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what if we ruin it all, and we love like fools

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Panic is her first reaction.

 

Not the gut-twisting, breath taking, adrenaline laced, fear based panic that she  knows well, but a new, different sort of panic. The kind that has her squeezing her eyes shut, taking a deep inhale, setting her phone down, and walking away.

 

The invitations come from Ayanna, then Kathleen. Elliot’s getting the combat cross; it’s a big deal, and miracle upon miracles, Cragen will be there.

 

The thought of the three of them - together, in the same room, for the first time in over ten years, is what triggers the fight or flight in her. Has her practically tripping over herself to find an excuse - any excuse; to avoid this.

 

It’s a shit thing to do (then again, so is ghosting your best friend, your partner, your whatever they were to each other for the entirety of a decade) but she absolutely cannot gather the emotional capacity to confront this particular reality.

 

Cragen knew - had always known - that the lines had blurred to the point of being sloppy smears when they were partners. He’d known how she felt when the door slammed shut; had been witness to her devastation, and seen her come out the other side.  The very thought of three of them together again; with him watching, observing, the two of them; well.

 

Panic.

 

So she avoids. She avoids returning the texts, avoids the intra department email Bell sends her; avoids it and pushes it away in her brain, and it’s petty and silly but she just - she can’t.

 

She won’t.

 

Then it’s the day before and she knows she owes Kathleen something, so she sends a hasty apology, begging forgiveness for a heavy caseload and a flimsy excuse about promises already made to Noah and friends.

 

When it’s over; done - when she’s snuck a peak at Maureen’s Instagram, seen the pictures, when the relief of avoidance has subsided and the trickles of - not guilt, because she’s not going to let herself feel that, not when he’s willingly missed every important part of her life lately - not guilt, but a cousin to it, something closer to remorse - when the trickles of remorse begin to set in, she pulls his name up on her contact list, willing herself to figure out what to say.

 

He is heavy in her mind. Has been since his return, but even heavier these days; since everyone has been persistently - and annoyingly - making him and her and them - a topic to discuss. Amanda, Barba and their assumptions; Lindstrom’s analysis; all sit, pressing into her, digging uncomfortably into her mind, burrowing deep and not allowing Olivia a chance to think for herself, to slide the puzzles piece of their complicated past and uncertain future into something resembling a pretty picture.

 

Because, it is, after all, what she wants. What she knows she wants. It’s not even a romanticized version of ‘deep down, she loves him,’ because she knows she wears it, plain as day, and always has; and that’s why being in the room with Cragen hadn’t even been an option. They’ve got the chance now and one of them is trying, hard; putting himself out there for rejection again and again, but she is ducking and hiding and they’ve made zero progress because she keeps on doing the same thing.

 

Panicking.

 

So she sits behind her desk; types a few letters, deletes, then types again.

 

Congratulations, El. You earned it.

 

She hits send, waits a beat, starts to place her phone down when she sees those three dots appear.

 

Thanks Liv. Don’t know about the earning it part. Just glad it’s over.

 

She sits with his return text for a bit, torn between resorting to her default reassurances; or ignoring it, moving on. Maybe finding a few minutes in her week to piece together what she wants and how she wants it; making a plan and treading in lightly. Something catches her though, stifles the default, pushes away her instinct to protect her own heart.

 

It’s the reminders of not having the happiness she deserves.

 

It’s the look in Barba’s eyes when he throws the word unconditional at her. It’s Paris with Ed and it’s her waking up in the middle of the night, feeling happy and safe but lacking, somewhere; a wanting she could never quantify. It’s Langan asking her for a second date, and her politely and immediately declining, not missing a beat before she realized she’d done so.  It’s Cassidy saying the truth out loud, that she was never going to bare her soul to him; because there’s only ever been one person - one half to make her whole; one person who she’s been willing to let through the gates; and here she is, circling around her chance, because of panic.

 

She does what even five minutes ago would have been unfathomable, grabs her phone, types out a quick invitation, and hits send before she can stop herself.

 

Sorry I missed it. Celebratory drink on me? Tomorrow after work?

 

Olivia sucks in a deep breath, flips her phone over, turns toward the computer on her desk. Types in her password, all adrenaline and shaky fingers; tries to distract herself from what she’s done.

 

Then she hears the quiet ping; feels the vibration of his return text. Gingerly flips the phone back over, and peers at it warily.

 

Sorry, Liv. Can’t tomorrow.

