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The Arts of Survival

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Olivia likes older movies.

 

The cheesy kind made in the mid to late 90s, when the big names of today were just getting their start, and the make-up and fashion were atrocious .

 

She calls them ‘classics’ as they sit on her couch. His bulky frame is scrunched in the corner, long legs outstretched on the coffee table, while she’s settled comfortably against his left side, a throw blanket draped over her legs, her head tucked comfortably into his chest.

 

They’ve bickered about the difference between cult classics and classic classics every Friday for the past three weeks and this evening, as the opening credits float in gaudy font across the screen, is no different.

 

When Elliot tells her that her affinity for these movies is nerdy, she retorts that he wouldn’t know a good film if it slapped him in the face and tangents on about the authenticity of filming, the superb soundtracks, the raw acting.

 

Olivia speaks passionately of her favorite movies, drawing him in until he’s hanging on her every word, failing to contribute to the conversation just so he can listen to her rave about an otherwise mundane topic — but to her they’re absolute theatrical gold.

 

Hackers has been on for half an hour and the jumbled, overlapping patterns painted in caustic greens and neon oranges that shoot across the screen make him dizzy. Looking away to give his eyes a break, he catches the way her black-painted fingernails tap along to the music on the top of his thigh, and it’s a bit sobering, seeing her so at peace — so relaxed .

 

Elliot opts out of finishing his beer in fear it will contribute to the headache the grungy guitar notes aggravate. He doesn’t realize he’s dropped his right hand over hers, ceasing the tapping, until he feels the soft pad of her thumb slide between his pinky and ring finger, curling around the smaller with a gentle stroke.

 

Wordlessly, Olivia continues the caress, over the bend of the second knuckle to the nail bed, back down to the last knuckle above the metacarpals — she’s tracing a ridge, fixating on it. A smile tilts his lips up before her curiosity peaks and she raises his hand into her line of sight.

 

“What’s the matter?” His voice is low and gravelly as he dips his head to catch her gaze.

 

“Nothing’s the matter.” She mumbles, focusing on his pinky, on that knuckle, the nail of her index finger scraping along the edge of a skin-toned scar.

 

“Then what’re you doing?” He prods, gently pulling against her grasp, chuckling when her grip tightens and draws his hand closer to her eyes.

 

It’s quiet as she considers how to respond. 

 

She could rip off the proverbial band-aid, tell him she’s cataloging for the sake of her own sanity. That she wants to reassure herself of the knowledge behind each of his scars, that she remembers them all. 

 

That this is an attempt at summoning enough bravery to tell him the stories behind her scars — the ones he doesn’t know about. 

 

But as she stares at this raised pink line with its bordering tiny white dots, she finds herself a bit relieved at the realization that they both might have stories to tell. The comfort of that thought blends with her confidence, and she settles on this subtle course of identifying his menial scars.

 

“I’ve never noticed this. How long have you had it?” 

 

“My finger? My whole life.” 

 

The humor in his tone strikes the wrong nerve and she grimaces up at him. “Elliot, don’t.”

 

“Since I was seven.”

 

Olivia hums her acknowledgement and there’s a quiet curiosity that falls from her lips, so quiet he nearly misses it.

 

“How’d you get it?”

 

He shrugs. “I don’t remember.”

 

“Well that doesn’t make any sense. You remember how old you were.”

 

“Liv, I don’t remember how I’ve gotten every scar.”

 

“Bullshit. All men know. You parade it around like it’s some type of trophy. Hell, I’d even argue that women remember how they got their scars, just not for the same reasons.”

 

Elliot thinks about that for a moment, wonders if there’s a bit of self-admittance there in her words. He fixates on it before the second-guessing urges him not to.

 

“Easy to say when you only have the one .”

 

Her head snaps up then, deep brown eyes boring into his from beneath furrowed brows: “What do you mean? Are you… You mean me ?”

 

Her expression startles him and she sounds a bit incredulous, but he holds her gaze, encouraging tactfully because there’s a voice in his head telling him this was brought up for a reason; that she didn’t just ask about that scar for shits and giggles.

 

“Yeah, Liv.”

 

A humorless laugh leaves her and she drops the intense eye contact, pushing out of his embrace until she’s perched in the far corner of the couch with their still-joined hands resting in her lap.

 

“I have… more than one.” Her head is tilted and he can see that she’s eyeing him through her peripheral vision, as if that statement is something monumental.

 

“Not a chance Liv. I’ve seen you. Your skin is flawless, always has been.”

 

Olivia scoffs and shakes her head, eyes pinching shut, and rubs at her chin with trembling fingers. “You’re forgetting a ten year gap Elliot. For ten years you haven’t seen me.”

 

Olivia doesn’t intend for her tone to be cold or for the scowl to deepen her features, but there are memories there that Elliot doesn’t know about and he’s wading in waters that’ll freeze his soul.

 

So she redirects, because some of the nerve from earlier has dwindled — but there’s hope for it to return, if only she can focus on him for a moment longer.

 

“Tell me the story of your pinky scar. It must have… hurt.”

 

“It did.” He doesn’t push a condition for her to elaborate but she knows it’s there, and if she were to look up and meet his blue eyes she’d find it, waiting patiently.

 

“You were seven?”

