the cooler and hauling himself up, marching towards her with anger burning low in his gut and the memory of Oregon bouncing around his head. "Cause I seem to remember you-"
"Oh, don't throw that shit in my face. I didn't have a choice-"
"You coulda fucking called me-"
"So could you! You asshole!"
They were close, now. Too close. Close enough for him to watch the warm softness of her breasts rising and falling in time to her ragged breaths, close enough he could almost smell the soft scent of her perfume over the reek of the river, close enough that he could see the streetlights sparkling against the black of her eyes, close enough that he couldn't deny how fucking beautiful she was, and how fucking alive she made him feel. Here, with her, with her anger and her hurt and her accusations, he could feel his heart pumping in his chest, could feel the blood racing in his veins, could feel the ground steady beneath his feet and the breeze brushing across his cheek. This was worth living for; fighting with her was better than fucking anyone else.
"No," he said. "I couldn't call you, Liv, you know why?"
He leaned towards her, so close they were almost touching, and her eyes flashed up at him, a warning swirling in them, and he just smiled, grim and determined.
"Because you deserve better than me," he said, and she rocked back on her heels, unsteady in the face of that revelation. She hadn't been expecting that, he knew, and maybe she didn't really believe it, but she'd asked him, and she was gonna hear his answer now.
"Wheatley killed my wife," he said. "He crashed your car. If he could do that, what the fuck do you think these guys could do to you? The work I do, this shit is dirty, Liv. And you're clean. You were happy, without me. You were good. You were solid. I didn't call because I don't wanna drag you down."
"What the fuck makes you think I was happy?" Liv snapped at him, and it was his turn to blanch, his turn to be caught off guard by her. It was always like this, with them. The push and pull, switching places on the brink of disaster, never steady but always balanced. He'd hit and she'd hit back and neither of them would fall unless they did it together.
"Of course you were."
Of course she was happy. Wasn't she? Nice apartment, cute kid, good friends, professional advancement, maybe she didn't have a man now but she'd had one, at least one, had enough of him for Fin to feel like it was worth mentioning. Why wouldn't she be happy, when she had all that to show for the decade they'd spent apart? Why wouldn't she be happy, when she was out from under him, when he wasn't there to cast a shadow over her sterling record, when he wasn't there to frown at the men who came traipsing out of her life? And Jesus, if she hadn't been happy, that meant there was no justifying what he'd done. Ten years he'd been telling himself she was better off without him and now she was telling him that she wasn't and the guilt was gonna eat him alive.
"You don't know a goddamn thing," she spat. Furious, she was furious, and on the offensive, now, cutting him off at the knees, because he'd been wrong, and he didn't know her story as well as he thought, and all those secrets, she was keeping them to herself, and as long as she did she'd have the upper hand and he'd be at her feet, begging for forgiveness.
"Tell me, then," he said.
Tell me. Let me in. Don't hide from me.
Frustration licked up the base of his spine; she accused him of running away, accused him of cutting her off, accused him of recklessness, and then she turned around and did the same damn thing and acted like the rules of engagement - rules she'd written herself - just didn't apply to her. Like the same shit that would make her call him a son of a bitch if he did it, she should be allowed to undertake with impunity. Like she was some kinda martyr. Didn't she know how much he'd lost? Didn't she know how much it had hurt him, walking away from her? Didn't she know he'd done it for her, had been trying, both times, to give her a chance for a life that would surely be better without him in it?
"Goddamn it, Olivia," he grumbled.
"Don't fucking swear at me."
His mouth dropped open, and for a second he just looked at her, his gorgeous, furious, righteous Liv, indignity holding her spine ramrod straight even as her tits came spilling out of that blouse, that blouse she'd worn just for him, still standing here, fighting with him, when she could have told him to go to hell hours ago and spent the night in her bed instead. He looked at her, telling him don't fucking swear at me as if there was nothing hypocritical or ridiculous in that statement at all. He looked at her, and he thought about them, the pair of them, both on the wrong side of fifty, still bickering like kids twenty however-the-fuck-many years later, driving each other crazy and yet refusing to turn their backs on one another. He looked at her, and he started to laugh.
He couldn't help it; it just came bubbling out of him, and once he started he couldn't stop. Don't fucking swear at me, she'd said, because that was Liv, because Liv was always gonna do whatever she wanted to do and she was always gonna be on his ass about something and he wouldn't have it any other way. She'd hurt him and he'd hurt her and at the end of the day it didn't fucking matter, because they belonged to each other. Because they were both half-crazy, and no one else would have them, and they wouldn't want anyone else, anyway. Like a great big fucking cosmic joke; you belong to the person who tears you apart, the universe said, and wasn't it fucking funny, wasn't it just fucking perfect?