 

The air leaves her body in a rush; her mouth dry, her heartbeat suddenly a thousand times slower.  It’s the embarrassment and the frustration and the fear all setting in at once; the twist of anger at him for the rejection; all of it hitting her so hard and fast that she almost doesn’t notice the three dots popping back up.

 

Almost.

 

Promised Eli and Mama a trip up north for a few weeks. Leaving tomorrow. Rain check?

 

Olivia can feel her face redden. She wishes it wouldn’t, wishes she was somehow above this, above herself and this anticipation and this little coil of something like glee she feels as her muscles unclench.  A grin crosses her face as she types back; a ripple of boldness in her response. She’s opened the door, and wants it to remain that way now, until they can move through it together.

 

Rain check accepted. Let me know you got up north safe. Call me?

 

Always so in sync, Kathy had said. His text had continued on; and the same moment her invitation to stay connected (this time) had been sent, Elliot had been typing out his own and had sent it to her.

 

I’ll call you.

 

 

It should be easier, really, to distract herself in the meantime. She’s one of the busiest women in Manhattan work wise, and Noah’s summer plans exist outside of any need for down time she may have.

 

It should be easier not to think about him, hiking through the woods with Eli, in a henley and joggers that she knows he’s wearing, because he’s so generously texted a photo that Kathleen had snapped of her father and brother at the peak of their hike.

 

It should be easier not to think about him and flannel blankets and a warm fire at dusk, but he’s face-timed her from around their Airbnb’s little fire pit; to tell her the kids say hi, calling under the guise of showing her the scenery and telling her that it’s a great destination. (It should also be easier to miss the light stubble covering his lower face, because for God’s sake, it’s almost dark, but her eyes are evidently intent on seeking that out, and storing it for whatever reference she may need).

 

It should be easier not to worry if he’s noticed that she’s fluffed her hair, just a little; freshened her makeup and pulled off her boxy blazer for a Zoom call with Bell and the ADA that she knew he’d be on, firming up some lingering details of the Sara Santos case.

 

It should be easier not to feel a lump in her throat; a catch in her breath, when she realizes this feels light, and flirty, and like something that they’ve never let themselves be before.

 

It should be easier, but it’s not, and work and Noah and the mundane details of her life are enough to drown out the panic rising once again in the depths of her, but it’s there, lingering, thrashing it’s way to the surface as soon as her brain has a minute to slow down.

 

It should be easier.

 

She hopes it’s hell on him too.

 

 

That their get together - date, drink, their whatever - is pushed back not once, not twice, but three times after his return to the city is inevitable.

 

First it’s her work, then his work, then a rogue cold that she’s picked up from Noah - negative for covid, but she gives him the courtesy of over caution.

 

(And herself five days of breathing room).

 

Then it arrives and his good morning text (his good morning text that has become a welcome part of her morning routine, not that she’ll allow herself to linger on this fact) arrives, suggesting more than she thinks she’s ready for.

 

About tonight - there’s a food truck festival in the neighborhood I wanted to check out. Try it with me?

 

Maybe it’s the lingering doses of NyQuil floating through her body; or maybe it’s just that her resolve has somehow, in the last 3 weeks, eroded ever so slightly, but her return text is immediate, light and flirty, and she feels the corners of her mouth lift as she hits send.

 

You, me, and greasy street food? Sounds like old times.

 

She eyes the three dots come and go, and come and go again as he types his response, and a not small part of her finds some delight in the fact that he’s nervous enough to try to craft a perfect message.

 

So, is that a yes on dinner?

 

Olivia rolls her eyes, glancing across her breakfast bar to make sure Noah hasn’t caught it.

 

That’s a yes. Figures the only dinner you’ll spring for is still something I have to eat standing up, though.

 

A laughing emoji back, one that both their children would mock them for, and a simple response is all the retort she gets.

 

See you at 7.

 

—-

 

Maybe she should’ve snuck in a quick therapy session.

 

Maybe a quick therapy session over lunch would have her in a place where this - this drinks, that’s now something more; that’s now definitely more like a date - this evening’s outing with her former partner wouldn’t seem quite so daunting.

 

Olivia is just enough on edge that she knows any peak at her heart rate data for the day would end up being a little alarming; but she hides it well enough. Well enough until she drops Noah off at Amanda’s - for the night - and ignores the smirk on the faces of both Carisi and her detective.  Because, that’s the catch to all this, isn’t it? That everyone knows.

