RASPBERRY MARTINI by MAYSON1230 - CHAPTER ONE

“I don’t regret it.  I don’t mind being that person I was with you tonight, Elliot.  For the right reasons…the right person…I don’t mind being her.”

She had regretted every second of the one hour and thirteen minutes she had been locked in the car with Elliot.  The first step she took out of her apartment building, the instant she caught sight of his nervous smile on the other side of the rolled up car window, the moment she pulled open the sun-warmed car door, she knew it was a mistake to purposely erase any of their limited amount of time apart from each other before they had to show up for work on Monday morning.  They needed to think, to sort through moments that so far seemed unable to be sorted through, and to figure out what in the hell they had done, why they had done it, and how they could stop it from happening again.

She had regretted every second of the one hour and thirteen minutes she had been locked in the car with Elliot.  And she had regretted each one because throughout their drive, she hadn’t been able to make herself regret a single second of time before she willingly, albeit reluctantly, slid into the passenger’s side of Elliot’s dust-laden Jeep.

“You know, I was thinking… It’s Sunday somewhere.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

“Got any plans tonight?”

“Elliot.  I thought we decided—” 

“We’ve gotta eat, right?  And that crab place I told you about, we could be there in an hour.”

“An hour, uh huh.  That’s if we actually make it out of my apartment.”

“We’ll make it.  C’mon, Liv.  Ask me about the crabs.”

She was supposed to regret it, every touch and unfamiliar sensation and second of enjoyment.  She was supposed to regret whom she had so eagerly been with and every hasty excuse she had convinced herself to believe that made it seem okay to be with him.  She was supposed to regret her lack of control, and how easily she had let what she had known was wrong win out over what she had known was right.  She was supposed to regret all of it.

But she didn’t.

Even though she knew that she should.

+++

The web of mangled fishnets sagged above the peanut shell-littered floor.  The black maze looped over thick beams across the ceiling and swirled down dulled, notched logs of wood that were placed sporadically, from floor to ceiling, throughout the room.  Tables topped with red and white-checkered cloths were placed unsystematically across the scuffed tile floor, not in rows or patterns or evenly, but as if they were regularly pushed and shoved and moved and left in whatever location they happened to land in.

Olivia made it only halfway through the squeaky hinged door before coming to a determined stop, her fingers curving around the splintering doorframe, keeping her locked in place with one foot having crossed over the raised threshold and the other still planted firmly on the top cracked concrete step outside.

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” she murmured, her words attached to a heavy, disbelieving breath as she squinted, allowing her eyes time to adjust to the dim lighting in the room before shifting them in Elliot’s direction.  She scrunched her nose, turning her head to the side as the strong odor of fish whirled around her, engulfed her, and immediately adhered itself to her.  “We drove an hour out of the city for this?”  She ran the back of her hand beneath her nose, her dark brows dipping harshly.  “This place is a breeding ground for salmonella.”

“It’s the best seafood in the state,” Elliot returned, unhooking her whitened fingers from around the doorframe and pushing her through an ungainly step into the one-room restaurant.  “It’s not Uncle Mack’s, but if it’s crabs you want, I can guarantee you’ll get them here.”

“Is that a proposition, or are you talking from personal experience?” she muttered under her breath, making a half-turn to dislodge Elliot’s hand from the small of her back.

“A proposition… That’d be backtracking, don’t you think?”

Olivia rolled her eyes, hooking her arms across her chest and hugging them against her.  “Would it have killed you to take me somewhere nice?  Somewhere I don’t have to disinfect the silverware before using it?”

“Who said they have silverware?” Elliot asked, raising an eyebrow teasingly.  He nudged her shoulder with his, stifling his laughter as hers emerged as a whisper.  “Somewhere nice, that’s where you want to go?”  He nodded, just once, as sternly as agreeably.  “Name the time and place, and I’ll take you.  Anywhere you want to go.”

“Anywhere?”  She took a step back, studying him, silently dissecting his oddly—and rarely seen—calm demeanor.  “That was too easy.  What’s the catch?”

“No catch.”

She laughed, her voice dissipating into the continuous clanks of silverware against Formica-topped tables, muffled chatter of other patrons, and the sporadic, raised voices of the restaurant staff as orders were shouted out by identically dressed waitresses and then reiterated by gruff-looking, unshaven cooks who had sweat beaded across their flushed foreheads and bulging biceps peeking out from beneath rolled sleeves of grease stained t-shirts.

“But a little advice?” Elliot said, moving his face closer to hers.  “I don’t suggest using the bathrooms around here, much less, you know, doing anything else in them.”

“You’re a cocky son of a bitch,” Olivia returned.  “But just so you know, I didn’t wear the bra.”

“What about the garter belt?”

“Tossed it in the garbage on my way out of my building tonight.”

He crossed his arms, dropping his chin downward as he swayed toward her, his shoulder once again bumping into hers.  “What day of the week does your trash get picked up?”

“You’d dig through my trash to find that thing?”  She chuckled, giving a quick shake of her head.  “That’s an all time low, El, even for you.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a helluva garter belt.”

Olivia glanced around the room, her lips tightening into a grimace as she surveyed the half-eaten food that remained in oval-shaped plastic baskets on the occupied tables.  “So, I take it we seat ourselves?  A hostess is too much to hope for, right?”

“Just pick a table,” Elliot returned, nodding toward an unoccupied, square-shaped table in the darkest corner of the room with a checkered tablecloth draped crookedly over it.  “That one look good?”

Olivia shrugged, taking off ahead of Elliot and muttering, “As good as any,” as she zigzagged through the maze of Formica and nearly dilapidated, metal-base chairs.  She avoided making eye contact with the uninterested stares that followed her across the room, and dropped down quickly in a bright red vinyl upholstered chair.  Slapping her hands down on the tabletop as the chair swayed jerkily beneath her, she leaned to her right, lowering her head and studying the uneven legs as the blunt ends of three clanked against the floor and the fourth remained hovering above the dirty tile.

She glanced up, meeting Elliot’s amused smile with a deadpan stare as she balanced herself by tightening her fingers around the sticky edge of the table.  “You’re serious, we’re eating here?” she asked, unlatching her fingers, one by one, from the gummy periphery.  Flattening her palms on top of her thighs, she rubbed her hands back and forth over the dark blue denim.

“It’s the best seafood in the state.”

“Yeah,” she said, dragging her hands one last time down the length of her thighs.  “So you’ve said.”

“Just give it a try, huh?  Save the bitching until after we eat.”

Olivia leaned back in the chair, her eyes widening a fraction.  “Bitching?” she asked, adding a disgruntled laugh.

“Yeah.  You’ve been bitching since we walked in.”

“I haven’t been bitching, only stating the obvious.”  She arched her eyebrows, her face draining of all traces of emotion and registering only exhaustion.  “This place is a dump.”

“It has character.”

“Oh, that’s what you call it?”  She laughed, glancing down at the dirt-stained palms of her hands.  “Elliot, I doubt this table has been wiped down in the last six months.  You may call that character, but I call it jeopardizing my health.”

“So, what?  We’re gonna spend the rest of the evening arguing?  We drove a long time to get here, we both need to eat, so just give it a try.  Okay?”  Elliot settled into the smooth vinyl that lined the chair back, knotting his arms across his chest as a slight, shaky smile caused his lips to momentarily arc.  She looked miserable sitting across from him with her weight heavier on one side of the chair seat as she balanced herself on her left hip to keep the three metal ends of the longer legs flush against the floor.  To keep herself steady and to avoid teetering off balance as it seemed they had spent the past forty-eight-plus hours doing.  She once again needed to find solid ground, he knew, to once again feel as if she had at least a semblance of control in a situation that was more out of control than either of them had ever before experienced.

“Just give it a try,” he urged.  “That’s all I’m asking.  Just for you to give it a try.”

“And if I don’t like it?”

He shrugged a shoulder.  “At least you would’ve tried.”

She arched an eyebrow, staring at him for only a second before her gaze dropped to the tabletop and the gray and blue specks that bedecked the chipped Formica.  “Give it a try,” she whispered, the huskiness that suddenly filled her voice making it clear that she had found more than one meaning hidden in Elliot’s words.

“Olivia.”  He didn’t nod or flinch or look away as her eyes quickly lifted to meet his, but merely continued to stare.  “It’s just dinner.”

“No, it’s not.  It’s a weekend of—”

“I know what this weekend has been about.”

“You do?” she asked, her voice an even mixture of surprise and curiosity and relief.  “If you understand it so well, do you mind explaining it to me?”

“I didn’t say I understand it.  But I also didn’t plan or expect it.”

“Neither did I,” she whispered, dragging her fingertip from one pale blue speck to another on the tabletop, invisibly connecting the dots to create a picture that was identifiable only to her.

“Okay, so neither of us planned it or expected it,” Elliot responded, his demeanor far more casual than Olivia’s progressively tensing one.  “We’ve established that we don’t understand it, either.  So, can’t we just leave it at that?  Do we have to analyze it to death?”  He didn’t want her to think or analyze or reach any conclusions.  Because when she thought too much, when she analyzed too intently, things turned to shit.  It was her proven and tried and true method for fucking up her own life.  Thinking.  Because when she thought too much, she reached conclusions of self-punishment and things undeserved and talked herself out of enjoying the simplest pleasures in life.  And no matter what happened—if anything else did—between them during the next five minutes or five days or five years, he wanted her to be able to walk away from their irresponsible forty-eight hours together still without regrets and with only enjoyment as her prevalent memory.

“You don’t think we should talk about it?” Olivia asked, wrapping her fingers around the white plastic shell of the saltshaker.  She shook her head, sliding the lightweight container across the tabletop from her left hand into her right one.  

“We’ve already talked about it.”

“No, we’ve talked about everything but it,” she disagreed.  “And I just, I don’t want you to feel like…and I don’t want to feel like…” She sighed weightily and with a hint of frustration.  “I know you, Elliot, and I know that since…last night…you’ve probably been trying like hell to convince yourself that you have feelings for me.  And you’re doing it because you think you should, because you think you need to be noble in this situation or, I don’t know.  Some kind of crap like that.”

“Convince myself that I…have…” He cleared his throat, his eyes widening a fraction.  That he had feelings.  For her.  Shit.  Was it what she expected from him, or was it what she hoped to receive from him?  Because he didn’t know any better than she seemed to if it was what he was anywhere near ready to deliver.  His fucked up feelings on his sloppily rolled up sleeve for both of them to blatantly see and dissect and further analyze.

“I just don’t want you to feel, like I said before…” Olivia slid the shaker from her right hand to left one.  “Nothing’s expected because of this.  I think our first priority should be work, and we’ve, I’m not sure there’s a rule left for us to break, but—”

“Why can’t it just be what it is?” he asked quickly.  “Do we have to shrink it and ourselves?”

She volleyed the shaker back into her right hand, staring down at the grain-littered holes on top with narrowed eyes.  “We owe it to each other to know where we both stand,” she said, her face lowered and words directed at the tabletop.  “And I… Elliot, I’m not, I don’t want you to think…” She pulled in a breath, holding onto the air for a moment before expelling it hurriedly and along with her confession.  “I’m not in love with you.”

He nodded awkwardly, unsurely, and took in a raspy breath as the thick, tainted air in the suddenly shrinking room became stuck somewhere in the middle of his throat.  She wasn’t in love with him.  She had said it effortlessly, exactly how he imagined her saying it over and over again to man after man during her adult life.  She wasn’t in love.  Period.  No questions asked and none would be answered.  No discussion warranted.  Thanks for your time, but get the hell out of my life.  

Because she wasn’t in love.  

“Okay,” he croaked, his voice becoming lost in the noisiness of the room.  “And you, uh.  You…” As her gaze shifted upwards, locking onto his, he countered with an imperceptible shrug.  “You think I am…with you?”

She shook her head, shooting the saltshaker out of her right hand and into her left one.  “No.  But I think you feel like you should be.”

“Like I… You wanna tell me why you think I feel that way?”

She nodded, just once, giving the shaker another shove from one hand to the other.  “Because… God, Elliot, because of a hundred different reasons.  Your past, your religion, our history, your damn guilt—”

“I’m not, either,” he blurted, not moving as her lips separated and the saltshaker became frozen, stuck in uncomfortable purgatory, between her hands.  “I’m, uh.  Look, Liv, I…” Christ.  Look, Liv, what?  What in the hell did he feel?  Because if he didn’t understand it, he sure as hell wouldn’t be able to make Olivia understand it.  He felt like… The fucking captain of the chess team who had unexpectedly—and even more surprisingly—scored with the head cheerleader.  He felt like a man who had spent his entire adult life barely scraping by on welfare only to finally strike it rich in the lottery.  He felt like a twelve-year-old dealing with his first hard-on that wouldn’t deflate, a hard-on that was winning the raging war with his mind and was fueled by the subtle way Olivia’s nostrils flared each time she took in a breath and by the faint odor of vanilla that tinged her skin and the sheen in her hair when the light landed on it just right.  He felt like a fucking pervert because he couldn’t seem to rid himself of the visions of her damn Brazilian wax or the way the black fishnet hose had snaked up her legs or the way the barely-there bra had exposed far more of her breasts than it hid.  But most of all, he felt afraid, afraid that he would appear ungrateful about a past that he was more grateful to have been a part of than he could find words to describe.

Jesus.  What he felt was confused.

“You’re not?” Olivia asked, sounding more expectant than surprised, more relieved than disappointed, as first her soft voice and then piercing stare pulled Elliot out of his muddled thoughts.  “I mean, good.  I’m glad that, you know.  At least we’re on the same page with all of this.”

Elliot smiled faintly, nodding.  Understanding her feelings of relief, but not entirely sure he felt the same.  “You know what I am?” he asked, leaning into the table, closing the distance between them.  “I’m tired.  Tired of us living with the assumption that for some reason, it’s not okay for us to have a good time.  And that’s what I’ve been having with you, just a good time.”

“A good time.”  She abandoned the saltshaker, leaving it propped between them in the center of the sticky-topped table.  “You want to have a good time, Elliot?  Then we should go to a Yankees’ game or to the theater.  We should go to a restaurant because we like the food, not because we’re trying not to be seen together.  Having a good time shouldn’t mean breaking the rules, and it sure as hell shouldn’t mean— Especially not…three times…”

“It happened, Olivia.  Can’t change it now.”  He leaned back in the chair, melding his back to the sleek, taut vinyl.  “And you know what?  It’s not just the assumption I’m tired of.  It’s the fact that you and I keep buying into it.  We keep living it.”

She slumped forward, massaging the sides of her denim-shrouded thighs with her hands.  “Jesus.  You’re making us sound kind of pathetic,” she grumbled, her lips curving downward in conjunction with her gaze dropping.

“The majority of the time we are pretty pathetic, don’t you think?” he asked, smiling as she looked up.  He chuckled lowly, with more honesty than amusement, and stretched out his arm across the table.  He left his hand palm up, wriggling his fingers until she reluctantly slid her hand into his.  

“Welcome to Mel’s Seafood Palace.  So, what’s it gonna be tonight, folks?”

They glanced up, Elliot tearing his gaze away from their locked hands and Olivia shifting hers away from his sincere eyes, and dropped their hold on each other as they found the waitress staring down her thin nose at them.  The gangly woman attempted a smile as she jutted out her right hip and steadied a nearly used up order pad in her hand.  She pulled an ink pen out from behind her ear, muttering an indecipherable, “Damn,” as it momentarily became entangled in a gray lock of hair.

“Interested in the crabs?” she asked, her high-pitched voice seeming to seep out of her nostrils.  “Because once you get crabs at Mel’s, you’ll never forget ‘em.  That’s for sure.”

“Crabs,” Olivia repeated, her lips twitching as she searched the table for a menu.  Finding only crusted-topped condiment bottles, salt and peppershakers, colorful sugar and sweetner packets, and a half-emptied napkin holder, she shrugged, mumbling in concession, “Sure.  Why not?  It’s been a long time since I’ve had crabs.”

+++

Elliot watched Olivia examine her food, her brows tensed and furrowed above her squinted eyes as she picked at the items in the plastic, paper-lined basket with more curiosity than interest.  Occasionally—and begrudgingly—she wedged a thick French fry between her lips, chewing slowly and cautiously, making it clear that she fully distrusted each salty slice of grease-soaked potato.

“I’m not in love with you.”

He hadn’t expected her to be.  In love.  But, Jesus.  He also hadn’t expected to feel so rejected after she made her announcement.  Maybe it was because she had said it so easily, as if it had never been a real possibility, or maybe it was because of the glimmer of uncertainty he had seen, for merely a second, flash in her eyes.  As if, somewhere maybe too deep for even her to feel, she had wanted to be.

But Elliot’s truth was, that since they had dragged each other into the polished bathroom at Raspberry Vodka, the thought of love hadn’t once entered his mind.  He had been—had remained—too far submerged in his newly found pervert status with his thoughts focused solely on the thin strip of hair between her legs, the scraps of fabric that masqueraded as undergarments, the iridescent beads of sweat that made her skin shimmer, and the unexpected way her voice deepened each time she moaned his name, to worry about something as life altering as love.  Because he didn’t want to be in love, not again, not yet, and not with her.  And he wasn’t.

Was he?

He dipped his face forward, the tip of his chin pointing toward his broad chest as he worked his way through a slippery bite.  He loved Olivia, obviously.  Of course he loved her, how could he not?  He depended on her not only for his own physical wellbeing on a nearly daily basis, but also for his sanity.  It had become an unspoken rule between them early into their partnership; only one of them was allowed to lose their sanity at a time.  If he lost his grip on his, Olivia maintained hers, and vice versa.  It was a system that had worked for them with moderate success for nearly a decade, and it had saved both of their asses more than once.  When his judgment became clouded, hers took over for him.  And when she lost all rationality, he held onto his until she no longer needed him to keep her afloat.  It was the code that dictated their partnership, and more importantly, their friendship.

And Olivia had long ago stepped into the role of best friend in his life.

And there wasn’t any rule—written or not—that said you couldn’t love your best friend.  In fact, it was assumed that you did.  But just because you loved didn’t mean you were in love.

Did it?

He had been in love with Kathy.  Even though marriage at the time wasn’t what either of them had planned, when he stood at the alter beside her with the priest dictating vows that he nervously repeated, he had known that he was in love.  He had fallen in love with each of his children even before he saw their faces or heard their immature cries.  And when they were placed in his arms for the first time, their tiny bodies melding trustingly against his, he had known he would stay in love forever.  He knew what being in love felt like, and also how devastating it felt when you realized you were slowly and torturously falling out of love.  And what he felt for Olivia in no way compared to either of those feelings.

It didn’t compare to anything he had ever before felt.

It was unidentifiable.  

His lips curved upward involuntarily as he watched Olivia press the tips of her thumbs between the crab’s shell and split the hard layering.  She flinched as it crackled in her hands, her shoulders bunching around her neck as her skin came in contact with the warm meat.  And his laughter finally materialized teasingly as he watched her study the inside of the crustacean, looking far more disgusted by her findings than hungry.

