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She’s not going to make this entirely easy on him.

But as the days go on, he watches her start to ease into it - tangled into the enormous way he loves her like she’s tangled in the sheets right now. He’s half-awake, watching with squinted eyes as she taps a finger onto the screen of her phone to snooze the alarm - for the fourth time in twenty minutes.

“Liv,” he grumbles, his palm splayed over her middle, “you might wanna get that.”

She barely shifts, just conscious enough to graze her fingers over where his rest. 

“I mean, I could always call in for ya, let one of your detectives know you’ve got other plans,” he teases, craning his neck so she’s within his reach, settling his lips in the hollow of her collarbone. 

That does it. 

She shuffles underneath his hold - with a little less urgency than he expects from her - and wiggles her fingers far out enough until they can curl around her phone, finally silencing that goddamn alarm.

“You wouldn’t,” she eventually speaks, her voice laden with sleep and the remnants of their night. He swears he can still taste himself on her skin when he kisses her one last time, his gaze following her as she unravels herself from the sheet like she’s something sacred.

“Try me,” he says once he can breathe again - once Olivia has shaken the sheet off of her body, two fingers tucked into the band of the satin shorts hugging her waist as she pulls them down, leaving them discarded on the bedroom floor.

“You’re messier than my teenager,” he comments when it’s silent, when she’s on her knees haphazardly sifting through one of the dresser drawers on a mission like she hadn’t been dead to the world just minutes ago.

She peers her head over her right shoulder, her lips smacked together in latency once she realizes he’s staring at a mound of her clothes plopped on the armchair by the window. Most unfolded, sloppily shoved on the seat. Some perched across the two arms, some un-ironed and a few lightly lived-in and worn. 

“There’s always the couch then,” she quips, fetching whatever it is she’d been looking for - probably a tank top, if he’s right about which drawer is for which things - and holding it between her fingers, slipping away to the bathroom.

The only sound in the room is the shower faucet, and then his heartbeat, and then, what feels like an entire minute later, Olivia peeks her head through the crack of the bathroom door, one hand tucked underneath the slant of her chin. “I didn’t mean that, the — the couch thing,” she says faintly, the bath towel she’s wearing around herself sliding past her chest and down her torso.

He’s sitting up now, using two fingers to flicker the lamp on the night table on, no intention of getting out of bed at least until she’s finished showering, maybe until she’s dressed for work.

“I’d spend the rest of my life folding your laundry if it meant I didn’t have to sleep on your fucking couch Liv,” he says.

“It bothers you,” she says, lightness splayed like watercolor through her words, “that laundry pile.”

He pinches two of his fingers together, tilts his head. “Not enough to keep me away from you,” he promises.

 

He’s fucking exhausted by the time he gets to her place.

But he comes, of course he does - and he revels in the way the same identical fatigue is painted on her bare face, the way she probably thought dozens of times about telling him to go home and sleep in his own bed tonight, spare himself the trek over here.

But she didn’t. She won’t. And he loves the hell out of her for it - for how seamlessly she’s allowing this thing between them to just be, even if it’s hard as fuck for her.

“Hey,” she breathes out first, one hand looped around the doorknob until he steps all the way inside, unlaces his shoes. “You didn’t have to —”

He shushes her with a kiss, his thumb set underneath her cheekbone, tracing a line up and down her skin. “Neither did you,” he gruffs.

“Yeah well, you’ve got me used to sleeping with you,” she says with a shaken head, like the synchronicity is a bad thing.

“Hey, you’re guilty too,” he reminds her. “Can’t seem to go a night without ya, Liv.”

She bows her head, squints her eyes closed. “I put it away.”

His eyes shift - the living room is as spotless as it can be, the kitchen counters free of everything aside from a pile of unopened mail he knows she’ll get to on the weekend.

“Put what away Liv?”

She doesn’t say anything. She just slides away and out of his hold, crouching down to the floor, focusedly looping the strings on a pair of Noah’s shoes sat atop the rack like she suddenly gives a shit about whether or not shoelaces dangle sloppily over the wire.

