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She’d nearly traded her life away, and as he looks at her across the small hospital room, he fights the urge to destroy something.

Olivia is sitting on the edge of the bed, and there is a young male doctor shining a light in her eyes, so she thankfully can’t see Elliot glaring at her.

Even though she is wearing scrub pants and one of his NYPD t-shirts from his go-bag now, he cannot forget the blood that had been on her shirt on scene, her blood, and he can’t calm the hell down. He doesn’t want to hear anything rational, doesn’t want to hear any positive nonsense about how she’s going to be fine.

The sonofabitch had hit her in the face with the butt of his gun, and Elliot had justifiably killed the motherfucker in retaliation. Good shoot, no regrets, no recriminations because he’d had no other choice. The piece of shit had a name - Crowley, something average and forgettable - but anything else about the dirtbag still hadn’t fully registered in Elliot’s racing, raging brain.

Olivia had willingly gone in without backup, taken off her vest, held her hands up, and traded herself for a young DV and rape victim who had been cornered by her abusive ex. She’d walked into the shithole apartment, talked the bastard into letting the ex go, and instead the scumsucker had held Olivia at gunpoint for a full goddamned hour.

It had been long enough for Elliot to answer Fin’s call, to make it on scene, and to bark at every superior on the way into being allowed on the frontline. Tear gas had brought the prick out of his place, practically dragging Olivia by the hair, and thank God she’d kept her eyes closed long enough to avoid the worst of the gas.

She’d finally been able to open her red, stinging eyes on the front steps of the apartment building. She’d met Elliot’s gaze, and then it had been over in seconds. Olivia had wrenched the fucker’s arm, and Elliot had shot the maggot without a second thought and here they were.

Mercy Hospital ER.

Same hospital his wife had died in less than two years ago, and that isn’t helping a damned bit.

Fuck.

Elliot, go home.” Olivia’s voice is quiet, and she might even sound commanding to some rookie but she’s not pulling that shit with him. He hears the wavering in her words. The nurse had helped her shower enough to get the tear gas off before the stitches, and her hair is damp and curling as it dries around her shoulders. She’s makeup free and swathed in his shirt so she’s safe - for the moment, at her rate - but he can see her hands still fucking trembling.

He knows she isn’t okay, no matter what this young twit, polished little Grey’s Anatomy- looking resident tells her.

Like hell,” he growls from where he stands in the doorway to the small room. Stands might be wrong. He’s looming, he knows he is, and she’s told him to leave three times, to go fill out the paperwork, but they can keep his blasted official gun that they took from him. They can have his shield too if it means he’s got to leave her right now. He won’t let her order him to do shit.

“He bothering you?” The doc asks as he lightly presses on Olivia’s cheek, assessing the cut and bruising.

“For twenty-five years,” Olivia mutters irritably.

“The fuck were you doing,” Elliot responds angrily under his breath. His temples are crashing like a goddamn demolition derby. He wants to be in her face, wants her to understand she cannot do this shit, but that doctor is in the damned way.

“My job,” she hisses, and she sounds half-mad and half in pain as she endures the examination.

“Your job was to wait for backup!” Christ, he’s losing his shit. He can’t shake seeing her with a gun to her head. It can’t happen anymore, not ever again. He can’t forget the excruciating minutes being taunted by the loser over comms, worrying that he’d hear her scream, hear her yell, hear a gunshot go off in that shitty apartment.

“My job,” Olivia grits. “Was to get the vic out. I did that. As Captain, I’m very clear on what my job is, Detective.”

The doctor has the gall to smirk, and Elliot could punch the asshole out, too.

He has to get his shit together. He just wants to touch her, his hands are aching for it, his chest feels like it is being disintegrated with acid, and Elliot knows she’s okay, for the most part. A concussion maybe. The cut to her face, a few stitches they’d just put in by her hairline, the blooming deep bruise across her left temple and cheek, it’s all bad. It’s all some fucked up, shouldn’t-have-happened fuckery, but she will be able to go home soon. A few stitches stopped the bleeding, some pain meds will help, but Christ, someone better get him a Xanax because he’s coiled as tight as a strike-ready boa.

“You have someone to stay with you tonight?” The doctor is talking to her like Elliot isn’t even standing right here.

Yes,” Elliot answers for both of them.

“I’ll be fine,” Olivia says at the same time.

“If the lachrymator agent bothers your eyes, you can rinse them with water, but if you have any skin rash develop, burning in your chest or vomiting, you need to come back right away.” The doc finally acknowledges Elliot’s presence. “She needs to be woken up every two to three hours. Pain meds every four to six hours until she feels comfortable, and don’t take them on an empty stomach, especially after the exposure to the chemical agent. If there is any blurring in her left eye, bring her back in right away. Keep the ice on the bruising for the next twelve hours at least.”

“Got it.” But he’s not even looking at the young doctor, because Olivia is now looking at him.

Elliot isn’t wrong about not leaving her side. She’s still shaking, her expression tells him she’s somewhere far away, and all of the bravado is bullshit. She isn’t unaffected. She isn’t nonchalant. His shirt is too big for her, her hair is unruly and her eyes, they are dark and sad, starkly devoid of tears, even after that gas.

The bruise is already deep purple, swelling her cheek, discoloring half of her face.

She’s staring at Elliot, almost belligerently, even as the doc nods at both of them and makes his way out of the small room.

“I don’t need your help,” Olivia whispers, lips barely moving. “Just go home.”

He could lose his goddamned mind. The rage in him, the missed opportunity to hurt the piece of shit who dared to touch her before he shot the fucker, it courses through him, hot and violent.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he bites off.

And maybe that was the right response because she bows her head, nods once, and her shoulders fall, no longer defensive. “Then take me home,” Olivia whispers, without looking at him.

Elliot grips the doorframe until his knuckles are white. “You should have waited, Liv. You can’t keep doing this. Can’t keep going in alone. You’re Captain on scene, I got it you can technically make any choice you want but how many times do you think you’re gonna survive this shit?”

She finally looks up at him again, and he’s looking into something empty. “You got him.”

He wants to move towards her, but the haunted echo in her voice holds him still. “This time. But what about next time?”

The corner of her mouth lifts, a small, sad, mirthless smile. “What about last time? Or the time before that?”

The question hangs heavy in the air, a weighted chemical bomb shrouded in a balloon, on the verge of exploding all over them.

He’d missed all of the pain, the hurt, the traumas. He knows about them; she’d shut him down about them when he’d finally found out and confronted her. But he knows enough, and the bile rises in his throat.

It had been weeks of late-night drinking for him after he’d discovered what she’d once been through. Weeks of her avoiding him. A month later, she’d given him a redacted file, and told him that’s all he’d ever get - and if he looked up any more she was done with him for good.

Olivia had never actually said it, but they both know. They work together too well. Today hadn’t even been two minutes of eye contact and they’d brought the bastard down. The things that had happened in the past, maybe they wouldn’t have happened, not if Elliot hadn’t left her.

He hadn’t watched her back for a decade, and there had been a bigger price to pay than just simply being separated from each other.

She will never say it out loud, but the cloying awareness, the unspoken, the sheer truth of it, it is a suffocating mist in the air. It isn’t blame on her part or guilt on his, it’s a fact that he’d have never left her alone with that monster on the loose years ago. She knows it, he knows it, and even if she’s moved on from what his absence had cost her, Elliot never will.

Olivia tries to lower herself off the table now, and he moves fast, settling his hands on her hips to steady her as her feet meet the ground.

“Just stop,” she finally grates, batting his hands away. “Wheatley did worse. This is nothing.”

