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

And really, she shouldn’t. He knows that. 

He knows he doesn’t fucking deserve Olivia. He knows in spite of how shitty it feels when she declines his invitations, when she gives him only the tiniest fragments of herself - when he used to know every square inch of her soul - that it’ll never feel the way him leaving her for ten years did. Like drowning, like getting the breath pummeled out of your lungs every morning for a fucking decade.

So yeah - it’s only fair that this is fucking hard. It’s only fair that he for once knows the brunt of the hurt, of the distance, of the longing. 

The intensity of how magnetic this all feels doesn’t entirely hit him until they’re in her truck on the way back to the 3-7, though.

Working with Olivia in this capacity again reminds him of two things. One: He’ll never get those ten years of time back and he hates himself for it. Two: They’re still fucking unstoppable together.

He holds onto that thought - thought number two - up until she shifts the car into park in front of the station. Until Frank Donnelly peers his head like a smug motherfucker through the lowered driver’s side window and spews some bullshit about weaseling his way into becoming Elliot’s favorite partner. He thinks. He half-hears it, honestly. He’s too enraptured by her, by the way her hair faintly brushes the back of the seat and her lips spread into a faint, tight-lipped smile, like she knows there’s no way in hell she could ever be replaced.

Before he steps out of the car, he wants to say it. Nothing grandiose, because that’s not his forte and he thinks she’d kill him if he started pouring his heart out to her with half of his limbs already hanging outside of her passenger door. But he wants to utter the words - tell her it’s always nice to work with her not only for the familiarity but because he fucking loves her, because he fucking misses who she was to him once.

He longs for who they once were as partners, captivatingly in sync like they’d been today. He longs for the easy way it felt - for the Elliot and Olivia who hadn’t been afraid to challenge one another, to push each other’s buttons, to be so ferociously devoted to their partnership that they were absolutely fucking legendary for it.

Everything now feels so careful, so foreign, skirting the line of almost - but nothing happens. It can’t, and it won’t, and he’ll love her solely and wholly from afar if that’s what it takes to keep her in his orbit. 

He rattles out a breath and bows his head, his palm wrapped tight around the rim of the car door. He catches her delicate gaze and knows - beyond the stoic way she’d been able to brush him off, to say no without a thought, to hold back the details of who she’s become without him here - that somewhere buried underneath the mound of hurt he’d weighed her down with, she’s gotta love him too.

She would’ve already driven away. Passed over the crowbar at the scene to him without her free hand finding a home on his back. Left him to worry about finding his way here on his own. 

“What is it?” she asks. He’s taking too long to get out of her fucking car, and she’s too polite to say she’s got somewhere better to be, but he can tell she wants to. “You okay?”

“Yeah, no, I’m good,” he says, sliding his hand off of the exterior, dipping it into his pocket. “I meant it, Liv. It’s always nice — workin’ with you like this.”

It’s a lot more than nice, but he treads cautiously, never thrusts his entire soul into it - into this, into them - the way he’s dying to.

“Mmm, it is,” she agrees at the repeated sentiment, both of her hands wrapped tight around the steering wheel. “I gotta —”

He shuts the car door, the window now lowered halfway. She must’ve done that when he stepped out. Maybe before. He’s been too entranced by all of this, by her, to notice. “Oh yeah, don’t — don’t lemme hold you up.”

She hoists one hand off of the wheel and says, “You’re not.”

But she’s chewing on her cheek like she’s ready to get the hell home, to hang up her badge and her gun and the piercing nostalgia that he’s certain is coursing through her bones the same way it is his. She’s checked-out for the day, done playing the role of the Olivia Benson that functioned at her absolute prime only whenever she’d been side-by-side working a case with Elliot Stabler.

“Home safe partner,” he murmurs, tapping on the center of the car door with his palm wide open as she flicks her headlights back on.

“You too,” she swallows, gazing down at the gearshift, “partner.”

 

He’s not a stranger to heartbreak. The numbing way it’d felt on days and nights he witnessed it seep into every crevice of Kathy’s face whenever he’d hurt her haunts him. Whenever his daughters had been wallowing in sorrow over a broken heart, he’d be right there with them as best as he could be - his palm drawing circles onto the center of their backs over and over, thinking of how he’d kill the son-of-a-bitches if he could get away with it. 

When he slides into a bar stool at Forlini’s, he can hear it in the way her voice cracks when she greets him. He searches right away for it, and it doesn’t take him long to find it - the somber way she looks down at her glass, twirling her index finger around the rim over and over and over again. He’d give anything, he swears, if it meant she’d be shielded from any more suffering.