For a second he thought she was gonna hit him, she looked so mad, but then her eyebrows settled and her mouth quirked in a rueful sort of smile.
"Shut up," she said, but there was no heat to it; her anger faded, and so too did his laughter, until all that was left was them, a little tired, a little broken, together, still.
What he wanted, more than anything else, was to touch her. He could still feel the heat of her hand against his thigh in the bar, the phantom touch of her tugging at him, leaving him hungry and desperate for more. And she was so close, and she was mad at him, but not really, was the kind of angry that could only come from a place of care, the kind of hurt that only care could heal, and Jesus, she was beautiful, and he wasn't really himself, out here, and neither was she, and there was no one around to witness this - no one but two of Kosta's boys, sitting in their car up by the road - and so he indulged himself, reached out and brushed her hair back from her face, let his palm settle against the side of her neck and watched the way her soft lips parted, a soundless little gasp escaping her at the touch.
"I was stupid," he said. "I can't walk away from you. I carry you with me everywhere I go."
"Then quit trying to leave me," she told him, begged him, almost. It was as close to begging as Olivia was ever gonna get.
"I'm standing right here, Captain," he said, and when she laughed he leaned in and brushed his lips against her, and tasted that laugh for himself, and never, he thought, he'd never tasted anything sweeter than her laughter.
The van kept them steady, for which Elliot was grateful; without it his knees might have given way. Without it they might both have ended up sprawled in the dirt, overwhelmed by the sheer fucking weight of their cataclysmic coming together. As it was the van held them upright, Liv leaning back against it and Elliot leaning into her, his hands tangled in her hair, pulling her into him, while her own had slipped beneath his ratty shirt, gripped at his back and held him tight to her. One kiss had turned into two had turned into this, her soft lips open for him, her tongue in his mouth, her skin burning him alive. One kiss had turned into a goddamn conflagration and he couldn't get close enough to her, even when she canted her hips and spread her legs and made room for him to slide between, even when he abandoned her hair and reached instead for her ass, hauled her up onto the heavy muscle of his thigh and let her settle there, let her rock against him while he chased the taste of her moans and lost all sense of anything that wasn't her.
Twenty-two, twenty-three, however many, too fucking many years he'd spent wondering what it might be like to touch her and believing he'd never have the chance but he had her, had all of her, in his hands now, and he wasn't gonna let her go, not ever again. He'd have her right here, if she'd let him, up against the side of the van, have her calling out his name with only the river around to hear it, and Jesus, he was hard just thinking about it, just thinking about her, soft skin, soft hair, soft curves, every inch of her, soft, and warm, and clinging to him, now, not pushing him away or telling him all the reasons why they shouldn't but encouraging him with every ragged breath, with every pass of her tongue, with the press of her nails against the skin of his back, with the rocking of her hips, grinding the softness of her against his leg.
The sudden sound of a car engine turning over startled them both, and he tore himself away from her just long enough to watch the black SUV - the black SUV he'd forgotten was even there - pull away on the road above them, and drive off into the night. Apparently Kosta's boys had seen enough; they'd watched Eddie take his girl home, and they watched Eddie drink with his girl, fight with his girl, they'd watched Eddie press his girl back against the side of the van and kiss her like he was trying to crawl inside her and that must have been proof enough for them that Eddie and Lorraine were exactly who they'd said they were, just two regular folks who couldn't seem to quit each other, even when maybe they should. Eliot watched the car fade into the night, and then he brushed Liv's hair back from her face, watched her watching him through hooded eyes, and tried to remember how to speak.
He wanted her. Christ, he wanted her. He wanted her like he wanted to breathe, wanted her like a junkie wanted a hit, like if he didn't get her he'd keel over and die from the pain of it. He wanted her and so far she'd been more than willing, had been reaching for him like she wanted him, too, but now that he'd stopped kissing her his mind was starting to work again and he was starting to wonder if maybe this was a bad idea. If he had her now he was gonna want more, and more, and maybe she would, too, but he was still under, and the less Kosta's organization saw of her, the better. He had to keep her safe, and the best way to do that was to keep her out of sight. This can keep, he tried to tell himself. This can wait until the job is done. She'll still be there when I'm out.
But he was still standing there with his hands on her ass and her thighs gripping his leg and her eyes watching him in the darkness.