Elliot drops his hands to his side. Wheatley did worse. There is a garish scale in their lives to the assaults, the broken bones, the broken spirits, the bruises, the damage. “I know,” he manages, his voice a rasp.

Her eyes lock on his, suddenly present and filled with instant grief. “Jesus, Elliot. I didn’t mean -“

This isn’t about what he’s lost, tonight is about her.

“Please let me help you.” He interrupts, feeling the way his gut is churning. He’s begging, he sounds pathetic. He just needs to be able to help her. It’s all he wants. He wants to protect her, to keep her safe, to have a chance to make something better for once.

For her, especially for her.

Something in Olivia relents. “Okay,” she tells him gently.

A short, temporary reprieve.

Elliot nods his encouraging approval, and she lets him touch her when he puts his jacket over her shoulders. She looks fragile - translucent and battered - and he has to find a way to get her to let him take care of her.

He’s going to hunt down the nurse, get the discharge paperwork, and get Olivia home.

Even if she wants nothing to do with him.

+++

Chapter Text

 

Olivia awakes on a breathless gasp.

Her heart is racing, and darkness looms all around her. Her skin is clammy, her pulse a pinball machine within that attacks her wrists, her throat, her chest.

It’s always Lewis with his gun to her head in the nightmares that plague her after the worst of the cases, even all these years later. Then the haunt changes. It’s her, with her own gun forced at her temple, and it is not a young girl watching, it is Noah, up there on the tower with them. It’s her son watching the demanded squeeze of the trigger, the blast, the sheer explosion of it.

The dreams are real, vivid, terrifying. She always wakes when the blast goes off, there is never an aftermath. She’d stopped screaming for Noah during the dreams, because she’d woken him too many times with the way she had called out. She’s had the dream so many times at this point that she has learned to be silent, even in the depths of nightmare neverland.

She wants to rub her eyes, to sit up, to turn on the lights and shake the horror, the ever-present feeling of another gun, inches from her head. But with the immediate adrenaline starting to wean, the pain takes its place, rushing in and pounding, absolutely pounding, behind her left eye. Her hand snakes out to the pillow next to her, and the cold pack she’d been using is room temperature, useless gel now. She needs ice, real ice in a damned Ziploc bag that will actually give her some frigid, numbing relief.

Her son isn’t here, and that’s the only thing that registers as a reprieve as Olivia gets out of bed slowly, wincing.

Noah is gone for the week and thank fucking God because his phone time will be limited at the camp and maybe he won’t see the news before she can talk to him in the morning. Maybe she will heal up before her boy gets back. She doesn’t remember pulling on the shorts she’s wearing before she went to sleep, but to be fair it’s all a little bit foggy.

It feels like she hasn’t been sleeping for long, because the night is still thick as she gingerly makes her way out of her room and into the hallway. The apartment is dark, and she just needs ice and medicine and -

Fuck!

She slams into a solid, concrete human wall at the edge of her unlit kitchen, and she groans out loud at the full-body contact, her bruise aching with every jolt. She’d had her eyes closed and head ducked, and she hears the clatter of small ice cubes, falling and skittering across the floor and sliding into the baseboards of the cabinets at the same time as she hears him growl.

“You wanna tell me what you’re doing outta bed, ‘livia?” He’s got his hands bracing her arms, and his voice is thick with that unfailing, grumbling New York accent, the tinge of irritation threading through the heavy words. “You barely been sleepin’ two hours.”

Elliot.

She prays to God she’d been silent in her sleep. The last thing she wants is for him to know she still has nightmares. She doesn’t want him to know she ever has nightmares. Olivia grits her teeth, berating herself for not remembering that he was out here. He’d brought her home, told her to change the scrub pants for shorts, he’d brought her the now warm ice pack, made her a grilled cheese and left it next to her on the end table after she had crawled into bed. She’s still in his soft shirt, for God’s sake. Granted, she isn’t used to someone ever being here after the worst nights, but all of that had barely been a few hours ago and she’s this damned cloudy on it all already and that’s not a good sign. Maybe this is actually a concussion, maybe the doctor had been right.

She has to function.

Elliot is still holding her at her elbows, and she doesn’t need that either. He can’t touch her this much. Not when she’s half dressed, when he’s already seen her bedroom, walking around here like he owns the place. Not when, oh hell, he’s half dressed too. His chest is bare, and he’s just wearing jeans and it’s a damned disaster.

This can’t be happening. She just needs some real ice, and some privacy. She can handle this; she’s been through worse all by herself.

Despite the way her skin is aching for him, she doesn’t require his presence. She doesn’t need him.

“I told you to go home,” she manages, but it comes out nowhere near as authoritative as she had hoped. “I didn’t know you were still here.”

“Doc told me to stay,” Elliot says, almost smugly. At least he drops his hands from her arms.

Olivia flicks on the hallway light, because it’s the closest light switch to her, and it’s also only a single bulb and not enough glare to make her grimace in pain again. She’d bumped into him while he’d obviously been making her a plastic bag full of ice, and there are now cubes all over the kitchen floor.

She’s trying to focus on the scattered cubes, wondering how she’s going to pick them all up. Her head is throbbing, her eye feels swollen and she probably looks like a boxer who just lost a fight. At least where they’d put the five stitches in is almost under her hairline and hadn’t required a bandage tonight. The last thing she wants is another scar to look at every day.

“I’m fine. I can set my alarm to wake myself up. Go home.” She sounds like a whispering yet broken record, and her throat is dry. The pain is really something else and she hates that she feels shaky.

Olivia starts to bend down to get the ice, and she could care less that she’s wearing shorts while doing this - if he’s got to look at her ass then that’s his problem. She doesn’t need the water all over the floor and - shit. The rooms spins, the light forming zig zag lines behind her eyelids because her balance is off.

She doesn’t even make it to her knees before Elliot lunges underneath her tipping body, supporting her and not letting her fall. He takes her weight, cursing at her softly under his breath. “So fucking stubborn,” he mutters gently, even as Olivia finds her face pressed against his bare chest.

Jesus, they’d done this in the reverse when he’d showed up at her house months ago, drugged and falling into her.

She is not drugged now, she reminds herself. It’s just an OTC painkiller that she had taken at the hospital, she can stand, for chrissakes. She can do that much, even as her mouth, her cheek, it all drags against the still soap-tinged skin of him. God, he smells delicious, and that infuriates her. Of course he smells how a men’s deodorant commercial looks. He’d probably showered in Noah’s bathroom, helping himself to whatever he wanted.

Asshole.

Her fingers grip his biceps, and the ache blooms through her. It’s not pain from the bastard she’d fought this afternoon, it’s not even arousal. There is a cloying want that slips across her skin, everywhere. It makes her breaths come faster, the need behind it another freight train that is barreling towards her. Elliot is so carved, so warm, so present and big, and he’s sure of his fluid movements, just as he’d been early this evening when he’d shot Crowley, scowling at her in the process as if she had irritated him by getting into the situation in the first place.

Elliot is running his hands up her arms as she tries to stand, as she tries to find the will to peel her face from the intoxicating, beckoning crook of his thick shoulder. The oversized, over-muscled, overbearing jerk is cooing to her, and she wants to hit him because it’s the last thing she needs. She doesn’t need his lips near her ear, assured and confident and in control. I got you. Just take it slow, Olivia.

And then, You’re okay.

It’s what makes her jerk back, maybe too fast.  She’s off balance, and as she wrenches herself from his loose grip, Olivia finds her back pressed up against the fridge, her head smacking against the freezer.

God, she just needs some space. She’s feeling close to coming unglued.

