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A Family Christmas Get Together (at which not everything is perfect)

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A Family Christmas Get Together (at which not everything is perfect)

Fleeterberry

Spoilers: post ep for season 23x09/OC 02x09 crossover eps

Disclaimer: I don’t own them.



She can’t say no.  Between the adorable picture he painted with his shy smile and worrying his lip and his soft voice and the honest truth that she wanted to spend time with him when the shit wasn’t hitting the fan, she really has no choice.  She tries to talk herself out of it, wanting to kick herself for her own anxiety, her deer in the headlights behavior telling him she’d let him know and then asking if she could let him know.  She can’t remember ever being so nervous and excited and unable to stop herself from smiling so hard it felt like her face was stuck that way.  



She is sure she had been at some point, maybe in high school while she waited for - fuck, she can’t even remember his name anymore - Bobby or Robby or something like that to ask her to the homecoming dance, but this is different. More intense. More incapacitating.  Because being fourteen with no experience whatsoever with love and loss and life was in no way comparable to her now and it’s alarming to her that she’s even capable of having those nervous butterflies that make her smile for no reason and want to squeal in excitement.



It makes her wonder if that means something important.  If her feelings for him are the same as her feelings for her first crush, then maybe this too is just a crush and maybe it would have burned out years ago if they’d just kissed or even simply entertained the idea of something more and now she’s just built the damn thing up in her mind for so long that she thinks it’s love when it’s not.



She spends far too much time thinking about his awkward attempts to do as she asked, to break away from their long established pattern of not discussing things because they never asked each other things because they were used to spending so much time together they assumed they knew everything already and now he’s asking her questions and making overtures and grinning like a fool at her and tripping over himself in an effort to go through the motions of getting to know her because she said for now which she knows gave him the idea that there was hope for something more.



And there is, she knows, because whether it’s the idea of finally having something that was always out of reach (and she really hopes it’s not) or it’s actual fucking love (and she wants to tell herself it is), she desperately wants it.  She wants the goosebumps when he touches her and the irrepressible smile and even the nauseating butterflies that won’t give her a damn break.  She wants to say yes when he asks her on a date that doesn’t involve at least two chaperones.  She wants to feel him take her hand for once.  She wants that moment at the end of the night after she’s been a nervous wreck all night and he’s taken her to some fancy restaurant and she’s a little tipsy because she drank too much wine in an effort to calm her nerves and he’s held her hand most of the way back to her place and there’s awkward silence because he wants to kiss her and she wants to kiss him and neither of them is quite sure that it’s the right time or a good idea or if it’s actually mutual and then he summons up the courage and pulls her close and she can’t hear whatever he’s saying because her heart is pounding too loudly in her ears.



She’s a little irritated, to tell the truth, that he didn’t quite have the nerve to ask her on a real date and instead wimped out and asked her to join him and his family.  She understands the sentiment behind it, she understands that he’s trying to include her as a part of that family, but she thinks they need to do more work on them, just them, without worrying about their kids and his mother and the first holiday without his wife and merging completely separate family traditions without having discussed any of said traditions.  She wants to talk to him, really talk , and get some shit settled before they go about announcing a relationship she’s still not sure about, no matter how much she wants it, to their families.



And still, she has no choice because she knows the man and she knows he’ll follow her lead and if she says no to the Christmas party, he’ll read it as rejection and he’ll close back up and won’t ask again and somehow she’s still too uncertain that she’s even reading the situation right to find enough bravado to ask him on a date and so she sends him a text three days after the invitation asking him what time she should bring Noah over.