“Talk to me,” he commands, more firmly than he intends to. When she doesn’t respond, he tries again. “I just mean...What happened?”

“This was about him,” she says, sliding her fingers onto her cheek. “He’s selfish. He always has been. It was never about him and I or me and you or —”

“You gotta give me more than that Liv,” he jests, interrupting her words to raise a hand in her peripheral, but she isn’t having it. “Who are we talkin’ about here?”

“You don’t get it —” She takes a sip of her drink and he watches as she presses her lips together, the tip of her nose wrinkling as she swallows it down. “No love in this world is unconditional, and I’m not going to let someone sit here and tell me how I feel, how I love —”

She presses her pointer finger to the center of her chest defensively, ferociously. 

“Who’s — Who’s tellin’ you that?”

She swallows, sets her glass down and sifts a hand through her hair. “He doesn’t get to do that. He doesn’t get to sit here and tell me he’s been a dick toward me because he loves me, because he’s protecting me. Defending that piece of shit, that’s not protecting me.”

“Wh — Oh.”

He doesn’t need any further elaboration. Not if Olivia’s guilty eyes are any indication. They shift from his cheek to her own lap, and she’s anxiously twirling one finger around the edge of the glass again.

He knows very little of the nature of her relationship with Rafael Barba, but if he’s gotta guess, it feels somewhere in the realm of how this one does — fractured, incomplete, half-existent. His fault. All his fucking fault.

“I had no idea,” he finally manages, his voice small.

“To be honest…” she says, craning her neck back, “neither did I.”

“So you two never —”

She shuts her eyes, shakes her head. “Never.”

“It’s okay, Liv.”

“No, never,” she repeats. “But you come back and he blames you - says you’re the one who made things more complicated.”

It stings right in the gut. He could throw up - mostly at the accuracy, at being the complication. He wants to be nothing but entirely hers, and here he is, fucking it all up. Hoisting her over his shoulders and dragging her into the shit storm with him.

One day, he silently vows, it’ll stop fucking hailing down on us.

“I haven’t made things easy,” he admits.

“No, you haven’t.”

“Liv, I’m sorry.”

She taps her fingertips atop the bar and swivels around in the stool until her knees poke his left thigh. “And I don’t — I don’t love you unconditionally.” Another blow to the gut. She may as well shatter the glass she’s holding in her hands - throw the shards at his center one-by-one.

“Well, thanks for clearin’ that one up.”

“I just mean, there’s no such thing Elliot. There are conditions. Our work, our history, my son, your wife…”

“I don’t know how in the way of things the last one could be —”

She closes her eyes again. “Oh god, I’m…I’m sorry.”

“No, no, it’s alright,” he promises, gently waving a hand at her. “Can I get you home?”

She shakes her head slowly, contemplating. “Noah’s there with the nanny. Probably still up waiting for me. No.”

God damnit. He takes two fingers to his face and pinches the bridge of his nose, remembering to breathe. Her hesitance only exists because of him. He uncurls both of his hands from fists and relaxes his fingers, spreading them across both of his kneecaps.

He breathes out again - slower, gentler this time.

“Liv. I’ve met Noah before, remember?”

He’s still thinking about that day - Olivia in a green dress, hand-in-hand with a kid who looks an awful lot like he could’ve been the perfect blend of the both of them if this were another universe, another time. If fate were - for once - on their side. He shakes away that thought every time it comes, but never before he lets it rattle him to his core. 

“Not like this, Elliot,” she counters, fierce protectiveness hanging onto every syllable of her words. “I’m sorry, I’m just — I’m not ready for you to be in our space, in our home, it’s — it’s too much.”

He could sink into how horrible it feels - to be so close for so long, teetering on the edge of every ‘what if’ imaginable. He stares at her as she pulls her wallet out of her purse, uses two fingers to hastily tug her credit card out from its slot. She’s rough but delicate. She’s pulling yet pushing. She’s everything and nothing to him, all at once.

“Okay,” he manages - barely. He locks his hands together, cracking his knuckles.

The center of her body grazes the side of his when she slides out of the bar stool, a crumpled twenty fisted in her grip. She throws it down by his elbow and asks him if he’ll be okay, if he’ll find his way home.

To the first part, he lies. Says something along the lines of ‘Sure, I’ll be fine’ because it’s what she wants to hear. To the second, he sinks into himself. There’s no way to tell her that home is this - the two of them together.