He’d said that into her hair fifteen years ago. You’re okay. It had come from him hours after the car accident, after the birth of his son. He’d held Olivia that night, praying into her hair and she’d held onto that feeling in all his absent years after. The way his words that day had caused her to shudder with goosebumps, the way she’d wholly and completely felt safe and contained and comforted, she’d boxed that feeling, and she’d used it time and time again. When no one else could comfort her, she would always find a space to be alone and she would close her eyes, wrap her arms around her waist and she would repeat it to herself, as if he’d been right there.

In the nights after Mike had died. In the nights after Lewis. In the nights after that fucking townhouse, or when Noah had been missing. She’d said it to herself in the hospital last year, awaiting surgery for her ankle.

She’d said it to herself, taken care of herself, all of the times Elliot had not been there.

And now he’s here, a few inches away and cornering her against the fridge without touching her. He’s tall and dark and she knows he’s dangerous, fearless usually, but at the moment he’s achingly gentle, those blue eyes just soft luminescent shadows in the pale light.

“Hey,” Elliot starts, talking to her in a hush like she’s something splintering that needs to be calmed, and maybe she is. “You don’t have to keep pulling away from me. I won’t hurt you, Liv.”

And that does it. That’s exactly it. She hadn’t been able to pinpoint the chaos swirling within her, the panic bubbling, but she knows what it is now. It’s the way she wants to be comforted, it’s the actual desperation building within her. For years she had craved this, craved him, the security of Elliot in the aftermath, and he had never come.

He’s here now, and the want is warring with the anger, the pain of all the times he’d been absent. He tells her he won’t hurt her, but he had hurt her, he will again, and she’s too tired. She’s exhausted.

The bruises are on the outside of her tonight, but the rest of the wounds, they are inside of her, everywhere, ten years deep.

“I heard you tossing in there,” Elliot’s words are a rumble, meant to soothe. “Was just making you a fresh ice pack. Go lay down and I’ll bring you one and get this cleaned up.”

The size of him is too much. He takes up too much space in this kitchen. She could crawl into him, she could sink, she could absorb every ounce of the strength in Elliot, and she knows he would hold her tonight. If he holds her now, she will fall asleep standing up, because the relief of being wrapped up by him and only him will be so intense that she will nearly black out.

She’s shaking from the intensity of the craving. Her throat closes, and her arms ache from where they want to be crushed by him encircling her. She’s going to moan soon, maybe even whimper, because he’s close enough to hold her, close enough to take over, to give her blessed relief against the armor of his chest.

It can’t happen.

There is only one way she will maintain her dignity now, because an avalanche is coming at her.

He’s got to leave.

“I taped up my own cuts and bruises for ten years, Elliot.” Olivia’s flat and hollow voice is coming from far away, from someone stronger than she feels. A melting ice cube sends a rivulet of moisture meandering towards her toes, freezing water bleeding out all over the tile around them. “They were a lot worse than this. I know what I’m doing and I don’t need you now.”

Chapter Text

For a moment, he mentally retreats from the deserved blow.

Elliot has to count down numbers, has to take himself somewhere other than here, because he’s got to be able to breathe through the rightful gut punch. He has to get his response right, has to make sure she lets him stay. There is every single truth in what Olivia is saying, and it’s not something that hasn’t devastated him every day both while he was absent and now, even after his return.

But this isn’t about his pain, his guilt, his fear. That’s his to deal with on his own time. Not now.

This is all about her.

Olivia is standing in front of him in shorts and his t-shirt, her beautiful face marred with battle-earned bruises and stitches from her heroics today and she’s vulnerable. That’s all he can think about. She’s a warrior on the city streets, but in her kitchen, she’s delicate and defensive and stubborn. She’s going to fight with him, and that’s fine - she can do what she wants to get it all out. Yell, smack him, stand there silent - she can try to push him out with everything she’s got.

He’s not leaving.

Not ever again.

“Olivia-“ he starts. He doesn’t move, he wants her where she is, nearly cornered between him and fridge, despite the fact he isn’t touching her.

He can feel her anxiety rise, can see the way she’s breathing too fast.

“I don’t need you! Why did you even come today? I can handle myself, my unit, without you!” Her voice is cracking, panic flooding her expression.

Jesus.

He’s never seen her like this. He wants to touch her more than anything, wants to tuck her into him, wants to feel her fear ease, feel the rigidity in her dissipate as he rubs her back. Elliot wants her to understand what it did to him, seeing her like that today. He wants her to know that it matters, she matters to him, more than anything and that she can’t risk herself. Not for Noah’s sake and not for his own.

She needs to know he will not survive without her. The loss of her is not one he would be able to overcome. Not like he’d overcome loss in the last two years. He’d buckle without her, there would be no coming back from a world without her in it.

He has to tell her. “I came because you’re not an island out there, not anymore. You don’t wanna call anyone else? Fine. But you call me.” Elliot had made three small ice packs to get through the night, two of which are still on the counter next to her, waiting to be sealed and put into the freezer. He reaches for one now with his left hand, not giving up his caging position, hoping she will refocus on taking care of today’s physical damage. He’s holding it out to her, praying she will take it and go lay down. “I’m your backup.”

In the pale light filtering in from the hallway to his right, he sees the sheen that instantly forms in her pained eyes. Olivia’s head tilts against the stainless steel of the fridge, her lips flatten. Her lashes lower as if he’s causing more hurt you the minute. She shakes her head. “Just go.”

There is something about the way her need is thrumming around them that makes him calm down, almost to the point where his blood slows in his veins. If she’s going to shatter, then he will hold her together. If this is the crisis it’s proving itself to be, then he can’t lose his mind. Olivia is a few inches shorter than him like this, barefoot to barefoot, and her hair falls into her face. His left hand is holding the unsealed Ziploc full of ice, so he traces her hairline, around the bruise and stitches, with his right fingers. “I’m your backup,” he says again softly, trying to assure her that he isn’t leaving, not again.

Not ever again.

But something snaps in her, something brittle and fragile and achingly raw. Olivia’s hand reaches out and bats the bag out of his hand, and she tries to shove her way past him, even as this bag full of ice falls and scatters too, the contents bouncing like marbles all around them as he tries to stop her.

“Yeah?” She counters. “But I’m not yours!”

Olivia is out of his grip then, her shoulder purposefully knocking into his hard as she throws her weight forward, determined to get out of the kitchen. She runs into him with the same arm she’d used to bring down Crowley, and her gasp of pain is drowned out by the sound she makes, something desperate and wild.

He lets her go.

She’s in the living room on the other side of the breakfast bar before he even dares to turn around, unsure of what he will see. Olivia is off her axis, and it might be shock, trauma, a triggered PTSD episode, the concussion, their history - maybe it’s all of it. All he knows is he’s got to keep his voice down, his words consistent, and he’s got to move slowly.

“Liv,” he starts, taking his steps out of the kitchen at the pace of molasses.

“I have half a dozen ice packs somewhere in there, stacked up. Ready to go. Wanna know why? Because I take care of myself.”

She’s a Captain, he keeps thinking. She shouldn’t be in the field as much as she is these days. There’s no reason for it, no reason for her to be visiting the home of a DV victim alone, it’s something her detectives should be doing in pairs, something she should be sending them out to do.

If he says that, she’ll kill him. He’s in the field, and he should be, according to his rank. But she’ll throw it in his face, because he’s been reckless, too. He’d gone UC, he hadn’t told her. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

“Why are you even here?” Olivia parries again, as he gets closer to her.

He hates that she’s taking a step backwards for every one he takes forward, so he pauses in the middle of her living room before he sends her running out the door. “Because I want to be.”

That gives her pause. If he’d said he was there to look after her - also true - she would have fought him on her needs. But she can’t tell him how he feels or what he wants.

