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Midnights

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Time is the one thing in life that’ll never belong to anyone. From your very first breath to your absolute last, time holds you firmly in its grasp, both gently and cruelly reminds you that you’ll never, ever own it.

And god, it’s delusional to claim a piece of it as your own. To look back on the days of coffees slid across desks, two droplets spilling from the lopsided lids. Heavy eyelids and heavier hearts. Maybe it was about a bit more than a quest for justice, than sleep being for the weak. Maybe it was midnights that felt like days, basking in what they’ll now tell the kids were their “Glory Days”. It makes them sound ancient, she says. He’s aware.

He’s reminded of just how much time takes away from him when he stands up from the couch and both of his kneecaps crack. Almost like they’re mocking him. He shoves the throw blanket he’d barely fought sleep underneath aside, laughs to himself at the sound of her fidgeting with the lock. Again and again.

She laughs out loud, two octaves higher than she usually sounds when she does. And then she gives up. He hears the sound of her bag opening by its zipper. It echoes throughout the hallway. She’s shoving her key back inside of it because she knows he’s on the other side of the door, awake and willing. 

Her tongue is in between her teeth when he swings the door to her apartment open. “Hi.”

Instinctually, his hand curls around her wrist. Steadies her underneath the door frame. “Been drinkin’?”

“Might’ve had a few,” she says breathily, two fingers pinched together. “Was fun.”

His thumb brushes against her fingers. “Nice to see everyone?”

She’d been out with some of her old squad tonight - Amaro had been in town for the weekend. Rollins’ last day at the 1-6 is next Friday. Barba said something to her yesterday about making an appearance for an hour or two. She’s beaming as she slips past him - half of it a buzz from the aftermath of the alcohol, half of it out of pure contentment. 

She sits down at the edge of the ottoman, holds her calf up between both hands. “Untie,” she demands, wiggling her heeled foot at him.

He wraps both of his hands around her ankle and begins unlacing the velvet ribbons. “Yes ma’am.”

“How was Noah for you?”

“Fine. Ate some dinner, asked me for twenty minutes of Switch time and then passed out with the thing in his hand like, six minutes in.”

“You took it —”

He sighs, nods. “Put it right on the nightstand, yeah. Sit still Liv.”

She squirms underneath him until he frees her of her heels. Wiggles her toes in his face once he does. They fall onto the area rug with a soft, courteous thud, because her kid is still sound asleep down the hall. 

“El,” she breathes out, smoothing her hands down the velvet of her dress. Time has taken a lot from the both of them, but everything about her still radiates the kind of beauty he’ll never have the words to describe. “Thank you.”

“For what, stayin’ here and hanging out with your kid for a few hours? Watching the shit you keep on your DVR?”

“It’s not shit, it’s —”

“Nah, it’s shit baby. ‘S fine though.”

She squeezes her eyes shut. Waits until he scoots into the couch opposite the ottoman to shove her feet into his lap.

“‘M tired.”

“And drunk, yeah,” he laughs. “Listen…”

She hums, “Hmm.”

“I know I didn’t have to wait up, you — you’ve got a key, even if you don’t know how to work it for shit.”

She squints one eye open and pretends to glare at him. 

“But uh, somethin’ about you coming home to me like this, even if it’s in your apartment that I definitely don’t live in…‘s nice.”

She won’t outright say she’s come home to just about nothing but a sea of her son’s toys scattered about the living room floor for the last decade, but she doesn’t have to. 

“Yeah,” she swallows, “guess it is — nice.”

“Dunno,” he continues, “but sometimes it feels like this time, it’s — it’s just ours. You agree?”

Her lipstick is half-faded. Mascara is smudged at the rims of her eyes. She’s wasted no time throwing her hair up into the sloppiest top knot drunken hands can form. She’s all sorts of put together out there, but inside of here, with him, she’s just Olivia.

And god, he fucking loves that.

“Agree. Now c’mon, help me get out of this.”


____

 

It’s a beautifully-done wedding.

There are white string lights hooked onto the tops of Staten Island fences, seventy-five more full champagne flutes lined across a cloth-covered folding table, and the air mocks that of a night just before there’s a snowfall.

Only everyone’s tipsily dancing to a Rolling Stones song underneath a heated tent in an ADA’s parents’ backyard and it doesn’t snow at all.

And it doesn’t make her want this any more or less, because she’s undoubtedly content with where they are.

She feels his calloused fingers slide up the slit in her dress, the warmth of his palm enveloping her exposed skin.

“Not the best dress for a December wedding,” he groans, his lips ghosting her jawline. He squeezes his fingertips into her thigh.