She changes four times because she’s too old to bother asking what attire is appropriate for this gathering and she figures first that it’s a family get together in his living room and so thinks jeans and a green sweater is fine and then she decides it’s a date and a holiday party and puts on a red dress and then she laughs at herself and pulls on gray slacks and a black turtleneck and then reminds herself she is neither going to work nor a funeral and so stands for a long time in front of her closet and has no idea what to wear because she’s not sure if it’s a date and she wishes she’d asked for clarification except by asking she’d be a little too vulnerable and she seriously considers canceling and saying Noah has a stomach bug and then she finally puts the red dress back on because it’s a fucking Christmas party and she assumes a festive dress is the appropriate attire.  She takes too much time curling her hair and applying her makeup and tries to lie to herself that she’s not considering opting for lip gloss instead of lipstick because she’s not sure it won’t wind up smeared on Elliot’s mouth by the end of the night and if that happens she’ll be too nervous about having kissed him to notice, but someone in that house will comment on it and mortify the shit of out her and so even though she’s pretending it’s not happening, she puts on a clear lip gloss and prays like fuck Elliot won’t read anything into it even though he will because she’s always worn lipstick and he fucking knows that.



She’s so nervous she’s shaking as she herds Noah out the door and she makes it all the way to the car before she realizes she forgot the wine she was bringing and she has to go back for it because otherwise she’ll feel guilty for all the wine she anticipates drinking at this party and so they have to trek back to the apartment and get the wine and she’s gripping Noah’s hand like he’s a toddler and he’s trying to pull away because he needs both hands to play his current favorite game on his phone, but she can’t let go because she needs to squeeze something softer than the wine bottle.



By the time she’s parked on his street, she’s fairly certain she’s having a heart attack and her hands are clammy and sweaty and she can’t let go of the steering wheel and she’s too nervous to move.  She’s trying to talk herself into going inside or at least getting out of the car because she told him she was coming and she doesn’t want to be too late because she knows him and she knows he’ll panic and freak out and make her arrival even more uncomfortable.  She can’t seem to make herself move though and she checks her reflection in the mirror and she thinks she might have gone a little too heavy on the eyeliner because it’s the middle of the damn day and she’s definitely rethinking not wearing lipstick because with the overdone eyes and underdone lips she thinks she looks completely different from normal and she doesn’t want that and she starts looking around to see if there’s anywhere nearby that she might be able to buy makeup remover and mascara and lipstick to fix this mess and then Noah is looking at her and asking if everything’s ok and she forces a smile instead of answering because it’s not ok and she doesn’t want to lie.



She realizes that attempting to do anything about her makeup is likely to make things worse and so closes the mirror and determines she is going to count to ten, no twenty, ok no, she’ll count to thirty and then she is getting out of the car and going to his door and opening the fucking wine as soon as reasonably possible and she wonders if any of this is a good idea if she’s counting on alcohol to make it tolerable.



At twenty-three another car pulls up and parks a few places in front of her.  At twenty-seven, she sees a woman climbing out of the car and Olivia is immediately jealous of the complete confidence as the woman strides toward the door of Elliot’s building.  At twenty-nine, she realizes she’s watching Ayanna Bell disappear inside and Olivia once again realizes she’s a goddamn fucking fool .  She thought it was a date of sorts, that she was being invited into his family because he wanted to get closer to her and she got herself all excited despite her better judgement at the prospect of seeing him in a completely social context and now she’s really regretting the lip gloss because she obviously misunderstood and he’s having a holiday party that extends to coworkers and so everyone there will be expecting Captain Benson and instead Olivia was seconds away from showing up in her clown suit.



“Mom, are you ok?”



It’s really hard to explain why she’s crying and she can’t because there’s no way to explain to her son that she’s a damn idiot and she’s really far too old to keep getting her heart broken.  She drives home and drags Noah back inside and she’s about to suggest they make giant sundaes and watch a movie instead but as she’s heading into her bedroom to change, she thinks about how difficult it will be to explain her absence and so decides she’s going to save face.  She scrubs off her makeup and reapplies it, deliberately putting on her regular work look complete with lipstick.  The dress is tossed on the bed and she pulls the gray slacks back on and opts for the green sweater because now her look is somewhere between work and casual and so at least she won’t garner too much attention.



