Olivia wakes overheated and sweaty, her back sore and her bladder full. For a second, she’s completely disoriented. She’s no stranger to falling asleep on the sofa (especially on the bad nights, when she lays here and keeps her eyes glued to the TV to keep other, more unsettling images from playing on the backs of her eyelids), but she usually turns the lights down low, usually wakes with an arm flung out and the blanket tangled loosely around her legs. She’s unused to falling asleep with another person and unused to being so… restrained.
She’s wedged between Elliot’s broad torso and the back of the sofa, their bodies pressed tight; she hasn’t moved a muscle since she fell asleep and her body is itching to stretch, to roll, but there’s nowhere for her to go. Elliot is sound asleep; she can’t see his face, but she can feel the steady rise and fall of his breath beneath her cheek, how slack his fingers are where they’re tangled in her hair, his other hand cuffing her wrist loosely where it rests on his chest. The blanket she’d pulled over them earlier has gotten caught under his thigh, pulling it tight across her hip and keeping Olivia and all their body heat trapped beneath it.
When she’d fallen asleep, it had been heavenly—being cocooned with him, wrapped up and held close and kept safe. She’d let the security of the cushions at her back and his solid body at her front serve as a fortress against her twisted emotions and weary heart, barricaded herself in and let her eyes drop closed knowing that she was taken care of. What a rare gift that was.
And she’d slept well, though she has no idea how long she’s been out. It’s still dark outside her windows, and she can’t read the clock on the TV from here. She feels rested—another rarity for her. She thinks she could doze for a while, but doubts she’ll fall back into a deep sleep once she gets up and moves around—and she does need to get up and move around.
She’s sweltering under this blanket, and she really, really has to pee.
There’s no avoiding it. Unfortunately, there’s also no way to avoid waking Elliot in the process. Even if she could ease her wrist from his grasp without waking him, she has no leverage to push herself up and off this sofa without planting a hand somewhere on his torso.
She hates to disturb him when he’s spent the night being so wonderful to her, hates especially the idea that if she wakes him he might leave, but she doesn’t see any way around it.
The least she can do is wake him gently. She shifts against him, stretches out as best she can, letting her leg extend down as far as she can manage along the length of his, twisting her back and shoulders a little, her pelvis arching into his hip. As if she’s just woken up and hasn’t been lying here for several minutes, reluctantly planning her escape.
Elliot stirs; there’s a change in his breathing and he turns his head toward hers, nuzzling into her hair. A lovesick part of her absolutely melts, especially when he presses his lips softly to the top of her head and shushes her quietly, his hand rubbing sleepily up and down her forearm, his fingers weaving deeper into her hair and scratching lazily against her scalp. He’s trying to soothe her back to sleep, and she’s so fucking grateful that someone—that he—has finally bothered to that she’s almost tempted to stay. To hold her bladder until her molars are floating and just linger here with him, held and comforted until the sun rises.
But then her back twinges again and her bladder throbs and… she can’t wait. She rubs her palm over his chest, then upward, letting her nails graze gently over the warm skin of his neck and earning a shiver and sharp inhale for her trouble. He makes a soft sound in the back of his throat, and she smiles.
He’s awake now.
Her voice is raspy and low when she tells him, “I have to pee.” He grunts, nods, stretches just a little underneath her (and God, she enjoys the way it feels when his body moves against hers, greedily drinking in even this benign contact when for so long it had been made forbidden by decency or impossible by distance). He reaches down and yanks the blanket off of them, letting it drop to the floor next to the sofa, and Olivia could cry with relief as the cold air of the apartment rushes in against her heated skin. She can feel the places that her shirt is clinging to her sweaty back and belly, can feel the way the band of her bralette has gone damp. She needs to change.
But first she needs the bathroom, and Elliot needs to put some hustle in his movement before she wets the couch like a toddler.