He gets it - after a minute of watching her manically straighten four pairs of shoes so they’re parallel, so that one sneaker isn’t lopsidedly falling into that pair of sandals. He gets it.

“Liv, c’mon, I was joking, calling you messy,” he says exasperatedly, guiltily, pressing his palms into the tops of his thighs. He’d take it back if he could.

She stands up, gives them space. “No you weren’t El. It’s fine. I am — messy,” she swallows, the word fractured at her admittance. “I’m a fucking mess.”

“Hey, no you’re not, it’s just some goddamn laundry, it’s no big deal. Y’know how many of Eli’s dirty socks I wind up pickin’ up off of his bedroom floor every week?”

She fiddles with the strap of her satin pajama top, twirls her finger around the black lace band. “It’s something I could have control of,” she drawls, swallowing a breath. “Everything feels like a mess sometimes, for — for a lot of reasons. At least the laundry was one I made, one I could clean up whenever I wanted to.”

He clears his throat. It’s his fucking fault - the mess, the feeling of surrendering control to so much darkness, so much hurt. “You’re a lot of other things, Liv,” he starts to say, until she wags her pointer finger at him in opposition and tells him to stop, to not go there, to call it like it is.

“Yeah?” She slants her head, her neck cracking as she does. She’s held onto so much heaviness, so much weight, for so long. He’s tempted to slide his fingers there, over her pulse, flood it all out of her. But he stays still on the opposite end of the foyer, lets her unload it in the way she needs to. “And what exactly is that?”

“Plenty,” he says sincerely. He won’t rattle her by listing everything she is through his lens, but the one word is sturdy enough for her to know how ferociously he means it.

He waits for the fight, for the resistance, for the absolute denial. Instead, she flicks off the light switch and hugs her arms around her own middle. “If you say so.”

“I do. C’mon, let’s — let’s get to bed,” he presses, watching the tension dissipate from her shoulders, the air escape from her center in one swoop of a surrendering breath. “You good?” he asks regardless, admiring her in his peripheral - the way she commands every square inch of this space without trying, the way she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever let himself have.

“More than,” she promises, her arms finding his frame in the dark, looping both of them around his torso so their bodies feel entirely entwined into each others’.

 

“Who’s Noah’s emergency contact? If — If there’s no dad in his life,” he carefully wedges into his question, regretting it almost immediately at the sight of Olivia cocking a brow at him, dropping the pen she’d been using to fill out the forms scattered about the kitchen counter. She’s caught him squinting at the section she’s half-completed, a list of names he thinks he mostly recognizes.

“It’s summer camp,” she starts, clicking the bottom of the pen over and over and over. Her elbows are pressed into the granite, and she doesn’t tense at his touch - at his hands lingering like they’ve found a home on the small of her back, just over the fabric of her t-shirt. “Whoever is around to pick him up — Fin, Rollins, Carisi, whoever. Why?”

He buries his lips in her hair, shrugging wordlessly, his chin perched against her crown. “Y’know, I’d pick him up, if you needed.”

She laughs at him - wispily, delicately. But it’s still a laugh, nonetheless - one that has the undertones of I don’t need it buried in the valleys of it.

“I’m serious, lemme — lemme help you,” he insists. “What, am I not emergency contact material?”

“I don’t think you want me answering that,” she says in the most measured of ways, swiveling herself around so that they are center to center. “You could just ask me, you know.”

He blinks. “Ask you what?”

“He’s adopted, I told you he was,” she starts, taking a breath so rugged the weight of it whirls across his face, “and it’s just — it’s always been just me and him.”

“Y’have, yeah, and I know, I figured, I just — I thought that there might’ve been someone else at one point, someone the kid called Dad, I don’t know.”

She finds his right wrist with her left hand, curls her fingers around his skin, two of them gliding over his wrist bone. He’s always aware of how wildly enamored he is by her, but it’s always heightened when she reaches for him. When she’s the initiator. “Fine, I’ll add you onto the goddamn emergency contact list for a three-day-a-week summer camp. Happy?”

