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Can we skip past near-death cliches
Where my heart restarts, as my life replays?
All I want is to flip a switch
Before something breaks that cannot be fixed
I know, I know the sirens sound
Just before the walls come down
Pain is a well-intentioned weatherman
Predicting God as best he can
But God
I want to feel again.
- “Touch” by Sleeping At Last 

 

 

She stands outside of the trailer, an old yet full utilitarian duffel bag slung across her body.

They say the city never sleeps, but that’s wrong. There are hours between the easing of night and the stirrings of morning in which the city slows, crawls, quiets. Just like she, it is the closest to sleeping her city will ever get. The car horns fade, the shadowed streets whisper. Here, in the weeds beneath a NYSEG tower and next to an old shipping crate, she’s sure the only moving living things belong in the small canal to her right.

She can’t shake or tremble. She can’t let her wet eyes betray her.

He’d asked her to come here – no, begged her on a raspy breath - when he’d called an hour ago. You said I could call you if I needed help, he’d said. So I’m asking.

Of course, she had said yes, she’d known even before he had finished making the request that she would agree. It’s been six weeks since he’d last turned up at her door, dropping to his knees as he had dropped the truth of that letter around her. She’d had Fin take him to Ayanna’s that night, unable to hear anymore from him. Unwilling for her son to wake up to that version of Elliot.

So when he had asked for her help tonight, Fin had immediately come to stay with Noah. When it comes to saving Elliot these days, it’s all hands on deck. She’d called in a favor to get the supplies she will need in the coming minutes, hours. She’d pulled on ripped jeans and her motorcycle boots, a black leather jacket and a white v-neck t-shirt. Her hair is half up in a ponytail, she’d left her face scrubbed free of makeup. She can’t look like a cop out here, let alone convey rank or authority.

It’s mid-November at just after two in the morning, and she’s both wide awake and soul exhausted. She doesn’t feel the cold, she hasn’t for a while. The numbness had set in back in September, and she hasn’t felt much since.

The door to the old RV creaks open.

Elliot stands at the top step, and even in the moonlight she can see how pale he is. She can see the pain he’s in, the hard twist of his lips beneath the scruff of his goatee. There are dark stains across his skin and he’s shirtless – no, that’s not right. He’s got a wadded strip of torn fabric that is tied tight around his upper body, from his right shoulder to underneath his left arm and across his upper back. It might have been white once, but the fabric now appears black.

It’s why she’s here.

She makes her way towards him. Her boots crunching on the gravel and the weeds might as well be nails on a chalkboard. They shouldn’t be here, she thinks. Neither one of them. The dead of night, the frost of winter, rust and decay all around them.

This can’t be how this goes. They’ve earned better than this, and this cannot - will not - be it. They’d once been bigger than this, brighter. They’d been strong and unbruised; they’d known what their laughter sounded like. She glances up at the hulking tower above them. It rises, but its metal is rotting. It’s painted light blue, a veneer on something old and worn. It carries power, but by god it’s solitary and sad in its task.

Them.

Out of nowhere, and in the silence of this cove, she remembers the old bullpen. The security she’d felt those days, with Cragen their guardian. She thinks about the sweaters she’d leave at work this time of year, the mini pumpkins his kids would paint for them for their desks. He’d laugh at her pumpkin spice; she’d bump him when they walked just to make him laugh. You believe in personal space, Benson? he’d tease.  She’d nudge him again and he’d grin as if she were his. The cases came in, and they went out. At the end of the night, he’d go home. She’d order whiskey on her dates, browse vacation brochures. They’d been warm then, she thinks.

She shivers.

He fades back into the trailer as she gets near the stairs, and she stops at the bottom for just one last second.

One last breath of her own air.  

She looks up at the beaten old vehicle he is calling home. It’s got basic power from a generator, it probably drives, but that’s the most she can say for it. He’s been living out here for five months now, and she wants to wail at the impossible reality of it. Her chest compresses at the memories that keep swarming her, and she’s got to shake them. She can’t think of that house in Queens, the one with the lawn and the backyard and his pretty blonde wife. She can’t think of two little kids bringing their father new shirts and toothbrushes on the long nights at the 1-6. She can’t think of the meals he’d go home to, the PTA, the homework and football practices and driving lessons. She can’t think of his days swinging his kids on his shoulders, the way he’d grinned at his wife in the early years. The proud way he’d looked at her when his family had been near, they way he’d offered all of them up as a hope for her own life. You can have this too, the intensity in his eyes had said. I’ll make sure of it.