"Looks like we're clear," he said hoarsely. "You know I understand if you just wanna get back-"
"Are you kidding me right now?" she asked him, turned her nails against his skin just enough to make him hiss a little, as if she were trying to punish him for something. Since all he was doing was trying to give her a graceful way out, he wasn't really sure what the fuck she thought she had to punish him for.
"I'm just saying-"
"Get off me," she said, suddenly angry, pushing at his shoulders until he took a step back and she could get free of him. Sometimes she made him so fucking dizzy; she was like a wildfire, Liv, blazing like an inferno, all consuming, overtaking everything in her path and changing direction with every shift in the wind, and something had caught her anger ablaze and she was on the verge of raging, now, when a second before she had been soft and pliant and sexy as hell in his hands and he didn't know what the fuck he was supposed to do, but he did know he wasn't gonna let her just walk away from him, not after that kiss.
"You stood right there," she pointed towards the river, towards the spot where they'd been shouting at each other a little while ago, the place where they'd been standing the first time he ever kissed her, and he was never gonna forget that, never, "and told me you weren't gonna leave me behind and the first fucking chance you get you're pushing me away. You pull me in and then you kick me right back out."
"That's not what I was doing, Liv," he growled, approaching her slowly, a little warily. He really, really wanted to kiss her again but he wasn't stupid enough to try that shit when she was mad.
"I just...I don't wanna...I wanted to give you a chance to think it through," he said, desperately trying to explain himself. "I want you with me but we've had a weird night and I don't want you to regret this."
"Are you gonna?" she asked him then, and her voice had lost some of its edge, and so he dared to step a little bit closer, and she didn't flinch or tell him to stop and he figured that was a good thing. "You gonna regret me?"
There was something uncertain in her eyes, like maybe she thought he would, like maybe she thought he did already. It hit him then, hit him square in the chest, hotter than a bolt of lightning and twice as painful; all this time he'd been thinking about how hard it was for him, circling around her but never being able to touch her, and he hadn't really considered, not until this moment, what it must have been like for her. All those years, watching him with someone else. Watching him walk away, not once but twice. Getting left behind and picked back up and he wanted to take her by the shoulders, shake her, demand of her don't you know how bad I want you, how bad I've always wanted you? But he could see it, now; she didn't know. Maybe she hadn't ever known. Maybe it was time he told her.
"The only thing I regret," he told her, "is not kissing you sooner."
"That the only thing?" she asked him, and she was trying to be sarcastic but her voice was too unsteady, and he shook his head, because even now, in this moment when they were right on the brink of either fucking or falling apart, she was still trying to fight him, and he was still enjoying it.
"Are you afraid of me?" she asked him, and for a second he turned the question over in his head, because whatever was happening here he knew the time had come for him to be honest with her, not to brush her off or try to placate her, but to hear her, and answer her in kind. Did it look like fear, him reaching for her and pushing her away? Did he look scared right now, watching her in the darkness, the taste of her still sweet in his mouth? Is that what she thought this was, that he was just scared of wanting her?
"No," he said. "No. What I'm afraid of, Liv, the thing that scares me most...I'm afraid of hurting you. I'm afraid of what I'm gonna do to you."
He didn't mean sexually, or anything, but he was pretty sure she knew that. She always seemed to know what he was thinking. And what he was thinking now was how big a risk she was taking, being here with him. Even if no one ever found out that she'd met with Kosta - that was a secret he was determined to take to his grave - even if this op went smoothly and he went back to his own life and she was there waiting for him, the risk didn't lessen. He was nothing but a risk, to her reputation, her job, her squad, her son, her heart. He just kept hurting her and he just kept making mistakes and if he got his bloody hands on her life he was sure she wasn't gonna walk away clean. And he wanted better for her than that.
"You hurt me the most when you leave," she told him raggedly. "I'm not made of glass, Elliot. I don't need you to treat me like I'm fragile. I need you with me. We can figure out the rest of it together, just...stop pushing me away."
"Ok?" she repeated, her eyes searching his face, like she was expecting him to contradict himself, but he wasn't gonna take this back, not now. He needed her and shit, she'd just told him that she needed him, too, and maybe the time had come for him to fucking listen to her. Olivia knew how to handle herself. She'd had thirteen years with him and ten years without him and she'd had plenty of time to make up her mind about what she wanted, what she thought was good for her, and she'd chosen him, and he was gonna have to trust that. He was gonna have to trust her, with this. With him, all of him, with his heart and his recklessness and his tendency to break everything he touched. Right now he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people in the world he trusted, but she would always, always be included in that number. Hell, some days she was the only one.