She deliberately leaves the wine on the counter this time because it’s not a date and she’s no longer nervous.  She’s fucking angry now, at him, at herself, at the fucking universe for letting her get all worked up again over the relationship that’s never going to fucking happen and this time she swears she’s done and she’s going to tamp down her anger and get through this stupid fucking Christmas party and then she’s really done with him and she’ll work with him if she has to because she doesn’t want Rollins to ask what happened and Fin to chuckle as he asks what Stabler did this time, but she’s not fucking answering her phone at four in the morning because he’s not a member of her squad or her boss or her boyfriend and she is unavailable to casual acquaintances outside of normal working hours.



She’s sitting at a red light on her way back to Elliot’s place and Noah is getting antsy from riding around too much and there’s a liquor store on the opposite corner and she contemplates getting a bottle of bourbon because the burn would help soothe the fury, but she knows better because a strong drink will probably only make her honest and Elliot has never been able to resist needling her when she’s in a mood and she is not going to have a fight with him at a party in front of coworkers because it seems far too intimate to be quietly arguing in public and she cannot let that reputation come back.



This time she parks the car and climbs out immediately because she’s so not nervous anymore she can’t remember ever having had butterflies and she briefly wonders why he invited Noah to a work party but she decides he must have anticipated she would refuse to go anywhere if her son wasn’t invited.  Her knuckles tap a little too harshly on the door, the byproduct of too many years as a cop and as the door swings open she immediately notices two things.



First, there is a line of Stablers all vying for a view of her and her son and they look quite expectant.



Second, her son is gripping her pants and sliding himself behind her legs in the shy way he hasn’t done since he was three.



It takes her a long moment to even see Elliot and his nervous smile and dancing eyes and his hand squeezing the doorknob and his other hand curled into a fist.



And then the butterflies she didn’t remember knowing are back home in her stomach and making her want to throw up.



Whatever the fuck she thought, this isn’t it.  She wants the wine and the bourbon and a motherfucking sundae and instead is reaching down for Noah’s wrist and curling her fingers tightly around it because she needs something to steady her right now and her son appears to be the only thing available.



She’s able to wrench Noah out from behind her and she’s not sure how she finds the strength, but she digs deep and tells Noah this is her friend Elliot and Elliot obediently squats down to shake Noah’s hand and she has no idea what they’re talking about but she’s suddenly very upset that Elliot is engaging her son because he’s her son and her security blanket and he’s got a whole fucking house of family and she’s just got the one person.



A moment later, Noah is being introduced to a couple of younger kids and she wants to be glad he’ll have someone to talk to and that he's no longer at all shy all of a sudden but she’s sick with nerves and she wishes he were still beside her holding her hand and she really wishes she’d brought the wine after all because it would be something she could hold.  She’s not sure what the audience is expecting and she tries to see past her own awkwardness and she thinks Elliot might be considering hugging her, but she cannot do that because she was furious at him a few minutes ago and now she feels like she’s having one of those weird first dates on a reality show where people are watching and rating her behavior and if he puts his hands on her in any way she’s going to jump out of her fucking skin.



The room is too still and the music playing seems oddly loud and she notices something off.  She looks at Elliot.  “Is something burning?”



Her question breaks the tension, or the attention at least, as the room scurries back to whatever they were doing and Bernie is saying something about knowing she was going to forget the cookies and some man Olivia is certain she doesn’t know answering that Bernie wasn’t even making the cookies and then she’s looking back at Elliot and his good mood seems to have disappeared with the crowd.



“Wheatley’s been released.  DA’s office decided against a retrial.”  His voice is soft as he steps back to allow her entrance and she’s trying to change gears again and she’s confused since he was grinning stupidly at her when he opened the door but then she catches her reflection in the mirror and realizes that Captain Benson is here, not Olivia, and so Elliot is responding in kind.  



She’s trying to get all of her thoughts straight in her head as they walk into the living room and Olivia is looking around for these work people she expected and then she realizes that Bell isn’t still here and finally processes what Elliot just told her and she is too busy trying to fit it all together to censor herself.  “Is that why Bell was here?”



Elliot’s a detective, a damn good one, and he catches her slip immediately and his eyes narrow and his hand is at her elbow and he’s keeping his voice down which is making everything seem so much more intimate than it is.  “She was here an hour ago, Olivia.”