“Didn’t hear you complaining when I was changing into it, Stabler.”

He bows his head, says, “No you didn’t.”

“What do you think...” Her hand finds the dip in his shoulder, tugs him in closer to her center. “Wanna call it a night?”

She’s thinking about Noah. She’s thinking about Kathleen, who’d taken full responsibility in making sure her son had gotten from the church ceremony to her apartment earlier this afternoon. She’s thinking about the family that’d been born from an unofficial union between two cops a long time before today - first the bride and the groom’s family, and then theirs.

He rests his hand on her middle, palm flat open on her belly. He steadies her in place, sways her as gently as he can to the music without letting the entire wedding party know he’s about as uncoordinated on the dance floor as Rollins’ three year old, who’s wildly twirling in the center of the room with a champagne flute full of apple juice, hours and hours past her bedtime.

“Noah’s fine, Kathleen’s fine,” he says, “but if you’re ready to go...”

She moves her hand up to cup his cheek, shrugs lazily against his body. “You like this.”

“Dancing? Like is a strong assumption Liv, how ‘bout tolerating it for you — Yeah, tolerating it is better.”

“No,” she breathes out, the air around them dipping as they slow their movement down, “weddings.”

“I mean, who’re you gonna find complaining about free Italian food and an open bar? Not me.”

“I just...Sometimes I think you want this,” she tells him, her words light and loose. “Do you?”

“I’m fine with what we’ve got.”

She gulps. “‘Fine’.”

“Yeah baby, fine.” The tempo of the music heightens. He starts to sway her faster, both of his hands splayed out on either sides of her hips. “Like, so fine that it doesn’t matter either way.”

“So you’ve thought about the other way.”

“You being my wife?”

She nods, her thumb swiping across his bottom lip.

“‘Course I thought about it. Should I not have?”

“You can think it,” she says behind a thin, closed-lipped grin, “but I’ve never wanted any of this — dancing in a yard, ten thousand people watching me drunkenly cut my cake...”

“What about six kids and my mother? And no one’s drunk, ‘cause us Stabler’s can handle our liquor.”

“Yeah well, I’m not a Stabler and I can too.”

“Lemme get you one more glass, see how true that is,” he teases.

She protests with just a shake of her head, fingertips dribbling in a crescendo against his pulse point.

“You’re basically one by the way, doesn’t matter if it’s official or not.”

“You say that but you want it.” 

Everyone around them shouts a song lyric in unison. They raise up champagne flutes just before midnight, bubbly slipping from the sides and onto the floor of the tent. She closes her eyes and basks in it, how time seems to still in this very moment - seventy-five bodies doing a harmonious cheer to love. Light. Life. A wedding in a Staten Island backyard eight days before Christmas.

And she doesn’t exactly hate it.

“I don’t know,” she says when he says nothing. “I don’t like it, but I’d tolerate it. For you.”

____

It’s just after midnight when he picks up Kathleen’s call.

“He — ‘lo?” He yawns, scrubs a hand across his jaw exasperatedly. Beside him Olivia sleeps steadily, one hand tucked underneath her chin, whistling through her nose in lieu of snoring. The bedroom feels ten degrees colder than it did when they’d called it a night two hours ago. He sits up straighter, widens his eyes at the sound of his daughter’s voice cracking at its edges. Her cries. “Kathleen, baby, slow down, what — what d’you mean?”

By instinct, the worry that envelops his words the second he speaks to his child wakes Olivia up. She’s got no idea what it is Kathleen’s calling about, but she pushes the duvet off of them both in a haste anyway, finds her shoes - tucked somewhere underneath her side of the bed - without turning a single light on. 

“It’s my mom, she — she fell in the apartment,” he manages to choke out to Olivia, his hand looped around the receiver. It barely hushes the sound of his daughter’s sobbing. “Shit, I —” He pulls his hand away from the bottom of the phone, speaks into it as clearly as he can, “Okay baby, okay, listen to me, I’m coming, I’m — I’m gonna hang up, you stay with her, make sure you keep her awake until I get there in case she’s got a concussion. You hear me?”

“Liv, y’don’t...” He reaches a hand out to flick the switch to the lamp on bedside table. In a dark room, he felt her urgency. In a lit one, he sees it; how badly she bleeds for the people she loves without a second thought. “You don’t have to come.”

She raises a brow at him. Says absolutely nothing.

He crouches down to find his shoes. “I should’a never let her move there.”

She gestures a hand at the open space to the side of her. “She could’ve fallen here too, you know.”