She can’t think of him back then.  

He’d had it all, and she had wanted it all for him. She’d have given her life for his in an instant – and still would - she’d have done anything to protect the snowglobe she’d mentally made of them. They’d been a family in a storefront window at Christmas, at least as far as she’d been concerned in the early days. They’d been the dream.

Until she’d seen the edges of that fantasy unravel.

There is a heavy feeling of failure and panic that threatens at the edges of her awareness now, a need to beg his wife in heaven to save him, yet again, because surely she alone can’t be trusted with him.

She sees Kathy’s smile, her knowing expression, her floral dresses and her silent pleading in those days to just make sure and send her husband home to her.

Without his wife next to him, he’s this.

It wasn’t real. What we were to each other wasn’t real.  She knows now they aren’t his words but rather those of a struggling wife, but she’d had months to make them his. They haunt her, because whether he’d written them or not, maybe there is a truth to them that only his wife could have seen. He has never willingly chosen Olivia. He’s never chosen to stay for her, with her, because of her.

Even as partners, they’d been assigned.

Olivia can’t cry. She can’t apologize to a ghost for failing, for thinking she had more power to save him than she does. She’s here to do the only saving she knows how to do when it comes to him.

She’s here to stop the bleeding.

+ + + 

If he had any other choice, he wouldn’t have called her.

But the hour is late, and he knows Ayanna would pull him in if she saw him right now. Jet wasn’t ready for what he is asking. He just needs someone who will trust him enough to leave when it is done.

Or maybe he just needs her.

The simple sight of her stops the excruciating pain in the back of his left shoulder for a few seconds. It’s replaced with a deeper pain, one that blooms through his chest and into his fingertips and knees, until there is a fist around his lungs.

Olivia is as gorgeous as ever, but he’s seen the shell forming around her ever since he’d come home.

She’s too quiet as she walks up the steps and into his RV. She’s not herself. Gone is the fire, the glare, the hardened expression that would tell him she was ready to fight for him, with him, against him.

Instead, she can barely look at him. Her empty gaze lands everywhere but on him, taking in their surroundings, the place he lives now. She’d walked right past him in the narrow space, making the few steps towards the queen size pullout before taking the bag off her body, setting it on the shitty mattress.

“Olivia,” he starts.

But she’s jumpy, and she startles at just the sound of her name – and that reaction silences him because he doesn’t know what to do with that.

She doesn’t turn to look at him. She stares straight ahead, and he sees the shudder crawl up her back.  

This was a bad idea.

“Look,” he starts, trying to find a soothing voice. “You don’t have to do this-”

“Shut up, Elliot.”

He does. But only because he can see every bit of will it takes her just to breathe. And her words hadn’t been angry. She just sounds weary, exhausted.

When she finally turns around and looks at him, she’s got a wall up and yet it’s the most fragile he’s ever seen her. He’d been at the bad end of a knife in a fight a couple hours earlier, but she’s the one draining out in front of him.

He recognizes the expression. Defeat.

The pain is throbbing again, the adrenaline from seeing her starting to wear off. The damage on him, around him, it’s cloying. He’s careful about moving as little as possible because he doesn’t need the blood hitting the floor again, for her sake more than his.

She doesn’t frown or smile or blink as she steps closer to him. And then her fingers are on the rudimentary sling he’d tried to make to keep pressure on the knife wound in his upper back.

“You need a hospital,” she says quietly as her fingers start to undo the knot he’d made of the fabric.

“Can’t.” She knows that he won’t go in, he’d made that clear when he’d been drugged. And he won’t go in for this either. He’s not going to die, so he isn’t going to risk questions about an obvious stab wound in a place on his body where he couldn’t have cut himself. Besides, he’s got a chest full of bruises and a split lip, he’s a walking map of the kind of street fights that draw scrutiny.

She nods once, and a loose strand of hair falls into her eyes.

She’s got her fingers working on the fabric, and she smells like everything he’s ever known of home. With her face washed clean of makeup, he can see the freckles that smatter across her nose and cheeks even in the dim light. She looks younger, too vulnerable, too locked in and too locked down.

