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Cuddle Therapy

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“You deserve to be happy, Olivia Benson.”

 

She doesn’t know if she believes that.  Wouldn’t happiness have happened for her by now if it were true? Serena, Joe, Simon. The only biological family she had in the world all succumbed to their addictions. Could it be that none of them thought they deserved happiness either? Why else drink yourself to death or shoot heroin?

Or, did they do those things because they never found it?

Olivia’s addiction? SVU. Obviously. But sooner or later, it will kill her just the same.  It’ll be a bullet, a fatal high-speed chase or dropping dead at her desk. She’d told Dodds years ago not to make this job his life. That she wished someone had offered the same advice. Olivia knew she’d already made the mistake of staying too long at the party. And while she knows she’s helped countless victims over the years, the idea of her pension doesn’t make her want to smile, keep her bed warm or hold her after the harshest of days.

Want, need, deserve.

Olivia wanted to be a mother and Noah came along. He’s given her a ridiculous amount of joy and she loves him endlessly.

Olivia needed to heal. Mostly post William Lewis but after those conversations were over, she’d discussed everything that had come before.  Every trauma she’d set aside for later or buried altogether.  Her childhood with Serena, lives she’s taken on the job, Sealview, the losses of Gladys’ baby and Calvin, and the aftermath of Jenna Fox’s death which led to the exit of Elliot Stabler. Her sole support system, best friend, sounding board, and… so-called idealized relationship.

Where the fuck did that come from?

Idealized? No. The people in her life that came after Elliot left just don’t know him or understand their dynamic. Maybe Lindstrom wasn’t listening to the part where he ghosted her for a decade. Or perhaps there was wax build-up when she mentioned how he did it again three months after the prodigal former partner’s return. Wait. That’s right. The captain’s been lying to her shrink and saying she’s fine where Elliot’s concerned.

Ah well, back to the third thing…deserve.

The good doctor believes in order for her to stop waking at 4 am crying and riddled with anxiety, she should find the happiness she deserves. Apparently, that starts by pissing or getting off the pot with that “friends for now” bullshit she initiated with Elliot. He’d put her on the spot by trying to name what they were.  How the hell else was she to describe them? Calling them ‘former partners who have feelings for one another but are both too chicken shit to do anything about it seemed too long of a title. And since she’s been putting him off all year, it’s up to her to move things along for the sake of her…happiness.

But how?

He still hasn’t really said why his departure went unannounced. How he couldn’t manage a phone call, text, email, note strapped to a carrier pigeon or a smoke signal for a fucking decade. She doesn’t know whether or not he heard about the four days in hell with William Lewis. He probably still thinks Noah is biologically hers and she doubts he’s put together who the “Ed” she spoke of around Christmas was.

Is she really supposed to wait for their schedules to align to discuss ALL that? Which, if she’s being honest, are just the tips of a gigantic iceberg of things he’s missed. And Olivia’s more than positive he has his own shit to divulge. At the rate they’re going, her son will be in college by the time they manage to get through half of it.

But, if it’ll help Olivia get a full eight hours of rest and not have to use extra concealer to cover puffy eyes from sobbing, she’s willing to space out those necessary, ocean-deep discussions one uncomfortable tidbit at a time.

So, with Noah spending Saturday with Fin & Phoebe, no doubt playing endless video games and eating anything he wants, Olivia invited Elliot for dinner. Amanda and her mama would be disappointed at the lack of a hotel reservation. But for what she plans on proposing to her former partner, the Georgia peach would likely still approve and…question.

She’s made baked chicken, rice, and veggies. Simple. Restaurant take-out and pizza are getting tiresome and there’s no way she was going to try to make Italian and have him compare it to his time in Rome.

Olivia’s just taking the chicken from the oven when two knocks sound through her apartment.

“Hey partner,” he says when she opens the door.

He wears a green Henley pushed to the elbows, dark blue well-worn jeans, and boots, having gotten the message that this was a casual meet-up.

“Hey,” she responds, noticing his temporary visual dip to the bit of cleavage she’s showing in the V-neck of her burgundy sweater.

“You look great, Liv.”

And since she doesn’t have her son as a distraction this time, she’ll have to actually respond.

“Thank you,” she tells him. “You do too.”

“What? This old thing?”

Olivia can’t help but smile as she shakes her head and returns to the kitchen.

“Make yourself at home,” she throws out. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

He approaches and watches her from the living room side of the counter.