He tries to keep his expression neutral and fails miserably, his teeth pressed into his tongue. “I mean...yeah Liv, ‘course I’m happy about it.”

He thinks about the last week - about the gentle way Noah has opened up to the idea of Elliot in a space he’s known his whole life - just he and his mom and their very own, uninterrupted orbit.

Until now.

“He likes me,” he adds, reminding her of yesterday morning - the way Cheerios and toast and a banana at the breakfast table turned into an investigation, into Noah begging Elliot for his recounts of stories of the golden days of Benson and Stabler, something like an enigma to the kid.

“He’s nine, he likes everybody,” she says pointedly, knocking him down a peg - or one hundred. “Fine,” she gives in at the first sign of his pouting, “he likes you more than he likes some people.”

“We have a secret handshake, Liv,” he reminds her, basking in the way she smacks her lips together, rolls her eyes at what a stubborn son-of-a-bitch he is.

“So you have a secret handshake,” she repeats, “so what.”

“So everything.”

 

He won’t beg her to say it. Hell, he doesn’t entirely deserve to hear the words - or so he’s convinced himself. 

Noah says it, though. It’s early on a Friday morning in July - just the kid and his duffel bag stuffed to the brim with shit he won’t need for three days in the woods with some friends from camp, but Elliot learns something new about Olivia almost every day. Today, it’s that she’s an obnoxious over-packer. He thought Maureen and Kathleen were bad - but she’s terribly worse. He laughs as he watches her struggle to zip the goddamn thing shut, a pleading “El...?” leaving her lips as she summons him for help after twenty-something attempts.

“I got it,” he says, yanking the bag shut with a lot more force than he’d expected to need, “there ya go, kid.”

“Thanks,” Noah beams, and then he hugs his mom goodbye, tells her he loves her and not to worry, that one of the boys knows how to fight a bear, if need be.

“I wasn’t worried about bears until just now, but good to know honey,” she replies, holding both sides of his face as she kisses him goodbye, tells him she’s a car ride away if he needs.

He hoists the bag further up his arm and shuffles his feet, turns to Elliot before Olivia can guide him out the door and down to the SUV full of tweens waiting for him downstairs.

“Bye Elliot, love you,” he says so easily, so genuinely.

He’s knocked on his ass by how simple it is for her kid - how simple it is for all kids who are blind to how deep twenty-four years of love can run without ever having said the words. “Love you too, bud,” he replies, ducking down to tousle Noah’s curls. “Don’t worry — we’ll pretend there’re no bears where you’re goin’, y’know, for mom’s sake,” he half-whispers, with all of the intention of Olivia hearing him.

“Funny, El.”

He lets her do her thing - bring him downstairs all by herself, just the two of them. He’s already taken enough from Olivia, he’s not here to intrude on the second-most pivotal partnership in her life.

When she reenters the apartment, she waits only a few seconds before she says it. “He said ‘love you’,” she says, her voice thin. She latches the lock on the door and takes her time scooting in next to him on the couch, careful to leave the tiniest of gaps between their bodies.

“Yeah, well...I told you we meant business with that secret handshake,” he laughs, his fingertips splayed atop her bare kneecap.

She snickers, her neck bent back, slapping him in the bicep. “Is that okay?” she asks after a moment of laughter - coming to her senses that her boy has said he loves Elliot without a second thought. He tries to study her gaze, to see how she’s doing now that those words exist in their universe. And she’s asking him if he’s okay. 

“Liv, that’s — of course it’s okay,” he says fiercely, but only because he needs her to know. He needs her to know he’s on board for this - for a lifetime of ‘love you’s and teasing her for packing seven days worth of things in a bag meant for three. 

“Because he’s getting used to you, and that’s — I know that’s what this is, but it’s —” She presses a palm into her chest, indicating the intensity of how this conversation feels from both sides. She breathes out, tries again. “I’m getting used to you, to — to this. I don’t want it to go away, I can’t — I can’t deal with it if it does, Elliot.”