Olivia is belligerent, glaring at him now. She’s skittish, trying to corral her spiking adrenaline into anger, but the truth of her has always been revealed in her eyes. Even in the half-dark of the room, he can see the profound sadness in her, the stark grief, and the bruising across her face makes him want to cry.

Christ, she’d endured so much worse alone.

Had she pushed everyone away, even then? Locked everyone out? Had anyone been able to fight through, fight her, fight for her?

Probably not. She is his, as he is hers. This has always been his battle to fight, and tonight he will do it, once and for all.

“You’re not alone,” he says quietly.

Five feet away from him, Olivia flinches as if she’d been struck. But she doesn’t move, she’s eyeing him, warily, as if watching a deadly animal encroach. Silent, her chest heaving with each breath, she’s watching him as if he’s the greatest threat to her safety at the moment.

He will let that break his heart later. He doesn’t have time for his own needs right now.

“You are not alone,” he says again, as softly as the first time, raising his hands to prove he’s not going to touch her without her permission as he takes a step closer. “I want to be here, with you. Let me take care of you, Olivia.”

“You were never here,” she says, no inflection to her words. She’s a statue, moving only her lips. “Not when I needed you, so why start now.” It’s not a question, it’s a finale, something she has finished within her and closed the curtain upon.

He can’t break now; he can’t let the guilt and agony have him. One of them has to be stronger than the other one’s pain, and today, for the first time, the one with the strength and patience has to be him.

“I know. I know. And I can’t make up for that.” His voice is cracking, and he has to pull it together. He rolls forward on the ball of his foot, trying to inch closer to her, even as she tracks him as she would a suspect. “I want to, believe me, I’d change it all if I could. All of it, Olivia. But I can only try and be who I want to be now. Be where I want to be. And that’s here. I want to stay here, with you, if you’ll let me.”

There is a ledge in this room, and she’s standing on the edge of it. He’s got to convince her to fall towards him, and not out of his grasp.

He’s not leaving no matter what she says, but she’s in the throes of trauma, of exhaustion, and he’s got to make her feel some level of control. He means more than just tonight, of course he does. He means stay with her, through everything and anything, the good and the bad, but he can’t lay all of that on her right now.

One thing at a time.

“I don’t need your help,” she whispers, not even blinking. She’s stiff, that t-shirt is too big and hanging off of her, her knees are locked together as if she’s hiding from a ghost in the middle of the room.

“Out in the field, Liv, you can’t do that alone again. I know you don’t have a…partner, but let me help on those days, alright?” He’s got to give to get, he knows that. He’s done so much stupid shit, he’s got to show her he’s willing to do the same. “I’ll be your backup, anytime. And you can be mine.”

It’s the wrong thing to say again, because she comes apart then. It’s not a splintering or a shattering, instead her lip quivers, and her eyes fill. She’s locked on his eyes, an apology forming in her expression about what is to come. Olivia is saying I’m so sorry with everything in her dark irises, even as her chest cracks in defeat. It’s a demolition, the same way that a building that has been wired with explosives at its weakest points falls into itself, crumbling inward. Her shoulders shake once, twice, and then they cave in, her head falls, her chest shudders again, and she is finally openly crying.

Elliot wants to touch her, but when he moves closer, Olivia takes another step back, even through her tears. There is three feet left between them and it is excruciating, a thousand miles.

It is four thousand miles, an ocean and another continent that sits between them, here in her living room.

“I can’t be your backup,” she says, shaking her head, trying desperately to stop crying. She isn’t even talking to him. Her hands hang limply at her sides, and fuck it, in a few minutes he’s going to close the distance no matter what she says.

Olivia is sobbing, openly and alone and lost in the middle of her own apartment. He wants permission to hold her so badly his teeth hurt. “Can I-“

“I can’t be your backup, don’t you get it?”

He’s wracking his brain trying to understand. The idea that she’s still mourning their partnership doesn’t make sense, it’s been too long - but mourning the past in general is a possible explanation. Then again, she’s made a life for herself in the ensuing years, he’s not even in SVU anymore. What she’s saying doesn’t -

He’s mid-stride, about to be within distance to touch her when realization slams into him, hard and fast and stunning. She swipes the back of her hand across her cheek, and she’s wincing from the pain she’s causing herself in an effort to hide her almost petulant tears.

Elliot is frozen, his throat a vice.

“Holy fuck.” It’s all he can manage, his head scattering in a million impossible, mind-numbing directions all at once.

She must know he’s understood, because her chin lifts defiantly in recognition. Her lashes are wet, her eyes still spilling but she’s watching him, intently, almost as if she is horrified he’s figured out her secret.

“You think -“ he starts, but he can’t finish, because the absolute hideousness of what she believes has gutted him.

She straightens, as if awaiting the blow.

“You’re only here because your wife died,” Olivia says in a barely audible monotone, and she’s inhaling shallow breaths, hardly blinking, laying the obscenity she’s been carrying out there, between them, as if she’s got nothing left to lose.

For a moment, he can’t think straight. The world he’s in tilts, spots dance in his line of vision. He can hear everything in high definition, the fan in her bedroom, the muted sounds coming from the street below, her lack of breathing, his wheezing chest.

Elliot sees her, truly sees her.

Olivia is a wild, stone-still sacrifice in front of him, her riotous hair cascading down over her hunched shoulders in a tangle, dark circles under her eyes, face mottled from the wounds of the war she fights every day. Her long, bare legs are scarred, her knees have been sewn in places from where she has hit the ground too many times in the past. Her ankle bears the silvery snake reminder of the surgery he had caused her to endure, but for which she’s never blamed him.

She’s a guardian, beautiful and strong on the outside while she allows herself to bleed internally. He knows what that kind of injury does, he knows the cost, and he won’t let her slip through his fingers.

He won’t let her sacrifice herself anymore. That stops now. For good. He’s late as hell when it comes to protecting her, but he’s here now and they are both going to fucking heal.

Olivia is waiting there, in front of him, as if she’s done something unforgivable, as if she’s going to be crucified soon. She’s defeated, but her back is straight, as if she will go down with her dignity, more willing to bleed out than to allow her tears to fall.

He loves her without limits, and he’s failed her without limits.

“If Kathy hadn’t died,” he says out loud, because she’s right, it all has to be out there, clear and concise. “Then I wouldn’t be here. That’s what you think.”

Olivia’s eyes close, and she nods once, but she doesn’t move otherwise. It’s not a crucification she’s waiting for, it’s an execution, a firing squad. She’s hurt, but she doesn’t want to state her needs out of deference and guilt towards a dead woman. Kathy had needed Olivia out of their lives, and he understands why, even if he had hated it. His wife had made demands, written that fucking letter, anything to keep their marriage intact. But here Olivia stands, flooded with guilt because she’d have never betrayed Kathy, or another woman’s marriage by admitting any needs of her own.

He’s not going to mince words. She’d been brutally blunt; he can be the same. Maybe it’s the only thing they both understand.

“My wife hadn’t had my heart in twenty goddamned years, and she knew that before I did.”

Olivia flinches again, hard, but she steadfastly refuses to open her eyes. The infuriating purple and yellow bruising on her face, the swollen eye, it makes Elliot want to break something violently, and in the absence of being able to do that, he will break this decades-long standoff. He’s going to decimate it, and it won’t be gentle or eloquent or even forgivable.

Then again, his wife is dead, and she knew he wasn’t hers. Kathy knew then, and if she can see him, hear him at the moment, then she knows now, too. At least it’s the fucking truth, for once.

“My wife was the backup,” he practically hisses at Olivia. “I was physically near her, but my head? That hadn’t been in the game with her since you walked into the 1-6.”

In front of him, just out of reach, Olivia opens her wet eyes, one of them just slitted at best from the swelling that damned well needs ice, fast.