“Goodnight,” she says, looping her jacket over her forearm and leaving him alone.

“Liv.”

“What?”

“It does exist, y’know.”

“What does?”

“What you were saying before,” he says, folding his hands atop the bar. “It’s real, I promise, even if it feels like it isn’t.”

She sucks at the inside of her cheek, her feet firm on the ground. The only controlled part of her in the moment. “Elliot, don’t…”

Don’t what, tell you the truth? Tell you that I’m fucking trying and you’re just —” He watches her cross her arms around herself, squint her eyes at him. He drops that thought, picks up another. “And what’s with that guy Barba? What the fuck does he know about the two of us anyway?”

“Nothing,” she says, laced with exasperation, “and I told him that.”

“Good,” is all he says back, hardly satisfied.

“Okay, are — are we done now?”

“I dunno Liv, are we? What are we doing here? Why am I here if you’re just gonna —”

“Leave?” she croaks out. "Like you did? Unlike you, I’m just heading home. But hey, I could ghost you for a decade if you’d like, see how it goes...”

He stands up now, instinctively looping his arm around her elbow. He just wants to touch her, have the faintest inkling of contact with her. An elbow will have to suffice - he won’t even think about holding her the way he’d like to, both arms enveloped around her middle, their centers meeting. 

“Please, just let me take you home,” he pleads, his thumb stroking her elbow bone.

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not? At least gimme a reason.”

She doesn’t, squirming out of his grip, her head bowed to the ground. She’s running, running, running and he doesn’t fucking blame her.

“Liv. Olivia. C’mon.”

Her pace picks up, and before he knows it they’re both outside, standing on the pavement, and the air is heavy and misted from a cocktail of mid-May humidity and evening rain.

The city bustles on in commotion around them - a few people lazily strolling, people ducking with hands over their heads like a shield from the rain, couples hand-in-hand, kids in clusters squealing at the thunderous way the clouds just rolled in and soaked the sidewalk - but they are still. 

Still here, still spinning each others’ worlds on their axises. Still hesitant, still unwaveringly loyal. Still the deepest of loves swirling in a haze around, between, and through them.

“Go home, El,” she says, the words thick and weighted. Defeated. 

“I’m trying. Trying to be here, to — Liv, you’re the most important person in my life and you feel like a stranger to me.”

“That’s comforting.”

“I don’t mean it like that,” he promises, pulling both hands out of his pockets. They reach out for her - stop at either of her wrist lines. The rain is picking up its pace now.

“You feel like one to me too,” she admits after a beat like she’s ashamed, her gaze falling onto the way his fingers curl around her forearms, like he’s holding her in place.

“We can change that,” he tries, his words spewing out like gravel. 

“I really do have to go,” she breathes out, a raindrop sliding from the slanted awning above and onto her cheek. He wants to wipe it away, just to slide a finger across her skin like he’s staking his claim. It’s fucking hard, keeping his hands to himself. Not losing complete and utter control around her. 

“Yeah, I know. But before you do, just — I’m here, okay?”

“Do we have to do this now?”

“Fine, then when? When should we do this?”

She doesn’t shift out of his grip. He watches as she blinks, contemplates. The top of her hair is now completely dampened with rain, and he won’t keep her out here much longer, but if she wanted to bolt, he thinks she already would’ve. She’s still here, and that says something. That says this isn’t all for nothing. That she’s thought about it too. That there’s a reason she’s hanging on, a reason she’d dialed his number and asked him to meet her here with urgency in her voice - like his company was beyond a want, but a need

“I know how fucked up it was, how long ten years is, but I’m not — you don’t have to be scared of me goin’ anywhere anymore.”

The way she shimmies away from him - fractured, unsteady - tells him it’s going to take a lot more than a sentence to assure her he’s fucking serious.

“G’night, El,” she says gently, like she’s sorry.

“You too, Liv,” he responds like the sorriest son-of-a-bitch on the planet.

He goes left and she goes right, and he waits - waits for Olivia to look behind her and back at him.

With his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans and the rain pelting him, he waits, follows the click-clack sound of her steps until she’s too far away for him to hear them anymore.

She doesn’t look back once.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Cap’n. For you.”

If she’s shaken by his presence, she sure doesn’t show it - neutrality splattered across her face, half-pursed lips, her glasses set atop the bridge of her nose. She’s swimming in a sea of paperwork, and she only looks up at him for half of a second before averting her gaze back to it.

He sets down the hot coffee anyway, backs up a few steps once he does.

