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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.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

He could lie; say he wasn’t disappointed.

 

Say it didn’t matter; that he didn’t expect her, but a not small piece of him had made the assumption, and when she was absent from the ceremony, the realization of his expectation hits him full force.

 

Here he is, the one who had fled; her partner, best friend, her single most important - fucking complication of a man; here he is, assuming she’d be there to catch his eye, clap in pride, when he’d made a choice to abandon her and every single event in her life for 10 years.

 

Adoption, christenings, promotions, pinning ceremonies; he’s been on another continent; putting enough distance between both of them for him to finally feel safe from the pull of her; the pull of them.

 

And he has the nerve to think she’d be there for him.

 

He is, he thinks, a royal piece of shit.

 

So, it knocks him off guard; catches him in a moment of true surprise when the text comes through.

 

He is at home, packing for everyone, tidying up what he can so the contractors can get a decent start at repairs while he’s gone; when his phone pings.

 

Congratulations, El. You earned it.

 

He’s expected a text from Eli; his son hassling him to hurry up, get going so they can get to Maine in time for some sort of gaming streaming event that frankly, he’s not sure he could understand if someone wrote one of those “For Dummies” books on it.  That it is her, reaching out, to him - there’s an ache in his heart, that she would even bother.

 

He tells the truth in his return text. He’s proud Cragen was there; happy to be acknowledged by his mentor and friend, but he’d really just wanted all of it - the case, the cross, the ceremony - to be done, put away squarely in his past. A chance to be his own man, his own cop; to not live under the shadow of his father and his father’s career is what he has now, and it is time to be that man.

 

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

 

God, he is a self pitying fool.

 

When the minutes drag on with no response, he chides himself. He’s done it here, again. Fucked it all up. She probably thinks he wants her to build him back up, feel sorry, say nice things to reassure him, but he was simply telling her the truth.

 

He is again caught off guard - completely so, by her next text. So much so that he replies in haste, hitting send before the second part of the text.

 

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

 

Here she is, Olivia Benson; the one he’s been quietly but doggedly trying to convince that it - that they - are worth this shot; here she is. Asking him out.

 

Sorry, Liv. Can’t tomorrow.

 

Shit, shit, shit. She’s reading this, and she’s thinking he’s saying no, and all because his fat fingers had hit send before the second part, the important part; the part that he wants so deeply, so desperately to be received and received well, had been entered into that damn little text box.

 

He hastily finishes the second part. Hits send, holds his breath until he sees it go through.

 

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

 

It’s so silly; to be sitting here, begging and praying to a God who has given him so much, for this one thing. For her to please say yes, please accept this, please let them have a place to start from. A chance.

 

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

 

His response is immediate; because he’s been so ready; so hopeful that she’ll open this door, this line of communication; he’s only seen the first part when he types out his own response. Blinded by the yes, a little gleeful and impulsive on his part, he had typed out the rushed response before he sees her own question to stay in touch. Doesn’t notice until his own response is sent and delivered; he scrolls up to see that even here, even in this; maybe they’re still persistently on the same plane of thought. In sync.

 

I’ll call you.

 

 

That it’s Fin- Fin Tutola; who’d he’d gone toe to toe with multiple times (and lost), that somehow, in all of this, has become their relationship whisperer; well. That fact continues to astound him.

 

But; when their ‘drinks’ gets pushed back 3 times; when Olivia’s last excuse of a cold, and runny nose - and her diatribe about covid and not wanting to infect him, even if it’s not covid - comes through, Elliot finds himself catastrophizing.

 

Clearly, it’s second - second, third, fourth - thoughts on her part. Work rescheduling was bound to happen, but now, now, he’s deep into his own head and has convinced himself she’s ducking their date.

 

Well; their drinks. Their maybe date. Their could be a date, could be something more than just a quick beer and celebration, but only if it actually happens.