“You can pour that wine while I take these to the table,” she instructs, after plating the food. “There’s beer if you’d rather—

“—Wine is good,” he says, filling two glasses of the pinot noir.

They sit to eat and Elliot gives two thumbs up after digging in. Olivia just smirks and shakes her head.

“I’m guessing you’re wondering why I asked you to dinner,” she begins. “Especially after turning you down.”

“I am,” he admits. “The only time I hear from you is usually work-related.”

“It is what we do best,” she tells him, sipping her red. “And…the only time I hear from you is when you’re having a personal crisis.”

The statement prompts him to take his own gulp.

“Made a promise to myself to stop doing that,” he informs her. “I heard you when you talked about things being one-sided,” he adds. “I don’t want that.”

“Neither do I.”

“But I’ve noticed…every time I ask to take you out you—

“—I know,” she interrupts. “But between Wheatley, the Albanians, the MK, and taking down the Brotherhood, things haven’t exactly been…stable for you.”

“And Noah needs stability,” Elliot surmises. “I get it. So does Eli. It’s why my undercover days are over. Well, that and the fact that Wheatley broadcasted my face over every network in the city.”

He shrugs in a ‘what are you gonna do’, kind of way and continues eating.

“How is Eli?”

“Good…better,” he corrects. “We’re both going to therapy.”

“Willingly? No court orders?”

“Yeah,” he answers, smiling. “It’s…necessary. Now stop stalling. You obviously have something on your mind.”

“Been talking to my own shrink,” Olivia admits. “I told him I’ve been feeling sort of…anxious and sad this last year.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he offers. “I hope he had some kind of insight into how to make things better.”

“He had a few ideas, actually,” she says, taking a deep breath. “The most important seemed to be getting myself to admit that I deserve happiness.”

“Course you do,” Elliot asserts, taking her hand. “You give so much of yourself, Olivia. If anyone deserves to be happy, it’s you.”

His touch is warm, unexpected but not unwanted. She holds on. If the feelings he conjures from a simple handhold are this soothing, this exciting, then Olivia thinks perhaps her plan may be exactly what she needs.

“He also suggested that I…either explore whatever’s between us or let you go and open myself up to the possibility of a relationship with someone else,” she says, raising his eyebrows. “Apparently, our history prevents me from moving on completely on top of the intimacy issues he’s labeled me with.”

But he doesn’t let go. In fact, he intertwines their fingers creating a less platonic hold, sliding his palm against hers.

“I think he’s right,” he rasps.

“What?”

“Not about the intimacy issues,” he corrects, smirking. “About exploring what’s between us…been between us,” he adds. “I’ve wanted the same thing.”

“Okay,” she says, releasing his hand. “But there’s something I need to try first.”

Elliot tilts his head and raises his eyebrows as she stands to clear the table. He follows her into the kitchen with their glasses.

“And what’s that?” He asks. “I’m willing to do whatever you need, Liv.”

It’s her turn to smile as she rinses the dishes before he loads them into the dishwasher.

“It’s not exactly a conventional ask,” she explains. “But before we take the time to explore whatever’s here I—

“—Well at least you’re not denying something’s there.”

“No,” she says, leaning against the opposite counter. “Everyone seems to know that,” she adds with a smirk. “It’s been…a lot.”

He refills their glasses and offers one to her.

“So, what’s the ask?”

“There’s a theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” she explains. “You heard of it?”

“Uh, yeah,” he tells her. “Kathleen took an Intro to Psych course and I helped her study for an exam,” he reveals. “Something about universal needs we have as humans.”

Olivia’s pleasantly surprised. Maybe it won’t be as hard as she thought.

“What’s that have to do with us?”

“My shrink has pointed out that most of my needs are being met,” she informs him. “I have the basics. Food, clothing, and shelter,” she goes on. “My job gives me respect, a sense of accomplishment—

“—Security, confidence, acceptance,” he interrupts. “Noah and your friends provide family and belonging if I remember right.”

“Right,” she agrees. “But maybe what’s waking me up and upsetting me is what I’m missing,” she adds, her eyes shifting to the floor. “A certain…level of intimacy that’s not present in my life.”

He puts his glass down and lessens the distance between them.

“Whatever you need, Liv,” he rasps, repeating his earlier assertion. “Despite my history of asshole behavior, your happiness is important to me.”

When Olivia raises her eyes to meet his, a lone tear manages to escape but she’s quick to wipe it away. 

“Thanks,” she manages. “There’s this…type of therapy I’ve been researching,” she adds. “I want to try it…with you, before we go any further,” she tells him. “To see if it helps.”

