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Underneath the Lights

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He was late.  He knew he was late.  He hoped she would still be there.  He had texted her around nine and asked if she could meet him at the little diner they always went to after a stakeout, and now it was almost nine forty-five.

He was honestly surprised she even answered him.  The last few times they had met… well they hadn’t been under the easiest circumstances.  And he promised her he’d be ok and check in, which he did… but recently it had been through Bell.

But tonight, he had a small window of time.  The KO has taken rare time off for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  They were told to spend time with their families because New Years was going to be a “busy time” for them.  Elliot tried not to get too caught up in what exactly that may mean for him and just focus on the present.

Elliot had jumped at the chance to return home to see Eli and his other children and his mother.  But something else was nagging at him.  More than nagging at him.  The same something that kept him up at night…every night… filled his dreams… filled his dreams for the last twenty-three years… and owned his heart.

Olivia.

He knew he should have gone home after he checked in with Bell and told her the deal.  He knew he would probably be intruding on her time with her son, it was Christmas Eve after all.  But before he knew what he was doing, he was texting her to meet him from his phone, and not his burner.  And she had surprised him by responding.  They must have caught a case and she had already been out.

He had spent ten Christmas’s away from her… ten birthdays… ten New Year’s… ten of every holiday… and he just couldn’t spend one more not seeing her.  Before he left, he had probably spent more holidays with her than with his own family.  And part of him regretted that, but a part deep down inside him… a part he kept locked away in his soul, looked forward to seeing her on holidays.  Knowing he would inevitably get called in… and he would get to see her.

He wasn’t sure what it was about the holidays, but everything just seemed… more beautiful.  She always seemed more beautiful.  She was stunning every day… even on the toughest of days, if he was being honest with himself, but on the holidays… there was something else.  Something else on her face, and in her eyes… that just took his breath away.  It gave him warmth… it felt like… coming home… or… maybe….  Well, he wasn’t exactly sure what it was, or where it came from, but he was damn sure he wasn’t going to go another Christmas without seeing it.  Without seeing her.

Even if it was selfish… and he knew he didn’t deserve her… to see her, to have a moment with her… or her forgiveness.  But somehow, she had found a willingness in her heart to offer him a chance at it.  That was Olivia Benson.  A true and kind heart. 

He didn’t deserve her.

And recently he had been all over the map.  But after their last meeting… in his apartment… something changed.

It had taken him by surprised how… open she was with telling him how she felt.  How natural she was in his apartment… talking with his mother.  Like she had always been there.  He had been shocked when her hand touched his skin, and he did everything in his power to not jump from the electricity she sent coursing through his veins.

And then she had lingered… leaned in almost… and it scared the hell out of him.  He wanted so badly to crush his lips to hers… to take her and pull her to him.  To take her breath away like she had always done to him… but he had been gun-shy.  He saw the look in her face as she walked away from him.  Maybe his reaction had sent her a different signal… but he was going to make it right.  He was going to let her know… in no uncertain terms that he wanted her.

He wanted her in his life… he wanted her in every way she’d let him.  And he’d do whatever it took to prove that to her.  If she wanted him.

The thought of her maybe not wanting him had a tight grip in his gut at the moment, but he was tired of playing this game.  A game they had played for years.  Now he could play for the win.  And if she decided to end the game or call a stale mate… well he would just have to deal with that if it happened.

If…

He was holding out hope that if he had any luck left in his life… it would be for this… for her.

He opened the door to the diner, grateful to be out of the cold and shook his coat off, stomping his feet a little to get the snow off.  He looked up quickly to see if she was there.

He was met with her beautiful brown eyes, and he felt the cold leave his body.  He didn’t know when Olivia had become the sun in his world, but somewhere along the way she had.  And her light was the brightest… the warmest… most significant light in his life.

A tiny little smirk came across her face.  The same one he’d seen a thousand times.  One he knew like the back of his hand.  One that every time he was met with it, even over something mundane or everyday like when he used to place her cup of coffee on her desk, it made his breath hitch.

He felt his heart flutter.

Time had been good to her.  She was beautiful… glowing.  How he had spent a decade away from her he’d never understand now.  He regretted leaving her every single day.

Every day.

How could he be in this world, know her… have her as his partner for twelve years… and live without her.