She knows better than to look down and give herself away so she forces herself to hold his eyes and she can see how hard he’s trying to understand what she’s just accidentally told him and she can’t give herself away because she’s too fucking confused right now and she really needs a minute to think.  “Noah forgot his phone and he insisted we go back for it.”



Now they both know she’s lying because there is zero chance Olivia would allow her eight-year-old son to demand they drive all the way home to get his phone, but if he argues, she’ll dig in and so he drops it and she assumes it’s because he recognizes that she’s not sure about any of this and he’s probably just happy she got over whatever hurdles she had and showed up, even if she’s an hour later than they’d discussed.  



She glances around and sees the way people are watching them and she feels just as weird as she’d expected to feel and so she swallows hard and asks if he has anything to drink.  She means alcohol, but when he hands her a bottle of water, she accepts it because it’s the middle of the day and there are children present and she doesn’t really want to have an argument with him in front of his family and she knows she will because she’s so fucking confused and he just got bad news and they’re both looking for someone to rage at and they’ve been that for each other for a long, long time and it’s better if they just don’t right now.



She’s looking around the kitchen as she sips at her water and she sees the pans on the stove and the dishes set out and she suspects they were supposed to eat an hour ago and Eli is reaching for a cookie and Bernie slaps his hand away saying they’re for after they eat and Eli says he’s starving and Bernie answers that they all are but they have to wait and Olivia is mortified that she’s held his family back from eating because they had to wait for her to change her clothes because she wasn’t sure if she was on a date or not.



And whether she was or wasn’t supposed to be on a date, she’s definitely not now and somehow it’s more uncomfortable because the anticipation butterflies are gone again, replaced by the heavy fucking brick that tells her she shouldn’t be here.  Whatever is or isn’t happening with Elliot really shouldn’t involve several generations of his family and she hopes Fin calls her to work because she desperately needs a reason to leave right fucking now .



Elliot calls into the other room that it’s time to eat and he lowered his voice to tell her that he hasn’t told anyone yet about Bell’s news and before she knows it, Dickie and Elizabeth are right next to her.



“Tell anyone what?”  Elizabeth asks with her eyes glued to her father but occasionally lighting on Olivia.



Dickie is talking around a mouthful of cookie he’s split with Eli behind Bernie’s back.  “You guys finally hook up?”  His twin slugs him in the arm, but their questions have caught the attention of Bernie, who seems to interpret everything as good news and thus cause for exclamation.



“Are you dating?”  She looks positively gleeful.



“No!”  Olivia’s voice is sharp and angry and she clutches the bottle of water so hard the plastic crumbles under her hand.



And then Elliot is across the room, grabbing the food from the oven where it’s been left to overcook for an hour while Olivia redid her makeup and more or less throwing it on the table and everyone has finally gathered around and there may or may not be enough chairs but either way the whole fucking room is too claustrophobic for her and she’s trying to think of a way to get herself and her son out of there and she doesn’t even care if she’s obvious and clumsy, she just wants to leave.



She spies several wine bottles on the counter and she starts opening one and there’s the guy she doesn’t know standing a few feet away mixing himself a rather strong drink and Bernie is telling Elliot to wait on serving the food until everyone is at the table and something dense and loud hits the table and Olivia doesn’t know if it was Elliot’s fist or food and she doesn’t want to look and she’s pouring wine into a tumbler because she isn’t about to go looking for the right glass and then Kathleen asks who’s going to say grace because her mother always said grace and Elliot’s answer is “Jesus fucking Christ” which, as far as Olivia can tell, is not, in fact, a prayer.  The guy next to her is snickering into his drink and muttering about a typical Stabler holiday and Irish tempers and Olivia starts laughing into her tumbler of merlot.



Maureen’s quiet “Carl” inquiry is mostly lost under Elliot’s irritated “You guys planning on joining us any time soon?”