 

So he does some digging. A light amount of detective work, a quick call to the precinct desk one day - she’s not taking calls, is the uniform’s answer when he asks for her extension. She’s not taking calls, which means she’s there, but tied up, but not sick enough to miss work, clearly.

 

Olivia is very clearly avoiding this; and his heart shatters a little, and for two days, he lets himself feel a little foolish. That he would be deserving of this and her time and her efforts; when he’s so clearly not, and that he has no right to do anything but wallow in disappointment. He wallows in it; doesn’t let himself self destruct, but gives in to a bout of self pity.

 

After two days, he kicks himself a bit. He’s at least being a bad friend; and if she’s feeling sick - whether she’s avoiding him or not, whether she’s sick enough to work or not; she had sounded congested on the voicemail she’d left him.

 

He dials the one person who he knows will give him the smallest amount of leeway, here; and the irony that it is Fin is not lost on him.

 

“Hey, man, what can I do for you?”

 

Fin’s voice is welcoming, eager to hear from his old teammate.

 

“Hey - uh.” Elliot pauses, realizes he has no plan for this call; had acted on impulse and now needs to come up with a plan; and fast.

 

“ - it’s uh. It’s about Liv.”

 

Fin’s amused chuckle is the only response he gets for a beat, before the man responds.

 

“‘Course it is. What can I help you with, Stabler?”

 

“She uh; she mentioned she’s got some sort of bug; and I know she used to drink those stupid teas and honey when she was sick.”

 

Fin mutters back, his voice brimming with just enough sarcasm and humor.

 

“Still does.”

 

“Yeah - well. I was going to have one sent there, to the station, but I um -“

 

Elliot continues, rushing through the flimsy excuse.

 

“I, um - I don’t know when she’s in for the day.”

 

This time, Fin lets out more than a chuckle, brings a full guffaw to the table.

 

“Man, you two need to get your shit together; and that’s all I should say.”

 

Elliot starts to question; opens his mouth to offer some sort of answer to cover his tracks, but Fin interrupts swiftly.

 

“Lindy told me OC had called asking for Liv the other day; and he covered for her, but I wish I’d known it was you.”

 

Fin continues.

 

“She’s not here, man. She’s at home, sick as a dog, working; but she doesn’t want McGrath to know she’s out of the office. Doesn’t want to show weakness to that son of a bitch.”

 

Elliot lets out a groan; and Fin continues to laugh.

 

“Like I said; you two need to get your shit together. I’ll text you the coffee shop she gets those fancy teas from.”

 

Fin hangs up on him before he can thank the man.

 

When he sends her tea; he takes Fin’s advice. Tries to get his - their - shit together.  Adds a note to the order.

 

A substitute for the good stuff. Until you’re out of non-covid-but-feels-awful quarantine; when we get that drink.

 

Her thank you text back ends with a question that sends his heart rate just high enough; has his cheeks just pink enough that Jet mutters something about a fever or a confused geriatric, as he grins down at his phone.

 

Friday?

 

 

 

It is leap of faith, he knows.

 

He’d overheard Kathleen telling Eli about the food truck festival the evening before; the older sibling gently teasing the younger about his girlfriend, and the perfect venue for a date.

 

He wakes up, thinking about it; reaches for his phone before he can stop himself.

 

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

 

It’s too much, he realizes. He’s pushing too hard, too fast, and he will most definitely shove her into fight or flight with this.

 

But he’d heard the words ‘perfect date’ and his head is filled; picturing her in the glow of dusk, their city around them, families laughing, a warm summer night, and it had sounded too perfect. Too much like them - he had to ask.

 

Had to take the leap.

 

Her response isn’t an answer, but feels closer to a yes than a no.

 

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

 

He tries to be bold. Types out a response about picking her up, not leaving her a chance to say yes or no. Deletes it when he re-reads it, thinks it sounds cocky and too self assured and all the things he doesn’t want to be for her.

 

He settles on asking again.

 

So, is that a yes on dinner?

 

Her response is swift; putting him out of his misery fast enough.