He can’t help it. He lifts his right hand to tuck the errant curl behind her ear. Her hair is longer than he ever remembers it, and she wears it soft now. It’s all loose curls and tumbling highlights. His hands itch to touch it every time he sees her. He wants to feel it slide between the deep crevices of his hands, wants to feel it curl around his thumb, tangle around his knuckles. He thinks it would heal the scars on his hands. Make them new again, restore them to where his bones would no longer creak in the rain.

Her own fingers stop on the fabric as his skim her ear. She closes her eyes as if he’s hurt her. “Please don’t.”

He drops his hand heavily, and the fifty square feet of space in this hellhole suddenly feels like inches.  

“I just want to see it, and then I’m gonna tie this back up until I’ve got everything ready.” Her voice is just whispering breaths barely strung together, but after she’s said it, she finally lifts her gaze to meet his.

Jesus.

She knocks him on his ass every time. It’s the defiance and challenge and ache of a locker room sixteen years ago, when she’d said she liked his damned shirt.

The innocence they’d been living in had seemed like hell at the time, but they hadn’t known then that it was only going turn into a nuclear wasteland around them in the coming years. It’s his fault, he knows that. He knows he’d been entrusted with her over two decades ago and that he’s failed her in every way.

She deserves an old school hero. A deity or a king, an army at their disposal to protect her. She deserves a kingdom, for someone to treat her with the reverence she’s earned. She deserves for her battles to be won, for every one of her victories to change history.

They’ve always been a mismatch. He’s mortal, she’s immortality. He’s sacrilegious, she’s legendary. He’s blasphemy; she’s beauty.

The way she’s looking at him now, he’s thrown back in time. He doesn’t remember who he is most days, but he’s always known her. She’s late nights in the bullpen and black coffee and fad diets that she called health kicks. She’s a mean right hook and those bangs that hid her eyes and the 4015 on her hip and her framing the proof of the first target practice when she’d beat him. She’s a trusting smile for the kids and soft eyes for the vics and a daring arch of her eyebrow for any of the sick fucks who fixated on her. She’s that strut, that full voice he misses, the easiness of her laughter and the way she’d roll her eyes every time he got hurt.

Only now she’s not rolling her eyes. She’s not taking this one in stride. All of those things are buried inside of her, inside of this too-quiet, too-solemn woman who handles too much every damned day.

She’s tired, and she’s scared. She’s on the edge and he wants to take control, wants to make her assurances and tell her how things are going to go, how they are going to work out, and yet she’s the one who outranks him, who could pull him off of this right now if she doesn’t trust him.

She’s already got his blood on her fingers.

He wants to touch her, the fire in his shoulder be damned. He wants to feel the softness of her cheek beneath the rough pad of his thumb. He used to need her beneath him, on him, in front of him. He used to rage against the way his body craved her. But this is different. This is more. He wants to trace her, skim her, draw her with his fingers and lips and eyes. She shouldn’t be a mosaic made up of tiny pieces, she should be a watercolor. Smooth and light and seamless.

He feels the blood starting to slip down his back again, so he just nods.

And he turns around to show her the only fixable wound left between them now.

+ + + 

The cut is deep and still bleeding, and it’s a little bit jagged but it hasn’t fully severed anything as far as she can tell.

Isn’t that the truth of them, she thinks.

She’d silently wiped down the small counter with the alcohol wipes, laid out one of the small clean towels she’d brought.  Then she’d opened the suture kit she’d been given – the one containing a needle driver, forceps, medical scissors, a sterile needle and suture thread. She’d washed her hands with the small container of antiseptic soap she’d brought, laid out the latex gloves.

Elliot stood still the whole time, just watching her, ignoring the blood that was still slipping in slow rivulets down his back.

“Turn around,” she finally says. Only the words are barely audible, so she clears her throat and says it again.

He hears her and turns, nearly brushing her body with his.

He’s too big to share this RV galley with her, and Olivia is too aware of his bare chest, of the way he’s built now, the hard lines that bisect his chest and his arms, the scars on his skin and in his irises.

She’s too aware of how little he flinches as she unwraps his wound again, as she starts to wash it with the bottled water, the soap, patting it clean with the gauze pads. She’s too aware of her fingers touching the stained skin of his trapezius, of the way his flesh gapes until she can see the layers of skin inside of him, pulsing and beating and breathing. She’s watching his blood appear, pool in the wound, and then trail down until it disappears into the waistband of his jeans.