She gives him a little nudge of encouragement and they maneuver clumsily until she can stumble to her own two feet. The arm that had been pinned beneath her had gone so numb she hadn’t realized until she tried to use it to push herself up and faltered, and she flexes her fingers until they start to tingle, using the other hand to give him a little push back toward the sofa cushions (she really wants him to stay, but doesn’t want to have to ask, hoping he’ll take the hint), twisting her back this way and that (it pops in three different places) before she walks swiftly toward her bathroom.
She flips off the living room light as she passes the switch, hoping the darkness will encourage Elliot to settle, and then shuts the bathroom door behind her and sinks down onto the toilet with a relieved sigh. As she empties her bladder, she pulls her shirt away from her skin, and then off completely (nobody to see her in here), rucking the band of her bralette up over her breasts to settle near her armpits for a minute and using a handful of toilet paper to absorb the underboob sweat. (If he could only see me now… Olivia thinks wryly, knowing that she doesn’t exactly make an alluring picture.)
Then she pulls the bralette off, too, figuring she’ll either replace it with a clean, dry one or go without when she changes into something a little cooler.
When she’s finished and flushed, she stands at the sink, studying her reflection as she washes her hands. There’s a crease pressed into her cheek where his henley had wrinkled beneath her, and her cheeks and chest are flushed red from the hot flash, her freckles standing out. Her hair has a little bit of a natural wave when she lets it air dry, but because it had still been damp when she fell asleep on him, it’s also kinked weirdly on one side. She frowns and grabs a scrunchie from under the sink, twisting it into a loose bun on top of her head (the bathroom air hits the sweat on the back of her neck and feels glorious) before splashing a little cool water on her face.
She shrugs her shirt back on just in case Elliot has left the sofa, but when she opens the bathroom door again, he’s nowhere in sight. She tiptoes to her bedroom, tossing her bralette into the hamper, her shirt following after it, then she tucks her thumbs into her waistband and rucks her sweats and underwear down in one go, tossing them in as well. She pads naked to her dresser, pulling out the second-softest pair of underwear she owns (the softest just landed in the laundry), along with flannel sleep shorts and a threadbare NYPD t-shirt. She’d stolen it from Elliot’s locker years ago, then had kept it and felt pathetic about it after he left. When she’d started dating Brian, she’d stopped wearing it entirely, feeling somehow like it was cheating to wear Elliot’s pilfered clothing while she was sleeping with another man. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to get rid of it, though, and it’s made its way into her bed more and more often since he’s been back.
Tonight, though, she frowns down at it, not entirely sure that she wants to wrap herself up in the emblem of her job right now. Not when it’s stolen her Christmas and added another fatality to both her jacket and her conscience. She tucks the shirt away again, and grabs another one, an oversized sleep shirt with a row of ice-skating penguins across the chest that Noah had given her last Christmas. She smiles sadly at it, tugging it over her head and missing her son fiercely for a moment, letting her disappointment at not being able to spend the holiday with him wash over her. (Dr. Lindstrom has told her time and again that she needs to allow herself to feel her emotions rather than push them away, to wallow in sadness for a moment if she needs to, when she has the time and privacy to do so.)
She presses a hand over her heart, over the penguin with the blue hat just like Noah’s, and lets herself feel the guilt of being the reason her son had to be shuttled off to spend yet another holiday with someone other than her, to wake up on Christmas morning without presents from Santa (they’re still on the top shelf of her bedroom closet—she should fix that when she goes back to the living room), to miss out on their tradition of snowman pancakes and hot cocoa for Christmas breakfast.
Olivia’s eyes prickle with unshed tears; she closes them and takes a deep, slow breath, and then she forgives herself. They’ll have snowmen and cocoa this afternoon, she tells herself. Santa’s presents will keep for one day. Noah had spent Christmas safe, and loved, and entertained, with people who care about him.
And she can’t change the past.