 

“Mhm… I jammed it on a shoulder pad during football practice. Nasty break, couple screws and a cast.”

 

She reaches out once more and resumes the pattern of tracing the scar, noting the tiny white dots alongside the line with her thumb.

 

“Did you go back the next season?”

 

“I did. Broke my wrist the first game.” She turns his hand in search of the scar but he laughs softly. “No surgery for that one. Just a reset and cast.”

 

Olivia doesn’t respond, just rotates his hand until his knuckles come back into view, a quizzical expression falling over her face. He lets himself think about how cute she is: brows furrowed, eyes squinting just a bit, lips in a tight line as she observes and catalogs the dips of bone and tight callouses.

 

It’s like he’s back sitting across from her at the 1-6 with a stack of completed files to her left and a legal pad littered with blue ink scrawls in front of her that she can’t seem to stop studying and adding to.

 

Her voice pulls him from the vision.

 

“Your hands are… the knuckles protrude. How’s the arthritis?” Her eyebrow arches and he assumes she’s attempting humor, so he plays along.

 

“Winter aggravates it, but Kathleen bought me Osteo Bi-Flex last week.”

 

She laughs at that, hearty and full, and when she composes herself, fingers still moving over the prominent knobs of bone, she pulls her bottom lip in under her teeth and he swears he sees her eyes water.

 

“I know some of these scars.” She curls and straightens his fingers, making and unmaking his fist.

 

“They kind of smudge together but… I know them.” For a third time she pushes the tips of his fingers into his palm until the bones bulge, her bottom lip escapes from the hold of her teeth as she traces the knuckle of his middle finger.

 

“The lockers at the old precinct did this. I remember you using strips of that sleeveless NYPD shirt to bandage them. The blood soaked through, and I teased you because you should have thought of that beforehand.” The corner of her mouth tips up in a gentle smile, “You had a nasty habit of playing tough guy until I had to clean them and set them in bowls of ice.”

 

Olivia smirks up at him, straightening his fingers out and pressing into the dips at his ring and pinky finger, the roundness of bone relaxed and replaced by the rigid flex of tendon.

 

“The most recent one I know of is from when Kathleen was arrested. The hospital sign; I think you ended up with a boxer's fracture. We argued over you being reactive and whiny about the consequences; that one day you were going to end up in a cast and complain about time off.”

 

Elliot nods. It’s still a painful memory, but she was there, like she is now, and he wants to press; wants to ask what this is about but doesn’t want to assume there’s an ulterior motive. So he just hums an acknowledgment and regards her quietly as she continues to examine his hands.

 

“I’m assuming the one scar of mine you’re referring to is from—” She distracts herself by drawing patterns along his wrist, the back of his hand.

 

“Gitano.” It’s a gruff interruption, and after all these years she still recoils, the hair on the back of her neck raising.

 

“It’s… an important one. But it’s not the only one.”

 

He sits up straighter then, retrieves his beer from the coffee table and takes a long swig. A deeper meaning hangs between them and he can see from the corner of his eye that she’s mentally preparing herself.

 

“Well, I told you about two of mine, so it’s only fair you reciprocate,” he challenges as the empty bottle clunks against the wood coffee table.

 

Olivia smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. Instead, her head ducks in thought, trying to come up with a map that doesn’t immediately lead to anxiety and horror. Glancing down at her right arm, she extends it towards him and points to a nearly faded jagged line atop her forearm.

 

“I was asked to dog sit this beautiful golden retriever when I was in eighth grade. A sweet two year old puppy with too much energy for the city lifestyle. I walked in the front door and she jumped on me, and when I raised my arm instinctively, her dew-claw caught me.” She pauses for a moment to take a closer look, and he wonders what’s really going through her head.

 

“It probably wouldn’t have scarred if I hadn’t picked at the scab every time it formed.” She flinches slightly at the admittance of a habit in which she still indulges.

 

“You like dogs?” It’s off topic, but his soft curious tone startles her out of the memory, lightening the air between them.

 

She nods. “I do.” 

 

“Didn’t know that.” A boyish grin spreads across his face, brightening the blue in his eyes, as if learning something new about her is fascinating; it takes a little bit of the fight out of her to know that the new information she’ll share with him tonight won’t be so innocent and light.

 

The urge to pry deeper with more silly questions rises up in Elliot’s chest and tickles his throat. He realizes then that he’s never asked her favorite color, her dream vacation — the trivial yet intriguing little details of her life he suddenly longs to know. 

 

Olivia shrugs. “I don’t like dogs in the city. Because I don’t think it’s fair. But, I understand the need for the company and… the comfort they provide.”

 

“Interesting. Always figured you for a cat person.” He raises an eyebrow, the remark curling his lips higher; innocent curiosity sated for the time being.

 

“I’m an animal person, El. I like all animals. They’re fun and cute, and humans don’t deserve their love or loyalty.”

 

He nods, muttering in agreement because he thinks it’s true. Elliot studies her in the new silence: the way she turns so she can face him, drawing her long legs up onto the cushion, bending them until her knees reach her chest and the stretchy fabric at her ankles raises a bit; a toned and tanned arm reaching for the nearly empty wine glass on the coffee table.

 

“The long one on your ankle, that from the accident?” He motions toward a dark pink scar peeking out from the cuff of her leggings, and when her hand follows he realizes neither of them has let go — they’ve been steadily holding hands for ten minutes, talking about scars — the movie long forgotten.