Olivia presses her lips tightly together. She can’t make any sound that will tell him what this costs her, how this scares her. She holds a towel low on his back, pours the saline wound wash into the cut, and he doesn’t even exhale.

She can only imagine what he’s been through to absorb pain like this without any reaction at all. Even in her most determined moments, when the pain had once been relentless, and she’d told herself not to react, she had reacted. She’d flinched, keened, felt the pain expand like a balloon within her until she couldn’t take it anymore. But she had taken it, felt it, latched onto it and experienced it because she’d wanted to live and the pain had grounded her, reminded her she was still fighting.

Maybe she’s just always felt too much. He’s impervious to his pain right now. Maybe that’s how he gets through.

Or maybe it’s just because he doesn’t care enough about survival anymore to experience the struggle. 

That’s what this fear is within her. She’s afraid that the will to live in him is bleeding out. At the rate he’s going, every time she sees him could be the last, and that means her last memories of him might be tonight, of his blood on her hands.

She can’t think about this now. She’s got a job to do, one he needs her to do. Now.

“I need you to hold your phone flashlight up. Over your shoulder. Can you do that?” She’s talking to him like he’s a vic. Gratingly soft, too gentle, too even, when all she wants to do is scream.

And then he’s doing it, and she’s able to see right into him, into places she shouldn’t know.

She’s seen worse, she tells herself. She can’t make this more than this is. She can’t.

But the voice in her head is relentless. You’re stitching him up in the middle of the night. This is his life now. It’s yours. There isn’t much further to fall.

She sprays his upper back with saline spray, then turns towards the small counter. Her hands are shaking, forming trembling shadows across the counter. She slips on the latex gloves, hears them snap around her skin. She threads the curved needle, tries not to let her eyes blur.

She’s sewing up a dying animal that would just as easily be put down.

Nearly two decades ago, she’d laughed at his wounds. A black eye here, cut fists there. She’d fixed him with a couple of beers, an ice pack, and if the injuries had come in defense of her, she’d buy him lunch for a week.

Now both of them are single, alone, both too wrapped around each other to ever really let go. And this is where they have ended up. In the bowels of this city, his blood on her boots.

We got in the way of each other being who and where we needed to be.

If he’d just never come to her awards ceremony that night –

“Stop it,” he growls.

It’s her only clue that she’d just spoken that out loud.

She grasps the needle with the driver, exhales and turns to face his back again. It takes another soaking of his blood with the gauze until she can see his skin well enough. She uses the forceps to tug at one side of the cut, trying to bring it closer to the other half. She should have brought something topical to numb him first, but he doesn’t seem to care.

Olivia pushes the needle into his skin, curves it, and he doesn’t acknowledge the puncture.  “Maybe she was right.”

He’s silent.

Everything around them is silent.

She sends the needle through both sides of the wound, pulls it through, uses the forceps and the driver to loop the thread around twice and form a knot. Then she does it again, with one loop, then again. It takes her a second, but she manages.

She ties it off and cuts the string.

“No,” he finally says. His voice is low and clear, echoing through the small space. “I was the one who was right.”

In a parallel universe, it will always be you and I.

Maybe that’s why he’d called her. Maybe that’s why she is here. She’d needed some proof of life. Proof she is still living, simply because he is.

For now.

She closes her eyes; she’s shaking and needs a minute. She can’t cry, she can’t let her throat open and let the sound of fear pour out of her. She’s tired – she’s infinitely worn, scattered, sewn together just as he is – and she has to keep her shit together. Need is clawing at her, too – the need to end this decade-long nightmare, the need to see the sun again – to feel it, really feel it – only winter is closing in and he’s living in this hellhole and she’s got blood on her – again, again – and –

Olivia. Breathe.”

She nearly gasps in air, grasping at his command before she sinks.

He’s right. He’s right, and she hates that. She is the one who is out here to put him back together, and yet she’s falling apart. Because it’s been months of this, of believing that fucking letter and thinking she’d built a house of cards on top of a windstorm for twenty years, and it’s being told in that fucking letter that the way she thinks – the way she feels – it’s something that has only been in her head all along.