It seemed foreign to him now.  Like the past decade was a hazy dream that now he couldn’t remember.

He moved towards their table.  Of course, she would be sitting at their table.  It warmed his soul to feel the comfort and nostalgia of meeting her here like they had so many times before.  He took off his coat and took his seat across from her.

“Hey…” he said, suddenly unsure of what to do now.

“Hey…” she said moving her cup to her lips.

He watched as her lips made contact with the cup and he had never been more jealous of a dish in his life.

She took a sip and licked her lips as she put her cup back down on the table, and her eyes went to his.

He couldn’t help but let a soft smile slip onto his face.

 They both sat there for a moment… just looking at each other.  And for a second his mind flashed back twenty-three years ago when he sat across from her and had both gotten lost in each other’s eyes.

She softly smiled back, and he knew she was thinking of the same memory.  He could see it in her eyes.  Then she looked down, and he swore he saw a slight flush in her cheeks.  She took a deep breath and arched her eyebrow.

She gazed back at him, and it sent a shiver down his spine. 

“You look cold…” she said sliding her warm mug of coffee to him.

He smiled and quietly laughed.  As he reached out for her offer, their fingertips brushed one another, and it sent another shiver through him.  One he knew she felt as well.

He paused a second to look into her eyes before he brought the cup to his mouth...  He saw her gaze drop to his lips… and a hidden smirk crossed his face thinking about how he had just done the same thing.

He took a sip setting the cup back down.  American coffee was horrible to him now, but he’d never refuse anything from her.  Especially if she was sharing it with him.

“So, you wanted to see me?” She asked wanting to know why he had texted her late on Christmas Eve no doubt.  He was clearly he too wrapped up in gawking at her to remember there was a reason he had contacted her. 

“Uh yes… yes… I wanted…” he paused suddenly tongue tied.  He took a deep breath… just be honest he thought.  No more mix signals.

“Well first… I wanted to let you know… I heard what you said to me at my apartment.  I promise you… I’ll come home.”

To you if you’ll let me… he thought.

“And I also wanted to let you know the KO has taken a few days off from being criminals…” he said a sarcastic tone in his voice, “…Holidays…” he said and gestured with the raising of his shoulders.

“So, I’ll be home…” he paused for a second then added, “At my apartment for Christmas.”

“Oh well that’s great Elliot.  I’m glad you could spend this time with your kids and Bernie.” She looked away and swallowed before she made eye contact again with him.  “They need you…” she said.

I need you too… she thought in her head.

Olivia looked around like she was ready to get up thinking that must just be what he wanted to tell her, and he could have just texted her that.

She started to open her mouth to say something, and Elliot decided to lay his cards down before he chickened out and let her walk out that door.

“There’s something else… I didn’t ask you to meet me here just to tell you something I could have texted…” he said pursing his lips together and taking another big breath.  He looked back up into her eyes, and he could see the questions there.  She had a wary look about her now.  She too feared what he might say.  Things had been every which way between them since he had come back, and it was mostly his fault.  He didn’t blame her for her cautious look.

“I just… I wanted…” God, he was bumbling around his words and his feelings.  Why was this so hard.  He felt heat creep under his skin and his heart was slowly starting to pound in his ears.

He reached out and took her hand in both of his… holding it tight.  And just like that the world stilled.  Suddenly it felt like they were the only two on the planet and his thoughts became clear.

“I missed you Liv…” he said.  And it was the truth.  As pure as the snow falling outside.

He could tell she was still being careful with her facial expressions, but she didn’t pull her hand out of his.  She let him hold it.  He could see her breathing had quickened.  It was nice to know he still had an effect on her.

“I don’t want to intrude on your plans with your son for Christmas… but I just… I couldn’t go another Christmas without seeing you… “ he trailed off.  He could see her eyes becoming glassy.

“Well…” she said, her voice a high whisper.  “I’ve been right where you left me…”

He felt the sharp burn in his heart and chest.  He deserved that.  They had come back a few times, for the holidays to see his children, and yet he hadn’t reached out to her then.  He had been a coward and just let the time keep passing by.

She had been dangerous to him the entirety of their partnership… it was… complicated.  And something stopped him every time they were home from calling her.

Fear.