"Ok," he said, leaning in close, brushing his lips against hers, and she surged up towards him like she was scared he was gonna run again and she had to catch hold of him before he bolted. He wasn't running, though; he just stood steady, holding her, kissing her, and he felt her soft lips curve into a smile when his hands settled on her hips again.
Good, she felt good. Just like this, warm and solid in his grip, soft tits pressed hard against his chest, and the way she kissed him; shit, she was gonna kill him, because she wasn't still, wasn't waiting for him to take the lead. She caught his bottom lip between her teeth and held it there, just for a second, while her hands slipped right back underneath his shirt, reaching for his skin like as much as he couldn't get enough of her she couldn't get enough of him, either, and the local precinct had been warned that the van was part of an NYPD op and they weren't supposed to hassle him and probably no one was ever gonna see him down here with his tongue in her mouth but he was struck by a sudden need to take her inside, take her somewhere private, take her somewhere no one else could see, where he could have her all to himself.
He tore his lips from hers and let his beard brush against the column of her throat, dipped his head to press a kiss against her collarbone.
"Get in the van, Captain," he growled at her, and she threw her head back and laughed, her voice throaty and warm and the most beautiful goddamn thing he'd ever heard.
"I think I'm the one who's supposed to be giving the orders, Detective," she teased him.
He raised his head to look at her, raised an eyebrow at her in question, wondering if that was how things were gonna go between them, wondering if they were gonna make fucking look like fighting, but she just grinned at him.
"Get in the van, El," she said.
If they'd been a few years younger, or if the ground had been a little more even, he might have hoisted her up over his shoulder and carried her there himself, but as it was he didn't trust his knees to hold them, and she probably wouldn't have appreciated it, anyway. Instead she reached for his hand, and laced their fingers together, and the sudden softness of the gesture, when everything between them had been so fucking hard, called to something tender and forgotten deep inside his chest. He took their hands and raised them to his lips so that he could press a kiss against the back of hers, and then he led her carefully across the grass to the van, and swung the door open for her.
"Probably not as nice as you're used to," he said as she gingerly climbed up the two short steps to get inside.
She looked back at him, then, dark hair mussed from his fingers and falling across her face, lips soft and reddened from the sting of his beard, and never, he had never seen anything as beautiful as her.
"It's perfect," she told him.
Maybe that was right. Down by the river, far away from the responsibilities and the horrors of their daily lives, far away from the memories and all the reasons why he was no good for her, it was like they'd walked into another world. A quieter world, a peaceful world, a world where they could reach for each other, and not have to fear what would become of them in the morning. Out here there was nothing and no one, nothing but a soft mattress in the van and the river rushing by, taking their grief with it, and washing them clean.
From the little doorway the van opened up; to the right was the driver's seat, and a bench with some drawers in it where he kept the necessities. To the left was the mattress, running from the back of the van almost all the way to the door. It took up pretty much all the space there was in the back of the van, and it was almost cozy. He had sheets for it, and a couple of pillows, and a few ratty old flannel blankets, and he hadn't bothered to tidy it up so they were all kinda jumbled in a pile in the middle, and Liv just grinned when she saw it, like she didn't mind, like she thought it was kinda funny, and maybe it was. He was, for the second time in his adult life, a bachelor, and he couldn't be bothered to make up the bed and she wasn't gonna judge him for it.
"C'mere," he said, and caught her by the hips, kicked the door closed behind them and sank his lips over hers. There were lights he could have turned on, but he didn't bother; their eyes had adjusted to the dark, and he was keeping his closed as long as he kissed her, anyway, because the radiance of her at that close range would have been enough to knock him off his feet, and he wanted to stand right here, with his arms full of her. She'd told him this was where she wanted to be, and the way she kissed him, her lips moving with his, her tongue brushing against his, her teeth catching him, every now and then, like she just wanted to remind him where he was and who he was touching, that was enough to make him believe her.
So he reached for the hem of her blouse and she didn't stop him, just raised her arms over her head and let him pull it off her, let him watch with hungry eyes as he bared her for him, soft tits straining against a plain black bra that barely held them back, that pretty necklace still sparkling between them. Soft belly, soft arms, soft skin; every inch of her was soft and his hands were itching for her. Carefully, slowly, he let his hands settle on the curve of her waist, let his palms glide up her sides, listened to the hitch in her breath when his thumbs brushed against the swells of her breasts, but he didn't stop there, just kept moving until he was cradling her neck between his hands, fingertips gently pressing against her jaw, encouraging her to lift her chin, to look up at him.
"You're so fucking beautiful, you know that?" he said, because she was, and he couldn't help but tell her.