Only he’s here. And maybe he’s got a death wish, maybe he’s half-dead inside but she isn’t. Even when she’d been half-dead, he’d been in her head and she had fought, he’d made her fight, and so that is why she is here now.

She will not falter. She will not fade. She will not crumble.

She will not falter. She will not fade. She will not crumble.

She will not let him crumble either.

“Tell me what you need, Liv.” His voice is so even, it’s thick and heavy and grounding. He’s too comfortable in the catastrophes now, and they don’t deserve this. Neither one of them. They don’t deserve broken families and loneliness and for the days of death and destruction and assault over a decade ago to be considered the good old days.

There has to be a way out, even as he bleeds in front of her. Something has to save them. The truth, she thinks. Tell him the truth. Someone has to fucking go first. It’s no good to be brave on the streets, and a coward when it comes to everything she desperately needs.

Here, in this shitty trailer, the time has come because it really is now or never. She has to yank him back from the edge, even if it costs her. She closes her eyes, pretends she is someone else, someone without rules or boundaries or fear.

“I need you to…hold me.”

The whisper is a flash bomb in her vision, her ears, her head. She knows she’s the one who said it, but it’s blinding how it nearly throws her, guts her. Her neediness shames her and makes her feel the fight all at once.

It spurs him, instantaneously.

Elliot starts to turn, it’s immediate, his reaction. The muscles of his back rise, gather, he gets bigger, as if he’s been given some sort of power. He starts to turn as if he isn’t wounded, he isn’t in pain, he turns as if he’s going to haul her up and –

She reaches out, her palms flat on his lower back, the blood digging into her fingernails as she desperately tries to stop him. “No.”

To his credit he freezes immediately, he steadies himself and leaves his back towards her. Of their own volition her hands slide around, until they are splayed open on his stomach. The carve of his abs flexes beneath her fingers, he’s sucking in air and waiting. She’s not steady on her feet, and out of nothing more than sheer instinct, she leans forward and rests her forehead on the back of his neck.

Her breath comes out in ragged puffs against him. He’s a wall, immovable, indomitable. He’s breathing hard beneath her hands. He’s warm, somehow even in the winter chill, with his blood falling out, he’s a muscular amalgamation of heat and history and hell and hope.

She can hold him, but he can’t hold her.

Not yet.

“You come hold me when you’re done with this,” she expels into his skin. The price of her demand is a churning inferno in her gut. “You can’t leave me again. So you find a way to end this. And then you come hold me.”

She’s bleeding, he’s bleeding.

Only he doesn’t falter. He anchors himself, and as they often do, they switch, and he becomes the gravity. Her eyelids press into the top of his spine, his blood is seeping into her t-shirt.

“It’s not a parallel universe anymore, is it Olivia?” There’s no question in his words. It’s a statement, a fact, a truth. A fundamental. He wants to be told he’s right, this assumption he’s made.

He’s rearranging their lives without asking.

She shouldn’t find comfort against him right now. She shouldn’t need to feel his battered body against hers. But somehow, it’s still safety. He’s still solid. Her fingers curl into his abdomen, her mouth touches his back. Want blooms within her, a wildfire that consumes her chest, her hands, her head.

“No,” she whispers against his skin.

“It’s here. It’s this.” Sandpaper in his voice. He wants confirmation. “A place we are together.”

“Yes,” she says and she feels him straighten against her.

He plants his feet. Atlas, ready for war. “Good,” he says. His chin lifts, as if the fight is a shapeshifter and has just shifted into something he understands.

If he can do this, so can she. Olivia straightens too, dabs at the blood, and starts again. He won’t bleed out on her watch.

Another stitch. Then another.

As with everything, they will do this again and again until the gurgling wound between them calms.

+ + + 

It’s nearly four a.m. when she’s done.

Thirteen stitches, and the bleeding has finally stopped. He’s sore as hell, but he’s felt worse, and the truth is that he’s so consumed by her presence that everything else registers in half-truths.

He’s standing in the front of the RV, watching her packing the supplies into her duffel, a dark angel of mercy who’d met him in a hellhole to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Her jacket had been tossed on the bed when she arrived, and he realizes then that she can’t possibly leave with her white t-shirt covered in blood.

“There are shirts in that drawer to your left,” he says quietly.

It’s the first words they’ve really spoken between them in nearly a half hour. Every other conversation had been about his wounds. How he needed to move, if she was hurting him, if he could hold the light just a bit higher.