And Olivia follows a chastised Carl as he takes his place next to his wife or girlfriend or date or whoever Maureen is to him and Olivia finds Noah is sitting next to the kids she also doesn’t know at the far end of the table from Elliot and Bernie and Eli and she doesn’t see a chair or a place setting for her but there is exactly no chance she’s going to ask and even less chance she’s going to move closer, so she decides she’s going to share a plate with Noah because he hasn’t put his phone down and it doesn’t look like he’s planning to and suddenly Elliot’s faking a calm voice and asking Noah if he ever puts his phone down and Noah answers with familiar Benson sass “only when the battery dies” and she’s proud of her son for mouthing off to Elliot but also angry that Elliot now knows the boy did not forget his phone and he’s glaring at her for lying and she’s clenching her teeth and refusing to look away because she lied to protect her vulnerability and she’s not going to reveal herself now and then Bernie says something and Olivia doesn’t quite catch it but the chorus of Amens from most of the group tell her it was a prayer of some sort.



It’s weird after a moment to be standing at the end of the table while everyone else is sitting down and so she squats down and pretends it’s just to insist Noah put away his phone, but really it’s to distract everyone for a moment until she can figure out how to come up with an excuse not to sit down.  Conversation starts up and she knows the ruse has worked and so she quietly stands up and heads back to the counter for her drink and maybe the bottle and she hears him state her name in a growl, a warning in the tone, and she ignores him, but no one else does because they all stop talking and once again the entirely fucking family is staring at her, but at least this time she does indeed have a wine bottle in her hand.



It’s a moment later and Elliot is beside her.  “Are you really going to stand here and drink while everyone has dinner?”  His eyes are locked on her profile and she can feel the way his whole body tenses.  “Or is Fin late in calling you to an emergency?”



She wishes she’d thought of it.  She wishes she didn’t feel so out of place.  She wishes she and Elliot weren't so symbiotic as to drag each other into bad moods.  She wishes she’d declined the invitation because nothing works out like she wants it to and she should have known this had disaster written all over it and she really wishes she could leave and get good and drunk, but she can’t because she has to take care of Noah.



“I shouldn’t be here.”  She swallows hard and tries to figure out where the words came from because she didn’t intend to say them and she hates that he’s mad but she’s also kind of happy for it because she’s very comfortable with angry Elliot and two minutes of sweet Elliot last week sent her into a fucking tailspin that lasted for four days.



“Why not?”  He’s biting back his anger and she wants to be appreciative of how he’s trying to be different with her and ask questions instead of getting angry, but he’s already angry and she doesn’t really want him to be different because she loves the Elliot she always knew and maybe that’s why this is so weird for both of them because they’re acting like strangers around each other but they know each other too well to pull it off.



She wants to say it’s because they’re not at the stage of their relationship where they should even be meeting each other’s families let alone spending holidays together, but to say so would be to admit to a relationship she’s not even sure is really happening.  Yes, he seemed to allude to them being more or at least that he wanted more and he was flirting with her, but she’s watched him flirt his way to forgiveness plenty of times and maybe she once again misread the whole fucking situation and even if she didn’t, she was the one who said friends, so she had no reason to expect this is a date.



It hits her then like a two by four to the head that he knew she wasn’t seeing anyone and that her one solid boyfriend is dead and he’d known she was alone except for Noah and probably felt bad for her and so offered the invitation he’d offered for twelve years when he’d felt bad for her and maybe he wasn’t flirting, maybe he was laughing and at least all those twelve years she’d had the fucking sense to say no.



She needs a moment she doesn’t have to get herself together, something made even harder by the man standing too close to her, and she wants to tell him to fuck off and storm away, but she’s already all too aware of the pin-drop level of silence behind them that tells her the whole room is staring.



Elliot can read her like no one else, something that often gives her pause when he hurts her so easily, but she can’t deny it’s true.  “Olivia, I invited you because I wanted you here.”  He takes a breath and wanders further into stranger Elliot territory.  “But if you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to stay.”