"You shoulda seen me ten years ago," she told him wryly.
"I did," he reminded her. Maybe she thought she'd been more beautiful back then, and maybe with a new lover she might have felt uneasy, thinking about the way she used to be, but Elliot remembered all of it, remembered her young and remembered her weeping, remembered her righteous and remembered her laughing, knew exactly what she had been and exactly what she was now, and truth be told he wouldn't have traded the now for the then, would not even have considered it. He could love her, now, in a way he never could have, then, and that made now the moment worth having.
"And you're beautiful."
He kissed her again, before she could protest, kissed her hard and hungry and crowded her against the back wall of the van while his hands followed the line of her bra until he could get it off her, and the second that was done he reached for her breasts, felt the heavy weight of them in his palms, dragged his fingertips over her nipples, memorized every sound she made when he touched her and delighted in the way she trembled for him. One of her hands reached for his head, trailed gently over his scalp and then down to the back of his neck, held him tight against her, and it felt good, Jesus, it felt good, to be held by her.
But the bed was right there and he wanted her in it, and naked, sooner rather than later.
Deftly he spun her, and she went willingly, let the momentum of his arms and her own need drive her back against the mattress, settled on her back and propped herself up on her elbows, and she smiled when he stepped between her parted thighs and towered over her.
"You're overdressed," she told him breathlessly.
"You asking for a show?"
She pushed the blankets out of the way and made herself a little more comfortable, but she never took her eyes from him, and even in the darkness he saw the way her cheeks flushed red when he grabbed the back of his shirt and tugged it easily over his head, the silver cross of his necklace swaying against his chest. If she wanted a show by god he'd give her one; he reached for his belt slowly, and watched the way her eyes followed the movement of his hands, zeroed in on his hips, and he could have sworn he saw her lick her lips when he pulled the belt free and tossed it in the general vicinity of her bra. His jeans followed, and then his black briefs with them, and then he was standing between her thighs naked and maybe it should have felt strange, being with her like this - being with Olivia like this - when he'd only just kissed her for the first time and they'd never, ever come anywhere close to anything like this before but it didn't, somehow. She was looking at him like she liked what she saw, and she didn't seem the least bit self-conscious about laying in his bed without her shirt, and if she was comfortable, then he was, too.
She held her arms out for him and he fell easily into her, planted his palms on the mattress by her head and covered her with his body, and those arms of hers wrapped around him, pulled him in close, and her thighs clutched at his hips, held on tight while she rocked up into him, and she was still wearing her pants but he wasn't and he could feel the heat of her against the hardness of his cock and it left his head spinning.
Slowly, very slowly, he dragged his kisses down her throat, let her feel the scratch of his beard against her tender skin, felt more than heard her sigh at the sensation. One of her hands reached for his arm, her palm flattening over the tattoo of Christ that covered his bicep, holding on to him, on to this piece of him she'd seen a million times before but never touched. It felt good, her hand on his skin. It felt right. But it was nothing compared to the way it felt when he dragged his lips over the swell of her breast, when he wrapped them around one dark nipple and sucked it into his mouth, when she arched off the bed, chasing the heat of him, when the ragged sound of his name fell from her lips. His name, and shit, she always should have been saying his name; it always should have been him she was crying out for, in pleasure, in want, and if he had his way that's what it always would be, for the rest of his goddamn life.
Beneath him she wasn't still, not for a second; those hips of hers were rocking into his, grinding her against his cock, eager, now, for a release he was sure she wasn't gonna find for a while yet, and he shifted his weight, rested his forearm on the mattress and let himself settle more heavily against her while his right hand drove beneath her, caught a handful of her ass and held on tight, directing the movement of her body, and she gasped, and then she moaned, and he grinned around a mouthful of her. Every sound she made just made him want her more, but she was still wearing those damn pants, and he had to get them off her.
In one quick movement he wrenched himself away from her, rose unsteadily to his feet and then reached for the button of her jeans. There was no finesse in it; he was aiming more for speed. She lifted her hips to help him as he tugged those jeans down off her hips, as he swore at the sight of the black satin that covered her, as he swore again when her jeans got tangled up on the boots she was still wearing. He knelt to take them off her, and as he did she sat up, leaned over and pressed a kiss against the crown of his head. It was tender, that kiss, and her hands were tender, too, smoothing over his shoulders, his chest, over the scar from the bullet he'd taken in the courtroom that day with Dana Lewis. Every mark on his body, she knew them all, whether she'd seen the scars or not. She'd been there when they were raw and bloody, and she was here, now, when those hurts had healed, and that was as it should be.