Olivia takes another deep breath, lets her hand fall away and opens her eyes. When she catches sight of her nice, wide bed, her back twinges again as if in longing, and Olivia decides she’s not sleeping another minute on that couch. Not when there’s all this inviting, empty bed available just a few yards away. But she also can’t stomach the idea of sleeping alone when she knows the blissful comfort of slumbering alongside Elliot Stabler.
There’s only one solution to her problem, she decides, and while it’s wildly premature, and definitely a little insane, Olivia is going to choose not to worry about it. She shot a man dead this afternoon, she’s done worrying about doing the right thing. She’d right thing-ed someone into an early grave; she has done enough right for the day. The universe will just have to look the other way on this one.
She grabs those presents from the closet and makes her way back to the living room to find Elliot snoozing right where she’d left him, one arm slung over his head, one foot on the floor, the blanket draped haphazardly across his middle. The sight makes her smile, and she stops for a full minute, still clutching Noah’s presents, for no other reason than to indulge in looking at him. He looks so peaceful when he sleeps. She used to watch him more often than she’d ever admit, back when they were partners. She’d find him sacked out in the cribs on those nights they worked until morning, or the ones when he couldn’t bear to go home, or the times they could only catch sleep in patches of thirty minutes or an hour during a long, brutal case. She’d stop there and watch him for a minute, calm and at rest, all his passion and fire settled down and soothed away for just a little while.
She’d felt guilty for watching then; she doesn’t now.
Now, she just admires the way the lights from the Christmas tree paint his face in a soft glow, the strong line of his bicep, the rise and fall of his chest. She feels a swell of affection, of longing, rise up in her chest and lets it wash over her. She wants this man in a way she has never wanted anyone else. Wants him beside her, wants his smile to wake her in the mornings, and his touch to soothe her at night. Wants to hear him laugh and settle his temper and take him to bed. She wants to be allowed to love him, the way she’d never been willing to admit she always had.
She wants to come home to him after every hard day, and have him wait quietly for her, fill her belly, hold her close, help her rest. She wants it so badly it aches, wants it so badly that it makes her throat hurt and her eyes burn.
She swallows against the feeling and turns away from him, overwhelmed. He’s too much for her, sometimes. The enormity of her feelings for him can be staggering—even when he’d been gone, he’d been so horribly present in her life. Clinging to a corner of her heart and refusing to let go, his phantom presence resurfacing in dreams, haunting the places they used to go (everywhere, God, after thirteen years by his side, his memory was all over this damn city). She used to wake from night terrors, sweaty and shaking and frightened, and think Elliot, wanting his safety, his protection, wanting just to hear his voice for one moment, even when there were other men sleeping right beside her. Men who had loved her, men who deserved more of her than they got.
And every time, she’d have to remind herself—he was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. That dream Elliot wasn’t real, that man at the coffee cart who’d looked so familiar from half a block away worked in the DA’s office, and Elliot would not be there to answer her call if she rang him in the middle of the night because she was frightened.
She’d had to let him go, again and again. Squashing her feelings for him into a tighter and tighter ball, compressing them to make room for others. For herself.
And then he’d returned to her, just as suddenly as he’d left, and she doesn’t always know quite what to do with that.
She thought she’d be angrier—and she was angry, she still is, there is still resentment percolating in her chest. But it had been moved to a back burner to accommodate his grief and his needs, and it had been shocking to her just how easily she’d fallen back into loving him. How quickly that ball of feeling for him had expanded in her chest, pressing up and out until she was breathless with it.
It scares her, sometimes, how much she feels for him.
But tonight, she’s going to set that aside. The fear and the trepidation, and the anger and the hurt are going to have to take a back seat to her need for comfort and care. She is allowed self-care, her job demands it (her therapist reminds her), and letting Elliot sleep alongside her, knowing that if she wakes in the night, he will be there—that is self-care at its finest.
She tucks Noah’s presents beneath the tree, glances at the TV clock (4:17am—she’d slept almost a full eight hours, no wonder she’s not tired), and then she bends to give Elliot’s shoulder a gentle shake, smiling at the way his brows lift but his eyes stay closed, a deep breath drawing in through his nose.