“Be honest,” he said, the suddenness of his voice—after fifteen awkward minutes of silence—causing Olivia’s gaze to rise quickly.  “You’ve never had crabs, have you?”  He shook his head, his laughter once again settling between them as she dropped the partially opened crab back into her still-full basket of food.

“What kind are we talking about?” she deadpanned, balling a napkin between her greasy hands.

“This kind, I hope.”

She shoved the basket toward the center of the table, falling back in her chair.  “I worked at Uncle Mack’s for almost four years.  Just the smell of seafood made me sick, let alone the thought of actually eating it.”  She leaned forward, her brows once again dipping towards her narrowed eyes as she studied the half-open crab.  “No, I’ve never had crabs.”

“This kind or any other kind, right?”

“Shut up.”

“You know,” Elliot began, wiping a wadded napkin across his lips, “you just might like ‘em if you try them.”

“Pretty sure I won’t.  Anything I have to work this hard at doesn’t seem worth it.”

“Or sometimes the hard work pays off.”

“And sometimes it doesn’t.”

He nodded, once again hearing her softly—easily—spoken confession in his head, “I’m not in love with you.”  Maybe she had given him the information—the arrived at answer—needed to finally identify his so-far unidentifiable feelings.  He was beginning to want something that she was cryptically preparing him that he would never receive.  Her.  Or at least the portion of herself that she regularly and self-protectively kept hidden, the portion of herself that he would need to get to know, that he had never had the opportunity to know, in order to fall in love.  Because she had convinced herself, either during the past forty-eight hours or forty years, that anything she had to work so hard at wasn’t worth it.  

And she wasn’t willing to give it a try just to see if it was.

“C’mon.  Just try it,” Elliot urged.  “You might surprise yourself.  The work might actually be worth it this time.”

She shook her head, looking adamant and unconvinced.  “I know you went to a lot of trouble to bring me here, but I’d rather just have something simple.  Maybe some fast food on our way home?”

Fast.  

Elliot couldn’t think of a better word that so accurately described her.  She had been forced to grow up too fast, becoming the adult in her family when the one she should have been able to depend wasn’t able to be one.  She lived a fast-paced life, one with irregular hours and schedules that forced her to be on high alert most of the time.  She made fast decisions, working primarily off of instincts, and let the world, in her jaded mind, remain black and white, never allowing it to fade to a more comfortable shade of gray.  And she had always loved fast and in the spur of the moment, never giving too much of her time or herself to any one relationship, but rather moving through men’s lives at blurring speed.

Just as she had decided to move through this portion of Elliot’s life.

“Why’d you tell me that?” he asked through chews of a fat, extra salty French fry.  “About not being in love?  What made you think I thought you were?”

Her expression changed instantaneously to one of a deer caught in blinding headlights.  Shrugging a shoulder, pulling the oval-shaped basket back towards her, she bit into her lower lip.  “I didn’t think you were,” she stammered, shrugging again.  “I just, I don’t know, Elliot.  I thought it was important that we both knew where the other stood.  I mean, it’s been…ever since we went undercover…things have seemed, I don’t know.  Different.”

“That’s because they are,” he returned, forcing down the last remnants of the fry.  “Different.”

“But I…” She picked at the exposed crabmeat, her nose scrunching.  “I don’t know if I want them to be.  The last couple of years, things have been different, Elliot.  And I’m ready for them to be…normal…again.”

He chuckled, lifting a fry out of the basket and then tossing it back in.  “If there’s one thing we’ve never been, Liv, it’s normal.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“I’m speaking for both of us.”  He leaned back in the chair, resituating, searching for a comfortable position but not finding one.  And realizing he wouldn’t find one as long as her dark, accusatory stare was being directed so unrelentingly at him.  “So, what if I’d said I was?  That, uh, I was in love?”

She shook her head.  “I’d be halfway back to Manhattan by now.  But I know you’re not, Elliot, and you know that I’m not.  So, there’s nothing left to talk about.”

“I think there’s a lot to talk about.  In fact, I think we have a whole weekend’s worth of discussion that we still need to get through.”

“No,” she said, giving another quick shake of her head.  “Like you said, it happened.  We can’t change it now.”

“We can’t change it,” he repeated, nabbing her discarded napkin off of the table and rolling it between his palms.  “But would you if we could?”

“We’re gonna have a heart to heart right now?  Here?”  Her gaze canvassed the room, never stopping at any of the other tables or on the patrons who were so obviously uninterested in them, but merely avoiding the truth seeking eyes directly across from her.  “As usual, Stabler, your timing is for shit.”

“We’re an hour out of the city, Liv.  No one here knows us, no one’s going to see us together, and we’ve got all night if we need it.  I think the timing is perfect.”

“And, also as usual, I don’t agree with you.”

“You said you didn’t mind being the person you were with me,” he persisted, tossing the balled napkin on top of her food basket.  “So, has that changed?  Do you mind now?”

“I said I didn’t regret what happened,” she corrected, making a pronounced roll of her eyes before adding, “But when I said it I didn’t expect it to happen two more times…or while locked together with handcuffs.”  She moaned softly, tiredly, and rifled the ends of her fingers through her wavy strands of hair.  “The bottom line is, we’re both consenting adults.  We knew what we were doing and we…obviously…both wanted to do it.  But it was just sex, Elliot.  Nothing more.  And I don’t want either of us to feel like it has to be more because we feel guilty and awkward about it now.”

“Who feels awkward?” he teased, winking even though she continued to frown.

“We both should.”

“We’ve let enough crap in the past make us feel awkward with each other, don’t you think?  I don’t want this to become one of those things.”

“Elliot.”  She fell against the table, laying her arms flat to support herself and looking as if they were pulled out from beneath her she would completely collapse.  “What do you want to do, go through every awkward moment we’ve had since we’ve become partners?”

He shook his head, the corners of his lips twitching with the hint of an ornery smile.  “This place closes at eleven.  And it’s already…” He snuck a peek at his wristwatch.  “Quarter ‘til nine.  That’d only give us enough time—maybe—to get through the awkward moments that happened during the first year of our partnership.  So for tonight, why don’t we just stick with the reason why we’re an hour out of the city right now?”

Olivia grabbed the napkin out of her food basket and twisted its wrinkled ends around her fingers.  “Fine.  We let ourselves get lost in a job, even though we knew we shouldn’t.  We got carried away, Elliot, plain and simple.  The atmosphere we were in—” She shook her head, tugging at the napkin until it split jaggedly in half.  “But now all of that is over.  So, we have two choices.  Either we let it stay between us, let it keep being awkward, or we try like hell to forget about it like we’ve done with everything else in the past.”

“But that’s our problem, Liv.  Neither of us ever forgets.”

“This time we should.”

“Plain and simple?” Elliot said, stealing her nonchalant phrase, his eyebrows arching as he enunciated his—her—words.  “It’s that cut and dry in your opinion?”

She nodded once, firmly.  “Case closed.”

“You’re a bullshitter, Benson.”

+++

She wasn’t sure how long she had been staring, but by the time she realized that she was—unblinking and unwavering—Elliot looked as uncomfortable as she had begun to feel.  She looked away from him, unable to shoot down his sanctimoniously proclaimed conclusion, “You’re a bullshitter, Benson.”  Christ.  He was pompous.  A pompous ass who thought he had all of the answers that she needed.  He thought he had already lived through the life experiences that had so far eluded her and that she wanted to experience, also.  But what he didn’t understand, what he hadn’t let himself understand throughout the last nine years, was that she wasn’t the lonely, scarred spinster that he envisioned her being.  She wasn’t letting life pass her by; she had simply chosen a different way of participating in it than Elliot had.  And she sure as hell didn’t spend every waking moment feeling envious of him or of his life.  If anything, her envy could claim ownership of only eighteen hours of each day, but sure as hell not twenty-four.

Commitment.  Marriage.  Family.  Maybe they had never been hers in the traditional sense, and maybe they never would be, but the understanding that she might go through her life not ever finding them didn’t depress her.  Well, not on the good days.  It merely made her more introspective.  It made her—at least when she was feeling up to being completely honest with herself—more aware of the reasons why the most common rites of passage of adult life had passed her by.  And she had long ago reached her conclusion.

Commitment.  To the victims she regularly came in contact with and made promise after promise to help.  

Marriage.  To her job.  The one and only spouse she could ever see herself being completely selfless towards and willing to sacrifice for.

Family.  In the people she worked with.  The people she trusted most, relied on most, and knew relied most on her.  The people who, in the traditional definition of the word or an offbeat one that she managed to dig out of the back pages of an outdated Thesaurus, she fit with.

And combined, even though she had spent nearly a decade denying it, all three things that she was missing in her life but that she wanted most, always led her back to Elliot.  Her partner.  Kathy Stabler’s husband.  The father of four.  The suburbanite who had a far different life outside of the precinct than inside of it, unlike she did.

But now they were leading her back to something entirely different.  To someone entirely different; someone she wasn’t prepared to face off with and deal with.  Kathy Stabler’s ex-husband.  Someone who was, for the first time since she had known him, as free and lonely and floundering as she was.

“What do you want from me, Elliot?” she asked, her stare fixated on a shapely woman wearing too short of a miniskirt and too snuggly fitting of a halter top who was swaying from foot to foot in front of the jukebox, studying what Olivia could only assume was a limited—and outdated—selection of songs.  “What do you want from us?”

“Honesty,” he answered, his tone as simple as hers had been when she made her announcement earlier.  “I think it’s about time for a little of that.”

She bit into her lower lip, watching as the woman in front of the multi-colored jukebox continued to read over song titles.  “Honesty…” she whispered.  “Okay.  If we’re going to be honest with each other, what happened between us was plain and simple.  We were stuck in a place where sex was the only thing on everyone’s mind and the topic of every discussion.  And we were pretending right along with everyone else.  We were pretending, Elliot, to be people we aren’t.  But now it’s time to get back to reality, to be who we are.  And hiding out in some hole in the wall an hour out of the city so we don’t get caught together isn’t who we are.”

“I wasn’t pretending—”

“Oh, Jesus,” she laughed, shooting down his lie to save him the embarrassment of continuing with it.  “You wanted to fuck me, and that’s what I wanted you to do.”  She arched her eyebrows, looking defiant and adamant and reinforcing her crass choice of word.  The word that was wrapped blatantly in the honesty that Elliot had asked her to give him.  “We fucked, Elliot.  And trust me, I’m old enough to know the difference between that and something else.  And I’m also old enough to know that fucking rarely leads to anything more.  What happened, it was about getting caught up in the atmosphere we were in and—”

“It was more,” he said, his words emerging so softly that Olivia instantly leaned in closer, her eyes narrowing as she concentrated on his barely fluttering lips.  “For me, it was more.  Even if it wasn’t for you.”

“It was…” She shook her head, rebuffing the beginning, droning beats of the music as they began to filter into and overtake the tiny room.  Had he said… Did Elliot say—

You can’t see it/It’s electric/You gotta feel it/It’s electric/Ooh, it’s shakin’/It’s electric…

More?


She glanced at each of the four corners of the room, silently cursing the squared, black speakers that pushed out the music too loudly, allowing it to completely overpower the room, and bring her thoughts to screeching halts.

You gotta know it/It’s electric/Now you can’t hold it/It’s electric/But you know it’s there/Yeah here there everywhere…

“Don’t…let it be…” she said.  “Don’t let it be more.”

“Why?  Because it’s not to you?”  He shrugged, looking far more blasé than affected by their difference of opinion and feelings.  “Too late, Liv.”

I’ve got to move/I’m going on a party ride/I’ve got to groove, groove, groove/And from this music I just can’t hide/Are you comin’ with me?/Come let me take you on a party ride/And I’ll teach you, teach you, teach you/I’ll teach you the electric slide…

“Sounds like they’re playing your song,” Elliot said, ignoring her plea as his lips curved upward and he followed her gaze to the speaker affixed to the ceiling in the furthest corner of the room.  “What do you say?  Wanna teach me how to do the Electric Slide?”

“Teach you…” She laughed loudly and for the first time in forty-eight hours, uncensored.  “I’m not going to teach you how to do the… No.”

“Scared?” he asked, presenting it more as a challenge than curiosity.

“Scared, of dancing?”

“Of dancing with me?”

Some say it’s mystic/It’s electric/You can’t resist it/It’s electric/You can’t do without it/It’s electric…

“You don’t dance, Elliot.  And neither do I.”

He leaned in closer, lessening the distance between them, with the greasy aroma of their hardly touched food filtering between them as strongly as the music was.  “Dance with me, Liv, one more time.  And this time, I don’t want you to think about rules or getting caught or feeling awkward.  I just want you to think about whether or not, sometimes, the hard work really can pay off.”

“It’s a dance you do alone.  I mean, it’s a line dance, yeah, but still… You’re on your own.”

He shrugged, still unfazed by her reluctance.  “Then we’ll make up our own steps.”

She shook her head.  “Then it’s not the same dance.  It’s something different, something…we’d be doing wrong.”

I’ve got to move/Come let me take you on a party ride/And I’ll teach you, teach you, teach you/I’ll teach you the electric slide…

“Besides, the song’s almost over,” she whispered, her words lost to the repetitive beat that swirled around them.  “It’s too late, Elliot.”

He shook his head, snaking his arm beneath the table and finding her hand lying limply over her knee.  Squeezing his fingers around hers, he tugged lightly and encouragingly.  “All we have to do is start it over again.  So, c’mon.  Do the Electric Slide with me.”

“Are you even more hard-headed than I think you are, or just this incredibly horny?”

“Are you this afraid of a little hard work?”

“Jesus, Elliot,” she sighed, ripping her fingers out of his tight hold.  “What’re you working so hard for?  What, another house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and our name painted on some birdhouse-shaped mailbox?  In case you’ve forgotten, that was your life with Kathy, not one you’re supposed to have with me.”

He shook his head, humor alive in his eyes as he watched her squirm uncomfortably.  “Kath and I never had a white picket fence.  It was chain-link.”

Some say it’s mystic/It’s electric/You can’t resist it/It’s electric…

“It’s just the Electric Slide,” Elliot said.

“No, it could be our careers.”

“We’re a long way from the city.”

“It could also be…” She shifted backwards in her chair, feeling cornered and trapped.  Feeling confused and pissed.  Feeling… Jesus. Like she wanted to dance.  “Elliot.  It could be everything.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, nodding.  “It could be.”

You can’t do without it/It’s electric/She’s movin’ like electric/She sure got the boogie…

Olivia cleared her throat, hating both her mind and body for forsaking her better judgment.  And hating Elliot for looking so damn self-righteous, as if, from the very beginning, he had never had faith in her will power.  

“I’m not going to end up in the bathroom with you,” she announced, scooting her chair back from the table, the three matching-length legs squealing against the floor.  “So, if that’s what you’re thinking—”

Elliot shook his head, sternly and strongly, stopping her words.  “I just want to dance.  And I want to dance with you.”

Don’t wanna lose it/It’s electric/But you can’t choose it/It’s electric/But you know it’s there/Yeah here there everywhere…

“I was told to bring these to your table,” the waitress announced, her voice loud and prominent as the music faded and the four speakers once again emitted only silence.  She placed two glasses in the center of the table, scooting one in Elliot’s direction and the other toward Olivia.  

“We didn’t order drinks,” Elliot returned, his gaze dropping to the wide-mouth glasses.  He studied the dark, purplish liquid inside of them, the white foam layered on top of each, and the noticeable water spots that marked the portions of glass that were visible above the murky liquid.

“Didn’t say you ordered ‘em,” the nasally-voice woman barked back, “said I was told to bring ‘em to you.  Someone else ordered them.  Paid for ‘em, too.”

Elliot leaned further over the tabletop, studying the drinks.  “What are they?”

“Raspberry Martinis,” the waitress replied, her tone harsh, as if it was a stupid question.  She cocked her hips, crossing her arms over her chest.  “Just between us?  This place isn’t much to look at, I know.  But if you can get past the piss-poor decorating, the crabs are the best you’ll ever have and the drinks, well, let’s just say you’ll be floating after just one.”  She winked an overly made-up eye, grinning.  “So, be careful.  And if you’re brave enough to have another, let me know when you’re ready for it.”  She tapped her bony knuckles against the table, muttering, “Enjoy those martinis,” as she spun around and started out across the room.

Elliot watched Olivia lift her glass by its thin stem and press one side of the mouth against her lips.  He waited patiently for her reaction, his eyes tracking the movement in her throat as she swallowed the chilled alcohol.  “Raspberry Martinis?” he asked suspiciously, taking a quick peek over his left shoulder and then right one.  “Hell of a coincidence, don’t you think?  Considering?”

“Considering?” Olivia questioned, licking a forgotten droplet of purple liquid out of the corner of her mouth.

“That yesterday we wrapped up our case at Raspberry Vodka?”

“It’s, yeah.”  Her shoulders drooped and she slid her hands away from the glass, dropping them into her lap.  “It is a helluva coincidence.”

“Don’t see anyone familiar,” Elliot said after making another, more observant glance around the room.  “No one I remember seeing at the club.”

“Great,” Olivia grumbled.  “Just what I don’t have time for.  Some rich, horny asshole who’s gonna hold a grudge because he’s pissed that we closed down his favorite nightclub.”

“First the song, now the drinks,” Elliot muttered as Olivia gulped down another drink.  He made a half-turn in his chair, stealing a peek at the jukebox across the room.  “Did you see anyone up there?  Know who played the song?”

Olivia hurried a swallow, tipping the mouth of her emptied glass towards her and staring down into the thick foam that remained pooled in the bottom.  “A woman.  Didn’t recognize her.”

“Take a look around, see if you do recognize anyone.”

“Elliot.”  She exhaled, dropping the glass down heavily onto the tabletop.  “Just this once, don’t be a detective.  It’s a coincidence, yeah, but it doesn’t have to mean anything.”

“Nothing ever has to mean anything with you, does it?” Elliot muttered indecipherably, turning back towards her, his stare focusing first on her empty glass and then her hand as she grabbed the stem of his and slid it across the table.  “You’re drinking on an empty stomach.”

“I can handle my liquor.  Don’t worry.  Besides, you’re driving, right?  You can’t drink, and there’s no reason why we should let yours go to waste.”

“You can handle your liquor,” he repeated, settling back in the chair as he watched her take two gulps in quick succession.  “You can handle a lot of things.”

She pulled the glass away from her lips after a third swallow, nodding.  “Yeah, I can.  Always have been able to.”

“Always?”  He dropped his chin into his upturned hand, shrugging.  Conveying his inquisitiveness as much as desire for her to expound on her cryptic explanation as she took a fourth drink.  “Why is that?  Because you’ve always had to, or because of your annoying need to always be in control?”

“Annoying?” she asked, her voice garbled as she talked around the glass.  “First I was bitching, and now I’m annoying?  Why’s that, because I wouldn’t teach you a stupid line dance?”

“No.  You’ve always been annoying.”

“That’s because you’ve always been an ass.”

He grinned crookedly, raising his hand and motioning for the waitress to bring a third drink as Olivia placed the second empty glass on the table.  “This one’s on me,” he said.  “I offered to buy you dinner and since you won’t eat the food, I need to pay for something.”