“But we would’ve —”

“Exactly — We.” She laces her fingertips around his wrist, tugging him toward her. 

“Huh.”

“You said we. I’m coming El, it’s family.”

“Yeah well, I promised you an empty house tonight and now I’m draggin’ you to hang out in a two-bedroom walk up at midnight.”

But That’s what this is, says the wordless way she laces both arms around his torso from behind him. Forces him to take a breath, and then another.

“You sure?” he asks when she doesn’t budge. She’s trying to remember where she’d left her coat - somewhere slung across the arm of the couch, or did she hang it up in the closet?

“I’m sure,” she says, halfway out the bedroom door.

____


She’s about to ask what the hell the kitchen light is doing on as soon as she wedges her shoes into their spot by the front door, but her answer comes in the form of two giggles: one soft and young, one rougher around its edges.

She tiptoes on socked feet, sets a hand on one of the culprit’s shoulders. “I thought I said bedtime was nine.”

She watches Elliot - babysitter of the goddamn century, clearly - slam shut a leather-bound book. He turns his body completely to face her.

“‘S my fault Liv. Noah asked to see this and then I got caught up, tellin’ stories.”

“My old photo album.” She swallows, sets a hand at the center of her chest. Her heart thuds at the thought of any of their early days together being told in the form of a bedtime story to her boy. From Elliot. “Why?”

“I had a bad day mom,” Noah intervenes, his voice small and almost guilty. “Elliot cheered me up, though.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I mean, all it took was the early 2000’s haircut, really,” Elliot chuckles, his eyes darting down to the closed photo album he holds between both palms.

She rolls her eyes, ducks down and holds her son fixedly by the knees. “I bet. What happened today, honey?”

It’s nothing he wants to get into. He promises her he’s fine, lets her smooch both of his cheeks the way she’d kissed him goodnight when he was a toddler. He says she doesn’t have to tuck him in, and then he gets halfway down the hallway to his bedroom before he turns around, thanks Elliot for being there.

“Someone at school asked him where his dad went.”

She stops twisting her hair in her hands. Sets down the clip she’d been about to toss it up into in its placeholder, attached to the hem of her shirt. She curls her bare feet underneath her knees and sighs. 

He stares at her from the other end of the couch, behind his mug of tea, like he’s sorry.

She’s not sure she’d like to know, but she still asks him anyway. “What’d Noah say?”

“Just that he didn’t have one, left it at that. Kid fought him on it, told him that was impossible like the little shit I’m sure he is, but.”

“Jesus.” She feels him squeeze one of her calves, waiting for her to extend her legs out into his lap. “So this is what I have to look forward to, right?”

“Hey, we. I’m here Liv. None of it is anything you gotta do alone, unless —”

She tugs down onto her bottom lip. Surrenders to the feeling of someone at her side. Closes her eyes and lets the nape of her neck sink into the top of the couch cushion.

“No, of course I don’t want to do it alone El,” she finally admits.

“Good, ‘cause you won’t have to.”

____

“Do you think we wasted time?”

Almost breathless at her side, he winks one eye open. 

He studies her like he always does. The dip in her hip where his hand fits like it’s home. The freckles on her nose that stay mostly hidden until the early days of summer unless you’re looking this close. He rests a hand on her naked collarbone, presses his fingers into her honeyed skin.

“W’do you mean?”

She turns over and meets his hand with her own. Holds it in place against herself. 

“I don’t know, it took awhile,” she says, “for this.”

He hums in silent agreement, and then he clears his throat. “Worth it though, right?”

She lifts both of their hands up off of her body, places a kiss in the center of his clammy palm. “Mmm-hmm.”

But...”

“Who says there’s one?”

“Me.” He laughs against her. “I say there’s one.”

“Fine. But I feel like time is moving so fast. Sometimes I just...” She squeezes her eyes shut with intention. Searches for the right words before she says anything. “I selfishly want to slow it down, make it stop, give us more.”

“Hey, what do I always say to you?”

She tilts her head. “‘You need to start taking Zinc every day’, and I know. I know I do, but I’m busy —”

“Well that too, but no. About midnight. How —”

She inches further into him - as close as her body can tangle itself into his. “Time does feel slower at night, it’s because we have so many years on the force, waiting for the damn sun to come up.”

“Maybe, but ‘s true. That’s what I’m gonna remember the most with you. Midnights.”

“You mean last night, how I passed out on the couch fully clothed before ten o’clock?”

He chews on his cheek, slings an arm around her bare torso. “Not that one maybe, but still.”

“But the rest of them.”

He repeats, “But the rest of them.”