He breaks at the sentiment, but she is not broken. She’s careful, heeding - but she’s not shattered anymore. “It won’t Olivia, it won’t,” he promises, everything in him surrendering to that vow when he pulls her into him by her elbows, settling her body between his legs.

 

He stops trying to wedge them into a box. Best friends? Check. Partners? Check - even if she’s ranks above him, it’s where they started and where they’ll always be. Lovers? Check - that’s solidified by the raised half-moon shaped nail marks peppered along the top of his bare back. By the way she kisses him like she’s staking her claim. By the silent I love yous she won’t speak, but he feels them. They exist swirled in every early morning coffee cup she hands him, in every time she’ll curl her body into his like it was made to rest in his caverns when it’s just the two of them and the night.

This isn’t all that big of a deal - just a handful of close friends, two bottles of Cabernet, and the dim light of her kitchen on a night no one’ll be the first to confess they should cut short because tomorrow is a Monday.

It’s not lost on him how Olivia’s hand lingers in his just a few seconds too long for it to be casual, how one hand is wrapped around the stem of her wine glass and the other slides up to the back of his neck, palming his clammy skin. It’s hot in here - a hearty combination of the wine, the early August heat seeping through the open apartment windows, and the fact that she’s so openly sharing space with him like this.

“Good?” he asks, slipping one finger underneath her chin to tip her head. 

“Mmm, good,” she responds assuringly, and then she’s off - stolen from his grip by Amanda and Phoebe, who are both tugging her over back to the living room with them.

“‘S good, seein’ her like this.” He knows very little about Nick Amaro aside from the fact that he’d been his replacement, that he’d left too - not in the same gut-wrenching fashion, but he’d left. Gone and moved to California, reunited with a woman he’d once loved years and years and years ago. “What? You’re tellin’ me nothing is goin’ on between you two?” he asks with a little more urgency when Elliot doesn’t respond.

“Don’t know what to call it,” Elliot responds truthfully, shrugging as he dips his body back against the countertop, thinking about where the hell to even begin

“So don’t,” Nick says, leveling a hand at him. “Just love her, screw the rest, right?”

“Guess that’s all we’ve gotta do,” he agrees, and from behind where they stand, he catches Olivia catch him - staring, admiring, loving the hell out of her.

 

She hasn’t made anything easy - but maybe easy isn’t them. Easy is reserved for the soft way he’d watched Carisi escort Rollins out of the door not two minutes after her kids had FaceTimed, asking when they’d be home to tuck them in. Easy is for the comfortable way Phoebe finds solace in sharing a wine glass with Fin, lazily strumming her fingers over his hand as she slowly becomes one-too-many glasses of red deep to drive them home. Easy is the way Amaro talks about his wife and his kids back in California, how complete all of his stories feel with his family woven into the beginnings and the endings of them.

“That was nice,” she says once everyone’s gone, half-fatigued and half-drunk. She takes her time putting everyone’s empty wine glasses in the sink, and then she turns to him, ignoring the noise they make when they clank together. “What?”

He’s probably a little more than half-drunk, admiring the way she leaves the mess for later, for tomorrow. He loves her, he loves her. “Nothin’. It was...nice.”

She sighs, “That’s not what you were trying to say, El.”

He walks over to the counter, closes the bag of crackers they’d all picked at before so they won’t go bad by the morning. “No,” he grumbles, “it wasn’t, but it’s not — it’s nothin’.”

She wrinkles her nose as he clips the cracker bag shut, striding to him. She lifts both of her arms up and laces them around his neck. “I love you.”

“I mean no, that’s not — that’s not what I was gonna say, but I do. Love you, I mean.”

“No, was. Saying it.”

He blinks, finds his footing. He’s steady in her hold. “You were?”

“Yeah, I was. I love you El, I’m — I love you, I love you.”

Easy to say, no - but nothing good comes easy, and Olivia is.

Good, and everything, and her own, and his.