“Oh…” She chuckled, nodding as if she had suddenly gotten the punch line to a poorly told joke.  “What’re you gonna do?  Get me drunk so you can take advantage of me?”  She shook her head, dipping her finger into the glass and scooping up a fingertip’s worth of leftover foam.  “Still not going in the restroom with you, drunk or not.”

“I’m not trying to get you drunk.  You seem to be handling that all on your own.  And as far as taking advantage of you, I think we’ve already proven that alcohol doesn’t have to be involved for that to happen.”

“You really are an ass.”  She slid down in the chair, the material of her jeans gliding smoothly over the vinyl that covered the seat.  Slumping, she reached for the empty glass and tilted it towards her.

“Okay,” Elliot agreed, his voice low and screaming out his reluctance towards the words he knew she was waiting to hear.  “You want to forget it all, to pretend what happened doesn’t matter?  Then, okay.  We’ll forget it.  We’ll go into work on Monday, finish up our paperwork on the Raspberry Vodka case, and move on to the next one.  We’ll just file it all away, Liv, just like the paperwork will get filed away.”

“You can do that?” she asked warily, squinting one eye.

“Can you?”

Could she?  Could she file away her emotions, shelve her wants, ignore her needs, and make everything that was truly important to her second priority in her life?  Hell, yes.  She thought, after all of their years together, Elliot had come to the realization that he wasn’t dealing with an amateur when it came to denial.  He was dealing with a professional, someone who had mastered every intricate detail of it.

“I think it’s what we should do,” she answered, offering an appreciative smile as the waitress sat a third drink in front of her.  She grabbed the stem, clutching it in her fingers as if it had suddenly become her lifeline for sanity.  As if hiding it beneath her hand would somehow stop Elliot from seeing just how closely it resembled her life with its straight and unwavering pattern, its fragility, but most of all in its transparency.  She wondered if her hand slipped away, if her defenses weakened, Elliot would be able to see the truth in her eyes as easily as she could see through the thin, brittle glass?  If every secret she had harbored wasn’t really a secret at all, but palpably clear and magnified?

“Okay,” Elliot said.  “Then it’s forgotten.  Finish your drink and we’ll head home.”

Olivia tilted the glass, the smooth rim sliding between her lips and the cooled liquid invading her mouth.  She stared down the narrow stem and over the rounded base, her unfocused gaze settled on Elliot.

It was forgotten.

Everything that she barely remembered, that had happened too hastily and crazily to commit to memory yet, everything about him…about them… Was already forgotten.  To be filed away and buried with details about a case that both Elliot and she would record with a mixture of truth and lies.  Just as they would now, because of her fears, handle the future.

And eventually, possibly, they would forget.  Or at least get to a point that would be merely a step beyond awkwardness where they could be able to pretend that they had.

“Oh…shit…” She lowered the glass slowly, her words emerging wrapped in a heavy, raspberry-scented breath.  She stared to the right of Elliot’s head, beyond the cluster of tables where patrons sat talking and laughing and were immersed in their own worlds, not caring about the confusion that now constructed Elliot’s and hers.  She stared wide-eyed, not breathing, and with the color slowly draining from her face that tickled from alcohol-induced tingles.

“Damn it, Elliot—” She choked on a breath, on his name, and once again screeched the three blunt ends of her even chair legs against the floor as she moved away from the table.  “I thought you said no one else knew about this place?  Shit.”  She made a quick sweep of the room, nodding towards the far corner as she spotted the carved wooden sign that read, Restrooms.  Grabbing Elliot’s hand and directing him to his feet, she commanded breathily, “C’mon.  We’ve gotta… Let’s get to the restroom.  Now.”

“Rest—” He stumbled through his first two steps before yanking on her hand and pulling her back towards him.  “What the hell is going on?  Just a minute ago you said—”

“Maybe you’re right,” she croaked, dropping her head forward and attempting to hide behind Elliot.  “Maybe the drinks weren’t just a coincidence.  About ten tables over, other side of the room.  Christ.  It’s Cragen.”






CHAPTER TWO

Arrow.

Sally Lightfoot.

Olivia came to a stop between the two doors, her shallow breathing keeping time with the quick shift of her eyes as she studied the nameplates that were screwed into the fronts of the barriers.  She made a jerky step forward as the front of Elliot’s shoulder slammed into the back of hers, and pressed the palm of her hand hesitantly into the center of the door cryptically marked Sally Lightfoot.

“Ladies’ room, I’m guessing,” she muttered, giving the hinged door a push as Elliot’s hand wrapped around her wrist.

“Men’s room,” Elliot commanded, spinning her around and dragging her behind him as he barged through the door marked Arrow.  He barreled into the room like a football player intent on making the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, with Olivia’s hand locked in his as tightly as if it were the prized pigskin.  Not slowing as the door glided closed behind them, its nearly rusted-out hinges squeaking indignantly and tauntingly, he bypassed the row of white porcelain urinals and headed for the corner stall.

Olivia ripped her hand out of his, coming to a stop in the center of the room.  She made a quick glance to her left at the unoccupied urinals before bending forward and peeking beneath the raised doors of the three stalls on her right, as she muttered impatiently, “Why the hell the men’s room?”

“Because last time it was the ladies’ room,” Elliot answered simply, shoving open the door to the corner stall and motioning with a jerky nod of his head for her to follow him inside.  “This time it’s the men’s.”

“We’re taking turns?” she barked, her eyes widening.  “Jesus.  What are you, twelve?”  She backed up to a rounded-corner sink, resting the backs of her hips against it before glancing over her shoulder into the stained, yellowed basin.  Jumping away from it with as much intensity as if it had suddenly burst into flames, she dug the palms of her hands into her thighs, scrubbing away the invisible germs she imagined having taken up residence on her skin.

“Don’t even think anything is going to happen between us in here,” she hissed, continuing to drag her hands across her legs.  “This place is… We really would walk out of here with crabs, and not the kind they serve up in those cheap plastic baskets.”

Elliot pushed open the metal door to the corner stall, taking an uninterested peek inside the narrow cubicle.  He ignored Olivia’s grunts and grumbles from across the room, focusing instead on damage control as their captain’s stern mandate given only a day earlier replayed echoingly in his mind, “I want you to get your partner and head to the hospital, and when you get there, I want you to question Tristan Merrick.  After that, drive Olivia home.  When you get her home, Elliot, you drop her off.  Don’t even walk her to the door.  And then you go home.  Alone.  As long as you can do that, I don’t see any reason why we can’t start fresh tomorrow.”

“As long as you can do that…” One simple order, one rudimentary command that any moron could understand and that Cragen had expected Elliot to follow, to the letter, to the T, to the fucking ends of the earth if he had to.  And it was one more directive he had hardheadedly and blatantly ignored.  It was one more fuck up to add to the long list that filled his jacket, and one—possibly the last one he would be allowed—that he had selfishly dragged Olivia into the middle of.  

“Maybe it wasn’t Cragen,” he said with a tinge of hopefulness, his back still to his partner as he continued to stare into the tiny, dirt-laced stall.  

“Maybe it wasn’t—” Olivia’s voice was stolen by laughter, loud and incredulous and angry chuckles that resonated off of each of the four gray walls.  “I know the back of that baldhead, Elliot.  It was Cragen.”

“Okay, so it was Cragen,” he responded, spinning around on his heels to face her.  “But just because we saw him doesn’t mean he saw us.”

“And it doesn’t mean he didn’t!” she barked, her voice equally as angry—and loud—as her laughter had been.  “I told you, didn’t I?  And now this is it, the way we’re both going out.  It’s not going to be because of some case or a bullet or… Shit.  It’s what’ll be written in our jackets.  Reason for termination, Screwing on the job.”  She shook her head, sliding her clammy hands over the length of her face.  “Helluva way to go out, don’t you think?”

His cocky grin answered for him even though his words remained cautiously and astutely lodged in the base of his throat, Yeah.  It would be a helluva way to go out.  Shaking his head, silently—although insincerely—apologizing for his unspoken thought as Olivia peeked over the tips of her fingers at him with wide eyes, he made a slow trek towards the center of the room.  He was a dead man walking, he could tell by the fire that had sprung to life in the brown eyes that had refused to blink throughout the past thirty seconds.  And if Olivia didn’t kill him, the recognizable baldhead at the table ten over from the one he had just vacated sure as hell would.

“We’ll go back out front,” he began, maintaining a safe distance from a rigid Olivia.  “We’ll get our check, pay and get out of here just as fast and quietly as we can.”

Olivia groaned into her hands, dropping her head forward.  “Right, El.  Good plan.  Maybe if we ask real nicely they have a spotlight they can shine on us.”  She took two slow steps, stopping in front of him but with a safety net of five feet still separating them.  “We’ll stand up at the front counter where everyone can see us and then just casually make our exit.  Why would Cragen care if we’re here together anyway?  Oh, wait…” She snapped her fingers between them, the abrasive noise reverberating as loudly as if one hundred pairs of fingertips had collided, as a cynical smile swept across her lips.  “Maybe because he told us to stay away from each other this weekend, or maybe because he gave us the biggest breaks of our careers when he decided not to press the issue about what’d happened in the club.  Or let’s see, maybe because—”

“I get it, Olivia!” Elliot barked, taking a shuffling step backwards.  “Stupid idea to march through the restaurant!”

“Yeah,” she grumbled breathily.  “Stupid idea.”

He shrugged a shoulder, turning his head to the left and then right as he made another glance around the room.  “So, I guess we’re stuck here for a while.  We’ll wait it out, hope Cragen leaves soon.”

“We’ll wait it out… In the men’s room?”

“You have a better idea?”

She backed up to the wall, her shoulders becoming flush with the cool, dingy plaster.  When she got home—if she got home—she was going to burn the damned baby book.  Page by blank page, she would hold each one over an open flame, watch it disintegrate until it was nothing more than ashes, and as each one disappeared, she would apologize to her mother.  She would apologize for letting so many years of anger consume her, anger towards the emptiness that Olivia had always interpreted as her mother’s disinterest, but that she now realized was her mother’s way of trying to warn her daughter.  Firsts weren’t important enough to be documented, because they generally resulted in you falling flat on your face.  They ended in regret and embarrassment and with you obsessively trying to figure out how you could have done it better.  Smarter.  How you could have been more prepared.  So, it was really the ‘seconds’ that mattered most.  Because, hopefully, by the time they occurred, lessons had been learned and methods had been perfected.  And you didn’t end up in a filthy, germ-infested men’s bathroom nearly ninety miles out of the city with someone who only a few hours earlier you had thought you were finally beginning to understand and get to know, but suddenly realized was still a complete stranger.

“Shit.  I’m gonna be sick,” she whispered, the tips of her fingers making a haphazard trek down the sides of her paling face.

“Don’t overreact,” Elliot admonished.  “Just relax.  All we have to do is wait it out—”

“I’m gonna be sick,” she repeated, pushing off of the wall and hurrying across the room.  Her shoulder slapped against his as she passed him, and she cupped her hand across her mouth as she weaved through the stall door that Elliot had left ajar.  Falling onto her knees in front of the mildewed toilet, she scrunched her eyes closed, trying not to breathe as the stringent, combined odors of urine and Lysol engulfed her already weakened senses.

“Great…” Elliot whispered, void of empathy and concern, sounding only irritated.  “Just what we need right now.”  He stepped up behind her, his hands hovering unsurely around her head and shoulders as she heaved and gagged and coughed.  Sliding his hands around the sides of her face, he bunched her shoulder-length strands of hair in his fingers and pulled them into a sloppy ponytail at the base of her neck.

“I don’t need…help…” Olivia seethed, clutching the dirty toilet seat with one sweaty hand while slapping behind her with the other one.  “I’m not one of your kids, Elliot.  I can…throw up…by myself…” She coughed, spitting out another mouthful of acidic, purple bile.

“You also said you could handle your liquor,” he grunted, releasing his loose hold on her hair as her hand landed stingingly against his.  “I told you to take it easy with those martinis.”

“Yeah?” she groaned, running the back of her hand across her moist lips.  “Remind me, was that before or after you bought me the third one?  Admit it.  You were trying to get me drunk.”

“I was trying…” He chuckled, taking a step back as she rose wobbly to her feet.  Shaking his head, taking in her disheveled appearance, the mascara that had smudged beneath her watering eyes, the lipstick that had strayed faintly off of the paths of her lips, and the sweat that had accumulated beneath her nose, he slid his finger across her forehead, lifting her bangs and brushing them to the side.  “That’s what you really think, that I was trying to get you drunk?”

“What I think, Elliot, is that you’re horny.”  She stepped past him, her feet moving crookedly as she headed out of the stall and towards the sink.  Leaning over the basin, ignoring her ukempt reflection in the watermarked mirror, she flipped on the faucet.  Submerging her hands in the water, she filled her palms and splashed the lukewarm fluid over her clammy face, sputtering as it trickled into her mouth.

“Hey.  I brought you here for the crabs.”

“And I’m sure as hell gonna get ‘em in this place.”  She chuckled, splashing the water a final time over her face and letting the warm beads slide, unhindered, off of her chin.  She shook her head, the droplets of water spraying onto the mirror as she straightened.  “Don’t hover when I’m sick.  I don’t…need…help.”

“You don’t need anything, Olivia,” he groused, turning his back to her and making his way back across the room.  Coming to a stop outside of the stall they had just vacated, glancing into the stained toilet that still harbored the evidence of their failed evening, he stepped inside and pressed the silver handle, the echo of the water swirling and draining filling the room.  “You don’t need help,” he said, his voice only barely rising above the lingering gurgles of the refilling toilet bowl.  “You don’t need anyone in your life, you don’t need—”

“I used to do it for my mother,” Olivia admitted, her head hung forward and bleary-eyed gaze still ignoring the taunting reflection that was as much a reminder of Elliot’s and her failures as the contents of the toilet bowl had been.  “Hold her hair for her when she got sick.  I’d stand behind her and I’d…” She curved her fingers towards each other, her hands steadied in front of her as she created an invisible ponytail.  “God, I can still smell the stench of the alcohol when it came out of her.  She’d get so sick.  And I used to hate that she’d yell for me, that she’d want me there with her, that she’d be so drunk that she needed her child’s help just to vomit.”  She turned around, facing him, staring him down, not flinching.  “It’s not true what you said, that I don’t need anything.”

Elliot nodded sullenly, looking like a child who had been unfairly reprimanded, and making it clear that he wasn’t agreeing with her, merely acknowledging that her haunting memory had won precedence over their childish, emotion-charged argument.

“Most of all,” she continued, licking the remaining traces of water off of her lips, “I need my job.  I need it, Elliot.  Even though sometimes I’m not sure why.”

“Cragen might not have seen us,” he suggested, optimism attached shakily to his words.  He shrugged a shoulder and attempted a smile, as he backed up, with defeat, against the wall.  “Maybe he didn’t.”

“Someone sent two raspberry martinis to our table.  Like you said, that was a helluva coincidence.”

“Yeah, I guess it was.”

Olivia deflated on the rim of the sink, her thoughts no longer centered on her queasy stomach or germs or dirt or the stains that sporadically littered the floor that she wanted to remain unidentified.  Her thoughts no longer grasped at hazy memories of Elliot or Raspberry Vodka or fur-lined handcuffs.  They had become a myriad of faces, some that still retained names in her mind, others that didn’t, but each looked broken and battered and shell-shocked.  Each represented the commitment she had so unflaggingly given them over the years.  They represented the marriage she had never strayed from or cheated on, and the family she had worked so hard—so focused and diligently—to prove herself to.

But now, each represented her failure.

“He’ll cut us loose,” she announced, her voice soft, drowning out the deafening silence that had settled over the room.  “We won’t be able to talk our way out of this one.”

Elliot stifled a chuckle.  “What do you think he’ll mark as the reason for termination?  Insubordination or, uh.”  He dropped his head forward as he saw a spark of amusement ignite in Olivia’s eyes.  “Fucking on the job?”

“You think he even knows how to spell it?”

“I’m not even sure he still knows how to do it.”

Olivia held back her laughter, wincing as her throat tightened and the acidic remains of her three martinis burned their way back into her stomach.  “Jesus, El.  What’s wrong with us?  Why are we the ones who always end up in so much shit?”

He shrugged lazily, with casualness.  “Because I can’t see something like this ever happening between Fin and Munch.  They’d never make it together.  I mean, look at ‘em.  Nothing about them compliments the other one.”  He grinned crookedly as her laughter filled the room, once again uncensored and with the weightiness of what lay ahead of them temporarily forgotten.

Olivia’s laughter faded slowly, questioningly, as she watched Elliot relax against the wall with his upper back burrowing into it, arms folded slackly, and feet situated shoulder-width apart.  He looked like her partner again, maintaining the stance that she hardly ever noticed any more but knew he always fell into.  Reliably. Without fail.

“You think we do?” she asked, once again disrupting the silence.  “You said, I mean…with us…do you think we compliment each other?”

“Yeah,” he answered, reinforcing his belief with a sturdy nod.  “I think we do.”

She nodded, the tilts of her head falling into sync with the rise and fall of his.  Taking in a breath, the air she forced into her lungs riddled with an amalgamation of disinfectant and urine and courage, she asked, “How?”

“How…uh…” Another shrug, one more pronounced, fueled only by uncertainty.  A gesture made for the simple sake of stalling, of trying to collect his thoughts, and to give him time to reprimand his tongue for taking control away from his better sense.  “I don’t know how to explain it.  I just know that we do.”

“So… The way we compliment each other, is it in bed or out of bed?”

He smiled, the curve of his lips visible for only a second before faltering and flattening.  “Well, we haven’t actually made it into a bed yet.”

“Jerk,” Olivia admonished with a roll of her eyes.  She pushed off of the sink, taking a hesitant step forward, an unsure step, a step that, she knew if it turned into more and delivered her across the room, would seal their fate without question.  They had acted irresponsibly while on the job and with Elliot wired before, and had survived by the skin of their teeth.  And now she was—she could tell Elliot was—considering—wanting—to tempt their undecided destiny once again even with Cragen, their judge, juror and lifeline, sitting less than thirty feet away on the other side of a flimsy door that looked as if it would fall off of its rusty hinges if a strong breeze blew through the rickety restaurant.

“I lied to you.  I’ve been lying,” she admitted, letting her admission fade into the silence that filled the tiny space between them as she watched Elliot straighten, as she watched him prepare for her full confession.  As she watched the wonder fill his eyes, maybe even an inkling of dread, and the expectance of hearing about feelings of regret tense his face.  “Maybe I do want to find out if there could be more.  But I’m, I’m scared, Elliot.  And not for the reason you think, not entirely.  I mean, no, I don’t want either of us to lose our jobs, but I also… I.”  Her gaze fell slowly, steadily, as she felt Elliot’s warm hands close around hers.  “I’ve shared more of myself with you than I ever have with anyone else.  And I don’t, I don’t hide things about myself from other people for any of the reasons you’ve always thought I do.  But.  My mother was a drunk.  Sometimes she was a happy drunk and sometimes she wasn’t, but whichever type she was at any given time, she was still a drunk.  She was a drunk the day I was born, and she was still a drunk the day she died.  And I accepted that.  I accepted it early on and understood that being a drunk was as much a part of her as her hair color and height and eye color were.  It was who she chose to be, and I don’t talk about her often because I don’t want people to pity me because my mother made a rotten choice.”