 

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

 

Her answer comes dangerously close to flirting, and as he slumps back down in his bed, a smile on his face, too drained to send anything back but a laughing emoji and a simple answer.

 

See you at 7.

 

 

He is too far into his own head.

 

He knows it; knows he’s spiraling into something; but if he hadn’t, the sharp reminder from his mother would have opened his eyes.

 

He had taken the leap of faith; pushed the envelope to ask for more, and felt the rush of adrenaline when she’d said yes. As soon as the adrenaline wears off, however; the anxiety creeps in.

 

He tries to fight it; manages to push it back temporarily with the type of run that leaves his hips aching and his chest heaving as he collapses at the kitchen island. Gets through coffee with his mother; sends Eli out the door, packs his stuff, gets in the car and the crash comes.

 

He goes from simply preoccupied, to annoyed, to a bear in a remarkably short span of time.

 

He knows he’s doing it. Elliot knows it’s not fair, and it’s not one person’s fault, but the knowledge that tonight - tonight she’d said yes, agreed to this; after days of waiting and months of asking and literal decades of wanting, quietly and hidden and in secret; that tonight he’s going to take her out as something more than they’ve ever been allowed to be.

 

It’s more than nerve wracking.

 

What-ifs enter his mind. What if she’s only agreed because they’re friends ( and that the for now was merely her way of being gentle, a kindness to his grieving)? What if she’d never wanted him to say yes to that drink; and now it’s just something she has to do; something she doesn’t truly want? What if it goes badly, and they end up hurting each other, driving each other further away; and he loses her forever?

 

Any interruption of his panic filled musings results in a glare; if those around him are lucky. If they’re unlucky, it’s a huffed out answer to a question; a stack of papers set down with too much force on a desk.

He has been; for lack of a better term, a dick. Standoffish and snappy and impossible to be around.

 

He is, he knows, a ridiculous man.

 

By the time 5 o’clock arrives, he’s managed to piss off just about everyone in his squad; and Ayanna sends him home. Tells him to get his head together, enjoy his weekend, and work it out of his damn system.

 

His drive home seems longer than normal; interrupted by rush hour traffic and his ever increasing ire. By the time he rushes through the door, he figures he has fifteen minutes to shower, shave, and change.

 

Elliot slams keys into the kitchen island, his gait heavy and footsteps loud as he moves past his mother, sitting on the sofa, catching up on the local news. He doesn’t hear her question; rushes right into his room. Doesn’t bother to clean up the clothes on the floor after his shower; foregoes shaving because, if he’s honest - he does know that the scruff that adorns his face is a look she doesn’t mind.

 

He stalks back out of his room, reaches for his keys, and stops dead in his tracks when they’re not where he left them.

 

“I’ve got them over here.”

 

The voice from the couch comes with an amused grin on the face of Bernie; and as he steps over to her to take them, she pulls them away.

 

“What’s got you so worked up, Elliot?”

 

His hands are on the back of the couch as he tries to hold back an angry retort. He eyes his mother, eyes the keys, tightens his grips on the frame of the furniture.

 

“Ma - I need those -“

 

She ignores him, talks right over him.

 

“It couldn’t be that you’ve been an absolute ass because you’re nervous about something, could it?”

 

She eyes him, hands back his keys as she gives her final warning.

 

“Simmer down, son. You already got her to say yes. The hard parts over.”

 

Her words give him some pause, at least. They don’t completely erase the nerves. His heart is still beating too fast, his hands shaking just a bit as he plucks the keys from her hand; but it does remind him that his mother is, somehow, usually right in matters of the heart.

 

Olivia had said yes. At the very least; she wants to be there tonight; with him. He can be nervous about everything else; about how it will go and what it will mean, but she wants this tonight. For them.

 

Elliot turns around, routes himself back and around the couch. Leans down to give his mother a quick peck on the cheek.

 

“Thanks, Mama.”

 

Bernie leans up, traps his hand against her weathered cheek for a moment.