 

Everyone knows, everyone’s aware - of them, their past, the future they both seem to want - and the pressure of that, knowing that this time will be unlike the others; that this time, the outcome will be more than a blip in her dating history, because everyone knows what she wants; the pressure of that strains her ability to just let go.

 

“Have a fun night, Liv.”

 

Rollins’ gentle squeeze to her shoulder as she steps out in the hall grounds her, for a moment; and she feels a wave of gratitude. Rollins and Carisi are a somewhat abbreviated and less meandering version of them and she knows she means well, wants Olivia to have what Olivia wants.

 

“Have a fun night, and - I don’t know. Just remember that it’s just a night. Ok?”

 

Olivia smiles at her friend, nods. The pep talk hasn’t calmed her, not really; but has reminded her that whatever this night is or isn’t; whatever it becomes - despite her case of nerves - is a page in a chapter in a book. Just some lines, not the beginning, nor the end.

 

Her stomach is still twisting though; anticipation stacked up against too much coffee, trying to make up for a rough night of sleep.

 

“Thanks, Rollins. I’ll call Noah before bed, ok?”

 

____

 

Seven o’clock; along with Elliot Stabler,  finds it’s way to her doorstep remarkably fast.

 

Olivia has had time to prep - bringing home a stack of paperwork for the weekend had allowed her time to duck out early enough for a shower and blow dry and enough makeup for that early summer glow to come through. A purple summer dress - because, it is unthinkably warm for an early June evening - and shaved legs and pink toes and she is grateful for the rush of it; because if she’d had enough time to sit, and think, and dwell, then answering the door when he knocks would have surely knocked the wind out of her.

 

She’s already managed to begin the ascent into fear based musings.

 

She feels unsure; unsteady. She feels a little exhilaration; tampered by a lingering sense of tension. The tension isn’t directed at Elliot; rather her own trepidation. Trepidation over the concern that she has made this idealized relationship into something it isn’t and can’t be; that they will try and and fall flat and she will be the one again, looking foolish and silly in front of everyone.

 

That perhaps the unconditionality of this is a one sided affair, after all, and picking up the pieces this time will be even more humiliating.

 

The raps on her door are gentle; bringing her back down from her building panic once again.

 

Olivia opens the door, and there, on the other side, waiting patiently, is the other side of Elliot Stabler.

 

This side of Elliot Stabler is soft; somehow, despite the hard planes of his body (made clear to her again, in the button down and jeans he’s wearing). This side of Elliot is casual; stubble on his face and a hand in his pocket as he waits. This side of him is shy, eyes dancing nervously as she steps aside, allows him entry into her space. This side is not the man that stands tall, bellows, and broods at those who cross him.

 

This man, this Elliot, is clearly as unsteady as she is, a nervous grin on his face as he takes her in; his usual air of ‘just cocky enough’ left somewhere else entirely for the night.

 

“Let me just grab my purse?”

 

He nods, swallows thickly as he does. When he opens his mouth to talk, his voice wavers, slightly - enough to miss if she didn’t know him, know his tone and his tenor and what the shifts in each meant.

 

“Liv, you look - you look really nice tonight.”

 

Olivia smiles, tightly; clutching at her purse as they make their way into the hallway.

 

“Thanks.”

 

The ride down on the elevator is quiet, air thick between them. Time seems to drag as the numbers go by; a slow descent; and she is kicking herself internally, berating herself at how strange and awkward and unlike them this is.

 

She bites her lip, worrying it nervously. Perhaps Lindstrom’s point of idealizing this was right; and them testing out the waters is proof that something else, something more is nothing more than a silly dream she’s clung to all these years.

 

They file out silently, heels clicking on the tile, then the cement as they walk the short distance to his waiting car.

 

She hears him next to her; a sigh crossing his lips as they get closer, and it’s almost a reassurance to her. He realizes it too, realizes they are off beat, out of sync somehow.

 

At least the night will end fast, if they’re both feeling this.

 

Then suddenly, with no warning; it’s a hand on her bicep, a gentle tug and she’s half twirling around, facing him as he stops them both.

 

“Liv - why…”

 

And here it comes; she thinks. The ‘why are we doing this;’ the ‘gosh this was a bad idea’ about to cross his lips.

 

He starts again, locks his eyes on hers.

 

“God, I’m nervous.”

 

It floods her then, something like relief and a ribbon of joy cutting across it as she feels the beginning of a laugh bubble up from deep within her. It’s not just her; it’s not just him, it’s both of them, here; feeling out of sorts and at odds with what they know they are.