“Elliot -“ she protests, a bare movement of her lips. She cocks her head, her tongue snaking out fast to catch a tear on her lips.

Her breaths are shallow, but she needs this, he can feel the way she’s absorbing everything he’s putting out there. Neither one of them wanted to hurt anyone else, but it doesn’t mean they can never talk about what was real, what is real, what has to be real from now on.

Elliot is not done.

The wall between them won’t come down for good until he’s bulldozed it to the ground. “I fucked up. I fucked up. I left because I made shitty decisions that I somehow thought made me right with God and my family. But you know what? Everyone paid because I was an asshole.” Elliot licks his own lower lip, drawing it in between his teeth and clenching his fists so he doesn’t haul her against him. “I wouldn’t have left you alone with that motherfucker Lewis, let’s get that out in the open. You don’t want to tell me about it, you don’t have to. But he’s not your cross to bear, he’s your victory, because you’re here and that means you won. You just shouldn’t have had to win alone, Olivia. You deserved to know, every fucking second of that ordeal, that I was coming for you. Not your squad, not the entire NYPD. Me. It should have been me. You should hate me for that. And from what I read, there was a second go-round, and that damned sure wouldn’t have happened because I woulda killed him the first time. I’da dismembered him.”

Her fingers are pressed hard against her lips, and Olivia is crying, openly and silently, but she’s focused on him, without wavering. Elliot can feel it, how she is steadier, the more he tells her the searing truth of how he would have brutalized that bastard. She’s attaching herself to his words, as if she had just needed to be told that she would have been worth him burning the world down.

“Tell me,” Olivia murmurs, and in the depths of her eyes, he can see the agonizing way she’s reaching for something. It’s almost hopeful, a lifeline she’s reaching for.

Healing, he thinks. This is the real bruise tonight.

You wanna know what I would have done?” His voice is hard, the rage he’d felt when he’d first learned of what she’d survived bubbling into his esophagus. “I’d have made him suffer. I’d have made him beg to die. And I wouldn’t have let you anywhere near it when it was happening.”

“I did what you would have.” Olivia says it quietly, fingers fluttering away from her mouth and back to her side. It’s not a confession, it’s a statement of solidarity. It’s her, sharing the fight with him.

He knows what she is referring to. He’d understood everything that hadn’t been in the file she’d given him. But she’s wrong. She’s far better than he is, because he would have committed murder, and the line in him would have been shattered, but he would have never looked back. “No, that’s what you did. Somewhere in you, you knew he wasn’t dead, and you let due process have a shot at him. I would have made sure he suffered. Slow as fuck. I would have used my hands, I would have made him grovel for a fucking mercy he was never going to get.”

Elliot has closed the gap. He’s inches in front of her, and Olivia is almost wobbling on her feet, but he’s close enough to catch her now if she teeters too much.

“I shouldn’t have let him live.” Her voice is small, but her words are clear. Olivia looks up at him, sad and guilty, even all these years later.

“You didn’t,” he grits. “The justice system failed, not you. You’re a fucking Captain in the NYPD, and you’ve got an entire department that would fall at your feet, that would lay everything down for you, and you’re not goddamned alone. If you’d lost your badge over that one piece of shit, there are hundreds, thousands of people who wouldn’t have had you when they needed you most.”

He finally hears Olivia take a breath. It’s a gasp, surprised and new, as if she’s testing air for the first time in a long time.

It’s a reprieve.

Elliot can’t do it anymore; he can’t refrain from touching her. The gun at her temple today, it had seared itself into his own head, watching it trained on her, in the hands of an unpredictable, abusive prick, the moment had earmarked itself for his nightmares, and it will come for him the next time he sleeps.

That will not be tonight. Tonight, he stays awake and watches over her.

He threads his fingers very carefully through her hair, cautious not to tug, even as he urges her into him. Olivia is soft now, pliant, her bones no longer stiff and locked. Surprisingly, she turns her head into his neck, careful not to bump the bruises or the stitches as she actually lets herself rest on his shoulder. Elliot wants to pull her fully flush against him, but he will take this for now.

It is Olivia who makes the first move. Her hands come to rest lightly on his bare waist, her thumb instantly and absently circling against his torso.

“I’m sorry,” she says softly.

“Don’t be sorry,” he tells her, smoothing his hand over the back of her head, down into her hair, again and again, the strands lodging between his fingers. He could groan from the pleasure of it, but he wants to soothe her, cradle her, not scare her. Not tonight. “We gotta talk, though. Sometime soon. Alright? We gotta talk this shit out.”

Against him, she lets out a tiny puff of ironic laughter. “Elliot Stabler, wanting to talk something out. Will wonders never cease.”

Her body sinks a little, aligning with his of her own choice. Olivia is seemingly comfortable against him for the moment, even when he’s shirtless, even when her bare legs are against the denim of his jeans, and that takes his breath away.

He’s got to make her understand she isn’t the backup to anything in his life. She isn’t the default, she is everything. She has been his whole damned world, even when he shouldn’t have felt that way, and he will make sure she knows that in the coming days, the coming weeks.

The coming years, because for him that’s what it has to be.

But for now, she’s in his arms, and it’s enough for one night. She’s safe, and she’s gripping him, and he will take their wins, however tenuous they may be.

She’s an island no longer.

+++

Chapter Text

 

It’s almost five a.m. when she wakes to the feeling of him moving.

Olivia keeps her eyes shut, half out of exhaustion and half out of an inability to fully open her left eye. The swelling is probably peaking right now, despite the ice and ibuprofen regimen, and her face feels like it’s been through a meat grinder.

It’s not how she ever imagined waking up for the first time with Elliot in her bed.

He’s in her bed, behind her, and her heart rate picks up as she assesses her current situation. She’s tucked under the covers and he’s laying over them, but that hadn’t stopped him from rolling towards her, his heavy arm draped protectively over her, his palm spanning her stomach above the comforter while he lightly sleeps. Elliot’s chest is flush with her back, his bare skin and hers separated by the thin cotton of his NYPD t-shirt that she’s wearing, while his mouth is nuzzled into the back of her head.

She can feel herself start to shake, not because she is upset or angry, but because the relief is so overwhelming it is painful. She’d clutched pillows in the past, shoved them behind her, against her, anything to feel like he might be holding her through the rough nights, and to have the actual reality of him, lumbering and heavy and reassuring around her is more than she can even bear. Her bedroom had always been her respite from the things she saw, experienced, endured - but in this moment, in the final minutes before dawn, Elliot has made this bed something more.

He’s made it safe.

She is safe.

He is real, he’s got her tonight, he’s here.

It is excruciating. She wants to curl up into a ball and let him cover her completely. She wants him impossibly closer, wants his scent, his breath, his heartbeat in her and on her. She can’t even roll over and face him, because her need might push her straight into him, she will burrow and crawl right into the depth of him.

“Ready for more ice?” Elliot murmurs sleepily, right into the back of her head.

No. God, no. Olivia doesn’t want him to get up. She doesn’t want his arm to peel away, doesn’t want to lose the hard, comforting contour of his body aligned with hers. She’s needy, and that scares her but she can’t make a sound. She doesn’t want Elliot to know how badly, how deeply, how clinically bereft she’d been without him for all of these years.

He is all the weight of gravity, keeping her anchored and shielded.

“No,” she finally manages, whispering into the dark, her hand covering his hand that is on her, fingers sliding in between his to lock what she needs to her body.

Elliot chuckles softy, confidently, against her scalp, his arm pulling her, gathering her in for one second before she knows he will go get ice anyway. She wants him, she wants him buried all the way inside of her to the point of aching, but that won’t be tonight and that is okay. This is more than sex. This is intimacy, this is a sanctuary and all the therapy in the world couldn’t have given her the absolute sanctity of this.