He takes her hand and caresses the top with his thumb.

“And if it does?”

“Then we’ll need to make time to get to know each other again,” she answers. “Because working with you is effortless,” she adds. “But dealing with the way you look at me now that it can be…acted on, is sort of nerve-wracking.”

Elliot’s smirk is immediate. He loves that he affects her so easily, and steps closer to her just because he can.

“What do you need me to do?”

Chapter Text

“It’s called cuddle therapy.”

“Cuddle therapy?” He asks, trying not to laugh.

“Yes,” she says. “And it’s exactly what it sounds like but there’s no sex involved,” she continues. “It’s a real thing,” she asserts. “People get certifications in it. There are rules, contracts, an oath,” she explains. “But I’m not—with a stranger—I can’t—

“—I get it, Liv.”

“Good because it was hard enough saying it the first time.”

“When would you like to—

“—now,” Olivia says. “If it’s too much to ask I understand.”

“It’s not,” he assures her. “It’s really…not.”

Olivia nods and rinses both their glasses before putting them in the sink. She takes Elliot’s hand and leads him to her bedroom.

There aren’t any lit candles or soft music playing. This is meant to be intimate but not romantic.

“I’m gonna change,” she tells him, looking through her dresser. “I think I have something more comfortable for you than jeans in here,” she adds, rifling through. “Here we go.”

Olivia pulls a well-worn Chicago Blackhawks t-shirt from Peter Stone borrowing her shower after a baseball session with Noah. Elliot raises his eyebrows but doesn’t ask any questions. She finds him a pair of black sweatpants and then disappears into the bathroom to change.

Once inside she peers at herself in the mirror. Subtle bags, freckles, lines that weren’t there five years ago, and a certain sadness in her eyes, stares back. Olivia quickly brushes her teeth, changes into soft gray pajamas with pink piping takes a deep breath, and heads out.

“Bathroom’s all yours,” she tells him. “There’s an extra toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.”

“Thanks.”

To settle her nerves, Olivia busies herself by checking in on Noah via text. He responds that he’s having fun but definitely not eating too much junk food. She laughs, tells him she loves him and to behave for Fin and Phoebe before saying goodnight with kissing emojis. He promptly replies with an ‘eww, gross mom’, sends a fist bump emoji, and says he’ll see her tomorrow afternoon.

She grins as she pulls back the duvet and is setting her cell’s alarm when Elliot reappears clad in the borrowed gear.

“You’re not off tomorrow?” He asks, folding his clothes neatly and laying them on her dresser.

“Uh, yeah. Just…professional cuddlers set alarms,” she explains. “A session usually lasts an hour or two,” she adds. “And charge an average of $80.”

“Really?” He asks, approaching her. “Maybe I should consider a career change,” he says smiling. “Seems a lot less dangerous and more enjoyable,” he adds. “So are we doing Cash App, Venmo, Apple Pay or…”

Olivia raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth in shock.

“I’m kidding, Liv,” he tells her. “The first session is always free.”

“You ass,” she says, giving a playful punch to the shoulder.

“Sorry. So…how do you wanna do this?”

“You get in first and I’ll decide which position is more comfortable,” she says.

Watching Elliot Stabler climb into her bed for the first time…leaves her speechless. She’d take pictures if that wasn’t completely weird. Just seeing him lying there, patiently waiting on her, eying her with those baby blues of his, is a lesson in self-restraint.

She climbs in and faces him, her eyes immediately dropping to his lips. Nope. Not going to work. The urge to kiss him is too strong and she doubts they’d stop there. Olivia turns away and lays on her side.

“I think spooning would be best for us,” she suggests.

“Okay.”

Elliot fluffs the pillows and lays on his side as she backs into him. Careful to keep his lower half away from hers. He puts one arm over her right shoulder and his other over her waist, coating her back with his chest. She doesn’t hesitate to put her hand over his. Olivia closes her eyes, inhales, and releases a deep breath.

He’s like a balm soothing her every ache. It doesn’t take long for her to relax into him. She closes her eyes and wonders why she thought it would be more awkward.

“Besides no sex,” he rasps. “What are the rules?”

She can feel the warmth of his breath on her neck. And, if he keeps up that tone, Olivia’s going to forget there are any. It heats her in places this little experiment isn’t meant for.

“No kissing,” she manages. “We can’t touch anything a swimsuit would cover or go beneath clothes,” she adds. “And all touch should be non-sexual in nature.”