“Liv.  I’ve never pitied you.”

“Yes, you have.”  She stared at him with upturned, accusing eyes.  Eyes that were no longer lying, and that made it clear she wouldn’t accept his lies, either.  “Just a minute ago you felt sorry for me.  And it wasn’t because I’d gotten sick or had too much to drink, it was because I told you a story about my past.  You’ve always felt sorry for me, Elliot.  And that’s why this…whatever this is…I don’t know if it could work between us.  Because I can’t be with someone who feels sorry for me.”

“Okay…” he returned, pulling first her right hand closer towards him and then her left one, causing her to shuffle through a succession of short, reluctant steps that brought her face-to-face with him.  “Maybe I feel like you’ve been dealt some rotten hands in life—”

“And you’ve always felt sorry for me because of it.”  She shook her head, pulling her left hand out of his right one and flattening her palm against his chest.  She could feel his heart beating—thundering—beneath the thin, stark white layer of cotton, and she knew the quickened beats, the intense vibrations, were due as much to excitement—possibility—as fear.  And she knew because, in the thirty seconds since Elliot had grabbed hold of her and pulled her closer, her heart had begun to race just as quickly as his was.  

“I’ve never asked you to feel sorry for me,” she continued, “and I’ve never expected you to, either.  I told you about my parents because…” She shrugged, a look of confusion momentarily settling on her face.  “Honestly, I’m not sure why I ever told you, at least not as early on as I did.  It’s always been something I just, I never talked about.”

“Never?” he asked, leaning back into the wall again and letting it take over the task of supporting him. 

“I, um.”  She smiled, only faintly, with an intimation of embarrassment, and wedged her right hand out of his left one.  Turning a half-circle, she fell back against the wall beside him, feeling his stare on her, but letting her attention become captured by the closed door across the room and envisioning the sources of the muffled voices and noisiness on the other side of it.  “When I was around, uh, ten, I think, my mom sent me to this summer camp.  It was this place upstate, geared towards academics.  And I hated it.  I wanted to go somewhere I could ride horses and swim and do stuff like that.  But my mom…” She sighed, squinting, looking as if she had somehow found the ability to see through the sheet of wood at the other end of the room and was fastidiously studying each of the faces on the other side.  “As much as being a drunk defined her, being a college professor defined her just as much.  Education was everything, you know?”  She nodded as Elliot did, confirming his acknowledgment of her depiction of her mother.

“Anyway.  I became friends with one of the girls in my cabin, good friends.  Her name was Abby Liebowitz; she was from Connecticut, and we hit off pretty quick.  We spent all of our time together, talked a lot.  And one day, as always happened, we started talking about our parents.”  She cleared her throat, ignoring Elliot’s rapt attention that was still focused on her.  Not acknowledging his unblinking stare or showing appreciation towards his interest, but letting herself become lost in memories that should have grown hazy years earlier but were still crystal clear.

“Abby’s parents were divorced.  Her father was a dentist.  He lived in another state, so she didn’t see him very often.”  She smiled, more for herself than her intent audience of one, and shrugged as if to excuse the thirty-year-old lie she was about to disclose for only the second time in as many years.  “And so I, um.  I don’t know.  I wanted to have everything in common with her, I guess.  So, instead of admitting that I didn’t even know who my father was, I told her…” She chuckled lightly, with even more embarrassment.  

“Told her what?” Elliot urged, engrossed.

“That, um.  You know that guy, the one who played The Six Million Dollar Man on TV?”  Nodding, her smile broadening, she shrugged.  “I said he was my father, that my mom had gone to Hollywood once and met him and, well.”

“The Six Million Dollar Man?” Elliot asked through a chuckle.  “You said he was—”

“I was ten, Elliot,” she deadpanned, “and my mom was all about academics.  I wasn’t allowed to watch much television.  So, when Abby started asking questions, I could only come up with two people.  The Six Million Dollar Man and Wayne Newton.”

“Wayne Newton?” Elliot repeated, his reticent chuckles heightening into full-blown, echoing laughter.  “You considered telling her that Wayne Newton was—”

“My mom was a fan,” Olivia sighed, rolling her eyes.  “She had all of his albums.  Always listened to them when she was drinking.”

Elliot nodded.  “Only way I’d be able to listen to him, too.  Stone-cold drunk.”  He smiled, holding the gesture firmly in place even though Olivia’s tense expression screamed out seriousness, the look he had become accustomed to seeing in her when their conversation veered towards her past.  A look of loneliness and past isolation and a want to be a part of what she viewed as ‘normal,’ a look that, as much as he wished he could remove it from her eyes, he knew that she was the only one who could.  “Okay.  So you told your friend that a Hollywood heartthrob was your dad.  Did you ever tell her the truth?”

Olivia flattened the backs of her shoulders against the wall, burying her hands into the front pockets of her jeans.  “I didn’t even know the truth yet.  I mean, obviously I knew that The Six Million Dollar Man wasn’t my father, but that was as much of the truth that I did know.  I just, I didn’t have a father, and my mom had never given me a reason why.  But, yeah, eventually I had to tell Abby the truth, at least about The Six Million Dollar Man.”

“Had to?”

She nodded, scraping her teeth across her lower lip.  “I didn’t realize it when I told my story, but Abby was apparently star struck.  She told everyone at camp what I’d said, whom I’d said was… And the story got back to one of the counselors.  She called my mom.”  She took in a breath, the shallow intake of air sitting between them for a moment as Olivia sifted through her memories, her silence alerting Elliot that their laughter would, once again, be put on hold because of Serena Benson.  “On Parents’ Weekend, my mom made me tell Abby and her mom that I’d lied.  She stood right beside me with a flask filled with vodka buried in her purse and made me say that I had a problem admitting the truth.  And then she filled Abby’s mom with some bullshit story about how my real father had been killed in a car accident before I was born.”  She glanced at him, shrugging.  “Guess you could consider that a bad drunk day.”

Elliot nodded, agreeing although not fully understanding.  “Guess so.  Must’ve been hard for you to do.”

“It was what I needed to do, and Abby forgave me.  After that summer at camp, we stayed in touch.  Wrote letters back and forth, grew up together through the mail, and told each other everything.  She told me about her deadbeat dad, and I told her I’d never believed the story about my dad being killed in a car accident.  So, Abby and I became junior detectives, tried to figure out what’d really happened to him.  Our plan was, as soon as we graduated from high school, she was going to move to New York, we were going to get an apartment together and somehow, we’d find my dad.  But then…”

“Then?”

“Then… I turned sixteen.  That’s when I found out the truth.”  She stepped away from the wall, moving toward the open door of the stall, glancing inside, surveying the clear water that now filled the toilet bowl.  “I never talked to Abby again after that.  She kept writing to me for about six more months, but I never answered any of her letters.  I just, I didn’t want to lie to her again, and I didn’t want to tell her the truth, either.”

“But she was your friend, right?  Sounds like she was a good friend.  Don’t you think she would’ve understood?”

“That my father was a rapist?”  She shook her head, frowning, the action causing a spray of deep-set wrinkles to appear across her forehead.  “I don’t know.  Maybe she would have understood.  But I didn’t think it was fair to expect her to understand something that I wasn’t even sure I’d ever be able to understand.  Something I sure as hell didn’t want to understand.”  She ran her hand across her churning stomach, massaging her sore muscles and forcing down a swallow that was laced with the sickeningly sweet flavor of stale raspberry.

“Hey.  You okay?” Elliot asked, sliding his hand down the length of her arm.  “Think you should sit down for a minute?”

“I don’t want to sit down, Elliot.  I want you to understand that… I want you to know…” She relented to his touch, turning towards him.  “I tell people now, sometimes.  But just because it’s easier now to tell the truth doesn’t mean it’s ever gotten easier to see the shock and pity in their eyes.  I hate seeing it, and even though I can tell the truth now, you’re the only one I’ve ever talked to about it.  But just because you and I talk sometimes doesn’t mean it’s easier to know that you feel sorry for me than it is to know that someone else does.  Maybe it’s even harder.  Because you do know the truth about most of it, but other people just have assumptions about the worst parts of it.”

“You never feel sorry for anyone?”  He stepped up beside her, tentatively, hesitantly, and slid his arm around her waist.  Creeping his hand beneath the form-fitting hem of her slate black shirt, he took over the task from her of massaging the soft skin of her stomach.  “You’ve felt sorry for me before.  When Kathy and I were going through our problems, I could see it in you.  The same pity, Olivia.  It’s normal, don’t you think?”

She dropped her head forward, watching the material of her shirt rise and fall as his shrouded fingers became outlined beneath the thin fabric.  “It’s different.  I felt sorry for you because you wanted me to.”  She chuckled lowly, a hint of teasing filtering into her voice.  “You acted like a martyr through the whole thing.”

“A martyr?”  He pinched her skin between his thumb and index finger, smiling tightly as she whispered an admonishing, “Ouch!” and slapped at his hand until he unburied it from beneath her shirt.

“You’re always a martyr.  Jesus.  Doesn’t it ever get exhausting, all that brooding?”

“Probably about as exhausting as your whining.”

“I don’t whine,” she disagreed, leaning against the metal partition that separated the open stall from the closed one beside it.  

“You whine.”

“You pout.”

“You run away.”  He smiled with a blatant look of victory, nodding as she slinked sideways and through the doorway of the tiny, metal-walled cubicle.  “I thought it was just a few isolated cases, when you went into computer crimes, took off for Oregon, but now I see it’s always been the way you’ve done things.  You even ran away from summer camp.”

“I didn’t run away from camp.  And the other times I wasn’t running either; I just needed a break from your incessant sulking.  Even if it doesn’t get exhausting for you, Elliot, sometimes it does for me.”

“So, the times you left, they were because you needed a break from me?”

“They were because…” She leaned her shoulder into the chilled wall, sighing.  “Yeah.  Maybe.  I don’t know.  Maybe I just needed a break from us.”

“From us,” he repeated lowly, stepping into the stall and taking up residence against the opposite wall from where Olivia stood.  “Why from us?”

“Why?”  She said the word with a tone of obviousness, as if it’s unexplained meaning should be as apparent to Elliot as it was to her.  

“Tell me why, Olivia.”

“Because…” She dug her fingers into her sweat-dried bangs, closing her eyes.  Why?  Why in the hell had she tried so hard to run away from the one person she had found herself, surprisingly, not ever wanting to be away from?  At some unidentifiable time, Elliot had become everything to her while remaining nothing at all.  He had become her happiness and sorrow and strength and weakness.  He had become her need, and it scared the hell out of her because needs were what she was the most adept at denying herself.

“I don’t know why,” she whispered.  

“Yes, you do.”

“Elliot, I…” She hated when he pushed.  When he pushed her for answers that he already knew, but for some reason he couldn’t achieve a feeling of satisfaction until she humiliated herself by admitting them.  And what did he want her to say this time?  What answer would fucking satisfy him?  That maybe—possibly—in a different time, a different place, if they were different people—she would give in to her feelings, throw caution to the wind, react like someone who didn’t care about consequences or end results, and take that chance he seemed to want to take?  That if they were anyone else, if they were less jaded and cynical and world weary, she might actually buy into his bullshit about happily ever afters and hard work paying off?

She cleared her throat, making a half-turn until her back butted up to the smooth, metal wall.  Facing him, but not looking at him.  “Because we know each other too well, Elliot.  We know…everything, but at the same time we don’t know anything.  And sometimes I get tired of that, of feeling like, for whatever reason, we have to keep each other at arms’ length.  I get tired because no matter how hard we work at us, at whatever it is we think we should be together or to each other, the hard work never seems to pay off.”

+++

“How long have we been in here?” Olivia grumbled, her tedium having won out over her sense of revulsion and causing her to balance herself on the edge of the toilet seat.  She dug the tips of her elbows into her thighs, her head buried in the palms of her hands.  She didn’t know how long they had been holed up in the men’s restroom, only that it had been long enough that the strong, once repugnant odors of urine and Lysol had become unnoticeable, no longer causing her stomach to churn or head to ache.  Instead, during the dragging, uncounted minutes that they had remained stuffed inside the corner stall together, those tasks had been taken over by a sullen Elliot.

Elliot pulled his left hand out of his front pocket, glancing at his watch.  “I don’t know, maybe fifteen minutes.”

“Fifteen?”  She looked up, instantly wishing that she hadn’t as she was confronted by Elliot’s drawn face.  Sighing, remaining slumped forward as she dropped her hands between her legs, she countered his stern expression with a roll of her eyes before muttering, “You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?” Elliot asked through straight, tensed lips.  

“Brooding.  Pouting.  Sulking.”  She shrugged a shoulder, making another, more pronounced roll of her eyes.  “Whatever the hell you want to call it, you’re doing it.  Again.”

He made a quick, half-shake of his head.  “You want to know what I’m doing?  Banging my head against a brick wall.  The same brick wall I’ve been banging it against for the last nine years.”

“Now this is all gonna be my fault?” she asked, straightening.  “This evening turning out to be a bust is all on you, Elliot.  Don’t try to blame it on me.”

“I’m not blaming you for the way this has turned out.”

“The hell you’re not.”

“The hell I’m not.”  He slid the worn soles of his shoes across the floor, separating his legs as he pressed the small of his back into the wall behind him.  “It’s not your fault, Olivia.”  Chuckling, one side of his mouth rising into a half-smile, he added, “Nothing’s ever your fault.”

“Oh, Christ.  Elliot.”  She dug the tips of her fingers into her knees, wishing for a fleeting second that it was Elliot’s neck she had a stranglehold on versus the dark denim of her jeans.  “Pardon the fucking pun, especially considering where we’re stuck right now, but I’m not in the mood to get into a pissing match with you.”

“You never are in the mood.”

She straightened further, the muscles in her jaws beginning to clench and flex.  “And what the hell does that mean?  What, because I’m actually showing a little discretion and not screwing you in this God forsaken place—”

“Fuck you, Olivia,” he growled, tightening his arms across his chest.  “None of this has been about the screwing, as you like to call it.”

“That’s all the last twenty-four hours have been about,” she hissed.  

He shook his head, an angry smile catching his lips.  “If that’s what you really think, then go to hell.”

She made a quick, obvious glance from one side of the slender stall to the other.  “I’m already there, Elliot, thanks to you.”

“You know, Kathy never had a problem with this place,” he shot back, his eyes narrowed, driving home his point.  “Maybe her standards weren’t as impossible to meet as yours, I don’t know.  But she liked coming here, thought it was great.  In fact, it was her favorite place.  And the first time we came here, she was more than happy to try the fucking crabs.”

“The first…” Olivia’s eyes widened, her disbelieving stare devouring a crimson-faced Elliot whole.  “You son of a bitch.  You brought me somewhere you used to take your ex-wife?  Did you use to screw her in the fucking men’s room, Elliot?  What, maybe even in this stall?  Is that why this evening is such a disappointment to you?”

“I didn’t…I only…” His voice became lost to an aggravated, throaty groan.  Fuck.  He could tell by the inferno that had ignited in Olivia’s eyes that there wasn’t any amount of backtracking or explaining or apologizing that would win him her forgiveness any time soon.  The only repentance she would accept, that would be justifiable to her, would be his slow, painful, messy death.  “Just so you know, I never had sex with Kathy in any bathroom.  Not even our own.  And this place, we just, we found it once when we were driving home from a weekend trip.  We liked the food so, we, uh, we came back up here once in a while, not all that often—”

“For Christ’s sake, stop while you’re ahead.  Just shut up.”  She buried her face in her hands, grumbling into her clammy palms, “The last thing I want to hear about is Kathy’s and your sex life.”

“Then talk about ours.”

Her head popped up, eyes still wide and mouth gaping.  “We don’t have one.”

“Really?” Elliot asked, arching an eyebrow.  “So, what’s happened, is it something else you’re gonna run away from?”

“I already told you, I explained—”

“Nothing, Olivia.  That’s what you explained.”

“I’ve explained it,” she argued, backing her belief with a firm shake of her head.  “It’s not my fault if you’re too stubborn to listen to me.”

“Stubborn?” he asked, chuckling.  “Now I’m stubborn?”

“Not just now.  You’ve always been stubborn.”

“And you’ve always been afraid.”

She laughed lowly, anger seeping out of her with each breathy sound.  He was pompous, pompous and arrogant and fucking holier-than-thou, or at least in his self-righteous mind holier-than-her.  “You’re a prick, Stabler.”

“And you’re still afraid.  Admit it.”

“Afraid?  Is that really the best you can come up with?”  She scooted even further towards the edge of the oval-shaped seat, more off of the stained porcelain than on it.  “It sure as hell seems to be the only thing you can come up with.”

“You had a crap start in life,” he said, slowly gaining his confidence to square off with the fire-filled brown eyes that were still, clearly, giving clues to Olivia’s slowly formulating plot for his torturous death.  “I won’t argue with you about that, but the crap start your parents gave you doesn’t have anything to do with the crappy life you’ve given yourself.”

Olivia snickered lowly; a roll of her eyes her only defense to Elliot’s heart stopping, unexpected evaluation.  

“You use your parents as an excuse, always have,” he continued, sounding almost casual, as if he were relaying inconsequential information versus his years of unspoken, but carefully thought through, observations and beliefs.  “When someone starts to get close to you, when someone wants to get close, you use your parents as an excuse to convince yourself that… Whatever the hell it is.  You’re not good enough, worthy enough, moral enough, hell, that you’re not enough to make someone else happy.  And you know what’s gonna happen?”  He took a step closer to her, not intimidated by the anger that had caused her to become frozen and stiff, by the anger that had caused her once even breaths to become nothing more than short, shallow spurts of hot air that she forced out from between her tightened lips, or by the simmering flame that had once again begun to rage at inferno proportions in her blackened eyes.  “One day, Olivia, maybe even one day soon, there’s not going to be anyone else waiting around to hear your excuses.  You really will be alone, just like you’ve always worked so fucking hard to convince yourself you deserve to be.”  

He turned his back to her, not letting the display of mounting shock that was overtaking her face muscle by contracting muscle and nerve by quivering nerve give his rumbling remorse an opportunity to emerge.  The fucking truth hurt, that was sure as hell one sermon she had preached to him enough times.  So, this time she could fill the front row of the congregation and listen to his hell and damnation oration.

“Elliot.”

The unexpected softness in her voice stopped him cold, with one hand wrapped around the smooth outer edge of the swinging door, his fingers clamped tightly and fully prepared to deliver a powerful slam that would announce his obvious departure.  He was done, just like she claimed to want him to be.  Done.  Over it.  Sick and tired.  Fucking finis.  And he’d be damned if he let her outshine his parting two cents with a nickel’s worth of her own.