 

“Hmm? Yeah… surgery took a few hours. Still bothers me sometimes.”

 

“Like when it gets cold.”

 

“Or when it’s about to rain.”

 

They share a laugh and she tips the wine glass, letting the remaining liquid smooth down her throat. It’s like the alcohol is drowning the anxiety and warming her insides; loosening the tension of truth. 

 

But it’s a false feeling of readiness, and she can’t spill it all out right here on her couch. The mere thought sends a shiver coursing up her spine and she redirects back to him once more, unsure how she’ll make it to the end.

 

Olivia draws his right hand towards her, twisting until his arm is extended and the softness of his forearm is exposed. “This one and the one on your bicep from when you thought you were big enough to take out that rage machine hopped up on PCP?”

 

“Not one of my… finer moments.”

 

“More like intelligent moments.” She giggles, barely containing it as she speaks again. “He threw you like a rag doll.”

 

“Yeah, I remember thinking this must be what some of the perps we’ve nailed felt like.”

 

He huffs a deep throaty laugh and she rolls her eyes, reminiscing on the dramatic way he’d roll up his sleeves and make a show of flexing his forearms before those thick, calloused hands would haul some sorry soul a few inches off the ground and into the brick or the grated window. It makes her smile.

 

“Did you get a concussion from that?”

 

“You tell me. I don’t remember the trip to the hospital, just the stitches and being ordered to take time off.”

 

“You always thought you were tougher than you were.”

 

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” A feigned scoff bubbles out and she can tell he’s faking the anger.

 

“Oh c’mon El. You’d play the big man card and then once the consequences came rolling around it was, ‘Liv where’s your bottle of Ibuprofen’ and oh god , the wincing everytime you would even so much as ask me to clean your wounds.”

 

“I’d like to set you right on that but I can’t seem to come up with anything that would prove you wrong.” He’s chuckling again and shaking his head, scratching at his brow.

 

“Can I get that on record?” She counters.

 

“Don’t push it, Liv.”

 

There’s no bite to his words, and she scoots closer to drape her calf over his thigh, rolling up the athletic pants past her knee.

 

“These are from that explosion at the studio,” she speaks low, pointing at a faint smattering of dots that climb like tracks up the middle of her shin to her knee. “Having the gravel pulled from my skin made me queasy.” Her face scrunches at the admission as her palm upturns and there's a matching pattern of dots. “My grip was weak for days—”

 

“You limped for a few, too. I remember. Still wish I’d reached out so I’d have broken your fall.” The fragrant wine has perfumed her breath, enticing him to give in to things he’s kept secret.

 

Her head jerks up then and he’s stuttering, trying to recover from the implication of his words. “Job’s harder when both of us are injured.”

 

She nods, biting her lip, and gives him the reprieve of not calling out the hidden meaning.

 

They stare at each other for a moment before he folds his arms to show the back of his forearms and elbows.

 

Elliot clears his throat. “Road rash after going over my handlebars. Think I was about ten?” He drags his middle finger over the underside of his chin, speaking as he juts it out. “Split my chin open, earned twelve stitches. You’re right, having asphalt extracted isn’t pleasant.”

 

She’s leaning forward, ducking her head to see the divot. There’s a feeling swirling in her belly and she wonders if he can feel her breath on his throat as she examines the skin that’s painted with five o’ clock shadow. Her nostrils flare with an intake of air, pulling in the scent of his cologne and something that’s uniquely him; her eyes widen a bit at how enticing the scent is. An expensive cologne packed with rich and musky pheromones with the express purpose of drawing someone in.

 

Olivia finds herself stuck in the close proximity, staring blankly at the underside of his jaw, where it meets his throat, taking in the almost imperceptible white lines and dots from where a razor was too sharp or the hairs swirled in opposite directions and aggravated the sensitive skin. Before she realizes what she’s doing — before she can stop herself — she reaches out to trace a deep line on the curve of his jaw.

 

Elliot swallows, and the movement of his Adam’s apple catches her attention, and that feeling from earlier drops from her stomach into her pelvis — her thighs reflexively clenching.

 

“My first time shaving.” Elliot tries to clear his throat of its raspiness, tries to pull more saliva into his mouth and raise his voice, but it doesn’t work and he’s focused on the way Olivia’s pupils have dilated. “Razor slipped because I didn’t know how to drag it along curves. Bled all over my dad's sink, gave my mom quite a scare.”

 

“How many stitches?”

 

“Six, I think.”

 

“Looks like it was deep.”

 

“It was. Embarrassing too, ‘cause all the guys at school knew where that particular cut came from. Teased me for weeks.”

 

“Oh you poor baby.”

 

She pulls away with a smirk, but it fades quickly as his right hand fits beneath her chin, tucking the vee of tendon and flesh between his thumb and index finger against her jaw: he’s tilting her head back and to the side, exposing her neck. His tongue swipes the width of his mouth before his teeth sink into his bottom lip.

 

A part of her revels in the ease of his storytelling, and she wishes she, too, had an abundance of scars like his: shallow childhood scratches from playing too rough or deep marks from being tangled in contact sports; scars that she could laugh about and recall playfully, ones that didn’t tighten her chest or give her tunnel vision or leave her sweaty in the corner of her bathroom in the middle of the night.