“That doesn’t sound fun at all,” Elliot jokes. “But seriously, Liv, you know I wouldn’t do anything to make you uncomfortable,” he goes on. “All you’d have to do is tell me to stop and I would.”

The problem is, he isn’t making her the least bit uncomfortable right now. And she doubts very much that she’d stop him from doing anything after his hands were on her.

“I know,” Olivia says, covering his hand with hers. “If I didn’t trust you, you wouldn’t be here.”

“I’m glad you still do,” he admits. “I know I’ve done and said things to make you question whether or not you can so…thank you.”

Olivia doesn’t respond, just caresses the hand at her waist. As the minutes tick by, she feels him burrow his face in her hair. When Elliot begins drawing a lazy pattern back and forth over her abdomen with his thumb, she doesn’t stop him, doubts he’s even conscious of it.

The steady beat of his heart against her back lulls her into a place between a dream world and reality. And when the alarm she’s set drags her back into the present, she’s not surprised at her disappointment. Olivia reluctantly pulls out of his hold and silences her phone.

“You want me to go?” He asks.

She turns to face him, finding an expression that says he needs this just as much as she does.

“Uh, no,” she answers. “Not really.”

“Good, ‘cause I honestly don’t want to.”

Olivia’s only spent an hour in his arms and she already knows she wants to be selfish where he’s concerned.

“What about Eli?”

“I think he and mama can survive each other for one night,” he answers, reaching for his cell on the opposite nightstand. He takes a few seconds to send a text then, “There, I’m all yours.”

Olivia extinguishes her lamp. This time there’s no hesitation as she rolls over and onto his chest, throwing an arm over his waist.

“Thought you wanted to be spooned?” He asks.

“I want you to be comfortable too,” she explains. “And me sleeping on your arm all night would probably suck.”

“True,” he says, threading a hand through her hair and resting the other on her waist. “But I would’ve made the sacrifice.”

Olivia’s response is a hum as he alternately scratches and massages her scalp. She’s asleep within minutes and Elliot’s not long to follow. Unfortunately, he’s not an instant miracle cure. She pops up at 4:35 am, sweaty and anxious.

But it’s different with him there.

“You’re safe, Liv,” he soothes, rubbing her back. “Noah’s safe,” he adds. “You can rest,” he whispers. “Take some deep breaths with me.”

She does as he instructs, and lets him pull her back into his arms. Then in the most vulnerable voice she’s allowed him to hear since his return,

“Please don’t leave again, okay?”

“I’m home, Liv,” he asserts. “For good,” he promises. “I’m so sorry I left. Sorry I wasn’t here to—

“—Why weren’t you?” She asks. “There were so many times I needed you or just…wanted you with me,” she confesses. “I deserve an answer.”

Elliot intertwines their fingers. She can feel him bury his face in her hair.

“You deserve…everything,” he rasps. “I left because I knew that,” he confesses. “And the need to be the one to give it to you grew more every day,” he goes on. “But once the job was no longer an obstacle…it was too much of a temptation to ruin what we had.”

Chancing her own temptation, Olivia turns in his arms, showing him her tears. Elliot immediately lifts a warm palm to her face, swiping at the moisture he sees with his thumb.

“I spent four days in the hands of a serial rapist and murderer,” she informs him. “I was mentally and physically tortured,” she adds, watching as horror and shock squeeze tears from his eyes. “He left my body almost as scarred as you left my heart.”

“Please,” he begs. “Please tell me he didn’t—

“—He didn’t,” she responds, assuaging a morsel of his guilt. “He made me watch.”

“Jesus Christ,” he says, trying to pull away. “I can’t—

Olivia stops him, putting one arm over his shoulder, the other around his waist, threading their legs together. 

“—Don’t,” she orders, resting her forehead against his.

“Why am I here?” He asks, voice nearly cracking. “I don’t deserve…any of this with you.”

“But I do,” she whispers against his lips. “You can’t change what happened in the time you were gone but you can be here with me now,” she urges. “To console me, to dry my tears, to tell me everything’s gonna be okay, and to help me figure out how this is gonna go. Can you do that?”

Elliot doesn’t trust his voice but nods in agreement.

“Good.”

And once Olivia’s confident that he won’t leave, she turns over in their original position to be spooned again, her head resting on a pillow, giving his arm a break.

There’s been a lot of changes in the last year. Garland got pushed out for actually being a good cop. Kat resigned under the weight of the job. McGrath the asshole was thrust upon her and because of it, she still isn’t sure she can trust Velasco. Burton Lowe made Olivia see just how much she was loved by Serena.  But he also made her question the instincts she’s supposed to have as an SVU cop. And Barba…God.