“The couch is too small for two people,” she tells him quietly. “Come to bed.”
He cracks one eye open at that, and then the other, blinking once, hard, then peering up at her and asking, “What?”
She wonders if he thinks he misheard her, if he thinks he must be dreaming this.
“Come to bed,” she says again, giving his shirt a gentle tug and then standing again.
He sits, slowly, swinging those long legs off the sofa and then tilting his neck one way and the other to crack it.
His voice is gravelly and low when he asks, “You sure?”
Olivia holds out a hand for him, and says simply, “Yes.”
She tells him he can take his jeans off as she’s slipping beneath the sheets, but she keeps her eyes dutifully closed while he takes her up on it. She can hear the rasp of his zipper, the sound of the heavy fabric sliding down his legs. She feels the bed dip beside her as he crawls in, and rolls over to turn off the light and leave them in the dark, finally.
She still feels warm, but not overly so, so she doesn’t resist when he reaches for her. She scoots in close, staying on her back while he rests on his side, his legs curling beneath hers, his arm draped across her belly. Olivia lets one foot drop over into the space behind the bend of his knee, her other leg splaying out beneath sheets still blessedly cool. She pushes the quilt down to their waists so they don’t overheat, slides her hand under the pillow beneath her head, and then she just sighs.
“Y’okay?” he asks, his voice still sleepy while she feels wide awake.
She nods, even though he can’t see it, and tells him, “This feels nice.”
Elliot hums his agreement, his arm tightening around her, fingers brushing high on her side. They graze up and down a few times, just a few inches shy of her armpit; Olivia feels goosebumps rising along her skin and her nipple goes tight. He’s perilously close to copping a feel, but she doesn’t think he realizes that, so she doesn’t draw his attention to it. Instead, she shuts her eyes and lets herself enjoy the gentle touches. It’s been so long since someone has been gentle with her.
“Better’n th’couch,” he slurs, drowsy and slow, his breath warming her shoulder.
Olivia smiles, and tells him, “I can’t believe we made it eight hours scrunched in there like that.”
He hums again, his fingers spread up, curl down. “Y’sleep well?”
“Mmhmm.” She gives him a little squeeze with the leg bent over his thigh. “Thank you.”
Elliot nods beside her, murmuring something about her needing it and then pressing his lips gently to her shoulder. That’s something they do now, apparently, as of tonight. They’re still just friends (for now), and she doesn’t think he’d try anything in the daylight, but tonight, in this bubble of comfort and coziness, he’s let himself drop tiny kisses into her hair, onto her skin, and she’s allowed it. She wants it, they both do, and it’s not hurting anyone. She thinks about turning her head, about finding him in the dark, pressing their mouths together, discovering what he tastes like, how he kisses. The universe might allow them that, she thinks—a few stolen kisses hidden in the pre-dawn darkness of her bedroom.
But she doesn’t want the memory of kissing Elliot to be tied to the memory of putting a bullet in a man’s brain, so she quells the urge. She licks her lips and presses them together, and lets her curiosity go unsatisfied for another day. What’s a few more on top of the thousands they’ve already waited?
He breathes in deeply, then out heavily, settling a little more fully beside her. It’s quiet for a few minutes, and she thinks he’s finally drifted back to sleep. Her eyes are open, adjusted to the dark, and she’s relaxed now, but still not tired. She doesn’t think she’ll join him in sleep, but that’s fine with her. She’s content just to lie here beside him, feel the warm press of his body and absorb it all.
There’s something healing about simply being held. It’s as if she can feel her loneliness, and her melancholy, and her pain ebb away drop by drop the longer she spends cradled close to him. She’s not normally someone who likes to sleep so tangled up, but tonight it’s restorative. Tonight, she just wants to feel him. The heavy weight of his arm across her middle, the heat of his bare thigh against the back of hers. The way the hairs on his leg tickle against her skin, and his breath washes against her neck. She feels the way her hip cradles in just right against his pelvis and the way his belly presses into her side when he breathes.