He got the jeans and the boots and the panties off her, and leaned back on his heels, looking up at her, naked and beautiful in the darkness. There were so many things he wanted to say to her. He wanted to tell her how sorry he was, wanted to promise her that he would be a better man, for her sake. He wanted to tell her that he loved her, that he probably always had, that he knew he always would. He wanted to bury his face in her lap, and let her run her hands over his head until he felt at peace with himself, because he was certain, now, that the only way he was ever gonna find peace, real peace, the kind of peace that lasted, was if she held him. He wanted to ask her to tell him about every single minute of every single day she'd lived while they'd been apart, and he wanted to hear her forgive him for leaving. But when he looked at her now all those words seemed to pass back and forth in the air between them, spoken in voices too soft for them to hear. Maybe they didn't need the words. Maybe they never had.
Olivia reached for him, caught his face in both her hands and leaned down towards him, and he lifted his chin, and met her when she kissed him, rested his hands on her bare thighs and kissed her, and it was right, he thought, that he was kneeling in front of her, because there was no one else on earth who deserved his devotion, no one but her. She started to lean back, carrying him with her, and he slid his hands under her thighs, caught her ass and held her against him, and together they shuffled up the bed until her dark hair was spread out across his pillows. One of her legs hooked over his, her toes trailing against his calf, and her fingers were dancing over the muscles of his back, like she was playing piano and the ridges of his spine were the keys. His cock had settled against the warm wetness between her thighs and he was almost shaking with the strain of holding himself back, but the effort was worth it. Worth it for this, for her looking up at him, for her dark eyes and her perfect mouth and the gold necklace sparkling against her bare skin.
"Don't," she cut him off. She wasn't mean about it, wasn't angry. She just knew what he was gonna say, and she wasn't ready to hear it. That was all right, with him. Maybe she didn't need to hear it. She knew he loved her; she had to know it, by now.
"I won't say it," he agreed, leaning in to brush his lips against the corner of her mouth. "I'll just feel it."
"Make me feel it, too," she whispered into the darkness.
He could do that, for her. He could make her feel it, how much he loved her, how grateful he was to have her here with him, how she moved him in a way he didn't think anyone else ever could, how even when he wasn't supposed to he needed her, how no matter how far away he ran or how much shit piled up between them he had never forgotten her, and never could. He caught her thigh in his hand, held her open for him, and she surprised him, then, reached between them to wrap her hand around his cock, and it was his turn to moan her name, because shit nothing had ever felt like that, like her hand wrapped around him.
If things had been different he might have liked to take his time with her, might have liked to feel her come apart on his mouth, on his hands, but as it was he wasn't sure he could wait, now, and she didn't seem to be feeling particularly patient, either. Instead she guided him towards her, and he let her set the pace, let her drag the head of his cock over her slick folds, let him feel her, as wet for him as he was hard for her. It felt like vulnerability somehow, her showing him just how badly she wanted him, just how much she needed him, when all her life Olivia had prided herself on never needing anyone at all. He knew what she was giving him, in this moment, and so he just kept his eyes locked on hers, unblinking, and when she encouraged him to slip inside her he did, and held his breath, and watched her.
Watched her eyes flutter closed, watched her mouth drop open, watched her body still, and tense, and then relax, her thighs spreading wider, making room for his hips to settle more firmly against her, her back arching in a way that only encouraged him to slide that much deeper inside her, and when she was sure he'd found his mark her hands reached for him, settled on his ribs while her fingers curled hard against him, holding on tight. The course of the river was steady and sure and so too was the course of his hips, rocking, rocking, rocking, gently, driving his cock deeper, and deeper, and deeper into the soft wet heat of her, and every time he moved she did, too, like she knew his rhythm already. Which she did, of course she did; they'd learned how to move together so long ago they'd forgotten what it felt like to be out of step. Maybe they never would be again.
Finally, he was as deep inside her as he could go, and he leaned in to kiss her, kissed her long and deep and slow with his cock buried in the softness of her, with her thighs clutching at his hips, with her hands branding his skin, the tender curve of her breasts red from his beard, every piece of him wrapped up in every piece of her. For a minute he just stayed like that, caught in this moment of spellbinding heat, and pleasure, and sheer fucking relief, but she felt too good, and he wasn't gonna be able to stay still for long.
When he pulled back her mouth chased after him like she couldn't get enough of him, but he was determined to look in her eyes, now, and maybe she knew that. She settled her head back against the pillow, and opened those dark eyes, and smiled when she saw him watching her.