She wonders if that’s true, if he really does want her there, or if he just invited her out of pity.  Of course he’s not going to say that to her face.  She suspects the problem comes back around to what she’d said to him outside the courthouse.  She wants to trust him, but she’s not sure she can and maybe the fact that she has doubts means she doesn’t trust him, as much as it pains her to admit.



“Why did you invite us?”  She can’t look at him because she’s afraid she’ll look in his eyes and it’ll be a long time ago when she can absolutely trust him and it’ll just be another rude awakening when something snaps her back to the reality that it’s not a long time ago and she can’t absolutely trust him.



“Olivia, I just said I invited you because I want you here.”  He realizes that his voice rose and that everyone is listening and he turns away, aiming his command at the table full of people who appear fully engaged in the dinner theatre performance.  “Turn up the fucking music and start without us.”



When no one listens, he lowers his voice again.  “Can I talk to you outside please?”



His hand is on her elbow again and she doesn’t want to go outside because the audience, as annoying as it is, is a guarantee that things will remain civil.  She’s terrified that privacy will mean the gloves come off and she really doesn’t want to have a fucking fight with him and suddenly she’s wishing she’d worn her red dress because then he’d be too busy trying not to stare at her cleavage to argue with her.



“What do you want, Elliot?”  She doesn’t want the smiles and the flirting and the hinting and the handholding and the thinly-veiled asking if she’d ever gotten over him because she’s too uncertain of them right now.  She needs fucking words, definitive answers, honest statements.  She needs to know in no uncertain terms where he’s trying to steer them so she can decide if she wants to go there.



“I want you to sit down and eat dinner, but I guess that’s too much to ask, isn’t it?”



“No, I mean-”  It’s hard for her to get the words out and she can’t say them without her voice breaking and she cannot break with the entire fucking Stabler family listening in because she’s always been the strong one holding them all up.  “Noah, go turn up the music please.  Kathleen will show you how.”



And this time, in less than a minute, the Christmas carols are playing loudly and then there’s the clinking of silverware and dishes and people start talking amongst themselves.



She takes the time to gather herself and her thoughts and makes the decision to just say it because she’s probably going to get hurt anyway so she may as well ask him to rip off the fucking bandage.  “I mean with this, us, between us, what do you want?”  She thinks she knows but she’s not sure because anything she was sure of with them went out the window when her partner disappeared for a decade.



“I thought you wanted to be friends, so I’m trying to be friends.”



She has enough friends, she thinks bitterly, and if she were picking a new one, she’d probably aim for someone less likely to destroy her by accident.  “I know what I said.  I’m asking what you want.”  She finally takes her eyes off the wine in front of her and dares to look up at him, but only for a second before her eyes are back on her drink.  “Just tell me the truth because I don’t-”  She can’t finish the sentence because she doesn’t really know what she means to say.  Maybe she just wants him to crawl out on a ledge for once for her.



He shifts over, his body moving closer until she starts to lean away, but then his hand is on her hip, keeping her from breaking the contact.  She shivers and then curses herself for being so fucking transparent and she feels the pressure of his hand and the pull on her body and it’s gentle and subtle but it’s Elliot so it’s a fucking command and she lets him pull her around to face him.



“Olivia.”



She knows he wants her to look at him, but she’s tired of looking at him and trying to interpret what he means and she’s damn well convinced herself she’s no good at it anyway and she just wants him to say it.  Just fucking say it.  Whatever the hell it is, she just needs to hear it.



And then his other hand is on her other hip and he’s pulling again and his hands are sliding to the small of her back and she doesn’t care how fucking good the food might be there’s exactly zero chance that no one is seeing this and she wants to push him away, but it’s fucking Elliot and she’s pretty fucking powerless to say no to him even when he’s doing something she doesn’t want him to do so now that he’s doing something she damn well wants him to do she’s definitely not inclined to stop him.



Her hands wind up on his chest because there’s nowhere else to put them and she’s just staring at her fingers splayed out against his pecs and she’s never touched him like this and she wants to marvel that his body is like a fucking rock under her fingers but she’s too busy concentrating on breathing because she’s afraid she might stop at any moment.