Of him.

Elliot. His name traverses her mind, and she can feel the burn in her eyes again. She’d missed him so much, she’d been hovering around the gaping absence of him for a decade, always quick to pull away from anyone outside of her son, because no one could have been this, could have been stronger than she is, could have reached right inside of her and drawn her truth out.

She’d been waiting for him. For Elliot.

And he’s holding her now. Not in her wildest fantasies had this experience ever been a part of her lifetime. She’d expected to live without this forever, had expected to one day take her last breath with the hollow of him still on her lips.

“I’m getting up in two minutes to get you a new ice pack so be prepared. You hungry?”

Olivia could cry from the ease of it, from how he just lays there, rumbling behind her as if cocooning her, as if tending to her is the easiest thing in the world for him. He’s a natural when it comes to using his body, his voice, his sheer presence to protect her. “How come you’re so good at this?”

Elliot’s laugh is softer now, less cocky and gentler. “Harder to be told I can’t look after you. This is easy. I finally feel fuckin’ relaxed.”

He can’t see it, but she smiles, her eyes closing tightly again. She can feel his heartbeat behind her, and it’s slow, languid, rhythmic and content, proof of his words.

She wants to be absorbed right into him, rooted, no longer the protector but the protected.

When he gets up a few minutes later, Olivia feels the sharp sting of his absence, thinks she can feel the phantom weight of his arm on her, and she craves his return. She almost feels anxious because of the loss, her own pulse picking up speed as the minutes tick on. Maybe he is an addiction tonight, because the shivering came on as soon as he was gone, her body already unwilling to live without.

Olivia doesn’t understand how they’d ended up here so fast. He’d been holding her standing up in the living room a few hours ago, and he’d said one thing and one thing only.

Let me hold you while you sleep.

She’d been instantly weak with the idea of it, with the hunger for it, with the way that his words had conjured a feeling and nearly made her knees buckle with the desperation for it. Exhaustion had weighted her, heavy and deep, and she’d believed him. Olivia had worried for so long that she was just somewhere he had landed after the loss of his wife, but his voice had cracked as he’d confessed to things, to how he felt, his eyes telling her he was dropping the raw, naked truth at her feet.

She knows Elliot far too well to disbelieve him. Truth is a visual on him, and she’d seen it.

And then he’d told her what he would have done to the beast, a lifetime ago.

Elliot told her about how he would have been there - she’d felt the thrum of his conviction - and maybe she had been holding her breath for all of these years, even after he’d returned. Maybe that was the final piece to her fight, to her recovery, to the healing of her wounds.

Elliot would have had her back, with everything in him, and she had needed to hear it from him. She didn’t need him to save her, but she had needed to know he would have tried, that those days that went by without anyone noticing she was gone, they would have never happened under his watch. She needed to know he would have fought with her, that the fight would have been theirs, together, and that he wouldn’t have backed down.

She needed to hear him say that he was as angry as she had been afterwards. For all these years, it was as if no one had understood her rage, but he had. Tonight, he’d told her, and her rage didn’t exist in a vacuum anymore. He was there, swallowed in it with her, not looking at her like she was a victim, but as if she was his partner, and they had both been wronged. Together.

Olivia had felt that, back then. She’d felt like what Lewis had done to others, to her - it had been done to them too, to who they had been together, because she’d known even back then that if Elliot ever found out - the damage wound be intrinsic to him, too. What happened to her happened to him, what he endured, she endured. She’d borne the weight of it alone until now.

Tonight, he’d come at her hard, unrelenting, determined. He’d showed her. She mattered to him in a way that she mattered to no one else outside of her son.

Elliot comes back into the room now, and against the hallway light, he’s a hulking shadow in the doorway, a Cerberus, a mythical guard. He’s holding another ice pack, a fresh glass of water and a clean dish towel. That chest of his is bare and wide and promising, his jeans unsnapped.

Oh. She can’t help the way she looks him over; he can’t help the knowing half-grin that crosses his lips.

“You want some more meds?” His words are low, soothing, a shift of air that moves across the dark.

“Yeah,” Olivia tells him quietly. “Pain is better but it’s swelling.”

He just nods, and then he’s by her bedside, crouching near her head, setting down the glass of water, taking the now melted ice bag away from her, replacing it with the new one and the dish towel to wrap it in. Every movement is paced, nothing hurried, nothing frantic.

She watches him easily rearranging things on the end table, making sure everything is in easy reach for her. Olivia could cry again. Yesterday had hardly been the worst of what she has lived through. It’s not even close. And yet Elliot here, and there is a profound sense within her that she’s not putting him out, he’s where he wants to be.

He’d told her that, too.

The proof is in how relieved he seems, in the peace that radiates from him. He’s good and strong and a warrior, and he’s counting out Advil on a napkin for her right now. She could watch him do this for the rest of her life. It’s such a small thing, but it is more than she had ever expected, it is everything.

Elliot lays out the four pills, and then he stops, inches from her face and yet he doesn’t turn his head to the right to look at her. “I’m toasting an English muffin for you. Try to eat that before you take this round.” He is stoic, down on his haunches and staring at the medication. Seconds pass, and he says nothing, but Olivia can see the way the muscle in his jaw is furiously jumping.

“Say it,” she murmurs.

He still won’t look at her, but his brows draw together and he’s squinting at the ice pack. “I wanna get back in bed with you.” He says it like he’s apologizing for having some needs, too.

That’s when Elliot looks at her. He’s the one with reddened eyes now, she can see that even in the shadows. He’s brimming with unshed tears, grinding his teeth to hold it together.

“You better get back in here,” Olivia tells him gently, reaching her hand out to land on his arm.

He scrubs his left hand down his face, hard. “I know I missed so much, Olivia. I wasn’t here for the…” His voice catches and he clears his throat, shaking his head as if he can clear his mind of whatever he’s seeing off in the distance, in the dark depths of the bedroom behind her. “I wasn’t here for the worst of it. And nothing, nothing -“

Olivia doesn’t move an inch. He’s scraping his teeth over his lower lip, and now he’s the one shaking. He’s starts to speak once, twice and then he stops, unable to focus on her.

Elliot drops his head, still huddled down by her bedside. He’s got his hands braced on the edge of the table, and off in the distance she hears the toaster pop up. Nothing registers for him, and she can’t take her eyes off of him.

“El -“

“No,” he shakes his hung head hard. “I won’t miss anything anymore, I can promise you that.” Elliot is breathing hard, through his nose, intently focused on the knob of the table drawer. He’s trying not to cry, she realizes. He’s really that close to completely breaking down.

She’s about to get up and slip down onto the rug next to him when he finds her face, his fingertip touching the edge of her bruise. “I got this one. And I got the next one, okay? And the next one after that.” Elliot swallows thickly and then his forehead is tipping towards her, the fresh ice pack suddenly in his hands. He presses it against her bruised skin, so softly, so gently, so reverently that she thinks he might have healed it with just that. “I got ‘em all from now on, if you let me.”

Olivia’s eyes burn more from the sting of tears right now than they had from the tear gas yesterday.

“Will you let me?” he pushes.

She could break. She knows what he’s saying. He’s taking a step forward. It’s a pact from him, a commitment. Elliot is actually here in her bedroom, with her, after a bad night, and it’s the best she’s ever felt, the most whole her heart has ever been. She can’t even begin to imagine him here after a good night, when their souls are not damaged, when there is no pain.

She can’t imagine what it will feel like to laugh with him in this room one day.

“Liv -“ Elliot prompts, suddenly looking worried at her lack of response.