It was fear.  He knew if he saw her again after he left, he wouldn’t return to Rome.  Which meant a lot of things… things he couldn’t deal with then.  And so much time had passed since he had left… he just felt like he couldn’t reach out.  It was stupid, he knew, but… he wasn’t afraid anymore.

There was nothing he could say accept to agree with her.  She was right.

He nodded his head, feeling the heaviness of her words, and the sharp slice of regret it sent into his stomach.

“Yes… you have… and I’m sorry Liv… I’ll never stop being sorry for that.”

She looked down at their hands and looked back up.  He could tell from her facial expression she wasn’t going to dwell on it.  For some reason he felt like she knew he would do it for the both of them.  And it wasn’t her style to hold a grudge.  Her silence spoke volumes to him.  Their unspoken communication just another testament to how inextricably they were connected on every level.

Her eyes softened and he could still see a hint of pain mixed in with the warmth of her look.  He was determined to erase her pain, no matter how long it or how hard it would be.

“I don’t know what you and Noah have planned for tomorrow… but I want to invite you to come ice skating with us…” El said, pausing to gauge her reaction.

“I didn’t know you could ice skate?” she said with a little grin on her face.

Elliot laughed.  “Yea, well I can’t so at the very least we can bet on how many times I fall on my ass.”

Olivia laughed at his humorous comment.

“My mom really wants to go down to Rockefeller Center with Eli and see the tree and the lights.  I figured it’s the least I can do.  We’d really love to have you and Noah come with.” Elliot said, lifting his eyebrows slightly, hoping her answer would be yes.

“Well… I…” Olivia started to say, trying to figure out how she felt about this.  It would be the first official time he would meet Noah.  She wanted to introduce them months ago, but things had been so shaky and… complicated between them she thought it was best to wait for a better time.

“Please Liv… tell me I don’t have to go back to my mom and tell her you said no… she really wants you and Noah there…” he paused and took a breath before he said out loud what he would usually say in his head, “I really want you there Liv…” he finished as he softly brushed his thumb back and forth along the side of her hand.

He heard her take a breath in and her eyes shot to their hands on the table and then quickly back up to his.  He held her gaze, seeing the years flash through her mind, knowing they had never really done anything like this… together.  This was something personal.  Spending time together outside of work… because they could… because he wanted to.

“That’s sweet of you to ask, and of Bernie, but Elliot… you should be spending it with your family… I don’t want to intrude…” she said softly.

“Liv… you are my family.  Christmas is about spending time with… with the people you love…” he said.  He could feel himself standing on the edge of a cliff… he was ready to free fall into that parallel universe.  The one where it will always be him and Olivia and make it reality.

He saw her cheeks flush, and her breathing quicken.  He had seen this look on her face before.  It was the same one he saw staring back at him when he blurted out he loved her at the intervention.

He could tell she was grappling with the meaning behind what he just said and looking for what to say.  He just needed her to say yes.  The ache in chest of having her back in his life and not seeing her on Christmas… not spending time with her in these next days that were given to him would be soul crushing.

But he knew it had to be her decision.  He had no leg to stand on to demand anything, or to try to persuade her into something.  This had to be on her terms.  He owed her at least that.

“So… what do you say?” he asked, trying his best not to plead.

Her eyes were a little glassy and she pulled at her bottom lip with her teeth.  Then she made his heart soar when she softly smiled and nodded her head.

“Yes… Noah and I would love to…”

Elliot let out a huge sigh.  A sigh of relief followed by a genuine smile.  On he felt like he hadn’t used in quite a long time.  He felt like he could breathe again.

“I’ll call you tomorrow and we can figure out what time and everything.” He said.  His heart was full.  He was going to officially meet Noah… and spend time with Olivia on Christmas.  He felt like this was a giant leap they were taking.  And it felt good.

“Oh… before I forget…” Elliot said letting go of her hand to grab his coat.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d say yes to ice skating, so I brought this with me just in case.  I figured since its just you and me right now I’d give it to you.”

Olivia tilted her head watching him dig through his coat and pull a small red leather box out of his pocket and hold it out to her.

Her mouth opened the slightest bit, and she had a questioning look on her face.

“Elliot… what is this?” she said, not taking the box.

“It’s your Christmas present Liv.” He said and placed it in front of her.

“Elliot… you didn’t have to do this…” she said making a concerned face.

“I know… just… just open it ok.” he said placing his elbows on the table bringing his hands together under his chin, a small smile forming on his face.