 

“Tell your partner I said hi.”

 

 

By the time he arrives at her building, gets the nod from her doorman to head up; he is decidedly less irritated.

 

He is, however, incredibly nervous.

 

He tells himself that this; this fluttering in his stomach, this bead of sweat running down his back; this is silly. This is Olivia, this is just her, and him; something they’ve done a thousand times before.

 

It’s dinner.

 

He takes pause for a second before he knocks. Runs a hand over his head, takes a deep breath, then raps twice on her door.

 

He rocks back and forth as he waits for her to answer, slides a hand in his pocket so she won’t be able to see the slight tremor his nerves are causing.

 

When it swings open; when he sees her standing there, he almost has to take a step back.

 

Her hair is curled softly; framing her face. Her makeup is light, and gives her an almost ethereal glow as she smiles out into the hallway. The purple tones of her dress draw out the tan of her skin; and she looks, he thinks - she looks fucking incredible.

 

That she did this, put on a dress, did her hair, her makeup - that she did this, for him; hits him square in his chest; and he swallows thickly before he can say a word. He barely hears her say something about her purse; can hardly get his next words out. He pushes through, voice cut with emotion, unsteady and absolutely awestruck at it all.

 

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

 

Her smile back is strained; and he feels a stutter in his step as they turn to leave. They don’t meet eyes, don’t make small talk on the journey down the hall.

 

His heart is pounding in his chest as he trails her to the elevator, a step behind; a footstep apart.

 

Out of sync.

 

They’re out of sync; and out of sorts; awkward and all wrong and his heart is sinking as fast as the elevator to the ground floor. He can’t stomach the idea that this isn’t the right thing; that trying this will change the fundamental piece of them that keeps them aligned.

 

Even a decade apart; at his own hands, hadn’t broken them, but maybe his pushing for more has.

 

As they make their way through the lobby, he watches her out of the side of his eyes. Sees the worry on her face, a sadness most would miss - most; who don’t know her tells, the subtle changes of emotion he can read. He watches her sigh, brush a hair out of her face; and before he can stop himself; he’s reaching for.

 

It’s breaking him in half that he; that this, is causing her to feel like this. If trying this; if simply trying to be something more will permanently alter them; if it is something that is hurting her, he doesn’t want to be the cause of that.

 

Elliot catches her arm; a hand on her bicep. Stops her, twirls her gently back towards him. All he wants to do is pull her in; gather her up in his arms and reset them, but he doesn’t want to push. Doesn’t want to spook her.

 

He starts to speak, tries to put into words the question - what’s the reason that this - a simple dinner; is knocking them off balance.

 

He starts to speak.

 

“Liv - why…”

 

He stops when he sees her face fall. No micro expressions this time, but true genuine hurt and pain and fear in her eyes that anyone could see; and it’s a realization that hits him, almost knocks him to his knees.

 

She’s panicking.

 

She is tense and terrified and he hopes it’s for the same reasons as him; that it’s out of fear of what could be not coming to fruition; after everything they’ve been through.

 

That they’ve weathered all these storms, as a team and apart; only to not make it into port together.

 

He starts again.

 

“God I’m nervous.”

 

He sees the relief in her face first; then feels it.  Actually physically feels her muscles relax under his fingertips; at the echo of her own feelings in his. He takes a deep breath, warmth returning to him; the churning in his stomach slowing. Elliot slides his hand down her arm, entwines their fingers, then leans in close to her to finish his thought.

 

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

 

Their conversation continues; as they gently rock back and forth; fingers pressed together, in front of his car.

 

Confessions, laid out; laid bare, for the other to see; truths about fears and dreams and decades of longing leading up to one night has thrown them out of sync.

 

Letting the other back in; openly and honestly, was the only solution.

 

As they drive towards their destination, hands finding each other again; a grin on their faces at the word partner; Elliot allows himself the hopefulness of optimism for the first time in a year.

 

 

 

Impossible; that’s what it is.