“Thank you,” she finally says. Her shoulders loosen, using one hand to peel back the lid of the coffee cup, blowing it cool. She’s still not looking at him, though. “Fin let you back here?”

“Rollins, actually.” He can’t help but be curious by what the detective knows about their impenetrable history, he and Olivia’s. How much. What she’s chosen to omit from retelling. If she describes it - him and her - as intensely as it has always felt in his gut. “Guess I’m not on her shit list today.”

“You never are, she’s just…” She swallows down a sip of scalding coffee, smacking her lips together in earnest. “Protective of me.”

He shifts his eyes to the floor and back, a hand in his pocket. “She can join the club.”

“So what’s up? And don’t tell me you came all the way here to bring me shitty coffee.”

His brows crease. “Wait what, you don’t like it that way anymore?”

“A lot has changed in ten years, my friend,” she says, taking another sip anyway. He stands idly by, watching the careful way she sets the coffee down, cautiously far away from a mound of papers. “El, the — I was upset the other night, not — not just at you, but just —” She rolls her neck from shoulder to shoulder, tries again. “Is this all in my head?”

“W’do’you mean?”

This,” she repeats, her right hand stretched out in front of her, palm pointed up to the ceiling. “My uh — my therapist says it’s idealized, this thing between you and me.”

“And you’re payin’ this guy how much by the hour again?”

“Elliot...”

“Sorry, sorry.” 

She waits. Taps her fingertips onto a closed Manila file folder and sucks on her cheek.

“Liv, of course it’s —” he starts to say, until a knock creeps up on the both of them from the other side of the door, and he holds the thought in his lungs - eagerly, anxiously.

“Sorry to interrupt, but we’ve got somethin’ Liv, you gotta see.” It’s Rollins, and the way she swings the door to Olivia’s office open tells him it’s urgent - urgent enough to push wherever this conversation had been going aside. So off the table it’s buried in the goddamn floorboard. He holds his breath, the only sound in the room the heels of Rollins’ boots clicking across the ground as she intrudes.

“I’ll — I’ll catch you later Liv,” Elliot falters, nodding her way. He slides past Rollins, whose squinted glare doesn’t fall short on him. She knows enough, he’s certain, to harbor at least a little distaste for him. He doesn’t entirely blame her.

“See you,” Olivia manages to mutter before her detective captures her attention entirely.

The coffee by her side will soon get cold, remaining as untouched as the barriers between them begging to be torn open are.

 

Maybe he’s pushing. Reaching. Grasping. Maybe he’s forcing his way into her orbit a bit. But she lets him. She opens the door, one finger over her lips as if to signal to him that her son is sleeping - like he’d ever be allowed over here if he weren’t. And then she invites him in, swiftly uses two fingers to lock the door as he slides off his shoes.

“Long day?” he asks softly, toeing off the second shoe and then grabbing the pair - one finger looped inside of each heel - clueless on where he should place them down until she nods, says to throw them somewhere on the rack by the door next to Noah’s.

It could always be like this, he stupidly thinks to himself as he wedges his shoes between two pairs of double-knotted kid-sized sneakers.

“What gave it away?”

He waits for her to initiate anything. He feels like a fool, standing in his socks in the center of her foyer, wishing things were different. He’s doing it again - picturing with ease how it’d feel to cup her cheeks, lose his lips in the valley between her neck and her shoulder, and just let go.

Instead, she gestures to the empty couch and says, “Wanna sit?”

He’s already following her lead, halfway to the couch before he says anything. “Sure, yeah,” he finally mutters, taking a seat - careful to leave a gap between them, fully aware how fucking reckless closing it would feel. He swallows the thought, looks away from the comfortable way she tucks her bare right foot under her left thigh, lets her hair splatter across the top of the sofa cushion.

“I’m sorry about the other night,” she begins, “at Forlini’s.”

“Liv, you don’t have to be, it’s —” What it is, exactly, he’s having a hard time putting into words. Never has he ever been pulled in a thousand different directions like this before when it came to loving someone. Love for him was easy - safe, laid-out, by-the-book love. 

But Olivia is not Kathy, and thank fucking god for that, he thinks.

“Your therapist is wrong,” he says, a little more brazenly than he’d intended to.

“Oh, well why don’t I let him know, Dr. Stabler?”

“Funny,” he snickers, “I just mean, it’s not — it’s not in your head, Liv, I — I need you to know that.”