She nods. “Yeah,” she says, letting out a fragile breath.

He’s on her then. Elliot drops the ice pack into his lap, grasping the back of her head, and he leans forward, pressing his lips against the middle of her forehead. “I swear to fucking God,” he expels against her skin. “I will take care of all of them. Every time. I know I can’t stop you from taking risks, but whatever shit you wanna walk into, I’m here for it.” His mouth is moving then, a small kiss brushed against her bruised temple, a thumb skimming against the edge of her cut. “Whatever shit finds you, I’ll be here. You raise the flames of hell, I’ll bring the fire extinguisher. Deal?”

That’s when Elliot sits back again, and he’s right there, in front of her. He’s solid. He’s not a figment of her imagination anymore. He’s not a talisman she’s daydreaming up to conjure the safety of their past. He’s real, and present and he’s beautiful. “Deal.”

It’s the quietest word, a featherlight moment in the minutes before dawn begins to creep in. It’s a vow between them, a promise, something oddly hopeful within it, and maybe that’s just them. They will make a pact about cleaning up each other’s wounds for the rest of time, and it will be the gentlest, most intimate thing that has ever happened between them.

It’s the promise of pledged eternal protection, and maybe that is even more sacred and selfless than love.

They sit there quietly for a few minutes, and Olivia curls into her pillow, letting Elliot slide his fingers along her hairline, unashamed of the way she is battered. The scars that have mapped her skin over the years, all of them, they have become something woven together with him.

“I got a better idea than all of that,” Olivia finally murmurs into the lightening shadows between them.

“What’s that,” he says quietly, fingertips still sifting through her hair, as if he’s learning her for the first time.

She’ll eat the food he made soon, take those meds, and then Elliot is going to crawl back in with her. Despite the morning light she’s going to sleep in. She’ll use her rank to call in and keep him with her, she’ll use the deference the brass will give her for the next few days to take some time off, with him.

It’s an indulgence, but after more than a quarter century on the job, it’s about time they acted human.

Olivia’s eyes drift shut, and the ice pack is back. Elliot is dabbing it softly around the raised blood vessels. The cold feels good against her burning skin. Her breathing evens out, her limbs are heavy.

“What’s your idea,” he urges, before she might fall asleep.

“No more getting hurt in the first place,” Olivia whispers while he is slipping the ice pack down, towards her cheek. “No more bruises. No more hurt.”

Beneath the ice, under the touch of him, the swelling feels like it’s going down. The healing starts.

“Genius,” he says, and she imagines he is smiling even though her eyes are closed now, the bliss of the ice he is administering making her lethargic. “Why didn’t I think of that.”

“It’s Captain-shit,” Olivia finds herself half-asleep and smirking. “Big ideas will occur to you one day.”

He’s chuckling softly again, but he must see her starting to drift, so true to his word Elliot gets up and goes to the kitchen, returning with a buttered muffin. She sits up to eat it, suddenly hungry, and then she takes the pills he holds out for her. In fifteen minutes she’s content again, stomach full and the dull pain eased by the ice and the beginning effects of the ibuprofen. Eased by him, wholly by him.

Elliot slides in behind her as the dawn breaks.

Olivia is wrapped up in his t-shirt, his arms, his body, and she lets out a breath.

“S’too bad it isn’t close to Halloween,” he says, exhaling into her hair.

She knows where this is going, and it’s his safety that is about to be in question. “I will kill you, Elliot.”

“I’m just sayin’,” He sounds sleepy, yawning against her, but that doesn’t stop him. “It kinda looks like a pirate’s patch on you.”

“What do you want your bruise to look like?” Olivia tries to sound menacing, but the way she’s tucked into him takes away all of her intimidation tactics. “You haven’t seen my best work, I’d be happy to demonstrate.”

Elliot laughs, full and deep and sated, pulling her even tighter against him. That’s when she realizes he’s under the covers this time, his body warm and solid around her.

Before the sun rises, she matches her breaths to his, and Olivia falls asleep, the nightmares kept at bay by the unshakeable, unending shelter of him.

+++

 

 

Epilogue

 

It’s one of those perfect late in the summer nights, when the humid evenings have given way to the cool down as the days inch towards mid-September. The breeze is light, the sun is pink and deep across the heavy dusk sky.

It’s a Friday, and her son is staying with a friend tonight, so she’d worked until just after dinner time, one of the last people left in the squad room. It was one of those rare starts to the weekend where she’d been able to let her people go, sending them home to their kids and their partners, to lives that exist outside of the 1-6.

The call had come in just after seven, as she was wrapping to leave. The rape vic in one of SVU’s current cases called her – the woman had heard from her ex, the one who had assaulted her. He’d asked the young woman to meet him, to talk things though, to coerce her.

Instead, thankfully, their brave vic had called the squad-room with the information.

So here Olivia stands, outside a three-story warehouse in South Harlem, strapping on her vest. She could have called Fin or Amanda, she could have dragged Velasco or Muncy back from the start of their weekends, but Olivia had instead called someone she knew would be free.

They were supposed to have dinner at eight at her place, and she’s pretty sure he would have brought an overnight bag again, because she hasn’t given him a dresser drawer at her place yet - even though he teases the hell out of her for making him work so hard for it.

She straps her vest on now while standing next to her SUV, grinning at Elliot. “Sorry about dinner,” Olivia shrugs unapologetically as she tightens the Velcro.

Elliot rolls his eyes as he loops his own straps on his vest around his torso. “Right, as if you’re not thrilled we aren’t eating takeout and watching more Bridgerton tonight.”

“It’s just a very slow show,” she complains, checking her holster. He’d lost a bet with Kathleen a week ago, and his penance had been to watch the series his daughter loves. “I can’t believe you lost. Worse,” Olivia checks her weapon and then snaps the Glock into place for the next few minutes. “You’re dragging me into it.”

He’s smiling at her as if he’s lost somewhere beautiful, and he does that sometimes. Over the last three months that they’ve been doing this, that they have been together, she’s noticed there are so many times when he just quiets and watches her, his lips tipping upwards slowly, as if he is content.

She is content, too. She is more than content; she feels better than she has in the last decade. She feels whole and strong and invincible, her legs feel longer, her strides more confident, her purpose clearer. It’s as if a fog has evaporated and she’s emerged again, she is who she used to be only better.

Olivia is running again in the mornings, long, invigorating journeys through the nearby parks that open up her lungs. She’s taking the Krav Maga classes she dropped out of years ago, she’s tried to drag Elliot to her yoga class. Last Saturday, Elliot and Eli had challenged her and Noah to a game of football at the park, and she’d found herself almost breathless from the normalcy. She had locked on Elliot’s eyes underneath the matching sky out there, and the joy had swept into her. Olivia had found herself laughing as Elliot had scooped Noah up into his arms, holding him upside down while her son had futilely and playfully yelled that’s a penalty, that’s a penalty! again and again. She had laughed and laughed, head thrown back and gazing upwards at the heavenly blue beyond, standing in the middle of a city that is hers once again.

The only thing that has suffered in the months with Elliot is her language. She swears a lot now, grins while she says the offending words, dares anyone to challenge her. No one fucks with her.

Ultimately, she’s found a balance between managing the brass and getting out in the field, she takes the weekends off with her boys. With Elliot, Eli, Noah. Sometimes Seamus and Kieran.

Hers.

Place is abandoned,” she tells Elliot now. “We’ve got no intel on anyone else squatting here, but no guarantees. This fucker goes by Flannerty, and he’s got a dragon tatt on his neck so -“

“Liv,” Elliot interrupts. “You’ve told me twice. We’re good.”

“Is that any way to speak to a Captain?” she says, raising her eyebrows disapprovingly.