 

But hers are all job-related, a physical catalog of the hazards her mother nagged and scolded her about.

 

“Gitano.”

 

“Yeah,” she confirms quietly, on edge with his intimate grasp. He hasn’t let go; the fingers of his left hand press into her neck now too, and as the memory floats to the surface, she’s unsure if it’s nerves or the gentle way he’s touching her that makes her skin tingle beneath his hands.

 

Her eyelids flutter shut, body relaxing and relishing in the way he’s holding her face. Her brain produces images of the same grip, but instead of leaning closer to examine damage, his mouth ghosts over hers as he holds her in place, tongue dipping out to test the pliance of her lips.

 

His deep, gravely voice pulls her back to reality and she finds his eyes staring up at her.

 

“Almost faded. Like it never happened.”

 

“But it did,” she whispers.

 

“Mhm.”

 

They hold each other’s gaze until he lets her go, removing all physical contact and rising to his feet to pad into her kitchen. The cool air from the fridge is a godsend when it hits his face and he lingers for a moment before pulling two beers from their case. 

 

Elliot observes her from behind the counter, popping the caps off the glass openings. She hasn’t moved from her spot on the couch, save for criss-crossing her legs while she waits. The tightness in her shoulders straightens her posture, and he’s not sure if it’s from the way he’d touched her without warning or the heaviness associated with that scar.

 

Either way, he’s drained half his beer before he emerges back in the living room, but doesn’t reclaim his seat as he holds the beer out to her.

 

When she takes it, he sets his own on the coffee table and waits for her eyes to meet his. As the bottle tips against her lips, he crosses his wrists and pulls the dark v-neck over his head in one fluid motion.

 

The liquid catches in her throat and she coughs, sputtering. He grins as she makes a frantic effort to compose herself and apologize and breathe all at the same time.

 

Elliot kneels in front of her, sitting back on his haunches. The hard roundness of her left kneecap brushes his right pec and he leans forward, muscle dipping under the pressure of their new connection.

 

Pointing to his left shoulder, his index and middle finger split into a wide peace sign to indicate clusters of skin that are tightly coiled in an ugly pucker of thick pink scar tissue at his bicep.

 

“Bushido,” she blurts. Moving suddenly, Olivia untangles her legs, leaning forward to press her palm over the two marks the way she had when they were fresh. Her eyes are wide like they were that night — full of fear and hope —  but this time there’s no warmth trickling between her fingers; her arms aren’t shaking as they had when she’d locked them at the elbow, bracing her body weight above him in an attempt to make that liquid stop flowing.

 

Elliot covers her hand with his own, moving it slowly to the center of his collarbone and down half an inch, relieved to see that haunted expression morph into a slow smile.

 

“Dana,” they say together. It comes out in a rush, in sync , and they laugh for a minute before her arms wrap around his neck, hugging him tight.

 

Each moment when she could have lost him for good overwhelms her, and she squeezes him tighter, sinking down until her knees dig into the fluffy white rug; the unexpected momentum of her full body weight knocks him off balance and they fall to the carpet.

 

Elliot’s still laughing, his left hand splayed across her lower back while his right hand braces behind him to help limit the impact of their collision. He reclines until he’s flat on his back and she’s sprawled a bit awkwardly over the top of him, her nose nuzzling into the nook of his shoulder and neck and her left thigh slipping between his legs. His hip digs into the center of her pelvis and her torso presses flush against his.

 

They lay there quiet, his hands clasped together around her lower back, pulling her closer. He feels the heat of her breath when she sighs contentedly, allowing his fingers to dip under the hem of her t-shirt.

 

But the skin at the curve of her left hip isn’t smooth, and his touch there doesn’t go unnoticed. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen her move so quickly, arms unwrapping from his neck so unexpectedly that his head thunks against the carpet. The heels of her palms dig painfully into his lower ribcage as she pushes herself off him, scrambling until her back is against the couch and her knees are pulled tight against her chest, a faraway look in her eyes. 

 

“Liv?” Sitting up carefully, arms draped across his knees, he just watches her.

 

The brown of her eyes melds with the ink of her pupils, giving the illusion of black orbs, and glazing over with unshed tears. Her chest heaves with deep intakes of breath, as if she’s attempting to settle herself. Her knuckles and fingertips are turning white as she grips her kneecaps, trying to pull them closer to her body like a shield. Olivia’s lips are moving, but no sound is coming out, and he can’t decipher what she’s whispering, though he assumes it’s some type of mantra to keep the oncoming panic from consuming her.

 

Unnerved, Elliot calls her name again; whether she hears him or not, he doesn’t know, and the worry begins to vibrate under his skin. He rises to his feet and makes his way into the kitchen, filling a glass with cold water from the Brita pitcher in the refrigerator and rifling through her cabinets for the basket of snacks and treats he knows she keeps hidden from Noah. He rummages around until he finds an oatmeal cookie, smiling as he remembers how they used to share because they were too sweet to eat whole, and makes his way back to the living room.

 

She hasn’t moved save for the careful rocking motion and her forehead is pressed into the tops of her forearms now. He takes a seat next to her, extending his legs in front of him and crossing his ankles, resisting the urge to say her name because he doesn’t want to startle her. Instead, he taps the chilled bottom of the water glass against her elbow.