Olivia looks up, her hands stilling in her bag. She focuses on him, her eyes clearer and more determined than when she’d walked in here. “Tell me the worst of it.”

He knows what she’s asking. By the slight tilt of her head, the coaxing tone, the way her expression has gone soft. She wants his nightmares. She wants to know about the body count, the dirt under his nails, the sprays of blood he can’t get out of his periphery.

He can’t. He won’t risk her that way. He shakes his head just once. “You know I can’t.”

She closes the two steps left between them. “I outrank you. I’ve got any clearance I need. You can tell me. You’re just choosing not to.” Her voice is strong, as if she’s found footing now. She’s back in control, the strength of her fills the space. 

She’s right but fuck she’s gotta understand. The rest of his life slips through his hands regularly. The world she’s built with Noah, that’s his nirvana now. It’s his holy grail, his pedestal. He’ll blow up half the city before anyone touches that. “Liv, I got this. I do. They trust me.” He scrapes his teeth over his lower lip, buying himself some time. And then, “Do you?”

He’d expected a fight. He’d expected her to punch back with the thousands of reasons she shouldn’t trust him. Instead, she turns and goes back to the side of the bed, digging into her bag.

She’s moving with authority now, her movements purposeful.

Olivia pulls out a tank top, tosses it onto the bed. He holds his breath, because the thing is too flimsy to wear out on a winter night. It’s followed by a pair of pajama pants. She tugs her hair out of the ponytail and shakes it out, then looks at him, daring him to say a word.

He can’t. She’d planned to stay, right from the start.

The night stops. Time, it halts. Even his pulse stills, waiting.

Olivia crosses her arms over the bottom of her bloody t-shirt, and in one, fluid move, she pulls it over her head and tosses it on the mattress. She locks her gaze with his, and she’s so defiant, so brave, shaking so badly, that he can’t take his eyes off hers.

He’s shaken, too. Out of the corner of his vision, he sees the flash of a simple cream-colored bra. It’s simple, modest, stunning on her. His eyes are wet because he doesn’t deserve whatever she’s doing.

And she’s doing something. He can see that in the set of her jaw, her silent command to watch her.

“Liv,” he breathes. She’s changing, he realizes, and yet she sure as hell can’t stay here.

But she’s got her hand on the button of her jeans, her eyes still wholly focused on his. She’s toeing off her boots. Unsnapping her jeans.

That’s when his gaze drops to the movement her fingers are making. He’s helpless to stop it. He’s weak, and she must be ephemeral. She can’t possibly be real in this hell. This can’t possibly last. This vision, it’s going to slip through his fingers, a fever dream. She’s sliding her jeans down, slipping them off, and her underwear matches the bra, he wants to look only -

Only.

Oh, fuck.

The ripping sound tears out of him before he can stop it, before he’s even processed why. It’s not loud, but it’s violent in the way it grates across his throat, his tongue, his teeth. Even in the dim light he sees it, the thing she’s showing him. The scar that slides across her stomach, nearly nine inches across, a perfect line. A burn. He knows what they are, what they look like. He sees the sharp curve at the end of it. Wire, he thinks. A hanger. His gaze slips up. And he sees it then. The discoloration on her chest. The one on her upper arm. Her neck. Some fading, some too clear. He sees them, the small circles, the burns, the cigarettes, the shapes, the ones his mind can’t process, can’t reconcile.

Fuck.

Fuck.

Nothing that’s ever been done to him compares to the pain that slides across his own skin now. He wants to be sick, not because of her – she’s goddamned beautiful, a warrior, a fighter, a survivor – but because his grief and rage are screaming in him. The incongruity of what he’s seeing demands a reckoning.

He wants to yank heaven down and drop that bastard God on the floor for a fair fight.

Only he does nothing. His eyes burn, he might be crying, he prays he isn’t. He does nothing, because she’s kept her eyes on his. Deliberately.  She isn’t in tears, she’s not cowering.

“Liv-” he stops. He can’t sound like this. Not now. Not when she’s courageous as hell.

She looks away, reaches for her tank top. He just watches her, his knees locked so he doesn’t collapse as she slides it on. She slips on the pajama pants. When she’s dressed, she walks towards him, and he prays he’s breathing so he doesn’t fall right here and now. She’s had to lift him up too many times as it is.