What a mess.

If she’s honest with herself, none of that has filled her with anxiety. It’s the idea of the man lying next to her leaving again that’s kept her up nights. After all, it’s not a coincidence that it’s been happening since he came back.

Elliot traces non-sensical patterns on her stomach resulting in a deep, peaceful slumber until her internal clock wakes her four hours later, in a new…position.

Olivia has her face nearly buried in his neck. Her left arm is half beneath and behind her, the right, snaked up the back of Elliot’s shirt, seemingly pulling him towards her in slumber. Their legs are intertwined and he’s holding onto her just as completely.

“Morning,” he rasps, chin resting against the top of her head.

“Good morning,” she says, not bothering to move.

“Besides that little hiccup, how’d you sleep?”

“Better than I have in a while,” she admits as they continue whispering to one another.

“Does this mean I get to take you out now?”

Olivia pulls back to look into his eyes.

“I think so,” she answers, garnering a smile from him. “But I don’t wanna be the only one trying, Elliot,” she adds. “I can’t—

“—I get it,” he tells her, threading his fingers through her hair. “And I’m ready,” he promises. “I know we have more to talk about, different ranks, conflicting schedules, kids to raise—

“—You trying to talk me out of it?” She asks, smirking.

“No,” he answers, planting a kiss on her temple. “Sorry, I know that’s against the rules.”

Olivia rubs the skin of his back with her palm.

“It’s okay,” she tells him. “You’re not a professional,” she points out. “I don’t expect you to have memorized or adhered to the regulations.”

“Good to know.”

Elliot looks to her lips, then her eyes as he caresses the spine of her ear.

“We should…I mean Fin’s dropping Noah—

“—Yeah okay,” he interrupts, letting her go to sit up. “I should get going.”

He gathers his things and disappears into the bathroom. Minutes later he finds Olivia in the kitchen pouring a glass of orange juice.

“You don’t have to rush off,” she tells him. “I just meant if he didn’t see me out here when he got home, Noah would’ve beeline to my room.”

“And finding me in bed with you…”

“Would be very confusing for him,” she finishes. “You’ve only recently met and—

“—You don’t have to explain, Liv,” he offers. “I’m just glad you called,” he adds. “I’ve, uh…I’ve missed you.”

Olivia tries not to blush and hides her smile under the guise of sipping her coffee.

“Me too,” she nearly whispers. “I’d say cuddle therapy was a huge success,” she admits. “I didn’t want you to let me go.”

It’s the best idea she’s ever had in her life.

“Me either,” he agrees. “You think it could work for me too?”

“Research says it has all sorts of benefits,” she tells him. “Helps with insomnia, improves the immune system, lowers stress levels and releases oxytocin, the feel-good hormone.”

“Sounds great,” he says. “I’ll see you next week for my session then.”

Olivia widens her eyes at the comment as he lessens the distance between them.

Elliot steps forward, slips the glass out of her hand, takes a sip, and returns it before heading through the living room.

“Tell Noah I said, hi.”

She’s standing there dumbfounded when she hears the click of the door.

“What?”

Chapter Text

One month later…

They lay side by side on their backs in his bed, flushed, sweaty, and trying to catch their breaths.

“I am…100% certain…that what we just did…violated every rule of cuddle therapy,” Olivia manages.

They both laugh immediately.

“I want to go on record…that I had the purest of intentions…when I invited you over,” Elliot breathes out. “And you…Captain…took advantage.”

“Poor baby,” she says, smirking. “I don’t remember you stopping me.”

“I’m not good at telling you, no,” he excuses. “Especially when it’s something I want too.”

“Did you have to leave hickies,” Olivia begins, raising the duvet. “In so many places.”

She looks over at him in time to see him grinning like he has a secret.

“I don’t remember you stopping me,” he mimics. “I hope you have some good concealer.”

“Asshole,” she says rolling her eyes.

“All you got was a few love bites,” he tells her. “I think you tried to give me a heart attack, Olivia Benson.”

“You complaining?” She asks with a mischievous grin. “They do say the third time’s the charm.”

“There wasn’t a damn thing wrong with the first two times,” he points out. “I’m giving you extra points for enthusiasm,” he adds with a laugh.

Elliot’s right. She’s going to need some Ibuprofen sooner rather than later.