 

It’s the right move; her head slowly lifts from her arms, the tears that had glassed over her eyes broke free of her waterline, leaving streaks down her face, and her nose is a little runny.

 

“I’m—”

 

“Drink.” He cuts her off and he thinks he hears her uttering ‘thanks’ before she takes the glass from him and sips at the water.

 

She doesn’t turn back to meet his gaze, just stares straight ahead and chews on her bottom lip as her chin begins to tremble.

 

“‘S’okay Liv. I’m uh…” He clears his throat in an attempt to draw up the right words, but what can one say to another in the aftermath of a panic attack? “We don’t have to talk about it. You don’t have to tell me anything about what I felt. And I won’t question it, not for a second.”

 

He knows she hears him, sees it in the way her eyebrows twitch and her chin stops quivering.

 

“I uhm… I want to tell you Elliot. I do. I just… god …” Her head falls back onto the couch, eyes closing on a heavy exhale, and he just waits.

 

After a beat, “So you asked about my pinky for a reason then?”

 

“Yeah.” It’s quiet and he doesn’t think he’s ever heard her sound so meek.

 

“Want me to put my shirt back on?”

 

A huff of laughter leaves her before she rolls her head on the cushion to look over at him.

 

“Up to you.”

 

“Kind of more comfortable like this. If you don’t mind?”

 

“Thought I just implied that I didn’t, Elliot.”

 

He can hear the exhaustion in her voice — the use of his full name stings, yet he ignores it — and if her reaction to his fingers brushing her skin is anything to go by, he really doesn’t know where she’ll garner the energy to tell this story let alone answer questions, and he knows he’ll have them.

 

“Okay. Drink some more water.”

 

“I’m good, thank you though.”

 

“Snack then?”

 

He holds up the cellophane-wrapped treat with a crooked grin and she’s laughing again, raising her head from the cushions and reaching out to take it.

 

“Still wanna split it?”

 

“How’d you know? I always save the other half for Noah. He really likes these.”

 

“Smart kid. And he has decent taste buds.”

 

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far. He can certainly be picky.”

 

“Ah, well most kids are at his age.”

 

“Yeah? So I’ve been told.”

 

“I remember one time, Dickie didn’t want to eat the veggies on his plate so he gagged and gagged, at the dinner table, until Kathy removed them.”

 

That is dedication. Do me a favor? Don’t tell Noah that story. I have a hard enough time when he gets a stomach bug and I have to clean the vomit from the bathroom floor.”

 

There’s a soft chuckle followed by a gentle ‘noted’ as he acknowledges her request., and they let a few moments pass in silence, easing the tension from the air with each slow breath.

 

But it makes Elliot uncomfortable and he finds himself arching his spine over the edge of the couch, elongating his torso. The fingers of his left hand trace two parallel lines, one running diagonally across his sternum and the other across his upper abdomen; they’re as narrow and fine as the blade that engraved them.

 

“‘Member these? Honestly, I think the bitch slaps hurt a lot worse.”

 

Olivia snorts at that, her hand flying over her nose and mouth as she struggles to chew bits of the cookie and hold her laughter in. He stares at her, amused, his own laugh bubbling up his chest until his belly is flexing with it and it bellows around them in her living room.

 

“I mean honestly, Liv. I get you wanted to sell it, but did you really have to wind it up like that?”

 

They continue to laugh until she’s leaning against his shoulder, tapping his knee and wiping the corner of her eye.

 

“Okay, okay. You’re right. I probably shouldn’t have hit you that hard. But for the record, my palm stung the rest of the day. Your stubble is very unforgiving.”

 

“Am I supposed to feel sorry for you? I’m the one that ended up with stitches and jabs from the guys when we got back to the house because my cheeks were still red.”

 

Another howl of laughter leaves her and he soaks it in; allows it to wash over his skin and vibrate against his ear drums, watches as it rolls up her throat when she tilts her head back. It’s a beautiful sight, seeing her this way. Almost as if she’s happy and carefree, sharing humor and banter like it’s a decade ago. A tinge of emptiness opens in his chest once she’s composed and staring back at him, eyes glossy from laughter instead of fear.

 

“You’re beautiful.”

 

The statement is impulsive; pulled from his lips by her deep brown eyes before his brain has time to shut it down and hide it away with all the other things he shouldn’t — and has no right — to say. He waits for the shadow of self-consciousness to crawl up his spine and envelop him, teasing him into insincere apologies and half-assed excuses to condone the intimate words.

 

But it doesn’t come, and they just stare at each other.

 

Her perfectly shaped eyebrows are arched up, the depths of her eyes are clearing, and her bottom lip is tucked under her teeth while a blush colors her cheeks.

 

She’s trying not to smile , he thinks.

 

“Liv, I—”

 

“Thank you, El,” she says softly, almost shyly, peering at him from beneath her lashes.

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

“You are too, ya know. Handsome, though.”

 

Elliot rubs a hand at the back of his neck and ducks his head. “I… thanks.”

 

“How many other scars do you have, Elliot?”

 

It’s an odd question, but she’s going somewhere with this and he knows it has everything to do with the rough curve at the back of her hip. The attempts to gather her courage are shaky but he does his best to inflate it.