“Olivia, look at me.”



She hears a muffled squeak coming from the direction of the table and she doesn’t know what’s going on here but she’s completely sure it’s not supposed to be happening in front of his children and her son and whoever those little boys are.  She knows she should say stop because the sounds of the meal have once again silenced but part of her knows that the moment she utters that four-letter word he will obey and therefore she has to be sure she means it before she says it.



“Look at me, Liv.”  His fingers are moving across her back while his arms hold her tight and she wants to give in and trust him, but fuck, it’ll kill her if he hurts her again, if she hears that he turned to some other woman for comfort again, if she hears he had another woman in his bed again, because she’s waited for all these years to be the one he chooses and he never, ever chooses her.



And then one of his hands is in her hair, tangling into her carefully arranged curls, angling her head up so he can meet her eyes.  When she’s positioned so she has no choices besides looking at his lips or returning his stare, she opts for his eyes.  She’s so fucking terrified of this moment and still, she wants it more than anything because at least now she’ll know .  



The corners of his mouth turn up in a smirk.  “If you’re going to make me say this in front of the peanut gallery again, could you at least look at me?”



And then his hold relaxes, his fingers sliding down her back and settling in loosely on her hips and she knows she can pull away and that he’ll let her and somehow his eyes hold her in place just the same and she can’t walk away and she still can’t relax even though there is a strong indication that this is going the way she wants it to go because once panic sets in, and it already has, it takes a while to calm back down.  “Here?  Now?”



“You’re the one who refused to go outside.”  He chuckles at her, but his expression turns serious a second later.  “Right here, right now.”



She swallows hard and nods, understanding that she pushed this and so she has to listen to what he has to say.  At least she’ll know, once and for all.



“I want you, Olivia, however you’ll have me.”  He holds her eyes for a long time and she almost expects a long, drawn out speech like in a romcom, but this is Elliot and he’s using words instead of facial expressions and she’s so happy for that improvement that she almost doesn’t understand what he said.



And then the words sink in and the music she’d demanded her son turn up seems to fade away behind her heart pounding and she’s just staring at him and wondering if this could possibly be real.  She knows she needs to say something, but she doesn’t know how to talk or breathe or think anymore.



“I love you.”  His eyes dart over to the people watching and a rueful, nervous smile forms as he turns back to her.  “And someday I’d like to tell you that when no one else is listening.”



She finds herself nodding and she knows he wants more than that from her but she needs to fucking think and she can’t do that right now with the way he’s looking at her and when his arms are around her and there’s a table full of people who are staring at them.  She lets her head fall forward, her forehead against his chest, and her hands slowly move to complete the embrace.  



A long moment passes when she feels one of his hands smoothing over her hair and then his lips press against the top of her head.  His voice is soft and meant only for her ears.  “Are we ok?”



She nods again, pulling away and looking up at him.  “Yeah, we’re ok.”



He holds her eyes and then starts to smile, a real smile that crinkles his eyes and is apparently quite contagious because she’s smiling back and she can’t imagine ever not smiling.  He nods toward the table.  “So dinner?”  And she can’t talk around her smile so she nods.



He stares at her, his smile fading as his eyes hold hers and she wants to ask what’s wrong because something must be and then it occurs to her that she pushed him to make this confession that maybe he wasn’t ready to make and he did it for her and appearances aside, he must be feeling every fucking bit as nervous and scared and defenseless as she would feel in his position.  



And she loves him, she knows she does, and whether she should or shouldn’t and whether it’s going to work out or not, there really isn’t a damn thing she can do about it so she might as well admit it.  “I love you, El.”  She finds the words much easier to say than she expected and once they’re out, she says something else that she never expected to admit.  “I’ve always loved you.”



She thinks he looks happy, maybe surprised too, but she’d say mostly happy even though she’s never seen him happy, not really, but she sees the tears in his eyes nonetheless and she realizes he can’t believe she said it any more than she can.  She watches him fight the overwhelming emotions, her own tears forming at the sight of his, and she can only hold him and wait for him to get control once again.