“Forget it,” he grumbled, continuing out of the door.  “You’re right.  You’ve been right since the beginning.  This, whatever it is or isn’t, one thing’s clear.  It’s a waste of our time.”

Olivia cleared her throat, nodding, climbing slowly and shakily to her feet.  “Think it’s safe to go out there now?” she asked, half inside of the stall door and half out of it as she watched Elliot’s hand curve around the once brass doorknob of the wooden barrier across the room.  “What if Cragen’s still there?”

“What if he is?”  He turned, his expression blank.  “Nothing’s going on here, Olivia, so there’s nothing to hide.  Right?”

“Christ, Elliot,” she moaned, pressing her forehead against the edge of the partition.  “I don’t want…this isn’t the way…” She closed her eyes, scrunching her lids tighter each time one of his heavy breaths resonated in the room.  “This is what I was afraid of.  Ruining us.”

“Can’t ruin something that was messed up to begin with,” he responded gruffly.  

“Don’t do this,” she pleaded, opening her eyes slowly, cautiously, but not working up enough courage to meet the piercing stare being directed at her from across the room.  “I don’t… You’re wrong, what you said.  It’s not how I feel.”

Elliot heard her shuffle behind him, her steps dragging and heavy.  Maybe she was attempting to swallow her pride just enough to follow him, or possibly she was reinforcing her overall disgust.  Whichever it was, he didn’t care enough to try and make a guess, educated or otherwise. 

“Get back in the stall,” he said lowly, making a half-turn and letting his gaze drift only as far as the third, unoccupied cubicle.  “Sounds like someone’s coming.”

+++

Olivia sat perched on the crude, once silver pipe that snaked out of the chipped plaster wall and connected to the base of the yellowed toilet.  The soles of her shoes were planted firmly on either side of the oval-shaped seat, and her hands remained in constant motion, stopping each of Elliot’s attempts to touch her, to steady her, and to offer an ounce more of security to assure she would remain balanced.

“Would you sit still?” Elliot hissed, facing her, his feet spread shoulder-width apart, as they were accosted by the background noises of splattering urine and an off-key, high-pitched whistle that vaguely resembled the tune to Danke Schoen.

“I’m capable of sitting here without any help from you,” Olivia barked back through an angry, throaty whisper.   

“No help, right,” Elliot groused with a roll of his eyes.  “Forgot about that.  You don’t need any help.  Got it covered all on your own.  Right?”

“Do you have to work at being this immature, Elliot, or does it just come naturally?”

“Danke Schoen, darling Danke Schoen…”

Olivia groaned under her breath, dropping her head forward as the unharmonious voice rose above the waterfall that spewed from the sink faucet.  “Perfect,” she muttered, dragging her hands down the length of her face.  “Now I’m stuck in here with you and Wayne Newton.”

“Hey,” Elliot whispered, one hand clutching around her knee and the other grabbing her elbow.  “Who dragged who in here?”

She rolled her dark eyes, shoving his hand off of her leg.  “I was trying to save your ass.  Besides, whose idea was it come to this place that, what was it you said?  Oh, yeah.  This place that no one else could ever find.”  As Elliot’s hand landed on her knee again, his fingers tightening, she jerked her leg, hissing, “Leave me alone.  Just let go.  I’m perfectly capable of—”

“Thank you for all the joy and pain… Picture shows, uh… Yada ya ya… Was the place we’d meet… Something…seat… Go Dutch Treat…” The scratchy voice and rush of water faded in unison, giving way to only silence before footsteps began to shuffle.  Sideways, lightly, tentatively, and then stopping all together as Olivia lost her balance, teetering to the right and slamming her hand against the provisional, metal wall, causing it to shake and vibrate as she mumbled an equally surprised as disgruntled, “Shit!”

“Nice undercover work,” Elliot reproved, sliding his hand beneath her arm, situating his palm to the side of her breast, and helping her straighten on the narrow pipe.  As he pulled his hand away, his fingers lingering a second longer than he knew Olivia wanted them to, he felt the outline of her bra beneath the thin layering of her cotton shirt.  It sat low, only midway up her breast, the faint feel of lace detectable.  Shit.  The mind-blowing, barely-there, lace-trimmed bra.  She had worn it.  Maybe as a reminder of what she seemed so adamant not to let happen again, or maybe simply to further torture him.  When she tired of watching him slam his head into the brick wall that was her incapable of being changed mind, she would flaunt the piece of lingerie in front of him until he exploded, just as recent history had shown them both he could so easily be pushed to the brink of doing.  Or maybe… Maybe she had worn it for him.  Maybe she wasn’t reminding herself of what she didn’t want to happen, but of what she did.

Again.

He took a step back, releasing his hold on her quickly, nervously, and left Olivia to once again wobble before she slammed her palm against the wall to regain her balance.  With an indignant grunt that Elliot interpreted as a crude, “Go to hell,” she jumped down from her makeshift seat.

“You really want to talk about staying undercover?” she snapped, her eyes shifting downwards slowly, derisively, to his inflating crotch for an accusing second before lifting, in conjunction with her smug smile, back to his reddening face.  “Why don’t you let me out of here now?  It sounds like Wayne Newton finally left the building.”

Or maybe his initial assumption had been right, Elliot decided.  She had worn the bra strictly as a form of torture.

“Just be quiet and stay put,” Elliot whispered, turning towards the latched door.  “Let me check it out—”

“I just want to get out of here,” she hissed, trying to sidestep around him in the limited space, their hands slapping against each other as they simultaneously reached for the door latch.  “Right now, I don’t care who else is in here—”

Bam!  Bam!  Bam!

Olivia’s wide-eyed gaze settled on the door as it vibrated and squealed from the force of the pounding it had been given from the other side.  As fat, hair-lined fingers became visible, curving around the top edge of the flimsy barrier, she slammed her back against the wall in conjunction with the door being ripped open.  It was torn away from its top, rusted hinge and the latch that had held it closed through one muddled, off-key stanza of Danke Schoen flew through the tiny cubicle, plopping, as if aimed, into the toilet as a guttural voice growled, “What the hell’s going on in here?”  

Elliot found himself eye level with a chest, large and muscular, the gargantuan base for two overdeveloped biceps that were clenched on either side of it.  His eyes moved jerkily upwards, quickly absorbing the defined pecs that were shrouded beneath the stained t-shirt, the broad shoulders that pulled the thin material taut, the thick neck that was streaked with bulging, blue veins, and finally settling on the narrowed slits that hid an unidentifiable color of eyes.

“I think I heard the lady say she didn’t want to be here, asshole!” the voice growled as the right fist was cocked and readied to deliver what Elliot could only presuppose based solely on its substantial size would be a debilitating blow.  Shit.  As if he hadn’t already succeeded in pissing off Olivia enough, he had dropped her—unwittingly and on purpose—right in the middle of Deliverance.  And if the Sasquatch towering above him who had obviously decided that his form of justice was exactly what Elliot was deserving of didn’t make him squeal, Olivia sure as hell would.

“Just hang on!” Olivia shouted as Sasquatch cocked his gun for the final time and fired.  She pressed one hand into Elliot’s chest, shoving, and raised the other in a poorly thought through attempt to thwart the speeding, boulder-like fist.  As flesh connected with flesh, the repellent sound echoing throughout the room, Olivia’s head popped backwards.  She stumbled through a succession of crooked steps before Elliot’s arms snaked around her waist, catching her before her knees finally buckled.

“Oh, shit!  Lady, I’m—” Sasquatch danced nervously from one large foot to the other, his eyes widening and mouth falling open as he watched Olivia deflate in the arms clutched around her waist.  Wincing as the once unmarred skin of her left cheek turned a blinding shade of scarlet with streaks of purple and black becoming visible within its fist-shaped perimeter, he stammered apologetically, “I never hit a lady before!  I swear, I didn’t mean— Ah, damn!”

Elliot steadied Olivia on her feet, brushing his hand lightly across her bruised cheek before she slapped it away, and dropping his head with defeat as she replied with only a garbled response when he asked, “You okay?”  Jesus H. Christ.  He didn’t know if there was a self-help manual written that was detailed enough to include the steps that needed to be followed for him to dance his way out of this one.  Maybe, if there was a section titled Fucked he would be able to find a graph that would show him how to securely knot a noose so that it wouldn’t become slack after he looped it around his neck and jumped.  But with his luck, he would fall flat on his ass without getting so much as a scratch when he hit rock bottom.

“Holy—” Sasquatch made a quick turn towards the door before spinning back around on his heels and pressing the palms of his brawny hands in Olivia’s direction.  “Let me get some ice or something!  Lady, I’m—”

“She’s not a lady, you ass wipe!” Elliot growled as Olivia’s elbow landed in the center of his chest and she pushed off of him, stumbling between the two men as she made her way out of the narrow stall door.  “She’s a cop!  You know how much time you can get for assaulting an officer?”

“Leave it alone, Elliot!” Olivia hissed, making her way slowly and obliquely to the sink across the room.  She flipped on the faucet, her spinning head dropping between her shoulders as she splashed the lukewarm water over her tingling face.  Glancing up, cringing at the sight of the sizeable bruise that discolored the left side of her face, she caught Elliot’s reflection in the watermarked mirror.  The defeat that filled her eyes matched his and she looked away, needing to give her foggy head a few more seconds to clear before accepting the truth.  There was no way out.  They had sealed their own fates because of a lack of regret.  If they had felt regretful, if they had acted on those feelings…

If.

But they hadn’t.  And now Captain Cragen would be forced to act because of a set of 
rules that were blatantly clear and that Elliot and she had even more blatantly ignored.  And she would wear the telltale sign of their unremorseful insubordination in plain sight when they went back to work on Monday.

“Forget about it, Elliot,” she whispered, turning towards the door.  “Can we just get out of here now?”  She didn’t wait for his answer or see the nod of his head, but pulled the barrier open and headed back into the main room, no longer worried about being seen or discovered but accepting the hand that she had left fate no other option but to deal her.

 

CHAPTER THREE

When Olivia was eleven, Richie Monforio teased her one day at school about being a ‘goody two shoes,’ and it had pissed the hell out of her.  It had made her angry because she couldn’t deny or shoot down his claim.  She was—and always had been—a rule follower.  She never talked out of turn in class, always had her homework done on time, always studied for tests, always had the answers to the questions that her teacher asked, and never strayed even one step out of the boundaries that were set for her.  She was a goody two shoes, just as Richie Monforio had said.  So when he dared her to, for once, step outside of her pristine, self-constructed box, she had accepted his challenge.  She had accepted on a whim, out of a desire to prove that she could be something—someone—different than everyone else saw her as being, but she had accepted without giving any thought to consequences and disappointment and changes in others’ opinions toward her so-far unblemished character.

And so when Richie led her to the furthest corner of the playground two afternoons later and stuffed a smuggled stink bomb into her pocket, she didn’t question or disagree with his plan.  She was ready to change—to be seen as changed—and she had pushed the possible consequences of that change so far out of her mind that she had—almost—convinced herself there wouldn’t be any. 

After following Richie’s instructions and leaving the telling sign of her change in the girls’ restroom on that hot, muggy afternoon, she had walked down the hallway with her head bent, eyes focused only on the floor, and her heart racing.  She could feel the weight of the neon Guilty sign as it bore down on her shoulders, and when Principal MacNeal pulled her out of class less than two hours later, and after a temporary and impromptu evacuation of the school, Olivia understood for the first time that consequences more often than not were capable of overpowering the short-lived rush of adrenaline and surge of excitement that came hand-in-hand with breaking the rules.  That was the day, when she was told she would be suspended for the final three weeks of her fifth grade year, that she decided if she were going to break the rules, it had to be for a damn good reason.  And a momentary surge of excitement wasn’t—wouldn’t ever again—be reason enough.

Until a night earlier when she had once again forced all thoughts of consequences out of her mind as she stared into Elliot’s eyes, as she felt him harden against her, as the music in Raspberry Vodka cycled through her unthinking brain at deafening levels, and as she accepted Elliot’s challenge just as boldly as she had Richie Monforio’s by demanding, “Fuck me, Elliot.”

Oh, Christ.  She had really said it.  “Fuck me, Elliot,” and she had felt the weight, once again, of the crushing Guilty sign on her shoulders ever since.  And it had reached almost debilitating proportions as she made her way out of the filthy men’s room in Mel’s Seafood Palace with her head once again bent, eyes focused only on the floor, heart racing, and hoping—praying—like hell that she would somehow remain unnoticed.  Just as she had hoped during the dragging two hours almost thirty years earlier every time the P.A. system screeched in the classroom and Principal MacNeil summoned another potential perpetrator into her office to be interrogated.

She stepped into the darkness that shrouded the gravel parking lot, filling her chest with the humid night air.  Sliding her hands around the back of her neck, she bunched her shoulder-length strands of hair against the base of her skull.  The humidity did little to lessen the layer of sweat that had broken out across her skin, and she released a tired breath—the past twenty-four hours and irresponsibility and urges and Elliot—into the quiet.  

Only five cars remained in the parking lot, including Elliot’s.  Five cars, none recognizable, none that looked as if it could be a camouflaged version of Cragen’s dark blue, four-door sedan.  Maybe they had managed to slide into home base a mere microsecond before the ball slammed into the catcher’s mitt, narrowly escaping a third and final out.  Safe.  The thought made Olivia chuckle.  Safe.  Elliot and she were further from it even being a remote possibility than they had ever been before, especially with each other.

+++

Seven occupied tables.  No, eight.  Elliot’s eyes narrowed as he studied the young couple, kids who didn’t look as if they were any older than Kathleen, hidden in the furthest, darkest corner of the restaurant.  They held hands, giggled in unison, flirted embarrassingly, and made it all too obvious to anyone watching that dessert for the evening wouldn’t be any of the limited, high-fat, empty calorie pastries offered at Mel’s.  

Eight occupied tables.  The conspicuous flirters, a family of four, an older man with white hair and horn-rimmed glasses who had become so engrossed in the book he was reading he hadn’t noticed that almost half of a deep-fried potato chip had become stuck to his chin, an older couple who didn’t talk to or look at each other, giving the impression that they had shared so many dinners and years together that either their conversation had run dry or their comfort just in being together no longer warranted inconsequential words and thoughts being exchanged.

He turned his back to the wooden-base counter and the gray-haired waitress behind it, letting his attention linger on the couple.  The man swirled a drink of water in his mouth, his stone-colored eyes resting lazily on a lopsidedly built fireplace that adorned the opposite wall from where he sat.  His fingers moved continuously, their fat tips dancing up and down the sides of his condensation-marred glass.  But his gaze, although relaxed, never seemed to find its way to the gentle face across from him at the table.  And hers never found his.  Comfortable strangers, Elliot deduced.  There seemed to be more of those in the world than he had ever before realized.

“Let’s see…” the nasally-voice waitress began, dragging Elliot’s attention away from the elderly couple seated in the center of the room.  “That was two crab baskets and one raspberry martini.  Brings your tab to twenty-seven, ninety-five.  Not, uh.”  She glanced up, smiling coyly although the upshot of the gesture never reached her eyes.  “Not including a tip, of course.”

Elliot dug into the back pocket of his blue jeans, retrieving his faded leather wallet.  “Can you give me a cup of coffee and hot tea to go?” he asked, opening the worn pouch and fingering through the thin stack of bills.  

“Don’t have much of a choice in coffee.  It’s up to me to make, and I like it loaded and black.  But with the tea…” She glanced over her shoulder at a cluttered counter littered with brewing pots, Styrofoam cups, plastic utensils and sweetner packets.  “That’s Mel’s specialty, so you’ve got your choice of the regular stuff in decaf or caffeinated, and then we’ve got your herbal tea, green tea, white tea—” She grinned toothily, shrugging a bony shoulder.  “Mel considers himself somewhat of a tea connoisseur.  But you ask me, what’s the point?  You need a good, strong cup of Joe to get your motor running.”

Elliot responded with a half-nod, one that announced his disinterest as much as exhaustion.  “Just give me the regular stuff, decaf.”

“Regular decaf,” the waitress reiterated with a sturdy nod, turning her back to Elliot and busying herself with Styrofoam and half-filled, glass pots and humming a nasally tune that Elliot couldn’t identify.  Steam billowed around her face, rising above her head in thin, cloud-like streams, as she filled a cup with the murky, black coffee.  “Your wife went on outside.  How ‘bout I grab some ice for that cheek of hers?”  She glanced back at him, wincing and squinting one overly made-up eye.  “Didn’t look too good.  It was already starting to swell.”

“She’s, uh.  No, she’s not my…wife.  Just a, a…” He shrugged as the woman turned from the back counter and slid two brittle, lidded cups in his direction.

“Not your wife?  Huh.”  Her fingers flew across the pad of the register, the machine responding to each of her punches and jabs with high-pitched beeps.  “Could’ve sworn I’ve seen the two of you in here before.  I’ve been slinging crabs in this place for over thirty years, and I rarely forget a face.”  She looked up as the drawer of the register slid open.  “And your face looks familiar.”

“You son of a bitch.  You brought me somewhere you used to take your ex-wife?  Did you use to screw her in the fucking men’s room, Elliot?  What, maybe even in this stall?  Is that why this evening is such a disappointment to you?”

Elliot fought down a bitter, guilty swallow, making a quick shake of his head.  “Must’ve been someone else,” he lied.  “I’ve never…we’ve never… Like I said, she’s not my…” Why in the hell couldn’t he just admit who Olivia was?  On any other given day, it was an easy enough—an involuntary—task.  “Detective Stabler, and this is my partner, Detective Benson.”  It was the one way he relied on to both introduce and explain Olivia, to attach an unasked for meaning to their relationship.  It was the only word he used, and he couldn’t think of a time when he had strayed from its comfortable ambiguity.

Partner.

And in the minds that generally only half-listened to his overly rehearsed introduction, he knew the word evoked the expected synonyms.

Associate.  Colleague.  Co-Worker.

Olivia and he were partners in every ceremonial sense of the word.  But the past forty-eight hours had fucked with his internal Thesaurus more than Elliot would have believed was possible forty-nine hours ago.  One hour before he caught his first glimpse of her in her Raspberry Vodka uniform, one hour before they stepped too far into a world that they both knew they didn’t belong in, one hour before Mr. Webster jumped ship and left Elliot to flounder with unused and misconstrued definitions of a word that had always—or at least forty-nine hours ago—seemed simple to define.

Partner.

But standing in front of the stained counter with the steaming cups of coffee and tea mocking him with the differences that now existed between Olivia and him and the disbelieving waitress wearing a ‘say what you want but I’m not gonna believe you’ expression on her exaggeratedly made-up face, he was confronted by new synonyms, synonyms that he had never before linked with the person who epitomized them most.

Companion.  Other half.

“That’ll be another three dollars even for the drinks.  Brings your total to thirty, ninety-five.  Without tip.”

Elliot nodded, counting through bills before sliding them onto the counter.  He watched the waitress’s lips tremble into a frown as she flipped through the crisp money.  Thirty-five dollars even.  One twenty-dollar bill, one ten and one five.  And it was obvious as the spindly woman’s glower deepened, marring her face with wrinkles and disapproval, that the four extra dollars he had left for a tip were below her expectations.