 

“You asking ‘bout ones from the job?”

 

Olivia shrugs, chewing the inside of her cheek. “Sure.”

 

“I… I don’t know, Liv.”

 

Olivia rolls her eyes. “All men know. They know how many, how they got ‘em, how old they were. All the stupid intricate details that don’t matter to anyone but their buddies at the bar. All men know . Even you. So, out with it.”

 

“Liv, c’mon. What’s this about? Why is this important? Are we tit-for-tatting? Are we strolling down memory lane? Give me something. This isn’t… this isn’t what we do. We’ve never done this .”

 

“And what is the ‘ this’ you’re referring to?”

 

“Don’t do that. Olivia, we have never, not once, shared our injuries. At least, not you. Even when I was there for it.” For a second his eyes drift to her throat in another acknowledgment of the emotional turmoil they had hurled themselves into years ago that still affects them. “You never even told me ‘bout Sealview.” He reaches out to cup her cheek, stroking his thumb over her bottom lip as he speaks. “Not when I picked you up and your split lip was fresh, or days later when your jaw was colored purple. So, why are we sitting here pretending like this is something we do?”

 

Olivia doesn't have a response, and the harder she tries to make one up, the warmer she feels under his gaze. Inviting him here the last few Fridays has been a build up to this moment: developing enough comfort between them that she can tell him about the things she hides; why she bats him away when his fingertips brush under the hem of her shirt when they’re cuddling on the couch, why his lips aren’t allowed past her collarbone.

 

It’s a carefully devised plan. She’s formulated all the different directions she can give him so he’s the one driving them to this destination, but it’s been her behind the wheel the whole time. She’s been the initiator.

 

She ducks her head, exhaling a soft sigh, “I don’t have an easy explanation, Elliot. I wish I did.”

 

“Do your best.” He offers her a careful smile, brushing his fingers along the top of her thigh.

 

“I am trying my best, I just— I don’t want it to be this hard. Not with you.”

 

“What’s hard with me, Liv? Talking?”

 

“A bit, yeah. Like you said, we’ve never done anything like this before.”

 

You’ve never done it Olivia.”

 

Her voice hardens, “That’s not true.”

 

“Isn’t it? Okay, why can you tell me which of my scars are from what case, but I’m left with the impression that Gitano is your only job-related scar, hmm?”

 

“Because… I’m trying to protect you.” The defensiveness evaporates from her tone, exasperation taking its place.

 

“Protect me from what?”

 

“The things you can’t change, Elliot. I know you — you’ll wallow in the guilt of what you could have or should have done and it’s… it’s not about you.”

 

“Liv—”

 

“Let’s just go back to the movie. I’ll get us refills.” She’s up and moving towards the kitchen, hollering about fluffing the pillows, before he has a chance to tug her back down.

 

He grunts as he rises to his feet, stalking in after her and leaning against the counter as she pulls two longnecks from the back of her fridge. “Tell me what this is about Olivia.”

 

“Nothing, El. Really. C’mon let’s finish the movie.” Her smile is sweet, but it doesn’t reach her eyes; she tries to brush past him but his calloused fingers grasp her wrists and pull her to stand in front of him.

 

“Liv, c’mon. It’s me .” His pleading tone is gentle and full of the promise she longs to trust.

 

“That’s the problem,” she mumbles.

 

“The problem? What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“It means… Jesus Elliot, I—  I’m just not sure I’m ready for that.

 

That ? You mean sex? Wait a minute, how did this turn from scars to sex?”

 

She’s silent, dragging her eyes over his face, waiting for his furrowed brow to smooth over with realization but he just stares at her, ducking his head to better meet her gaze. 

 

She rolls her eyes with a resigned sigh.“I want the comfort of knowing my body isn’t the only one that’s marred.”

 

“Marred. You think having scars makes you… ugly?” 

 

She can see the wheels turning in his head and knows he’s trying to assess just how many and how bad the marks are that she’s alluded to . 

 

Olivia averts her gaze and remains quiet because she doesn’t have the heart to admit out loud that it has nothing to do with body confidence. She’s had years to accept the flaws in her skin, to appreciate them for what they are: the arts of survival

 

It has everything to do with how he’ll see her. With grace and pride? Indignation at what she went through, admiration of the way she battled despite the pain? Or the very worst: will guilt flood from his eyes, bringing him to his knees to beg absolution for not being there to protect her? Will he make it about him?

 

Because she lacks the strength to pull him from his knees, she lets him continue along the skewed path.

 

“You’re cataloging mine to feel better about yours . Liv, I can assure you, scars don’t— they’re not a turn off or a turn on. They just are . I mean, c’mon Olivia. Do you think I’m ugly?”

 

A smirk paints his face as he outstretches his arms so she can observe him in all his shirtless glory, flexing his abs and dancing his pecs. It makes her snort with laughter and she brings her hand to cover her nose and mouth, a blush coloring her cheeks.

 

“No, no I don’t. Anything but, Elliot.”

 

“Okay, then why would you think you’re ugly? Talk about not making sense.”

 

“I… it’s not that. I don’t think I’m ugly. I’ve accepted my body for what it’s grown to be, and I’m proud of it. Everything about it—”

 

“As am I.” His eyes shine with arousal, though she can see the concern peeking through.