It takes a minute, but he blinks away his tears and she hers, and as he’s pulling his hands from her, his eyes drop pointedly to her mouth and then back to her eyes and there’s no hint of a blush or shame and she wants to say fuck it and kiss him but she really can’t do that in front of all these people because she knows there is a damn good chance the first time they kiss will result in tearing of clothing and popping of buttons and crashing into walls and that’s probably not a good idea for a family Christmas party.



She shakes her head the slightest bit, knowing he’ll catch the motion and hoping he’ll understand but then she remembers that this Elliot and this Olivia don’t know each other that well and so she has to elaborate.  “Not now.”



His eyebrow quirks up in response and he’s smiling again and she realizes he’s fucking adorable when he smiles.  “What about later?”



She grabs her wine and starts toward the table, looking back over her shoulder at him.  “Absolutely.”  And now that everyone has started eating, she sees that there is an empty chair and a place setting for her and it’s right next to Elliot and she wonders how she missed it earlier.



After dinner, after everyone has gone home, when Bernie and Noah are carefully decorating completely overcooked gingerbread men and Eli is stretched all the way across the couch and playing the same damn game Noah has been playing for weeks and Kathleen has gone to sleep, Olivia and Elliot are clearing the wasteland of a table and loading the dishwasher and the scene feels so domestic and weird and somehow completely comfortable.  Her butterflies are gone and she feels the same sense of security and rhythm moving around the kitchen with him that she always did working a crime scene.  



The last of the dishes are cleared and the dishwasher is running and Olivia has reluctantly told Noah’s time for them to go and he’s so high on sugar that he begs to stay a little longer and she’s exhausted from all the stress but she agrees to fifteen more minutes because she doesn't really want to leave either and then Noah and Bernie decide to race and see how many more cookies they can decorate in the allotted time and Olivia just wants to smile and watch them, but there’s a tugging on her hand and Elliot’s pulling her toward the hallway and she wonders what’s going on and they’re nearly at the front door and she’s about to ask if he’s that desperate for her to leave.



But then he’s grinning at her and stepping closer and closer until she backs into the wall and she realizes that although she can hear the rest of the people moving around, she can’t see them and she suspects that’s exactly why Elliot dragged her here and she wonders why he didn’t take her outside to the garden, but then she realizes that’s too obvious and the windows make it too visible as well.  And she’d thought she wasn’t nervous anymore, but there’s the pitterpatter of butterfly wings dancing about in her belly and once again there’s nowhere for her hands to go except on his chest because he’s pushing her into the wall with his full weight.



His face is so close to hers she can’t even think anymore and he’s smiling and she can’t help but smile too and she wants to know if his voice has always been this low and rumbly.  “Is it later yet?”



She wants to answer but her brain is completely broken now, more every second with the way his eyes keep dropping to her lips and she wants to nod instead of speaking but then she forgets he asked anything because she’s looking at the way he’s licking his bottom lip and it reminds her of the shy way he asked her to come to this party and then he’s talking again his she realizes he’s thinking about it too.



“So, since we’re friends now,” he pauses, distracted by the way she’s sliding her hands up over his shoulders and grabbing the back of his neck.  And then he’s just staring at her, his eyes darting back and forth between hers as though he can’t quite believe this is happening.



She grins, finally finding her voice and leaning forward against his chest.  “You were saying something about us being friends?”



His hands are shifting from her waist to her hips and then his fingers tuck under her sweater and slide along her waist and his palms are pressing flat against her back and the skin contact is fucking electric and she doesn’t think she’s ever been so turned on.  He’s smiling as though he knows where her mind has gone or maybe just because she’s letting him touch her like this and he leans forward a little more until his lips graze hers as he speaks.



“I don’t want to be friends anymore.”  His hips shift against hers and pushes herself into him, drawing a low groan from both of them.  She’d suspected their first kiss might get out of hand, but hell, they’re not even kissing and it’s damn close to out of hand.



“Then let’s not be friends.”  She lifts up onto her toes and pulls with her hands and presses her mouth against his.