 

It’s later that same night; and she had pulled him into her home. Kissed him over and over; led him down the hall, no question in her voice as she invited him into her room; undressed him and herself and showed him that the panic; the nerves they both had carried into that night, could stay gone.

 

Now, Olivia is underneath him; and he is buried deep inside her; their hips stilling for a moment as she catches his face with her hand, pulls him down, crashes their lips together and it feels - impossible.

 

That 13 years deeply in sync; but always apart - followed by 10 years of distance and space and silence; then a year spent weaving their way around each other; in and out of sync; unsure, unsteady - that it could lead to this moment, this moment of magnitude and happiness - it feels like everyone else is living in futile failure; if they don’t have this. If they’ll never experience this.

 

He thinks that the words coming home; they don’t come close. Not to this. This isn’t anything he’s ever felt; ever known.  This is more; deeper. It can’t be real; has to be some far fetched dream he’s in. It is impossible.  Impossible to feel this close; feel this relief and this satiated when he’s barely even moved inside her.

 

He remembers stories; from when he was young. Of sinners turned saints; the lucky few finding bliss and perfect joy in a revelation of faith; and he knows there is an irony here; of the devout Catholic man; the man who has; for all intents and purposes, sought to absolve himself and everyone around him of sins. An irony in finding that perfect peace when he’s physically inside of Olivia Benson. An irony that he spent a decade away, wandering the world so that he could stay true and faithful, be a good and honest man; so that he could someday find this peace in his denials.

 

Then again; maybe he has always known. Known that her and him and this; this could never be ordinary. Known that if he’d ever come close; it’d destroy the tenets he’s clung to, based his family, his very life around. Known if he’d met this level of pure bliss; felt this close to heaven with her; it would have been too much for a man of faith to come back from. A baptism in the arms of the only one who could battle the church for his loyalty.

 

He pulls back from the kiss, looks down at her.  A shaky breath as he meets her gaze and it’s enough to know; to feel; to physically see this is the same for her. There’s a tear in the corner of her eye; and he feels the heaviness behind his own; both of them overcome and overwhelmed with the rawness of this moment; the feeling of absolute peace; finally.

 

Her hair is spread on the bedsheets; and as he begins to move, he marvels in her beauty. Can’t stop saying it; whispers in the dusk as he thrusts in to her.

 

“Beautiful,” his gaze hooded as he moves against her, her hips arching off the bed to seek out more of him.

 

“Perfect,” he gasps, heady and reeling as she wraps a leg around him; her foot on his calf.

 

“Olivia,” her name, over and over; as she answers with a groan of her own; his name on her lips as they drive each other closer and closer.

 

He leans back on his knees; deepening his thrusts. Takes in every inch of her; of them and their coupling, his eyes dancing between where they’re joined and her own gaze as he moves inside of her.

 

There’s a rawness to it; the sheer curtain that had existed for so long between them dropped; both of them spilling confessions kept secret for decades as they frantically move against each other.

 

Her breath grows uneven; moans becoming gasps, as she grows closer to her own peak. He slides a hand between them, seeks out the bundle of nerves and circles her with his thumb.

 

She calls his name; shouts it out as she contracts around him; and he follows in quick succession; short thrusts as he spills inside of her; her own name echoing out of him.

 

Later, she confesses to him that she has spent the last year feeling off; somehow. Out of sorts, unable to sleep, unable to know if it was him, his return, or her own reluctance to acknowledge that his blurted “I love you,” was a truth.

She tells the truth, and so does he. They’d both been happy; in his absence. Happy in their families; in the lives they’d lived, the peace they’d both made. But his return was a stark reminder of the carved out holes in their hearts; the incomplete spaces they both carried. That they can only be full; whole, when they’re one. That without the other; they are not.

 

He holds her after this; lets her fall asleep in his arms. Mirrors her breaths until they’re rhythm is one. Elliot falls asleep with Olivia’s head on his chest; ear pressing against his heart.

 

Both, finally, in sync.