Which didn’t surprise him.

It seemed to be his specialty lately, falling below expectations.

+++

“How’s the face?” Elliot asked, the hinged door squeaking in his wake as he made his way onto the concrete landing, skipping the first step on his way down and hurrying through the last two.  Landing heavily on the gravel, the miniscule rocks rustling beneath the soles of his shoes, he smiled crookedly and held out the warmed Styrofoam in Olivia’s direction, announcing, “Tea.  Decaf.”

Olivia nodded her thanks, her fingers brushing over his as she took the container from him.  She twirled the string of the tea bag around her index finger, staring down at the oblique, white lid.  “I’d like to say I’ve taken harder hits before, but.”  She chuckled as Elliot did, wincing as the pads of his fingers gently skimmed her black and blue shaded skin.  “That guy landed a helluva punch.”

“You should’ve let him hit me.”

“I was trying to stop him from hitting either of us.”  She glanced up, a fleeting gleam of shyness passing through her eyes.  “Not the best laid plan.”  Raising the cup, she pulled a stream of warm liquid into her mouth, savoring its strong flavor and the temporary respite it offered from being forced to make uncomfortable conversation, before finally swallowing.  “I looked around, didn’t see Cragen’s car.”

Elliot nodded as he swirled a mouth full of the bitter coffee in his mouth.  “Maybe we got lucky?” he asked, shrugging as Olivia’s eyebrows arched with unspoken—but clearly heard—disagreement.  “Yeah.  Guess we’ll just, uh.  I guess at this point—”

“It is what it is,” she remarked before taking another drink.  “But I don’t blame you.”  She shook her head in response to his look of surprise, one that quickly transformed into one of relief.  “I don’t, Elliot.  And earlier…” She shrugged a shoulder toward the shingled building, a hint of an embarrassed smile only slightly lifting her lips.  “You were right.  I was whining.  It just, it…” She sighed, releasing a tea-scented breath into the still air.  “For a little while, I guess, it all became too real.”

Elliot took in her seemingly serene expression, holding tightly onto his caution as he wondered if her display of tranquility was merely a mask for her still raging anger.  But as the filtered light of the full moon latched momentarily onto her eyes, bringing out of them a breath-stealing shimmer that radiated through brown and hazel specks, he released his wariness.  Giving a crooked nod towards a row of trees at the far end of the lot, he nudged her shoulder with his.  “There’s a pond over there.  Wanna take a walk?”

“A pond…” Her gaze followed his to the thick trunks and looming, full branches of the aged trees.  “When you used to bring Kathy here, did the two of you take walks there?”

“Kathy, yeah.”  He pulled in a breath between his suddenly tensed lips, shifting his eyes quickly—once again guiltily—away from the darkness and privacy that lingered a mere fifty feet away.  “Look, Liv.  I shouldn’t have…I didn’t think…”

“El, it’s okay,” she said, giving the same soft nudge to his shoulder that he had given to hers.  “But I think we should work on your dating skills.  If you’re going to take someone to a place you’ve already taken someone else, for God’s sake don’t admit it.”  Chuckling, giving another soft push against his shoulder, she added, “Because if you can’t learn when to shut up, there’s a good chance you’ll never get laid again.”

+++

The tiny body of water, stretching—at best—one hundred yards in length and a mere twenty feet in width, looked more like a puddle than pond to Olivia.  But hidden beneath the curved, low hanging branches of the trees and with Elliot’s and her feet gliding silently through the thick grass that surrounded it, she easily found its appeal.  It was isolated and silent and peaceful.  It was safe, just as she had convinced herself throughout their first two laps around the water that Elliot and she still were.

In her mind, Olivia could imagine Elliot and Kathy taking lengthy walks around the short course during happier times when they still believed that forever really did exist.  Arm in arm, maybe with Kathy’s head resting on his shoulder, steps in sync.  Once.  But now it was her arm looped through his, her head leaning toward—although never fully touching—his broad shoulder, and her steps that had fallen into sync with his.  For the moment.  A moment that was void of reality, just as Elliot and Kathy’s many moments had turned out to be.

“What you said earlier,” Olivia began, her voice soft, barely strong enough to break through the thick barrier of silence that surrounded them, “is it what you really think?”  She felt his gaze shift towards her, but didn’t meet it.  “That I chase everyone away, that I want to be alone?”

It’s what I think you feel like you deserve, he answered only silently, feeling her loop her arm more tightly around his.

“Because it’s not who I’ve ever seen myself as being.  It’s not who I want to be.”

“Then don’t be her,” he responded simply, as if one snap of her fingers could change an almost forty-year-old routine that she placed more trust in than she did anything else. 

She shook her head, tilting the empty Styrofoam cup from side-to-side in her hand.  “Thanks for the advice.  But you didn’t answer my question.”  

“I see you…” He cleared his throat, his mind beginning to work frantically to undertake the task that Olivia accused him of being better at than he knew he actually was.  Talking.  “You’re cautious.  Always have been.  But it’s not so much about you being cautious of other people as it is about you being cautious of yourself.”

She nodded once, announcing that she was considering his opinion.  “But just so you know?  I don’t think my life is... What was the word you used?  Crappy?”  She grinned, but only fleetingly.  “I have things in my life.”  And she did.  She had friends and a job that defined her and that she thrived and excelled in.  She had… A still bogged down and cluttered closet in her apartment that hadn’t been cleaned out yet, a chipped set of dishes with one place setting missing that had been handed down to her from her mother, a living room set that she had never particularly liked, but it was the nicest one she could afford, memberships to two different gyms, first-name basis relationships with Doyle at the corner market, Lewis who worked the counter at her favorite dry cleaner, and Marty at the shoe shop where she had her perfectly broken-in boots re-soled at least twice a year.  And she had the one thing—the only thing—that made it bearable to know that was all she had.

Elliot.

“Maybe I am cautious,” she admitted, her words dragging through her reluctant confession.  “But it’s not for the reason you think.  I mean, my past…my parents…of course who they were has influenced me.  I hate who my father was, and a lot of the time I disapproved of who my mother was, but I accepted who they were a long time ago.  You still haven’t, though.”

He came to a sudden stop with one foot settled crookedly on top of a thin, fragile stick.  As it snapped in two, its pop resounding through the quiet, he met her with every ounce of questioning and surprise that her announcement had left him feeling.

“You’re right,” she continued, making a half-turn in front of him and facing him.  “My parents gave me a crappy start.”  She shrugged casually, as if recounting an insignificant tale.  “My father raped my mother, and my mother spent her entire life as a drunk.  But she loved me, Elliot.  She didn’t give me a perfect childhood and trust me, if I could, there’s more of it that I’d change than I wouldn’t.  But she did love me.  So, don’t feel sorry for me because of her or him.  Accept that they’re a part of me, because I accepted it a long time ago.”

“I don’t feel sorry for you,” he returned, his head in mid-shake even before his words confronted her.

“Yeah, you do.  And maybe the fact that you still do after all this time is partly my fault.  I mean, maybe at one time, early on, I wanted you to.”  She took his hand in hers, resuming their unhurried, unfocused, side-by-side trek.  “My mother never had a lot of time for sympathy, not for herself and not for me.  Every time she started feeling sorry for herself…” She arched her dark brows, smiling sadly, with the knowledge that Elliot knew the ending of her overly told story just as well as she did.  “She made sure she stopped.  By drinking.  And if she couldn’t even feel sorry for herself, she sure as hell wasn’t going to feel sorry for me.  And, I don’t know.  Maybe that’s why I told you about my parents so early into our partnership, because…”

“You needed someone to feel like you did,” Elliot deduced, lacing his fingers through hers as he guided her over a partially hidden log that lay across the ground.

“I didn’t need someone else to feel the same way.  I just, for once I wanted someone else to feel like I did.  And at that time, Elliot, I did feel sorry for myself.”

“Okay,” he said, his voice throaty, an almost unnoticeable addition to the calm that delimited them.  “So, when’d your feelings change?”

She stepped over a second log as Elliot did, right feet and then left, neither breaking their stride.  “In this job, it didn’t take long.  Before I volunteered for this unit, I never took the time to understand that everyone has their own demons to deal with.  Nothing about mine are special.  They’re just…” She shrugged, her gaze lowered and narrowed as she studied the blackness that both preceded and followed each of their steps.  “What I’ve dealt with—what I deal with—is worse than some will ever deal with, and a helluva lot easier than too many are forced to deal with.”

“Good answer,” Elliot said.  “Safe answer.  The kind any seasoned sex crimes detective would give.  But do me a favor, huh?  Answer it again.  Only this time give me the answer that someone who doesn’t know how many people out there have it crappier than you do would give.”

“Elliot, I—”

“It’s okay, you know.  If you still do.”

“Still do?”  She came to a stop, her dark brows lowering, further questioning him even though the only detectable sound was the subtle rustle of leaves overhead as an unexpected breeze momentarily eased the thick humidity that hung in the air.

He nodded, just once, stopping in front of her and staring back over his shoulder.  “Feel sorry for yourself.”

“You didn’t have a picture perfect childhood, either,” she returned.  “Do you feel sorry for yourself?”

He shrugged a shoulder, motioning with a curve of his fingers for her to catch up to him.  “Sometimes.”

“Sometimes?”

“Sometimes,” Elliot confirmed as Olivia steadied her shoulder against his and they began walking again.  “There are a lot of people out there who’ve dealt with more crap than you and I have, you’re right.  But it’s still okay to feel sorry for ourselves once in a while.”  He pressed his shoulder against hers, causing her to veer off their unmarked course through a stumbling step.  “And once in a while, it feels kind of nice to know that someone else cares enough to feel sorry for you, too.”

“It’s great to know you care, El, but…” She shook her head.  “I don’t need you to care that much.  Thanks.

“I think you do.”

She rolled her eyes, the disagreeing gesture wasted on the darkness.  “Why don’t you leave the shrinking to Huang, huh?  He’s better at it than you are.”

They stopped, a thick, coarse tree trunk separating them before Olivia stepped around it, pushing the backs of her shoulders into the bark.  She closed her eyes, leaning her head into his hand as he made a gentle pass across her bruised cheek.  “Still hurt?”

“Not as bad as my ego’s going to on Monday morning.”  She sighed, her eyelids fluttering as the tips of Elliot’s fingers traveled a slow path up the side of her face.  “We’re screwed.”

“Because we, uh—”

“Old joke.”  She groaned under her breath, tilting her head in the opposite direction as Elliot’s fingers fell away.  “And one that’s still not funny.”

“Not funny, you’re right,” he whispered, leaning closer, his hand cupping around her chin and lifting her face to meet his.  He ran his lips across hers, mouths open only slivers, tongues wet but remaining hidden, eyes open, staring.  Smiling, waiting until her smile materialized, he pressed his mouth against hers, concentrating only on the feel of her lips as they quivered and conformed to his.  The wind picked up, a chill hidden within it, crisp and fresh and chasing away the lingering discomfort of the day’s humidity.  Beneath his fingers where they had come to rest at the base of her neck, he felt goose bumps rise off of her skin, and before he could slide his arms completely around her, she trembled with a shiver.

“Wanna head back to the car?” he asked, Olivia falling against him, into him, and seeming to relax within the boundaries of his arms.  

She shook her head, her silky strands of hair bunching against his chest.  “Not yet.”

He ran his hands up her back, feeling her shiver again.  Smiling, nuzzling his lips against the top of her head, he whispered, “What’d you mean earlier when you said it started to feel too real?”

Olivia released a long, steady breath against his chest.  “I don’t know.  I just…”

“You know.  So, tell me.”

She pulled her head off of his chest, staring up into his eyes whose familiar color of blue had been stolen by the shadows that had become wrapped tightly and protectively around them.  Hiding them, completely.  From spying eyes in the restaurant, passersby in the parking lot, and each other.  “Being here with you,” she admitted, pressing her palms against his chest, preparing herself for a fast and easy get away in case she needed one.  “I date, Elliot.  Sometimes.  But I don’t, anymore I don’t ever really want to.  But once in a while, when I feel like an embarrassing amount of time has passed since my last date, I go out.  Out to dinner or for drinks or…” She shook her head, looking as if the thoughts that were trying to force their way out of her brain were confusing her more than forming into a viable explanation that even she could understand.  “No one interests me.  No one has for a long time.  But I still force myself to go, sometimes.  And when you called tonight, when you asked me to come here with you…” She shrugged, her shoulder rubbing against his chest.  “I…wanted…to.  And I haven’t wanted to with anyone for a long time.”

He nodded, grasping a strand of her hair that was losing its battle against the sudden, unrelenting breeze and hooking it behind her ear.  “I wanted to, too.”

“And that’s what made it feel too real.  That both of us wanted to.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding pensively, warily, knowing that one wrong move or word spoken could cause her to bolt.  He had to advance carefully, not balls to the wall as was his normal—and expected—fashion.  But using baby steps, because it was the only pace Olivia seemed capable of keeping up with at the moment.  “So, we both wanted to be here tonight.  It’s okay to have dinner together—”

“And that’s all it’s about?” she asked quickly.  “Just dinner?”

“I don’t know,” he answered, taking a step back, letting the blackness filter between them.  His eyes made an obvious dip, shifting downwards, peeking only for a second at her chest before once again rising.  “You wore the bra.  So, what do you want it to be?”

“I…wore…the bra,” Olivia admitted, her words intermingled with a guilty breath.  Christ.  Why had she worn it?  After Elliot had called, she had gone into her bedroom and purposely dug the lacy piece of lingerie out of the pile of clothes she had discarded earlier at the foot of her bed.  She had tossed aside the black skirt and gauzy blouse and fishnet hose, the items that were too obvious.  That would make her seem too obvious.  And when she found the bra buried at the bottom of the pile, she quickly stripped off the simple, no flares white one, the type she wore on a normal day at work, and exchanged it for the lace-trimmed black one.  And as soon as it was hooked around her, only barely hiding her, she felt different.  She once again felt like consequences didn’t matter, just as she had nearly thirty years earlier when confronted with Richie Monforio’s challenge to change.

And just as the smuggled stink bomb that Richie had shoved into her pocket had once represented the change she so desperately wanted to make, the black bra had become the means to the change that she wanted to maintain and continue to explore.  It wasn’t indicative of the caution Elliot accused her of keeping such a firm grip on in her life, but a leap of, possibly, misconstrued faith off of her normally traveled path.  A path that led to a dead-end and was constructed of rules that were to be followed and expectations towards conduct and a willingness to make others’ lives priorities over hers.  
A path asphalted in sacrifice.  Both Elliot’s and hers.

“I’ve learned a lot this year,” she said, wedging her hands into the front pockets of her jeans, tightening her muscles to ward off another chill as the wind once again whipped around them.  No traces of the earlier heat remained, only the freshness that came with night.  As if new air had replaced the old, as if it had been cleansed and rejuvenated.  As if it had the power to rejuvenate. “You know, when I joined SVU it was for selfish reasons.  I mean, I’d convinced myself I wanted to do it because of my mother, but that wasn’t the real reason.  I wanted to do it because of me, because I wanted to be the one who finally found the bastard who’d raped her.  I wanted to be the one to give her the answers to her questions, to give her…closure.”  She smiled faintly, a spray of moonlight catching her face.  “I knew the statute of limitations had run out, but I thought if I could find my father—if I made him see me—he might finally understand that his actions did have ramifications.”  She tilted her face upwards, still bathing in the muted light.  “But I never expected to find Joseph Hollister.  I never expected to find a man who was a husband and father, a man whose life had so many normal aspects to it.  And when I met Simon, I realized that I’d just been spinning my wheels all these years.  Because Joe Hollister had already been punished for his crime.  I’d punished him.  He was a father, but he could never be mine.  He knew about me and followed my life, but he could never be a part of it.”

She snagged Elliot’s hand in hers, walking again with him remaining a step behind her.  “I visited one of his other victims,” she admitted.  “I went to her house and showed her Hollister’s picture, and as soon as she saw it, as soon as she saw his face, I saw the same look in her eyes that I’d always seen in my mom’s when she talked about him.  It was the same look I’ve always seen when I’ve looked in the mirror, the look of a victim.  The look of someone who’s afraid of the unknown.  And I finally understood that you don’t have to fight so damn hard to try and turn the unknown into what you think it should be.  It is what it is and will be what it’s going to be, and I wasted a lot of years trying to do the job that, in the end, life and fate did for me.  Because every day of my life, my father was punished for his crime.”

“Okay,” Elliot said warily and with a slow, misunderstanding nod of his head.  “But, uh.  What’s that have to do with the bra?”

She chuckled, stopping, dropping her hold on his hand and turning a half-circle as her profile became silhouetted and gaze became lost beyond the thick trunks of trees that surrounded the pond.  “Nothing,” she answered simply.  “It has to do with me.  It has to do with understanding that actions have consequences and even though, a lot of times, the consequences aren’t worth it in the end, sometimes they are.  But either way, we aren’t in control of the end result.  Life’ll make sure what’s supposed to happen will.”

Elliot nodded again more forcefully, still misunderstanding.  “How many of those martinis did you have?  Because if they make you this optimistic, I’m gonna start filling your cup with ‘em in the morning instead of tea or coffee.”

“Go to hell,” she deadpanned.

He grinned, continuing to nod.  “That’s more like it.  The partner I know.”

She wrapped her fingers around his as he slid his hand into hers.  “But just so you know, I really did throw the garter in the trash.”

“And what day did you say your trash gets picked up?”

“I didn’t say.” 

Elliot snuck a sideways peek at her as they began to climb the slope that led back towards the parking lot.  He felt her fingers dig into the palm of his hand and wondered, locked away in the silence that had finally become comfortable, if her speech had been her convoluted way of saying good-bye.  To a belief about herself that she finally realized held no merit, to a job that she had professed to needing more than anything else, or to him.  

“I’ll deal with Cragen this time,” he said.  “You told me to let you do it last time, so let me do it this time.  He told me to stay away from you, Liv, but he never said anything to you.  So whatever’s gonna happen, it’ll happen to me.”

“I don’t need you to take care of me, Elliot.”

“And I’m not trying to.”

“We’re in this fifty-fifty.”

“Generally…” he hesitantly agreed, nodding, giving a gentle tug against her hand that pulled her through the final steps of their ascent.  “Yeah.  But this time, why don’t we change the percentages a little?”

“To what?  One hundred percent of the blame on you and none of it on me?”  She narrowed her eyes, her lips drooping.  “Sounds fair.”

As she stepped back, pulling away from him, he latched his hand around her elbow.  “Watch out,” he said, pulling her forward.  “Poison Ivy.  You almost stepped in it.”

Olivia glanced behind her, searching for the potential hazard Elliot had spotted.  “Poison Ivy?”  She shook her head, her gaze following the path marked by his fingertip as he pointed to a clump of overgrown plants at the base of a tree.  “So, what are you?  Some kind of nature boy?”

“Just a victim,” Elliot said, tugging again on her arm until they began walking.  “More times than I’ve wanted to be.  I hope we weren’t in it the whole time we were down there.”