She wishes she’d woken earlier. Wishes she had more time to stay just like this before daylight comes. Wonders if they could ever stay here long enough for her to bleed out every hurt and every trauma into this embrace and be at peace.
She’s surprised (but not startled) to hear his voice—even more surprised that it sounds clearer, more awake than before. It seems he hadn’t been sleeping, after all. She feels her cheeks heat a little at the revelation, inexplicably embarrassed that she hadn’t been quite alone as she’d believed while she was lost in him. (It’s silly; it’s not like he can hear her thoughts.)
“Yeah?” she breathes into the dark.
He tips his head down, presses his chin against her shoulder, takes a breath. Then he asks, quietly and unsure, “Can I touch your leg?”
She smiles slowly even as her heart trips over a skipped beat. She wonders if he’d been lying there wanting to touch her the whole time she was lying there thinking about all the places she was touching him.
She turns her face toward him; she can make out the shape of his head, the curve of his ear, the mountain of his shoulder, but not much else.
She whispers, “Yes,” and he breathes in, slowly. She hears him swallow, then feels the slow drag of his arm along her belly, down toward her waist, his hand never leaving her as he makes his way down. She closes her eyes against the sensation, wets her lips as his fingers skate down her hip, then up the front of her thigh. The leg of her shorts has slipped up, so he hits skin after only just a few inches, and the slow, tickling graze makes her thigh clench for a moment.
Elliot lets out this quiet sound, barely more than a sigh, but it sounds so relieved. Like he’s been waiting for ages to feel the bare skin of her thigh. She wonders if he has. Olivia wouldn’t blame him; she’s wanted for twenty years to press a kiss to the inside of his forearm. Maybe she’ll do it tonight, she thinks. He’s getting to touch her thigh, after all, his fingers making their way carefully down the inside of it after having climbed all the way up to her knee.
It’s an incredibly intimate caress, if she thinks about it too much—so she doesn’t think about it, simply lets herself enjoy the sensation.
There’s no heat in it, he’s touching not to arouse but just to feel her, so she lets him trail closer and closer to the open vee of her legs. He stops when he hits the leg of her shorts (she knew he would, but a desperate part of her hoped he wouldn’t), cupping his palm around her, his fingers grazing in a lazy circle that has goosebumps rising on her heated skin.
“Soft,” he breathes so quietly she wonders if he even meant to say it out loud.
His fingers swirl again and she swallows thickly; he may not be trying to arouse her, but she’s not unaffected.
She curls her fingers in the pillow beneath her head and whispers, “Shea butter,” because she doesn’t know what else to say to him.
“S’that why you smell so good tonight?” he asks her quietly, and her lips curve.
“Among other things.” She’d taken her time, both in the shower and after (he’d told her not to rush, and so she hadn’t). Scrubbing her skin with a white tea-scented sugar scrub while she was still under the spray, then slathering it with the shea butter that smells like sandalwood and citrus after she’d toweled off. She’d washed and deep conditioned her hair, and worked a dollop of Moroccanoil through the ends. Cleansed her face, and carefully applied moisturizer, and serum, and a hydrating treatment. She probably smells like a lot of things tonight. The whole self-care arsenal.
“I like it,” he tells her softly. She isn’t sure how to respond besides, Thank you. He saves her from having to come up with something by confessing, “I’ve wanted to touch you like this for…” (He swallows, hard, and she wonders if he’s not sure about what he wants to say next or about whether he should have said anything at all.) “...a long time.”
“Me too,” she confesses, because it’s the truth, and he shouldn’t feel bad about it for even a second. Not anymore, not now that they’re both unattached and interested.
“You don’t mind?” he questions, as if he has to make sure, his touch wandering back up toward her knee.