The space between them feels painfully evident, infinite. He’s aching to touch her, but he won’t. He can’t. That’s not what this is, and for her, he’ll learn the virtue of patience over and over and over again.

“I know,” she says - finally. “I’m in my head. Scared.”

“Of me?”

She shakes her head slowly, motions in the evident gap between their bodies. “Of this. For years, it — I stopped thinking about it, I learned how to let it go. I think I even got over it at one point, maybe. But then you came back.”

“But then I came back,” he repeats, tension clung onto the edge of the phrase.

“Which means I have to face this thing, and it’s — it’s not easy for me,” she admits, each syllable more fractured than the next. She won’t cry - not like this, not in front of him. But he hears the tears burrowed in the crevices of the places he’d hurt her, threatening to spill out, and it kills him.

“I’m not asking for it to be,” he promises, daring to move one of his hands off of his own knees and onto the bare sofa, his palm pressed flat into the cushion, inches from her. He wants to touch her, but he doesn’t. Not yet. “But I am asking for you to stop pushing me out.” 

“I can do that,” she says, her voice crackling. 

“Good,” he replies, reveling in it - how beautiful she is when she lets go, gives in. Even a little.

He wants to reach for her. Surrender to how magnetic it feels to be in her space. He waits, lets every stroke of silence settle comfortably in between them. He admires the hell out her this way - bare-faced, bare-footed, crinkled satin pajama bottoms and the freckles dotting the bridge of her nose sprinkled across her skin like a summer rain. She shifts her gaze and lets him capture her like this, doesn’t move an inch.

“Elliot.”

“Yeah Liv.”

She cranes her head back, holds onto her own knee, effortlessly radiant in the dim light of her living room.

“You’re staring,” she says - accuses.

He wrinkles his nose, feels the ferocity of her stare hit his cheek. “So are you,” he laughs - accuses back.

She doesn’t deny it.

Instead, she pushes. Reaches. Grasps. The gap closes - sealed entirely by a steady palm to his chest, the breath wedged in his throat finally releasing when she touches him, the tips of her fingers skirting up to his collarbone, digging into his skin but only to make their mark known.

He thinks he says her name, although he’s not entirely sure. Separating fiction from reality - the parallel universe that resides in his head versus the careful world they’ve curated here - is seemingly impossible in this moment.

All he knows is that she does it - she finally fucking surrenders - and underneath her he all at once crumbles and becomes whole when she kisses him.

 

“Lookin’ for something?”

A voice - not hers - stops him in his tracks. He’s fully aware of his heartbeat, and the temperature of the coffee cup he's holding burns into his fingertips.

“Hey, yeah,” he clears his throat, “where’s your boss hiding?”

“She stepped out with Fin.” Rollins’ bullshit detector may be even more on point than Olivia’s - but that’s partly because she retains absolutely no bias toward the man standing in front of her desk. “You gonna keep comin’ down here every day, pretending Liv can’t keep herself caffeinated without your help?”

He shrugs a shoulder, half-laughs. “A guy can at least try, huh?”

“A lot of things have changed around here since these were your stomping grounds, Stabler,” she warns him, craning her head to the side, using her palm to steady her chin. She doesn’t stand, doesn’t go out of her way to make him comfortable in this space. 

He squints at her, his nostrils flared. He feels like a fucking stranger in a place he once inhabited every square inch of behind her weighted glare. “You think I don’t know that, detective?”

“No, I know you do — but no one’s more aware of it than Liv. How different things are. You’ve missed so much, so you can’t — you can’t be floored by the fact that it’s takin’ her a little while to be okay with that.”

Jesus Christ. He’s suddenly aware again of the heat spewing from the cardboard cup he still holds onto - flaring from the tips of his fingers down to his knuckles. He wants to drop it - somewhere, anywhere - but he’s almost sure Rollins won’t let him make a temporary home for it on her desk until Olivia gets back, and he won’t dare ask her to.

So he holds it, curses himself for not taking the three extra seconds at the bodega to slide on one of those cardboard sleeves. 

He thinks about Olivia - thinks about the home, the sanctuary, the grounding that she’s found in everyone here since he’d been gone.  

“Be there for her, fine,” she says, “but you’re not the only one who’s got her back anymore.”

Amused albeit taken aback - and a bit roused by her loyalty, almost as fierce as his own - he asks, “Is that a threat?”

“You tell me,” she says, using four fingers to shut the laptop in front of her. “I know you love Liv, but so do we. She has a lot more now than she did when you left.”



“This couldn’t wait?”

“We need to talk,” he says, the words staccato. “About yesterday.”