 

“Thanks, El. But I just… I don’t know how to begin.”

 

There’s no response, no words of encouragement or change of subject, just his warm hand encircling her wrist and the soft thud of his bare feet on the hard floor as he leads the two of them to her bedroom. Olivia reluctantly follows him; he can feel the way she pulls against his grasp, hear the hesitancy in each of her steps. When they’ve crossed the threshold and the door is shut, he moves away from her to turn the bedside lamps on and pull the covers down. 

 

Olivia watches him from the doorway, leaning her weight against the solid wood. If her knees are weak at the mere thought of where this is going, what he’s going to try, there’s not a chance in hell she’ll be able to remain upright when he begins. But taking a seat on the bed — let alone laying down — is far too intimate and ignites the anxiety already seeping into her veins.

 

She curls her fists until the pinch of her nails into her palms is distracting enough to speak. “Elliot I don’t think—”

 

“Trust me, Liv. You have for the last few weeks, I’m just asking for a little more.” He steps into her space and cradles her face with his palm, thumb stroking over the curve of her cheek.

 

“If you need to stop, we’ll stop. We can just lay here if that’s what you want. But I want to show you that nothing about you is going to turn me away. Will you let me do that?”

 

He’s staring through her, his touch on her face is comforting; her gaze flit between his lips and those striking blue eyes that offer an indescribable reward for pushing through the fear crawling up her spine.

 

Whispered permission drifts from her mouth as she presses her lips to his.

 

The scratch of his five o’clock shadow against her chin draws a moan from the back of her throat and she can feel the length of his fingers guiding her hair to the back of her head, opening a pathway for his lips across her jaw and down her neck.

 

Elliot sucks gentle kisses against the sensitive skin and her eyes close, head tipping back until he has unhindered access to the expanse of her throat — not the least bit surprised when he takes full advantage. His tongue laves at the hollow of her collarbone, soothes the tinge of teeth, swirls up to her earlobe where he pinches and pulls.

 

The warmth of his breath hits the shell of her ear, eliciting a shiver from her entire body. “Last chance,” he murmurs. "Tell me to stop. Tell me we’re not there yet and I’ll walk you back out to the couch, bear the headache from your terrible movie choice and snuggle you. Just tell me.”

 

Her whispered prayer: “Don’t stop. Please.”

 

She feels his lips curl before they’re pressed once more just under the curve of her jaw. But then they’re just short of an inch above that spot, the one where her blood pumps erratically beneath thin, sensitive skin. His teeth sink into the nearly indiscernible bump, a reminder of the time he nearly lost it all, and her entire body tenses, fingers gripping his shoulders until her nails claw at the bare muscles of his biceps.

 

“I’m right here with you. We’re here. Together .”

 

It’s a promise, one she’s not so sure she believes just yet, but the ache of her clenched fingers subsides until her palms are flat, gliding over the expanse of his shoulder blades, effectively pulling him closer.

 

Elliot doesn’t warn her before grabbing the hem of her shirt, pulling it up carefully and pecking her lips as the fabric rolls and wrinkles at the top of her chest. He keeps his eyes on hers until she closes them, raising her arms above her head in silent acquiescence. Olivia wonders how she can give him full consent without her voice wavering, insinuating anything other than yes . But nothing comes to mind, and then his nose is nuzzling against hers, encouraging her to open her eyes.

 

The crystalline blue shocks her, the endless black of his dilated pupils pulls her into the depths until she feels like she can’t breathe, and her legs fail her. She doesn’t quite feel the security of his forearms across her bare back, but she’s weightless as he carries her to the bed; the gentle, intimate way he lays her down, the protection that his broad upper body provides as he hovers above her, his eyes never leave hers.

 

“I’m afraid.” 

 

The hushed confession makes her stomach churn, bile rising in her throat. She doesn’t want him in here with them, doesn’t want the way she fought so hard to dampen the significant, defining moment that is the two of them finally coming together. 

 

Elliot’s above her, his triceps dipping under his skin as he holds his own weight; he’s calm, breathing steady, watching her carefully. “Tell me what you’re afraid of.”

 

“You.”

 

She regrets it the second it’s out, because his brow furrows and the softness of his face turns to stone as if she’s insulted him.

 

“Of what you’ll think,” she tries to recover.

 

“Give me a chance.”

 

Olivia sighs, defeated. “I don’t know how.”

 

“Sure you do.” He dips his head down and kisses her once, twice, before grazing his lips along her cheek, tracing the line of her prominent jaw.

 

“Lunches at the precinct, morning coffees on the way to work, quick visits in the lobby after a long day: all those small moments were chances. Chances for both of us to adjust to having each other back.” He kisses her again, pressing firmly until his tongue snakes out to tease at the seam of her lips. 

 

They’ve kissed countless times, but it’s never been like this : the passion and urgency of drawing out secrets that only they will share. It leaves her breathless, craving more, pouring the confidence back into her as he begins to speak again.

 

“Inviting me for dinner at your apartment on Fridays, and letting me kiss you goodbye in the middle of the night.” He kisses the tip of her nose, takes hold of her hand and guides it to his left flank where she’s held him many times before. “Your hand twisted in my shirt, pulling me closer in the hallway for anyone to see. Your tongue against mine and the way you sigh so softly when I tangle my fingers in your hair.” 