Olivia paused for a second looking into his eyes knowing she’d have no other option but to open it, and then sighed, and looked down at the box.  She picked it up and flipped open the top.

A small gasp came out of her mouth.

“Oh Elliot…” she whispered.

Inside the jewelry box was a beautiful gold necklace.  The pendent hanging on the end looked like three triangles woven together and in the middle of it was a brilliant blue gemstone.

Olivia looked up at Elliot, her eyes wide.  She looked a little starry eyed.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“It’s beautiful…” she said touching it with her fingertips.  “But Elliot… you shouldn’t have.”

“Do you know what it is?” he said, and he knew after her told her what it was and what it meant, his intentions would be as clear as glass.

She shook her head, unsure and a little nervous for the explanation.

“I saw this symbol a lot all throughout Europe.  I asked a colleague one day what it was.  He told me it’s a trinity knot.  It’s used a lot for religious purposes to represent the Holy Trinity… but… it also represents relationships…” he said pausing for a second to look down at the necklace.

“You see the arcs are all the same size, meaning no one arc is less important… Past… present… and future…  They are all equal.  And it has no beginning and no end.  It’s …eternal.”

He looked up and saw the tears briming in her eyes.  His heart was beating so hard in his chest as he remembered the day he learned about this symbol and the only thing he ever saw or thought of after that moment when he found one was Olivia.

She was his past… his present… and his future.

Eternally.

He felt his emotions start to swell in his chest, and he cleared his throat to continue.

“The gemstone in the middle is a sapphire.  They represent loyalty… and faithfulness.”

“A few years ago, I had to go to Venice for a job… I had a jeweler there make this for you.  I hoped one day… I’d get to give it to you.”

He saw a tear slip down her cheek and she quickly wiped it away.  She looked down at the necklace and slid her hand over her heart.  When she finally looked back up at him, more silent tears falling, she said something that melted his heart and made him whole again.

“I love it El…”

He felt tears of his own brimming across his eyes now.  She had called him El.  His nickname rolling off her tongue was the most beautiful sound in the world.  Before he knew it, he stood up and was moving to her side of the table taking the necklace out of the box for her.

“Here let me…” he said trying to pull himself back together.  He undid the clasp and she moved her long beautiful hair so he could put her gift on for her.  His hands lingered for a second, and he let his fingertips brush the nape of her neck.  He felt goosebumps ripple across her skin and heard her take in a sharp breath.

He suppressed every instinct he had to turn her face to him and kiss her.  He didn’t want to move too fast, but he felt like they had wasted so much time already.  He had wasted too much time.  And he was ready now.  He was ready to hold her… kiss her… love her in every way he had always wanted to for what seemed like his whole life.

But they were on the right path now.  He could feel it.  He just… knew it.

He went to sit back down across from her, his mind racing… his blood rushing, but Olivia’s phone chimed before he made it back to his seat.

“It’s Rollins… I’d better go.” She said looking at the time.  It was almost midnight.  She started to get up.

“Carisi offered to watch Noah and Amanda’s two girls when we got called in.”

“Of course…” Elliot said, and grabbed her coat for her, helping her into it.  He turned to look at Olivia.

“Are they… a thing?” Elliot asked.

Olivia laughed.  “Well… they think no one knows…” she paused looking into his eyes.

He stilled seeing something different in them now.  They were bright and shining.  The light of his life.  It took his breath away.

“But I can tell.  Somethings… you just know.” She said, her voice lower.  He knew she meant something else with those last words.  The deeper meaning behind it.  It sent a shiver down his spine.

He took a deep breath in as he put his coat on and followed her out the door.

It was still snowing softly.  Little snowflakes were catching in her long hair, and he simply sighed and looked at her.  There was no one on the street.  The city was quiet.  The streetlights were glowing softly.  It was like their own private winter wonderland.

“See you tomorrow?” Elliot asked as they stood there enjoying the quiet peace.

“Wouldn’t miss it…” Olivia said as she started to turn and walk towards her car.

Just then a church’s bell tolled.

It was midnight.

It was Christmas.

“Liv…” Elliot said, and Olivia stopped in her tracks.  He closed the distance between them.

“Merry Christmas…” he said as he grabbed her arm and pulled her into him… crashing his lips to hers.