“I have something to tell you, too,” she says softly, lifting her chin to gauge his expression.

Jesus. She will drop him to his knees every time. It’s not false bravado, she really is this brave. Her fear lives on her skin, but at the core of her, when it comes down to it, she’s steel.

“I’m here,” he says raggedly. He wants to know; he needs to know. He has to right any wrongs left, he needs to attack something, someone, atone for leaving her. Beg her. He thinks about the bodies he’s burned, the fingertips on the floor, the gasoline and digging graves and he will do it all, he will do it all if the sonofabitch still walks this earth.

She’s calm now, otherworldly even. “I wasn’t raped.”

The way she says it, as if she’s reciting facts, as if she’s more worried about how he’s taking it, as if that’s her first concern. He nods, unwilling to try his voice again. His fists curl, the nausea rises.

“I’m telling you this…Elliot,” her voice is sharp now. An order. “Look at me.”

He must have let his eyes close. That explains the darkness enveloping him. He finds her face again, and she’s oddly the calmest he’s seen her tonight.

“There are things in me, about what happened, that weren’t meant for the detectives. They weren’t meant for Cragen or IAB or my therapist or even for…the person I was dating at the time. I have…things I need to say. To tell. To get out. Even now.” Her voice is a gentle whisper now, low and soothing in the middle of a cacophony. And yet, she’s imploring him. Rooting him to her. “They are things meant for you. I need to tell you, okay?”

He can’t help it. He reaches for her. His hand curves around her waist and she’s stepping into him, and his forehead drops to hers. “Tell me,” he manages.

“When you come home, I will. Not before that.”

She’s anchoring him. He understands. He will do anything and everything in his power to get home to her. To get back, to just get the hell she’s been through out of her, whatever it is that she needs to talk about or share or just give to him, he’ll take her demons if they will just leave her alone.

He will get home.

She needs him for something, and he will get home.

“I’ve put you through hell, Liv,” he grates into the space between them. “Why the hell do you even want me back in your life?”

He expects a serious response out of her. He expects recriminations.

But she’s had enough of the darkness. As she regularly does, she sheds them both of it. There is the slightest tinge of amusement in her voice when she answers him, as if he’s ridiculous. As if she can lift them both out of this hell if she simply teases him. “Because I don’t want to watch any more YouTube videos on how to stitch you up. I heard from Bell that you speak Italian, and I want to hear how bad you butcher it. I need to understand how the hell you started wearing three-piece suits. And I don’t want to sleep in this shithole for very long.”

It’s the last one that has him pulling back. “Liv.” He shakes his head, at first slowly, and then with absolute conviction. “No. No, you can’t stay here.”

Jesus. She can’t possibly think –

Only she is already back at the bed, tugging her bag and jacket off the covers, setting them on the floor as she pulls back the frayed comforter. “Which side are you?”

“Olivia. They come here. Briscu, he’s showed up here.”

She gives him a half-grin and shrugs. “Tell him it’s one fifty to watch, two fifty to join.”

Christ. This isn’t the past. She doesn’t understand how much worse this is. These bastards are lunatics. They are soldiers, and they don’t value life at all.

“You can’t stay.”

She ignores him. “I’m staying. Here. In this bed. Are you getting in?”

No, hell no. He can’t get in that bed with her. He has nightmares. He dreams, he thrashes, he…wants. He fucking wants.

She must see the panic that crosses his face, because she fully grins at him now, as if they aren’t in a cesspool, as if there is no danger, no drying blood on the floor. “You’re not touching me. Not in this rat trap. You’ll have to come home for that, too.”

Home.

Touching her.

The fucking truth is, he doesn’t want her to go. Especially not tonight. He wants Olivia next to him, warm, sleeping. He wants to lay awake and listen to her sleep, wants to smell her shampoo on his pillow in the morning. Those are all things that belong to Elliot, not to Ashes, and he needs that. It’s been so long since he’s been in his own head that he hadn’t realized how far he’d been drifting.

He could be himself, someone he used to be.

“Just for tonight,” he finally agrees. “A couple hours. Then you go home at daybreak.”

Olivia rolls her eyes, and it’s what tells him that the haunts of earlier are fading. She climbs into the bed, towards the side closest to the exterior wall. “Twice a week.”