“And you’re gonna have to come up with a good enough lie to explain the broken lamp in the living room and the shattered picture frames in the hallway,” Olivia points out. “We could say another hit woman caught you off guard and kicked your ass again.”

“It would be better than telling them you had your way with me on the new couch,” he says, a smile in his voice. “Or that we fucked against the wall next to my son’s room.”

“I’d definitely not like to be around for that conversation.”

“Speaking of conversations,” he begins. “You tell Lindstrom about your alternate therapy, yet?”

“No,” she answers. “Haven’t really talked to him since our first session,” she confesses. “But I’m gonna schedule an appointment soon.”

Elliot rolls over on his side, kickstands his head on his hand, and reaches beneath the cover to caress the soft skin of her abdomen.

“Anything happen at work?”

“No,” she assures him. “I just wanna give him an update…on us.”

“First being that there is an us,” he points out.

“Yeah,” she confirms. “But also, that…I’m happy.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sleeping longer, feel more rested when I wake up and using my antianxiety meds less often,” she adds. “So yeah, I’d say I was happy.”

Elliot slides his hand from her abdomen to her right hip, caressing the skin there with his thumb.

“That have anything to do with me?”

“Maybe,” she answers, smirking.

“Maybe, huh?”

He leans down and covers her mouth with his, giving her a deep and passionate kiss.

“Okay, yes,” she admits. “But not just because of tonight’s three…cuddle sessions,” she adds, making him laugh.

“Cuddle. Right.”

“It’s talking to Raphael and finding some common ground with him,” Olivia informs him.  “I know you hate him—

“—I don’t know him well enough to hate him, Liv.”

“You know what I mean,” she asserts. “You’re not each other’s biggest fans and the drama in my relationships with the two of you was disturbing my mental and emotional peace, Elliot.”

He moves his hand from her hip to her cheek, caressing it with his thumb.

“Barba took my place, didn’t he?”

“Not in the same way but he did become my best friend,” Olivia admits. “So, moving towards reconciliation with him has been cathartic,” she adds. “And reconnecting with you in new and—

“—Pleasurable ways,” Elliot tells her, earning a playful slap to the shoulder.

“As I was saying, the way you’ve been intentional with getting to know my son and rebuilding the trust we had,” Olivia continues. “It’s been good for me, El.”

“Me too,” he says. “You’re not the only one that’s had positive changes,” he adds. “Bell says I smile more, Jett says I’m less prickly and mama thinks…

Olivia notices he turns almost shy as he looks away from her. She reaches up to palm his cheek, bringing his eyes back to hers and urging him to continue.

“What does she think?” She whispers.

“I don’t wanna scare you away.”

“Tell me.”

“She thinks I shouldn’t waste any more time denying the way I feel,” Elliot says. “That with the way I keep having near brushes with death I—

“—How do you feel?”

Elliot’s eyes soften and he grins as he leans down, burying his face in her neck.

“When you walk into a room everyone else disappears,” he rasps. “This is my favorite version of our partnership because…it’s the one where I get to say how in love with you I am.”

He raises his head to chance looking at her, hoping that she isn’t terrified at his admission or that she’s not about to make excuses to leave. But what he sees when he connects his eyes to hers are unshed tears.

“El,” she manages, taking his face in both hands. “I’m already naked and in your bed, you can stop trying.”

He smiles and takes it for what it is, an attempt at breaking the heaviness of the conversation.

“It’s okay, Liv,” he begins. “I know you’re not ready to say it back,” he adds. “I severed a twelve-year partnership without a word, betrayed your trust and…became one more person who left,” he acknowledges. “I missed opportunities to applaud you through all your best moments and comfort you through your worst,” he goes on. “But from now on, I will be here.”

Tears she attempted to hold onto finally spill over as she brings him towards her for another kiss.

Olivia thinks of her last hostage situation when Garland told her to go home and let someone take care of her for a change and the sad fact that she had no one to call.

“You’re right,” she says as they stop to catch their breaths. “I’m not ready to say it back. But I do want you here…for everything,” she confesses. “Whatever parallel universe you spoke about in your letter, I want this to be the one.”

He smiles, covers her body with his, and threads their fingers together.

“Partners for life?”

Olivia may not be ready to admit she’s in love with the man. In recent time it’s only been a month since they’ve started trying something beyond friendship but, in their lifetimes, it’s been nearly twenty-five years in the making. She’s always been comfortable with the title of “partner”. It’s not as immature as “girlfriend” or as terrifying as “wife”, so the answer to his question is instant.

“Yeah, El. Partners for life.”