"Olivia," he breathed her name into the silence between them, and when he did a shiver passed through her body, and he felt her clench around his cock.
She liked that. She liked hearing him call her name, liked it so much her whole body responded to the sound of it, and he wanted to feel it again, so he leaned in close, leaned in until he was sure she could feel the scratch of his beard against her lips.
"Olivia," he said again, and shit, she did it again, and he lost what little remained of his restraint.
He shifted above her, raised himself up higher, drew his hips back and watched the silver cross hanging around his neck brushing against the softness of her breasts, and then he surged forward, thrust himself back inside her hard and deep and fast, and she cried out for him, and he grinned, breathless and proud and hungry. He hung his head low between his shoulders, and watched his cock, glistening with her arousal, driving into her again, and again, watched her take him and listened to her begging him for more.
"Fuck," she swore, her body trembling beneath him, her hands clutching him so tight he could feel the press of her nails against his skin.
"You feel so good," he panted back at her, because she did, she did; hot and wet and tight and soft, she felt like fucking heaven, and he couldn't help but plow deeper, and deeper within her, chasing the feeling of it, of them, together. His whole body was drawn tight and tense with need and sweat began to bead at the small of his back where her heels were slipping against him, trying to hang on while he pounded into her. Every time he thrust himself inside her a different, delicious sound of want left her lips, and the sharp wet sound of their bodies colliding filled his ears, and that cross of his got caught between her tits, held there, next to her beating heart, and he could feel her clenching and fluttering around him, could feel her close, so close to coming apart, but not anywhere near as close as he was, and he had to do something about that but he needed both his hands to hold himself up over her.
"Touch yourself," he growled at her. Exertion and need made it hard for him to form the words, but he had to tell her, somehow, what he needed from her, and she didn't seem to mind. She slipped her right hand between them, and he felt it, felt her fingertips brush against the hardness of his cock while he worked himself inside her, felt them slip between her slick folds, felt the moment she touched her clit because a spasm wrenched through her and the sensation of it nearly had him coming apart on the spot.
"I wanna feel you come," he told her, because he did, he wanted it so fucking much he could hardly breathe.
"Then don't - oh - don't fucking stop," she gasped back, and that was an order he would follow gladly.
Together, they did it together, the way they did everything. Her fingertips against her clit, moving with practiced ease, his cock, his hips, thrusting madly into the glorious goddamn heat of her, their voices rising higher, and higher, groaning together while the whole fucking van rocked with the force of his thrusts, and then suddenly she was crying out, louder than before, rising up beneath him, a wave reaching its crest, and she clamped down so hard against him he couldn't even move, could only hold himself there, above her, inside her, while she fell apart around him in a moment of breathless surrender. Good, it was good, was too fucking good; he hovered over her for a second, just watching her, committing it to memory, because now that he knew what she looked like when she came he never, ever wanted to forget it. But he could only spare a second because his own body was breaking apart with need of her, and when she relaxed enough for him to move he fell into a frenzy, and she just wrapped her arms around him, held tight to him, whispered that's it, baby, that's it, come on, until with one last long, deep groan he let the fire take him, and spilled himself inside her.
His arms wouldn't hold him, anymore; he collapsed into the softness of her, rested his head on her breast, listened to the sound of her heart racing while she held his slowly softening length inside her for as long as she could, like however much he didn't want to part from her she didn't want him to go, either. Her hands smoothed tenderly over the back of his head, across his shoulders, ghosted down the plane of his back, and there was such warmth in the touch, such care, that he might have wept if only he could spare the breath for it.
I love you, he thought. I love you. He didn't say it, but then he didn't think he needed to; she knew it already, and he could feel her whispering it back to him in the gentle touch of her hand.
"Stay with me," he murmured into her breast, pressing a kiss there to punctuate his request. Too late he remembered her son; he'd spent the last twenty years thinking she was all alone and sometimes it was easy to forget that just wasn't true, any more. She'd been away from her boy too long tonight, and she'd given Elliot too much of herself already, but he was greedy, was so fucking greedy when it came to her. He wanted more; he wanted all of it, everything she was, everything she had, every single second he could spend wrapped up in her.
"I already asked the sitter to stay the night," Olivia told him, and he grinned, then, because she wasn't saying no. "But El...you don't have a bathroom."
He laughed, rolled over onto his back and took her with him, let her splay across his chest, watched her reach for the cross around his neck and run her fingertips gently over it.
"We'll figure something out," he said. "Just...stay."
"Ok," she said. And then she did.