Fuck, no way in hell.” He starts to move towards the bed, to get closer to her, to implore her, but the pain in his shoulder shoots up through his neck and down into his fingertips. “Christ,” he winces.

She’s already sliding into the bed, into the crappy sheets, along the bone thin mattress. “I brought you a couple hydrocodone from when I had surgery. Tell anyone and I’ll kill you because it went against everything in me to bring them. But they’re in the front pocket of my bag.”

He’s got to take one at least. By the time he’s found the water bottle, found the pills, taken one and locked the front door, she’s curled up in the fetal position, facing his side of the bed. Her hair is splayed on the too-flat pillow, her chest spills from that blasted tank top.

And her eyes are closed.

Even in this piece of shit RV, in the middle of nowhere, half someone he doesn’t know, stitched up like a horror movie, he thinks he’s the luckiest bastard on the planet.

Her name is a mantra in his head. A call home. Back to himself. To her.

Olivia.

+ + + 

It takes him nearly thirty minutes to get into the bed and settle.

As soon as she’d felt him against her earlier, as soon as he’d put them on the same plane, in the same place, confirmed they were on the same trajectory, she’d found her sense of direction again. 

Bring him home.

The rest, the hell, the leaving, the fears – all of that can be dealt with. Somehow, someway. The only way they can’t be dealt with is if he loses his way out here, loses his grasp on who he is, who he can be. Loses his life. That can’t happen. It won’t, not if she can help it. She knows about hell. She knows about terror. She knows about drowning.

She also knows about fighting her way to the surface.

She will drag him with her into the air, if she has to. He’d dragged her out once, too. He just doesn’t know about it. He doesn’t know – yet – that just the mention of him by a monster had spurred her, reminded her, snapped her out of her fatalism.

He’d been her fight, and she will be his. 

He’s got his back to her, simply because he can’t sleep on the stitches. She wants to be here in the morning to clean them again before she goes, but the staying - it’s more than that.

“You can’t come here twice a week, Liv.” His voice is soft, resigned already. “It’s not safe.”

Olivia slides closer to him because the need to touch him again is overwhelming. Just her hands on him, maybe. Just his stomach. A reminder she’s here, for both of them. Her left-hand snakes around him, opening flat over his heart. It beats. Strong. Pounding. “I’ll bring two guns,” she says into his good shoulder.

Goddammit,” he breathes. But she can hear the slight hint of amusement in him. Good, that’s a start. And then, one last try. “You can’t come here. Liv, you’ve got a son.”

For a hell hole, it’s still out here. The silence permeates everything, the dark is all encompassing.

“So do you,” she says gently.

She feels the way his body shakes, just once. A shudder.

“If I’m here, you’ll remember who you are. You’ll have to be…Elliot.”

The seconds tick by. He says nothing. The white bandage is the only thing that catches the pinpricks of light. His breathing evens out. His muscles start to relax, finally free of the pain as the meds kick in.

She starts to match her breaths to his, and maybe its fitting that the first time she ever shares a bed with him, they’re both half covered in his blood and they’re somewhere between the weeds and the water.

“I can’t touch you?” It’s a groggy whisper into the dark. “Seems unfair when you can touch me.”

“Not until you come home safe,” she teases.

“Can I kiss you?” he’s half out already.

“Home, El.”

“Gonna have Bell pull me out tomorrow,” he grumbles sleepily.

Olivia laughs softly, her fingers trace the edges of the bandage. She knows the moment he truly falls asleep, and she’s glad, because then he won’t know she has no intention of sleeping at all. His head won’t be clear on the meds, she’d never leave him out here alone like this. On the contrary, if he’s going to do this job, then she’s going to do everything in her goddamned power to make sure he’s in fighting shape. She’ll focus her fear on making sure his head is straight, he’s healed, he’s focused. She’ll make sure he knows he’s got her squad. Her.

She falls back onto her pillow, eyes open into the blackness above.

Yeah, one day she’s going to unleash, let it all out of her. She’s going to get mad, tell him she’s pissed, she’s hurt. She’ll get the last of her hell out of her, dump it at his feet and make him pick the up the pieces. He’ll get his chance to stitch the last of her cuts, too.

But for tonight she’ll stay on watch, and simply let him sleep.

The wounds between them, she thinks, will eventually heal.

+ + + 

finis