She ran the tip of her finger up the row of buttons that lined the middle of his shirt.  “Good thing I didn’t let you take advantage of me again.  That could’ve been a tough one to explain.”  Curving her hands around the neckline of his shirt, she pulled downward on the material.  “And about Cragen…”

Elliot only vaguely heard her softly spoken argument about sharing responsibilities, being equals, Cragen not buying that he was any more guilty than she was, both of them knowing what they were doing… But more overpowering was her voice in his head, still as loud and clear as it had been earlier in the men’s bathroom, “Most of all, I need my job.  I need it, Elliot.  Even though sometimes I’m not sure why.”  And he knew that she did need it.  Maybe she had always needed it more than he had.

“Let’s assume that he didn’t see us tonight,” he said, raising his hand to quiet her.  He traced the length of her lips with his finger, shaking his head as she grunted in protest.  “Assuming that he didn’t see us, that we walk into work on Monday—”

“And tell him what?” Olivia asked, her lips scraping against the pad of his finger.  “Look at my face, Elliot.  How do I explain it, tell him I ran into a door?”  She took a jerky step backwards.  “How many times have we heard that excuse?  Face it, that overgrown ape in the bathroom pretty much stole our chances of getting away with this.”

“Well, if you hadn’t gotten between his fist and my face—”

“Then you’d be the one with the bruise and we’d still be in the same mess.  Don’t make it my fault.”

“I’m not making it your fault.”  He raised his hands in front of him, initiating a truce while her predictable anger was still at a low simmer.  “I’m not making it my fault, either.  So, let’s, uh, let’s just blame it on the Sasquatch, okay?  That way we can keep playing for the same team.  It’ll be a nice change, don’t you think?”

She fought a smile, shaking her head.  “It’s not his fault.  Actually, it was kind of nice.”

“Nice?  That he rammed his fist into your face?”

“Not that part of it,” she sighed.  “It was just, I don’t know.  It was nice to see someone actually get involved for once.”  She turned, moving headfirst into the darkness again, hearing Elliot’s steps beside her, but not glancing in his direction.  “At Raspberry Vodka, the last night when Harley was attacked.  I remember looking around at all of the men in the club.  They just sat there; no one moved or tried to help her.  They didn’t care or didn’t want to get involved or… I don’t know.  They probably had hundreds of different excuses.  At least this guy did something, you know?  He thought he heard someone in trouble and he acted.  If more people were like him, we might actually have a little more free time.”

“And what would you do with more free time?” he asked, poking a finger through the back loop of her waistband, tugging to the right and then left.  

Olivia remained quiet, thinking over his question.  Coming up empty.  If she had more free time, what would she do?  Learn how to knit?  Take up Tae Kwan Do?  Learn how to cook by watching hour after hour of Rachael Ray and Emeril?  Maybe finally keep a date instead of calling at the last minute and canceling?  Date.  The whole uncomfortable process seemed foreign to her at this point.  She couldn’t remember the last time someone had actually called and asked her out, picked her up, gone to the trouble of deciding on a restaurant, tried to show her a good time— Her gaze shifted to Elliot, toward her last time, toward what felt like her first time and every time in between.  Toward the only time that had ever really mattered.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”  His heavy brows creased and he shook his head, releasing his hold on the back belt loop of her jeans as she reached for his hand.

“Sorry,” she repeated, nodding.  “For whining and bitching and…not trying the crabs.  You tried to make this evening fun and I wasn’t very cooperative.  And I’m sorry, Elliot.  All things considered, it hasn’t been all that horrible.”

He chuckled, turning their joined hands so that his was on top and then shifting so that hers was.  “You’re a rotten liar.”

“Okay.  It sucked.  But the gesture didn’t.”  She smiled as his quiet laughter faded, and bunched her shoulders as another chill ran up the length of her spine.  “If by some small chance Cragen didn’t see us tonight, then okay.  We’re home free, at least for a while longer.  But if he did, whatever happens, we’re in it together.  Because I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong.”

“How is it you always think you know what I’m thinking?”

“Because I do.  And right now you’re thinking…” She came to a sudden stop; the lights that seeped through the squared windows of the restaurant creating obscured shadows on the dark gravel that littered the lot.  “Don’t be the hero in this thing, because it isn’t who I want you to be.  I know what I said earlier in the bathroom, but.”

Elliot let his eyelids droop, his vision remaining only on the uneven ground beneath him as a neon sign ignited in his mind, taunting him.  But.  He was beginning to feel like he was having a conversation with Conjunction Junction, only Olivia was less adept at explaining the meaning of her seemingly favorite conjunction than the animated railroad worker who crooned his way through Schoolhouse Rock had been back at a time when Elliot viewed simple words such as ‘and,’ ‘but’ and ‘or’ as ways to connect his thoughts, not bring them to screeching halts.

“Maybe this job isn’t what I need most,” she continued, in mid-shrug as Elliot’s lids slowly and guardedly lifted.  

Conjunction Junction, what’s their function?  I got ‘and,’ ‘but,’ and ‘or.’  They can get you pretty far…

“Okay…” he mumbled warily, with an inkling of hopefulness.  “And?”

“And old habits are tough to break.  Sometimes it’s hard not to be cautious.  But.”  She pulled in a breath, savoring the chilled air as it rolled down her throat.  Feeling its sting, its noticeable difference from the once warm air that had dried her throat, that had made her wish for a break from its thickness and had made each breath seem almost impossible to ingest.  But now, as it filled her lungs, refreshed and renewed, she realized the struggle was no longer there.  For the first time in the last twenty-four hours, the task of breathing had once again become an involuntary one.  “If Cragen saw us tonight or figured all of this out some other way… Then we deal with the consequences together.  Fifty-fifty, Elliot, just like we’ve always done.  We went into that bathroom at Raspberry Vodka together and with both of us knowing exactly what was going to happen once we got in there, and if we have to walk out of the one-six, I want it to be the same way.  Together.”

Together.  Indicating plural, not singular, and sure as hell not a conjunction that could change a deceitfully positive statement into anything but.  “You’re sure?” Elliot asked, glancing down as her hand once again slid into his.  “Because I’ll—”

“I know you will, and I don’t want you to.”  She took a step ahead of him, delivering them closer to the weathered concrete stoop that led to the doorway of the restaurant.  “You know, Elliot, by the time we get back to Manhattan it’ll be after midnight.”

“After midnight,” he said, nodding as he glanced down at his wristwatch.  “Guess it will be.”

“And that’ll make it Sunday.”  She wriggled her fingers, sliding her hand out of his and then curving it around the chipped-paint, black railing that lined the steps.  “The day we said decisions had to be made.”

“Decisions, right,” he said, ascending the bottom step as she climbed onto the top one.

“But to come to any type of conclusion,” she continued, twisting the knob of the door as she made a quick glance over her shoulder at him, “we need to gather all the evidence first.  I mean, they taught us that much back in the academy.”

“All the evidence,” he repeated, a flirtatious smile creeping slowly across his lips.

She pushed open the door, turning her back to the bright lights and hand full of patrons that remained inside, and faced Elliot.  “You said we compliment each other, Elliot, at least out of bed.  So, when we get back to Manhattan, maybe, you know, I think it’d be the smart thing to do before we decide what we’re going to tell Cragen… If we find out whether or not we compliment each other in bed, too.  Just so we have our facts straight.”

+++

Three tables occupied.

In the thirty-plus minutes that Olivia and Elliot had spent repeating the same course around the pond, five of the eight tables that had been taken when they headed outside had become empty.  And out of the seven faces that filled the chairs at the three tables still in use, none looked familiar.

The young couple had evacuated their spot in the corner, Elliot noticed, and he wondered just as quickly if they had even made it out of the parking lot before indulging in the dessert it had been so obvious they were going to follow up dinner with.  The elderly couple still remained, empty food baskets stacked between them, she with a half-full glass of red wine in front of her and he with an untouched glass of water in front of him.  But smiles now adorned their lips and even though Elliot couldn’t decipher their conversation, they talked freely with eyes sparkling and laughter intermittent, as if it were their first date instead of one hundredth.  Their once uncomfortable silence having become replaced by comfortable resonance.

“I’m gonna make a quick stop,” Olivia announced, nodding in the direction of the narrow hallway that led to the restrooms.  “Grab me another tea for the road?”

“I need to go back there, too,” Elliot said, brushing his hand across her shoulder and then running it down the length of her back as he gently nudged her in the direction of the restrooms.  “Then I’ll grab us some drinks to have on the drive.”

They came to a stop in front of the side-by-side doors, Olivia’s dark brows furrowing as she studied, more carefully this time, the crudely carved wooden signs affixed to both.  Arrow.  Sally Lightfoot.  “Whatever happened to just saying ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’?” she asked.  “Why does everything always have to be complicated?”

“Types of crabs,” Elliot announced, nodding towards the sign hooked crookedly to the front of the men’s room.  “Arrow and Sally Lightfoot are types of crabs.  Once when we were here, Kath asked—” His words became an abrupt grunt as Olivia’s eyes widened warningly.  “I, uh.  They’re just, they’re types of crabs.”

Olivia took in a breath, once again looking over the lengthy carving as she pressed her palm into the center of the door.  “Great,” she muttered, scrunching her nose as she pushed open the door and was instantly accosted by the combined odors of Lysol and mulberry-scented air freshener.  “Not only is there a good chance I’ll end up with crabs from this place, but they’re gonna have names.”

“Just hurry up,” Elliot directed, shoving open the door marked Arrow.  “After I’m done here, I’ll grab your tea and meet you out at the car.”  He took a step inside the room, stopping quickly, sticking his head and shoulders outside of the doorframe as his lips curved into a playful smile.  “Unless, uh… Unless you think you might need some help in there.  Then I could—”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” she chuckled.  “You’ve given me more than enough help in the bathroom lately.  This trip, I can handle on my own.”

+++

Elliot Stabler had a lilt in his step, and the last time that had happened was… Fucking never.  He had always walked as if there was a purpose to each step.  His shoulders were squared, eyes focused straight ahead, looking as if he was preoccupied with thoughts about what would come next, where he needed to go next, which direction he should take, and what would be the quickest route to get him there.  He walked with heavy steps, steps that alerted the rest of the world that he was on the move and there was a reason for it.   He rarely faltered, hardly ever second-guessed his chosen path, only continued moving.  Because as long as he kept moving, nothing behind him stood a chance of catching up.

He came to a stop in front of the row of urinals.  Sidling up in front of the second one, he let his mind wander… But only as far as Manhattan.  Back to Olivia’s apartment and the double bed with the pale blue comforter that adorned it.  He had only seen her bed on a few occasions, but the times he had, he had looked it up and down, memorized it, and stopped himself from imagining any activity taking place in it other than Olivia wrestling her way through much needed, although seldom found, sleep.  He wondered if she favored sleeping on her back, the position he had found her in more times than he could count on late nights when he’d had to awaken her in the crib.  She rarely looked relaxed, but as if she was on high alert, ready to jump into action at a second’s notice.  Or maybe she was a stomach sleeper, choosing to burrow into pillows and beneath thick blankets and keep her vulnerable side hidden from a world that she knew could be all too cruel.  Maybe she slept on her side, balled tightly in an attempt to hide.  From dreams that raced through her exhausted mind a blinding speed and cases that were reworked throughout the dark hours that should be characterized by sleep but rarely were.

She had invited him to come home with her, not only to come home with her but she had invited him into her bed.  The double bed that she had never bothered to buy a frame for, that was pushed up against one wall, unadorned and nestled between two equally plain nightstands.  The unembellished space revealing just how underused it was.  But now she had invited him into it.  With her.  It had been her idea, one initiated without any prompting from him.  Her voice had been soft when she made the suggestion, maybe even to the point of being considered—for her, at least—flirtatious.  She had said it without any hesitance or giving off a sense of fear, but as if, all along, it was how she had foreseen their evening ending. 

In her bed.

And as long as they kept moving forward together, with assured steps and their focus only on what lay ahead, there wasn’t a chance in hell of anything they had left behind catching up to them.

“Enjoy the martinis?”

Fuck.  He had stopped moving.  Just for a second, but a second too long.

Elliot took a jerky step sideways, landing in front of the third urinal.  He reached for the fly of his jeans, sliding the first button into the third buttonhole and second one into the fourth.  

“Where’s Benson?” Captain Cragen asked, his face tilted upwards and eyes narrowed as he stared at the gray wall in front of him.  He cleared his throat, not seeming to notice as Elliot quickly repeated the steps to match up buttons with correct buttonholes.

“Cap’n,” Elliot said around a gulp of air, turning his back to the urinals and the stoic man in front of them.  He headed across the room to the sink, cranking the lever of the faucet as far as it would turn and watching as the rush of water splattered over the rounded rim and onto the front of his faded jeans.  “Liv’s, uh, she’s…”

“It’s an easy question, Detective,” Cragen responded, still zipping his dark gray slacks as he turned around.  “Where’s your partner, the one I thought I’d made it clear you were supposed to stay away from this weekend?”

“Look, Cap.  We, uh, the Raspberry case was a tough one for Liv.  It got a little personal—”

“A little?” Cragen asked, stepping up to the sink and staring at Elliot through the water-streaked mirror.  “In your opinion that’s all it’s been, just a little personal?”

“I know what you said about the weekend, and if anyone’s gonna get into trouble because of this… Dinner was my idea, so Liv shouldn’t… She accepted the invitation because I didn’t tell her what you and I had talked about.”

“Mm-hmm,” Cragen mumbled under his breath, balling a coarse, brown paper towel between his hands.  “She’s in the car?”

“Yeah,” Elliot said, giving a sturdy nod, not backing down from the intent blue eyes that were focused disapprovingly on him.  “In the car.”

“Then I suggest you join her.  And the rest of it we’ll go over one more time.  You drive her home, drop her off, and then I’ll see the two of you in my office first thing Monday morning.”

Elliot took a step back as the captain passed in front of him.  And as the door swung closed, squeaking noisily and tauntingly until it finally came to rest against its splintering frame, he decided that, finally, one of Munch’s theories couldn’t be disputed.  Because when you allowed your confidence to convince you to tempt fate one last time by playing that extra round of Russian Roulette, you sure as hell didn’t see the big bang coming.  At least not until it hit you right between the eyes.

+++

Olivia submerged her soap-covered hands in the stream of warm water, watching as the opaque bubbles slid off of her skin and disappeared into the rusted drain.  Christ.  What had she been thinking?  Thirty minutes with nothing but fresh air to clog her mind and her rationality went to shit. 

“I think it’d be the smart thing to do before we decide what we’re going to tell Cragen… If we find out whether or not we compliment each other in bed, too.”

She could hear the nails being driven into Elliot’s and her coffins, and knew—instinctively—that Captain Cragen had traded in his hammer for a nail gun.  They had sealed their own fates, and the captain would make damn sure that seal would never be broken.

She glanced up into the mirror, silently berating herself as she caught sight of her flushed reflection for not feeling at least an inkling of guilt.  Elliot and she had broken more rules during their years at the one-six than could be counted anymore.  And when each had been broken, they had felt vindicated in doing so.  It was for a case or victim, for selfless reasons.  And somehow, they had always managed to convince themselves that selfless reasons were means enough to justify risking everything in order to arrive at the end result that was right.  But now they had broken the rules—were going to break them further—for selfish reasons.  For the wants and desires that her mind told her weren’t reason enough, but that her heart had begun to voice a differing opinion about.

And damn it, if she could get out of the fresh air and back into the smog of the city, maybe her mind could gain the strength needed to win the war once and for all.

Her gaze shifted to the furthest, closed stall as the toilet hidden inside of it was flushed.  The abrasive noise resounded in the room, seeming to bounce from one wall to another, adding to the ache that had been delivered to Olivia’s head by the concrete-like fist of her proclaimed concerned citizen.  She watched as heel-shoed feet shuffled behind the partial door, making a left turn and then right before straightening.  The clank of the metal latch falling away from the hook filled the few seconds of quiet that had drifted over the room after the flush of the toilet, and Olivia diverted her eyes downward, back to the dissipating soap bubbles, as the barrier was pulled open.

“I’ll get out of your way…” Olivia muttered, her eyes widening and then narrowing as she caught sight of the familiar reflection in the mirror.  She turned slowly, her dripping hands gripped together in front of her.  “Uh.  Judge… Judge Petrovsky.”

The older woman came to a stop, her stunned expression mirroring Olivia’s.  She ran the tip of her tongue across her decorated lips, attempting to smile but never managing to.  “Detective Benson.”

“I, uh.”  Olivia stepped to the side of the sink, her unsure footsteps echoing in the room.  “I didn’t see… You like crabs?”

“I saw you earlier,” the judge announced, patting the side of her sprayed hair with a shaky hand.  “But then, well, you weren’t at your table any longer, and Donald and I assumed—” She bit into her lower lip with two straight, white teeth, a faint hue of red sweeping across her cheeks.  

“Donald?” Olivia croaked, her eyes once again widening.  “You’re here with…” She didn’t feel her lungs deflate as they emptied of air, and couldn’t stop the arc of her lips as her smile emerged.  “Donald.”

“This is rather awkward,” Judge Petrovsky grumbled, pointing unsteadily towards the door.  “I should… Yes, I should.”  She crossed the room, her steps light and hurried.  As she grasped the brass knob in her hand, an embarrassed smile still clinging to a waning life on her lips, she asked, “So, will I be seeing you in my courtroom anytime soon, Detective?”

“Um, no,” Olivia answered.  “I don’t think so.”

The judge responded with a stern nod of her head, retorting peevishly as she breezed out of the room, “Good.”
















CHAPTER FOUR

The road was only sparsely marked by headlights, glaring beams of luminosity that would sneak up on Elliot, seeming to jump out of the darkness without warning and without him ever noticing their emergent strength in the distance.  He concentrated on the blackness in front of him, hands situated at ten and two on the steering wheel, and car remaining silent except for Olivia’s intermittent, heavy sighs.  If there was one thing he hated, it was being forced to undertake the daunting task of trying to interpret her mood.  Note to self, next Christmas he would bypass all of the bullshit gift ideas, the newest, latest or improved version of some trivial item that he couldn’t afford and she would never use.  He would do his shopping at a thrift store, somewhere he could pay minimal cash for retro items, the tried and true that were still useful, merely forgotten.

A fucking mood ring, that’s what he’d buy her.  It was the perfect gift for someone who didn’t have anything and was too stubborn to do something about it.  And even if she hated his carefully thought out selection, at least it would be something functional for him.  He would, finally, have a reliable gauge to work off of so that he could prepare himself with just a glance at her finger to be greeted with a “good morning” or her more customary, as of late, “go to hell.”

Blue Stone, relaxed, approachable, there might be a hope in hell that they’d actually have a good day.

Green Stone, an average day, so he would know to tread lightly.  One wrong word or look or just breathing when she didn’t necessarily think he should could turn the tables away from his favor.

Black Stone, stressed, tense, what had become, at some indeterminate point, a normal day.  No patience or tolerance or sense of humor, just a ‘fuck you’ attitude that she had begun to wear like a well-fitted coat.  