If she’s annoyed or thrown-off by his company, she doesn’t say so. Instead, she unlatches the door all of the way, stepping aside to let him in. She doesn’t shush him, doesn’t tell him that Noah is asleep down the hall or that this needs to wait, that this isn’t the time.

She holds onto the side of her neck and allows him to settle - his shoes off and tucked away in the same spot he’d placed them yesterday, in between two pairs of Noah’s. Like they belong there. Like little fragments of him are allowed to be left behind here, scattered throughout her space. 

He can’t stop picturing it - the seamless way it could all be. Sunday dinners with all of the kids. Mama loving his Olivia just as fiercely as she loves him. Picking Noah up from school on the afternoons she can’t make it. Christmas and birthdays and Monday nights, just because they can. Fuck, he wants it all with her - only her. 

He straightens his stance, breathes out. “You kissed me last night,” he starts, “and it’s all I can think about.”

“Organized crime that slow today, detective?”

“Liv, that’s — that’s not funny.” He shakes his head in spite of her amusement. “Olivia,” he says, more sternness to his lilt now, “I stopped by the precinct today, brought you some shitty coffee.”

“Yeah, Amanda told me,” she comments, says it was completely cold and undrinkable by the time she’d finally gotten back. “I believe you though, about it being shitty.”

“That’s not the point. The point is that I talked to her, to Rollins, and she’s right. You have so much in your life. You don’t need me.”

Her lips twist, and he searches her - finds layers upon layers of an Olivia he has yet to make acquaintance with, one he’s loved from afar without very much knowledge of what she’s become all this time without him. 

“And it’s true, that you’d — you’d be fine if I left now, you’d be completely fine,” he continues, feeling himself shattering with each word, at the weight of his admittance. “But maybe it’s not about what we need from each other anymore, y’know? Maybe it’s — maybe we’re allowed to just want each other, after all this goddamn time, Liv. Is that — Am I makin’ sense?”

“You think that’s true, Elliot? That I’d be okay if you disappeared again?”

“I think you would be, yeah, but that doesn’t mean I’d like to test the theory out or anything.”

Her chin dimples, the rims of her eyes laden with liquid. It threatens to spill viciously over onto her cheeks, but she catches herself - takes a breath and then another, and then she reaches for him. 

“I get what you’re saying,” she says, letting go of her hold on his wrist as hastily as she’d grabbed onto it. She wordlessly walks into the kitchen, over to the cabinets, turns her back to him and stands on her toes, digging for something. Distracted. He watches her from a few feet away with intent, waits for her to say something. She doesn’t, not until she grabs a dinner plate out from the right-hand cabinet by the stove. “You hungry? I haven’t eaten all day.” 

He’s amused. Enamored. He steps toward her, finds her arm as it’s in motion and attempts to steady her. “Liv, hey, hold — hold on.”

“I can make you a plate,” she offers, hoisting one hand up behind her head to shut the cabinet. “What?”

“I love you.”

“You don’t have —”

“Yes,” he says solidly, “yes.”

She swallows, rendered silent by his confession - his wildly overdue vow, the words that’ve been wrapped around his tongue like ivy for years and years and years, only growing in abundance as the time had gone on. 

“I love you. I’m standing here losin’ my shit over you, and you’re here, offering to make me a plate.”

“And that makes me lovable?”

“Completely,” he says, all the ache in his voice gone. His fingers slide up her forearm, and she sets the plate down onto the countertop. “Hey.”

She swivels her body so their centers meet. “Hi…”

“Is this okay?” He doesn’t mean just his touch, or how his lips are centimeters from the skin on her neck. He means this - treading into something so dynamic yet so delicate.

She presses her head into his shoulder, nods against his shirt, and his hand finds the small of her back, steadying her against himself. A silent and solidified yes.

He doesn’t expect anything back. The weight of those three words is a hell of a lot to ask of her to say, and he won’t. He feels it in the way her nails dig into the sides of his torso. The way her breathing slows down when it’s just the both of them like this. The way she lifts her face off of his body only to smooch her way across his jawline, taking time to claim every inch of space.

“I missed a fucking lot,” he says - almost achingly so. He lifts up the hem of her t-shirt in the back and buries his palms underneath, aware of how warm her skin feels under his hold. “You’re not the same.”

“That’s a good thing El,” she promises, letting out a faint whimper as his hands circle to the front of her body, fixed sturdily in the hollow underneath her breasts. “Neither are you.”

Chapter Text

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.