 

Then he is laughing too, hand still holding her arm as he slides it down. He threads fingers through hers, and pulls them closer together with their joined hands. Elliot leans down, close to her ear, his laughter stopping.

 

“Just wanted tonight to be perfect, ya know? It’s got me jumpier than Munch after a 3 day internet binge.”

 

Olivia doesn’t respond out loud right away, just nods into his shoulder. She squeezes his hand, then breaks their almost embrace by stepping back.

 

“I, uh - I changed my outfit four times, Elliot.”

 

He gazes at her, blue eyes traveling up and down the length of her; and she feels heat rush to her cheeks as he does.

 

Her voice is quieter now as she continues.

 

“I just…”

 

He waits for her response; patient - not filling the empty space with anything but his silence and his eyes on hers.

 

“There’s so much pressure, Elliot. Sometimes I feel like the whole goddamn NYPD is out there, trying to figure us out.”

 

Elliot nods, looks down at their hands, still threaded together.

 

“I don’t want tonight to be about pressure, Liv. If this is something - if you’re feeling like this is a duty or - “

 

She cuts him off, her head shake aggressive as she does so.

 

“No, El. That’s not what this is. I want to be here; we deserve a chance at this. I’m just -“

 

She stops abruptly, and he looks at her, brows furrowing together as he waits for her response.

 

“I’m just scared.”

 

It’s one of the few times he can recall hearing a timidness in her voice; a real and palpable fear evident.

 

Elliot pulls her back in then. He drops their hands, runs a hand down her back and rests the other on her hip. Holds her close to him, chest to chest; hearts echoing in both their ears as his words cross his lips.

 

“I’m terrified, Liv. It’s been 23 years, and I’m finally getting to do the one thing I never let myself believe I could do. I…I thought this was a pipe dream.”

 

Elliot continues, his hand leaving her back to squeeze her hand once more before he threads their hands together for the second time that night.

 

“Let’s just - can we just..?”

 

She nods, lets him lead her to the black SUV as she finishes his thought.

 

“Can we just be us for the night?”

 

His smile is an answer, and when he takes the driver’s seat, he reaches over to her again, palm out as an offering.

 

She looks down at his hand, then back at him, a crooked grin crossing her face.  She slides her own palm against his, and a quiet beat passes between them before she speaks again.

 

“Let’s go, partner.”

 

——

 

Maybe, it is the talk they had on the pavement in front of her building that knocks them back into their orbit, correcting the anxiety that had been plaguing them; allowing for a course correction.

 

Maybe it is Elliot’s eyes lighting up when they see a gourmet hot dog truck; and her gentle teasing about taking the man out of New York. Maybe it is the dollop of mustard that falls off his meal, hitting her open toe; and her laughter as he tries to offer her assistance, his knees popping as he stands back up from his attempt.

 

Maybe it is them, laughing at the ridiculous names of the craft beers from the beverage truck; all puns and plays on words; Elliot’s laughter as he teases her about the six packs of Zima she’d keep at home in simpler times.

 

Maybe it’s the fact that when their hands aren’t occupied with food or drinks or mustard stained napkins; they find the other’s hand, sliding into place like it’s always been this way; always been allowed.

 

Maybe all of this is why, when he drops her off, she turns around, at the door, smile on her face. Maybe it’s why, when she draws him in, pulls him close, the panic doesn’t bubble up to the surface, giving her any  pause at all; that just being them, all along, was actually enough.

 

She slants her mouth up, presses her lips into his, feels his smile against her mouth as he pauses for a moment, before returning her kiss; earnestly and with a passion that’s been waiting two decades to be realized.

 

Her mouth opens to his; as she allows herself to sink against the door, his fingers threading into her hair as he kisses her; tongue tracing her lower lip. There is no timidness, no hesitance or fear for either; minutes bleeding into each other as they explore each other, right there; in her hallway.

 

A nip to his upper lip as she catches it with her teeth; and he breaks away, smiling against her cheek as she whimpers quietly.

 

They stand together; bodies close as they catch their breath; her fingers sliding up to trace circles into the pocket of his shirt.

 

Elliot lets out a chuckle, tips his forehead into hers.

 

“Guess we didn’t have that much to be nervous about after all?”

 

Her laughter comes out in a throaty giggle, and she drops a hand to pull at his. She breaks away, pushing his chest gently, and unlocks her door. Eyes him across the entry way as she backs in, never dropping her gaze. Tugs him in, across the threshold before the door shuts behind them.

 

“I guess not.”