It’s his turn to shrug, cocky bastard that he is. “If I’m fucking them, figure I’ve got some leeway.”

Olivia blushes unwillingly, and it pisses her off that he can still surprise her. He’s bawdy as hell, brash and sexual and possessive and she likes it, she wants it, she could eat him alive at any given moment. “Them? You got some other Captains in your bed when I’m not there?”

His vest is secure, he’s checked his weapon, so he cracks his neck and then his knuckles, all brawn and testosterone, ready to go. Elliot’s gaze narrows, full of heat. “Hell no, you wear me the fuck out. My body needs time to heal when you’re done with it.”

“And don’t you forget it,” she winks at him.

He’s already undressing her with his eyes, dammit.

God. He’s a smug piece of shit. She’ll wipe that attitude off of him later. She could let him take her right now, against her SUV, in the fading light. She’s always that ready for him.

She has to keep her head clear though, this Flannerty motherfucker isn’t going to wait for his ex forever. Olivia nods at Elliot, and he’s in sync with her immediately. She can see the determination flood into him, can feel the way his pace will match hers in a few seconds.

Less than two minutes later they are making their way towards the open cavern of a doorway in this dilapidated building. The sun is setting, the shadows are growing. They have flashlights in their left hands, weapons in their right hands braced on their opposite forearms - and they move in low, heads on a swivel.

POLICE is stretched across the backs of their vests in bold, white letters.

They are mirror images.

Olivia doesn’t expect much interference tonight. Her vic was strong, convincing, told this piece of shit she’d be coming to meet him despite the fact that she’s home safe with a protective detail on her. This bastard is expecting someone he can prey upon, someone he can manipulate and overpower.

Like hell. Olivia is itching to kick his ass.

Elliot always wants to clear first, so she lets him. She’s at his back, for now. Soon they will switch places, and he will be behind her, keeping her safe as she does for him.

Eternally each other’s backup.

+++

He can’t help it.

As he leans back against her SUV, watching her order half a dozen uni’s around, he smiles. He’s amused as fuck, and he always is when she’s sauntering around. Olivia wears her black pants tight, her hair in a messy ponytail, her Glock and badge strapped to her hip. She’s bossy, as she should be, and when she’s nearly barking orders, he can’t help that it turns him on.

She’s sexy.

Christ.

He feels sorry for every other asshole on the job out here, men and women alike. The young cops, the ones who will clean up this mess and take care of booking Flannerty, they all watch Olivia, mesmerized, each one trying to please her more than the last. Half of them are probably trying to get onto her professional radar, the other half want to get in her pants.

Elliot grins wider. Fuck, he can’t wait to get those pants off tonight. He loves the way she shimmies out of them under his hands. Loves the way they cling to her. Jesus, he’s still wearing his vest, but he’s too focused on watching her to remove it. He crosses his ankles, folds his arms over his chest and thinks about grabbing some cold beer on the way home. He wants to get naked with her, drink cold beers with her in a hot shower until he gets low, gets one of those insanely long, smooth legs of hers over his shoulder. Hell. She’s impossible so she’ll probably keep swigging her fucking beer until right before she comes on his mouth then thank him on her way out.

Jesus, he has to think about something else right now.

Home.

That almost brings him back to earth. Good thing he brought his bag, because she still hasn’t let him leave his things at her apartment. He knows she’s just tormenting him about it now, gleefully, but he’s about to leave a toothbrush there tonight. Some clothes on the floor. If she won’t give, he might take. He’d offered her half his dresser at his place and she’d taken him up on it, for God’s sake.

He watches another late-model black SUV roll up amidst the lights and commotion. Flannerty is in the back of a sedan already, cuffed tight and hurling epithets, but he recognizes the late arrival.

“She didn’t even call me,” Fin grumbles as he slides out of the truck.

Elliot stays where he is. “Some women want to go out for dinner. She calls me for this shit and refers to it as ‘date night’.”

Fin smiles at him, shaking his head. “Man, you knew what you were getting into.” He moves past Elliot, heading for the front of the building, where Olivia now stands with two uni’s, giving orders.

“Can you send her home now?” Elliot calls out. “We’re kid-free tonight.”

Across time and space, Olivia hears him. “Five minutes!”

Elliot believes her. That’s the thing about her these days. She delegates. She gives herself time, gives them time. He’s turned down the two UC’s that have come their way in OCCB, letting the young guys take them or he’s found a way around them. He’s called her half a dozen times for the job, doing everything he can to find crossover reasons in their cases so they can work together. She’s insanely ballsy again, more fearless than ever, physically strong and getting stronger by the day, and while it scares him - there is one thing that reassures him throughout.

She’s open with him.

Olivia doesn’t go in alone anymore; she doesn’t hide things from him. Last week she’d had a nightmare, a leftover from the Lewis ordeal, and she’d woken up softly crying. She hadn’t understood why the nightmares had come back all these years later, even occasionally. They didn’t happen often, but they’d surface now and then on their nights together. She’d seen her therapist and he’d asked her one question. Do they happen on nights you’re alone or is Elliot there? They’d always happened on the nights she was in his arms. Do they recur? the doc had asked her. Each one only happens once, she’d told him. The doc’s answer had been confident, resolute. You’re feeling safe, and you’re the one allowing them to be released. You’re not reliving, you’re letting go of them.

The smile must have fallen off his face now because she’s looking at him at the moment, across the forty feet between them. The distance is a darkness splashed with headlights, with silent siren lights, with moonlight that must exist somewhere up above.

He loves her, with everything in him. He’s said the words, she’s said them back, but he tells her silently now, with just his eyes.

In response, the corners of her lips tip up a little.

She knows.

Olivia uses that signature saunter of hers a few minutes later to stride towards him, leaving Fin in charge of the scene. Her hair is falling in her face a little bit, and she stops only when she’s right in front of him, boldly cornering him against the truck. She doesn’t say anything, but before he can move, her fingers are absently peeling off the Velcro of his vest, uncaring who is watching. They aren’t in the same department, they aren’t technically partners, there’s nothing anyone can say.

He lets her undo his vest at the sides. She’s intently focused on the task, not looking up at him. Her sleeves are rolled up, he can see her forearm for himself and beneath the police lights, it’s only a little bit red.

Forty minutes ago, Olivia had made her way up the stairs in the building first, Elliot at her back. The guy had lunged for her at the top, out of a doorway to their right, but as she had swung back at the bastard and Elliot had prepared to annihilate him, she’d growled. Don’t you dare.

Elliot had known instantly she was talking to him and not Flannerty. She wanted the guy, so be it. Elliot had hung back for the thirty seconds it had taken her to knock the prick’s legs out, twist his arm behind his back and land her knee hard into his back so she could cuff him. At least Elliot had been helpful by handing her his cuffs when she had reached back for them. Besides the initial blow to her arm, the guy hadn’t touched her, and she was proud as hell of it.

So was Elliot.  

It doesn’t mean he’s not concerned. “How’s your arm?”

Olivia looks up at him, the sides of his vest undone. She lifts one eyebrow dramatically. “Is that your ego asking?”

Elliot leans in, until his mouth is at her ear, as if he’s telling her a secret. He undoes the Velcro on her straps in one swift movement, one hand on each side of her waist. “It’s my cock asking,” he whispers.

In the middle of the police lights, the crime scene, another collar for her unit, the people who work for her, with her, because of her, Olivia laughs.

It’s throaty, it’s whole, it’s a reverberation that cleans the air it touches.

Olivia is loud when she laughs, she is unapologetic, and while she spends her life protecting this city, he will spend the rest of his life doing his best to protect her and the sound of her laughter.  

If she is the avenger, then he is her backup.

And by her side will always be his home.