 

He kisses her then, slow and languid, until a puff of air leaves her, whimpering in protest as he pulls away. Carefully, he shifts his hips against her thighs, nudging them further apart so he can settle more comfortably between them. 

 

“Crawling into my lap and trusting that I won’t let you fall backwards while you seek out your own pleasure.” A purposeful grind against her center makes her eyes roll back, and she worries her bottom lip. 

 

“Playing with my fingers and cataloging my injuries. They’re all chances, Liv. Chances you initiated. Because you’re the one in control. I’m along for the ride, taking whatever you’ll give me and nothing more.”

 

All she can do is nod in acceptance of his declaration, the honesty of it. She watches his shoulders dip as he pushes back and down the length of her body so he can kiss her collarbone, but she’s unable to stop the sudden tension that seizes her when his nose brushes a scar the size of a dime.

 

Elliot says nothing, just envelopes the mark between his lips and sucks lightly, as if he’s drawing out the nightmare, the swirl of his tongue painting over the devastation with a fantasy that’s pleasurable.

 

She finds herself telling the story, cigarettes and sticky alcohol that made a matted mess of her hair, but as his breath ghosts over her abdomen between reverent kisses and soothing nuzzles, there’s a new kind of beauty flourishing in her belly, soaring through her heart until it races through her veins. 

 

Olivia trades the gruesome details for a simple synopsis of the worst while his tongue traces the hooked curve of flesh at her hip. There’s no stutter in her recounting of bent coat hangers and keys, and she watches the way his mouth seals over healed tissue, melting into the pressure of his fingertips as they massage thick muscle. His tongue drags across the smooth skin above her waistband, leaving a wet trail that sends a chill through her.

 

Olivia lifts her upper body and reaches down to cup his cheek, turning his head to meet her stare, her own eyes filling with tears.

 

She repeats his words, “We’re here. Together.” A whispered affirmation that puts him into motion until he’s laying flush against her.

 

“You’re beautiful.”

 

The sentiment seeps into her skin and begins to flourish. It’s more than just a reassurance of her physical beauty; it’s admiration of her strength and her will, praise for being a continuous light in the dark world she’s walked through. As the tears fall from the corner of her eyes, Olivia sees now that the scars across her body are more than just a testament of survival.  

 

They’re the art of her resilience.

 

With his forehead pressed to hers, wet eyelashes fluttering across his cheeks, he speaks low and with a sense of adoration she’s never quite heard before: “You’re beautiful, Olivia. A good mother, a loyal Captain, a strong woman who’s endured more than her fair share yet still finds the light — the happiness in this world.” Elliot pulls away, his nose knocking the tip of hers until she looks up at him, the dark brown depths of her eyes glassed over with shedding tears. “God damn if it doesn’t make me fall in love with you all over again,” he chokes out, and she can see his throat working as he attempts to swallow down his own share of tears.

 

He kisses her then, softly, a brush of his lips across hers, and she clings to him for dear life as the sudden need to be closer to him drowns her: arms slung around the width of his shoulders, pulling until the heavy weight of him pushes her further into the mattress, strong thighs wrapped around his slender waist, squeezing with the hope of caging him there forever.

 

What was the chaste kiss of a moment ago is now the insistent press of lips and needy swipes of tongue; an outpouring of love as her mouth opens, granting him access to give it all to her in that one kiss. And she gladly takes it until she’s breathless, as if it’s the last thing that’ll ever fill her soul.

 

When they finally part, chests heaving against each other and roaming hands settled, he admits the thought that’s been clutching his heart in a vice grip and prays silently that she won’t hurl back everything he’s given her so far. “I want to know, I do, but I… I don’t need to. And Olivia, I’m not going to patronize you by apologizing for not being there — even though I want to. God, I want to do a lot of things that would clear my selfish conscience. But I won’t. Just tell me one thing, Liv. I have to know— and I feel like I already do— tell me you gave him hell or put him there. Please, tell me— tell me you did.”

 

Olivia shivers at his words, unsure if she has the strength to admit what she’d done, how she thought of him as she carried out her own justice and let it comfort her in the middle of the night on the floor of her bathroom. She wants to assure him that hell is exactly where that monster is, but doesn’t know how to tell him it’s not because of her and that she battles with the regret of not stamping the ticket herself. 

 

She wants to confess to her moment of violence and then bask in the absolution of his touch.

 

“I did, Elliot.” It’s a hoarse whisper, her throat too dry to allow anything more. 

 

It’s not confirmation of his assumption, but he takes it nonetheless and burrows his face in the crook of her neck. He inhales the scent of her, lets it cleanse his lungs and clear his mind of the nightmare she’s confessed to him. He kisses her pulse to reassure himself she’s still here, warm and alive and accepting him — welcoming him — so intimately. “I love you” resounds as a mantra, repeated over and over until she fills the space between his words with her own admission.

 

“Hold me,” she whispers, sinking into his embrace when he rolls to his back and secures her over his chest. Olivia focuses on the thump of his heart against her ear, letting it lull her into the beginnings of sleep. 

 

The deep timbre of his tired voice draws her briefly back to reality.

 

“I love you, Olivia.”

 

She smiles and places a sweet kiss to the center of his sternum. “I love you too, El. I love you too.”

 

COMPLETE