When he woke up the next morning Olivia was still wrapped around him, her head pillowed on his chest, her hair tickling his chin, one of her legs thrown over his. His arm was under her head and it was gonna give him hell when he finally moved it, but the pins and needles would be worth it, for this. For the soft sound of her breathing, for the warmth of her skin, for the beauty of her face, gentle and relaxed in the predawn darkness, for the sheer fucking joy of holding her and not having being afraid of it. She'd stayed all night, and let him hold her, had held onto him just as tight, and he felt better, in that moment, than he had in a long, long time.
Eventually though he had to move, and so he slipped very carefully out from underneath her, tugged his jeans on over his hips, and walked out into the morning. The river was there to greet him but the sun hadn't yet risen over the horizon, and she was gonna have to leave him, soon, and he was gonna have to go back to being Eddie, but he thought it might be easier, this time. He knew who he was, knew it better this morning than he had done yesterday, because now he knew he was hers, and he was gonna carry that knowledge with him, everywhere he went. He could call her now and not be afraid, not be afraid of Kosta's boys finding out he had a woman, because they already knew, not be afraid of her turning her back on him, because he knew now she never would.
He wrote a note for Liv and left it on top of her jeans, and walked bare-chested up to the bodega, bought two coffees and two granola bars and carried them back down to her. He could see her still sleeping through the windows of the van, and the sun was only just starting to rise over the water, so he went and sat down in one of the chairs to watch it, let her sleep just a little while longer. She could probably use the rest, he thought. It was enough for him, just knowing that she was close, that she was here, with him. It was enough to look out at the river, and think about her smile, and breathe, and drink his coffee.
It was enough, but she was better; after a few minutes he heard the door to the van opening, heard the sound of her boots crunching in the dirt as she made her way towards him. He didn't turn to look at her; he knew where she was going, and he was willing to wait for her.
Olivia came up behind him, slid her hand over the nape of his neck and kissed the top of his head gently.
"G'morning," she said, her voice sleepy and soft, and he reached behind him, and she knew what he wanted, wrapped her hand around his own and held on tight as she came to sit in the chair beside him. She'd pulled on her boots but hadn't bothered with her clothes, had just slipped his shirt over her head and wrapped his blanket around her like she was cold, somehow. Maybe she was; autumn was coming on, and it was cooler this morning than it had been for months. It was nice, though, seeing her in his shirt. Seeing her calm, and at peace, and his, seeing her long legs bare beneath the folds of the blanket, even if she was wearing those damn boots.
"There's coffee," he said, pointing to the cup he'd left sitting on top of the cooler for her.
"You're a prince," she told him, and they both laughed. Laughed, and then sighed, and then settled into quiet, holding hands, sipping coffee, watching the sunrise.
He wanted to take her to breakfast. He wanted to take her out, and then he wanted to take her home, and then he wanted them to shower together, and then he wanted to fuck her again, and again, until they both fell asleep, sated for the moment. But she'd have to go to work and he'd have to go meet Reggie and they were running out of time.
"What happens next?" she asked him softly, hesitantly.
"Kosta knows Eddie has a girl now," he pointed out to her. "I can call you. We can stay in touch. It isn't safe for you to be around here, but maybe if we're careful…"
"I've gotta think about Noah," Liv told him. "One night, that's one thing. But if I keep seeing you the risk goes up. And I don't want to stay away from him again."
"You're right," he said. "I know you're right. Maybe...maybe we just gotta settle for the phone, for a little while. Maybe if I can find some way that's safe to get to you I will. But I promise, I'm gonna keep you safe, Olivia. If that means I have to wait until this is over to see you again I will. But I don't want you thinking I've left you again."
An idea came to him then. What she needed, he thought, was a reminder. Something she could look at, and remember the night they'd spent together, remember this moment, this morning, the sunrise over the river and his hand in hers. What she needed was something she could hold, and know he was gonna make his way back to her. Carefully he reached for the chain around his neck and tugged it off, and then he pressed it into her palm, and curled her fingers closed around it.
"I'm gonna come back," he swore, looking deep into those dark eyes of hers, and he saw it, then, saw the moment when she decided to believe him.
"You fucking better," she told him, and then she took the cross he had given her, and looped it easily around her own neck.
"I'll be waiting for you," she promised, and then she leaned over, and he met her halfway, pressed his lips to hers and tasted the coffee and the hope there, and smiled. Beyond them the river carried on, endless and unchanging, and the sun rose a little higher, and the world kept turning, but it was different, now. Better, now. For the first time, in a long time, Elliot was right where he wanted to be.