Olivia shakes her head, and tells him, “I like it. It’s nice to be touched.” She’d kept her voice quiet—they both have, here in the dark—but it drops to barely more than a breath when she admits, “Nobody really touches me these days.”
She doesn’t mean it to sound as perilously lonely as it comes out, and she wishes immediately that she could swallow it back.
Elliot must hear the truth of it, because his fingers pause for a brief moment, then slide all the way down the top of her thigh until he can squeeze her hip and urge, “Roll on your belly.”
“What?” she frowns. “Why?”
He gives her another squeeze, uses his grip to start the rolling process and tells her, “Just do.”
And she trusts him, so she does, drawing her arm from beneath the pillow and rolling until she’s mostly on her belly, one knee bent against the mattress, the other stretched out, her sleep shirt twisted around her torso. He gently tugs it free from beneath her, straightens and smoothes the cotton over her back. And then he delves beneath it, running his palm up her spine in one smooth caress.
He runs his hand over her back in a sweeping S-shaped swirl, keeping the touch light and loving, and Olivia feels suddenly like she might cry. Her throat goes tight, and her breath shakes as she lets loose an exhale that feels like it’s been held in for years.
“That feel good?” Elliot asks.
Olivia squeezes her eyes shut tightly, nodding even though he can’t see her, and managing a quiet, “Mmhmm.”
He keeps going, and she wonders how one just hand on her body can feel so good. How the splay of his fingers and the brush of his palm can settle something so deep inside of her. She feels vulnerable and exposed, but safe, so safe, as he wanders from shoulder to shoulder, hip to neck, and everywhere in between. No rhyme or reason, no clear path, just touch. He switches between broad sweeps of his palm and soothing swirls of his fingertips, zig-zags and spirals and long, straight strokes, until she’s lulled by it. Until her skin feels like it’s buzzing beneath his fingertips, a low hum of unending sensation that has her brain going fuzzy and her breath going slow and deep and even.
She’s drowsy again, she realizes. She could slip under and sleep a while longer.
She shouldn’t, sleeping on her belly will wreck her neck, but she feels heavy and also somehow weightless?
His hand draws down, down, down her spine, shirt coming with it this time, before he skates back up over the cotton. All the way up to her neck, his fingers combing along her scalp in a way that makes her shiver and groan quietly. If this man gives her a scalp massage, she’s going to melt through the mattress.
He doesn’t, really, just scrapes blunt nails against her once, twice, knocking her bun a little looser and raising more goosebumps along her skin. And then his hand slides back down, grasping her shoulder and easing it back, urging her to roll again.
She doesn’t wanna.
But for the sake of her neck, she goes, letting him pull her a little and then flopping like a ragdoll back into the cradle of his embrace.
He chuckles quietly at how boneless she is, asking her, “Relaxed?”
Her only response is a quiet hum.
He tugs her shirt straight again, then lets his fingers skim beneath it, just above the hem of her shorts. She lets him, because there’s not enough light for him to see the L-shaped brand on her ribs or the cigarette burn near her hip. Her secrets are safe here in the dark. She can have this without questions, can let him just… touch. Soothe.
Olivia breathes in, out, and Elliot strokes over her belly, across her navel.
She feels herself start to drift as he palms his way toward the side of her ribs.
“Pull my shirt down when you’re done,” she whispers. He presses all four fingers into her and drags them slowly down toward her hip.
“I will,” he assures, touch going feather-light across her waistband again. “Sleepy?”
Her Mmhmm is soft, barely there.
Elliot whispers, “Close your eyes.” (Already done.) And, “I’ve got you, Liv.”
Olivia lets herself float, held aloft on the surface of every gossamer caress to her belly, her sides, her ribs. Hovering there for a few long, blissful minutes until she begins to sink.
When she wakes again, it’s hours later, the sun is up and shining, the covers drawn to her chin. They’ve moved apart in the night, but Elliot’s ankle is hooked over hers like an anchor, their fingers woven together beneath the sheets.
Her skin still hums.