Purple Stone, happy, romantic— Laughable, Elliot decided.  Because the one thing he already knew—that Olivia had made crystal clear from the start—was that the perceptive stone would never modify its color to purple, not in any tone.  He would never see resting on her finger a shade in lilac or plum or amethyst, not even fucking lavender.  She never even wore clothes in that particular color.  Maybe it was a reflection of an inherent disbelief that either feeling existed, or maybe it was a disbelief that she had adopted at some point during her life.  But either way, Elliot knew that she didn’t believe in them, or at least that she had invested so much energy into trying not to believe that she was no longer willing to grasp on to even the remotest possibility that either were attainable.  

But for a brief second, a mocking passage of time, he thought he had seen a flash of purple.  Their walk around the pond had relaxed her, caused her to open up, and had, at least temporarily, given Elliot hope that the evening had a chance of being rectified.

“When we get back to Manhattan, maybe, you know, I think it’d be the smart thing to do before we decide what we’re going to tell Cragen… If we find out whether or not we compliment each other in bed, too.”

But the purple he had convinced himself that he had seen wasn’t lavender or lilac, nothing light.  It had been a darker shade, merely a passage in the natural transformation of colors.  Because the moment Olivia walked back out of the door marked Sally Lightfoot, only a few steps behind a pucker-faced Judge Petrovsky, everything, once again, faded to black.

“What in the hell happened to you?” Captain Cragen barked, his narrow-eyed gaze bypassing a quick stepping Judge Petrovsky and landing on Olivia.  He quickly assessed the elliptical-shaped bruise with defined, blackened knuckle prints that marred her face before his eyes began to dance nervously in their slitted sockets, wavering between the two glowering women.

“I almost wish I could claim responsibility,” Judge Petrovsky muttered as she passed between Elliot and Cragen.  “Unfortunately, it looks as if someone else beat me to the punch.  Quite literally.”  Her steps became thunderous against the scuffed floor as she continued towards the door.  Reaching the barrier, not slowing as she shoved one hand into its wooden center, she called out as demandingly as if she were issuing a ruling in the courtroom from her elevated bench, “I believe this ridiculous game of Hide and Seek has gone on long enough.  I’ll be waiting in the car, Donald, so please keep your castigation to a minimum.  I think we can all agree it’s well past the time when we should have called it a night.”

Cragen bunched his shoulders around his neck as the slam of the door resounded through the room, momentarily capturing the attention of the remaining patrons, and he groaned irritably as the interest in the room slowly drifted away from them and was returned to the private conversations being held at each of the occupied tables.  “You didn’t answer my question, Olivia.  What happened?”

Olivia forced down a breath, lightly fingering her tender cheek.  “Ran into a door,” she muttered, turning slightly so that the black-and-blue side of her face was hidden from the captain’s view.

“A door, uh huh,” Cragen groused.  “So, do I want to know if charges need to be filed against this door, or even worse, if the door is going to file charges against either or both of you?”

“No charges,” Olivia answered, dropping her hand to her side, shuffling nervously, and trying to ignore the piercing stare that was fluctuating between Elliot and her.  “It was… Just a misunderstanding.”

“A misunderstanding,” the captain repeated, knotting his arms across his broad chest.  “Seems to be a lot of that going on.  So, since we have a few minutes—and let me clarify, just a few—do either of you wanna try to explain just what in the hell you’re doing here?”

Olivia peeked around Cragen’s rigid frame, sneaking a glance at Elliot.  “Captain, Elliot and I, we didn’t intend to—” 

“I think you did,” Cragen interrupted, not giving either detective an extra inch of rope to hang themselves with.  The coolness in his eyes made it all too clear that he had stepped into the role of henchman and he wanted to watch them squirm, to make sure that they endured every minute of torture he intended to inflict before deciding, single-handedly, when their misery would end.  “I think you both did.  And I don’t want to hear any details or excuses.  The only thing I want to know is, just how big of a mess have the two of you made?  Because someone’s going to have to clean it up, and I think we all know who that responsibility will fall on.”

“There’s nothing to clean up,” Elliot interjected.  “It was just dinner.”

“You may call it dinner,” Cragen responded, “but I have thirty minutes of dead air time during a high profile undercover assignment that implies it was more.  And there’s only so much I can let slide and try to hide before I find my own ass in a sling.  That’s not somewhere I want to be.  Been there before and it’s not all that comfortable.”

Elliot mulled over his rebuttal for only a fleeting second, but it was long enough to know, even before the words fell between them and landed with a thud, that he was hurling himself off of shaky ground with the captain and entering into an irreversible free fall.  “Must not be too uncomfortable.  Considering.”

Cragen turned on his heels, facing Elliot.  “Considering, Detective?”

Past the captain’s broad shoulder, Elliot watched Olivia’s face drain of color, and heard the words spoken in his own voice even though his mind had never intended to give them life.  “Fin and Munch go to court this week for the Roselli case, don’t they?  And isn’t Petrovsky the judge presiding over the trial?”  He took a step backwards, one that distanced him from the equally angry expressions being directed at him. 

“Jesus, Elliot.  Shut up,” Olivia whispered, her voice thick and heavy between them.

“Are you threatening me?” Cragen hissed, turning his back to Olivia and focusing entirely, heatedly, on a stone-faced Elliot.

Elliot made a slow, distinct shake of his head.  “Just pointing out that this situation is awkward all the way around.”

“Monday morning, seven AM sharp.  I want your ass in my office,” Cragen retorted, the edges of his cheeks reddening as he stepped around Elliot.  “That goes for you too, Benson.  Anyone is even thirty seconds late, heads are gonna roll.”

Elliot flexed his neck from side-to-side, cringing as Olivia released another strong breath into the stale air that filled the car.  And he wondered if there was an abrasive enough color to indicate Fucked, because if there was, he knew it would be the shade of the stone in Olivia’s proverbial ring.  Only it wouldn’t signify her mood, but the status he had been fighting like hell to rise above since Captain Cragen had stormed through the front door of Mel’s Seafood Palace, red-faced and as noisily—angrily—as Judge Petrovsky had five minutes before him.

“You had to push him, didn’t you?” Olivia accused, her voice slicing through the silence that had traveled with them throughout the first twenty miles of their drive.  “You couldn’t just let it go and make a quiet exit.”

“What’d you want me to do, just stand there and take his crap?”

“Yeah!” she hissed, sliding sideways in her seat and confronting him with widened, anger-filled eyes.  “That’s what I expected us both to do, Elliot!  More importantly, that’s what Cragen expected us to do!  He sure as hell didn’t expect you to threaten him!”

“I didn’t…” Okay, he had.  He had spoken without thinking, acted without weighing consequences, and fucked himself.  Irrevocably.  “He was there with Petrovsky.  What makes their situation any different than ours?”

“The fact that he’s our superior, that’s what makes it different.”

“On the clock he’s our superior, ninety miles out of Manhattan with a judge who regularly hears our cases and he’s just as screwed as we are.”

“On the clock?” she asked, laughter abruptly intermeshed with her words.  “When do we ever go off of the fucking clock?  Jesus Christ, Elliot!  You practically blackmailed our captain!  Do you honestly think that’s something Cragen’ll forget, something he’ll overlook?  We’re gonna walk into his office at seven o’clock Monday morning and we’re getting thrown right back out on our asses at seven-oh-one!”

“And that’s my fault, just mine?”

“It’s… No.”  She resituated in her seat, once again facing the blackness ahead of them.  Sighing, dropping her head back against the stiff headrest, she groaned, “I didn’t see his car when I went outside.”

“Maybe they drove hers.”

Olivia squinted, nibbling on her lower lip as she conjured up in her mind the shadows she had carefully studied earlier and had decided, maybe too quickly, weren’t worrisome.  She couldn’t remember particular makes or models of any of the vehicles she had scrutinized, she only remembered that none of them looked even remotely as threatening as Cragen’s four-door sedan.  And so she had relaxed.  She had let her guard down and begun to breathe again.  She had actually let go enough that she had begun to have fun, misguided enjoyment while walking, without purpose or a destination, around the tiny pond while surrounded by darkness and memories and Elliot, and feeling safe enough to share secrets.

And it was what she had wanted through every lap and with every touch that Elliot and she had exchanged, to believe that they were safe enough, finally, that she could let go of her caution.  And she didn’t normally do that.  She didn’t ever do it.

Except during the past twenty-four hours.

“I didn’t mean it as a threat,” Elliot mumbled, his hands sliding down the steering wheel, their grips loosening around the recommended positions of ten and two and coming to rest lazily in the vicinities of seven and five.  “I just… Petrovsky?”

Olivia dipped her face downward, relying on the duskiness inside the car to hide her smile.  “I sounded like an idiot in the bathroom.”  She propped her elbow on the rounded edge of the door, dropping her forehead into her upturned hand.  “Oh, God.  I asked her if she liked crabs.”

“Pretty sure she felt like an idiot.  She couldn’t get out of the restaurant fast enough.”

“She calls him Donald,” she said, a hint of laughter lightening her voice.

Elliot grinned crookedly, nodding.  “Yeah.”  He made a sideways glance in her direction, his smile broadening.  “You think they’ve…that they—”

Olivia interrupted him with a quick shake of her head, turning her face towards the shadow-stained window.  “I don’t want to think about it.”  She closed her eyes, scrunching her lids as Petrovsky’s stunned—and then angry—face came to life in her mind.  “Shit,” she mumbled.  “What if Petrovsky ends up with the Raspberry case?  We won’t stand a chance in court.”

“She’s a judge, Liv.  Took an oath to be impartial—” 

“She’s also pissed!” Olivia half-squealed, letting her arm fall against the doorframe, her hand slapping against the hard surface.  “And right now… We haven’t even seen any of the waitress’s statements, not to mention Wyatt McGrath’s.  All it’ll take is just one of them—”

“To say what?” Elliot asked quickly, glancing at her out of the corners of his eyes.  

“What they saw and heard,” Olivia sighed, banging the back of her head against the headrest.  “The reason you took off your wire, Elliot.  Remember that?”

“It’s all hearsay.  Inadmissible.”

“You really think Cragen’ll see it that way?”

“I don’t think he’ll have any other choice,” Elliot responded, sounding far surer than his tensed expression made it clear that he felt.  Inadmissible.  Hearsay.  Bullshit.  Harley Jacobson, Tristan Merrick and Wyatt McGrath had the power to—either single-handedly or as a joined force—end both of their careers.  And adding into it the mess Elliot had created by insinuating a threat to an already humorless Cragen, neither Olivia nor he would be able to find an ally within the boundaries of the NYPD if an attack was launched against them.  

“Hearsay…” Olivia whispered, her stomach knotting and making its way to the middle of her throat.  “It’s not hearsay; it’s what Harley and Tristan heard when they were in the bathroom.  And if that comes out, what’re we going to say?  We were faking it for the sake of our covers?”

Elliot cleared his throat and shrugged a shoulder as his thoughts suddenly veered in a direction he hadn’t before considered.  Faking it. Would she have?  During any of it—all of it—had Olivia?  How in the hell would he know if she had?  He didn’t have any other experiences to draw from, no memories to rely on, nothing to assure him it was normal—real—when the muscles in her legs quivered before she came, or how her breathing deepened to the point that Elliot couldn’t tell if her lungs were even filling anymore.  He didn’t know if her moans had been genuine, fueled solely by the pleasure he had, egotistically, assured himself he was giving her, and he didn’t know if her bucks and thrusts and sways were due to the feelings he had created inside of her or merely a rehearsed tactic to speed things along— Holy fuck.  What was he doing?  Olivia and he were staring down the barrel of a loaded gun clutched in the unforgiving hand of the NYPD’s upper brass and all Elliot could suddenly think about was his fucking, male ego.

“How many lies are we gonna tell before this is over?” Olivia asked. 

“You’ve lied?” Elliot returned, his insecurities too heightened for him to give a second thought to any work related untruths Olivia may have told for the sake of protecting him as well as herself.  In thirty seconds’ time he had once again become stuck in the corner stall in the ladies’ room at Raspberry Vodka, Olivia’s moans and demands echoing in his head.  Sounds he had never before heard from her, sounds he had trusted and let direct his movements, sounds that he was now begging his mind to recreate so he could analyze them.

“Not exactly.”

“Not exactly?”  He risked a glance at her, relieved to find her still staring outside of the passenger’s side window.  He needed to focus, and it needed to be on something other than his flagging self-esteem.  Besides, what did he have to worry about?  It wasn’t like he had a list of complaints in his past that he had to worry about keeping hidden in hopes of avoiding embarrassment.  But then again, who was there in his past to complain?  An ex-wife.  And just the fact that ‘ex’ now preceded Kathy’s status in his life might make some people wonder just what had been the most difficult factor to ignore as far as the ‘irreconcilable’ portion of their differences went. 

“What, uh.”  He cleared his throat, the sound grating and deep, enough on the nervous side that it was impossible for his ebbing ego to remain inconspicuous.  “What’s that mean, not exactly?”

Olivia turned towards him, a smile cocking her lips.  “What’s it mean?” she asked with a shake of her head.  “It means… We’ve been having a conversation, Elliot.  For the last five minutes we’ve been talking about—” Laughter, low and muffled, interrupted her, followed by a stronger shake of her head.  “It’s nice to know I have your full attention.”

Jesus Christ.  If the car wasn’t so dark, so complete, she would know just how much of his attention she had.  It wouldn’t be hearsay or inadmissible or circumstantial.  If the fucking dome light took on a mind of its own and popped on, the evidence would be blatant and clear.  An indisputable, hard fact.  “You have my attention,” he said, too quickly to hide the fact that, even though they had both been talking, their conversations didn’t have anything to do with each other.  “But you still haven’t answered my question.  What does ‘not exactly’ mean?”

“It means…” Olivia took in a breath, Elliot’s tangled scent of cologne and sweat and piquant fish overpowering her senses.  “I wasn’t exactly truthful with Cragen.  In his office last night, I danced around his questions and he knew I was doing it.”

“You danced?” he asked, winking in her direction.

“Would you let go of the fucking Electric Slide?  I’m not doing it for you or with you.”

Elliot chuckled with her as a distinct shade of green filtered through the car, only slightly overpowering the ominous color of black that had been so complete when he had squealed the tires of the jeep in the parking lot, exiting noisily and quickly and with a spray of gravel affirming his departure.  Mood:  Average.  It had taken almost forty miles for the color to make a favorable shift, but he knew unquestioningly as Olivia held her smile, more in teasing than with any traces of anger detectable in the arc of her lips, the shift had been made.

Olivia took in another breath, stronger and more filling.  “Just so you know?” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.  “I haven’t lied to you about anything.”

He nodded once, relieved.  She hadn’t lied to him about anything, which meant both hope and his ego could remain in tact, if only cautiously.  And around the periphery of his guardedness, he saw the noticeable green begin to make a shift of its own.  Towards blue.  And although it was still a dark shade and not entirely recognizable, it was gaining strength.  Mood:  Relaxed.  Ease.  Comfort.  Openness.  One degree away from the dubious color slipping back to black, but also just as close to it converting to something lighter and more propitious.  Purple.

“So, with Cragen and Petrovsky…” His smile appeared as she groaned with both impatience and reluctance.  

“Still don’t want to think about it.  No more than Cragen probably wants to think about…” Her eyelids fell closed and she shook her head, sighing.  “Us.”

“But you have thought about it, haven’t you?  I mean, the two of them…” He found himself suddenly intrigued by the private life of a man—his captain—who he suddenly realized he didn’t know beyond the badge or issued orders or brainstorming sessions to discuss clues and evidence and suspects.  In Elliot’s mind, Donald Cragen had always represented an authority figure, but never the lonely equal that he was when their shifts ended and they filled the temporary roles of civilians.  “I’ve never heard him talk about dating.”

“And he hasn’t ever heard either of us talk about it, either,” Olivia returned.  “Maybe it’s something we’ve all stopped assuming any of us do.”

Elliot directed the car through a turn, spinning the steering wheel to the right before letting it glide through his loosely cupped hands as the car straightened.  “Back at the pond, you said you don’t like to go out anymore, to date.  When’d you start feeling that way?”

“When it became too hard,” she answered simply, lifting her right leg and crossing it over her left one.  She burrowed the backs of her shoulders into the stiff leather behind her, concentrating on the headlight-littered road in front of them instead of an attentive Elliot beside her.  “It’s hard, Elliot, to date.  It’s hard to meet someone new, and even harder to find someone you have anything in common with.  When I was younger it was easier to pretend that some guy’s bullshit interest in stamp collecting or baseball or how many cylinders his car’s engine had mattered to me.  I could play the game just for the sake of seeing if it’d turn into anything more.  But then… I don’t know.  The game changed or I changed, I don’t know which.  I just know that, at some point, I didn’t know how to pretend anymore.  Some guy would want to tell me about his shitty day at work, about losing a high-dollar account, or being late for a meeting, and all I could think about was the last victim we’d interviewed, the latest kid whose life had been ruined.”  She shook her head, releasing a tired breath.  “It just got to be too hard, pretending that I gave a damn.”

“You dated someone who collected stamps?” he asked, chuckling lowly.  He could envision Olivia in his mind, stuck and suffering through mindless conversations with men who were interested but too dense to realize that she wasn’t.  That more than likely, she wouldn’t ever be.  Each poor schmuck would wine and dine her and tell stories about a life that he was sure she would find exciting, not realizing she was far too cynical to become caught up in tales about wealth and professional success and normalcy.

“I didn’t date him; I went on a date with him.  Trust me, one was enough.”

“Usually is, isn’t it?”

“Usually?” Olivia asked, nestling into the seat.  “What?”

“One date.  Since I’ve known you, Liv, that’s always been the magic number.  Just one.”

She glanced out of the window, towards the haze of lights from the city that were coming into view.  “I consider it a long relationship if I get a full evening in.”  She turned back towards him, the denim of her jeans rustling against the leather of the seat.  “Do you know how many first acts I’ve seen at the theater and that’s it?”  She shook her head, frowning.  “I can’t remember the last time I saw the closing credits at a movie or actually ordered dessert after dinner.  Just wait.  Once you start dating…” 

Her words faded as the lights from the city filtered into the car, bringing into view Elliot’s strong profile that, for a while, the darkness had kept hidden.  The profile that was as familiar to her as her own, but suddenly felt as if she were looking at it for the first time.  The distinct shape of his nose, strong jut of his chin, exposed forehead, and natural, downward curve of his lips.  Elliot’s lips… Softer than she had expected, and a more perfect fit against hers than she had ever imagined they would be.  Not that she had imagined often, or would ever admit that she had, at least.  But now imagining and wondering and daydreaming were in the past, because there wasn’t anything left to speculate about.  

Except the future.

“Just so you know,” Elliot teased, “I’ve never collected stamps.”

“Elliot, don’t,” she whispered.  “Don’t make this seem…normal.  Even if we manage to slide by Cragen Monday morning, what do you expect to happen?”

Elliot’s shoulders tightened in conjunction with his fingers forming into a stranglehold around the steering wheel.  And he knew, as soon as the unselfconfident silence once again wedged its way between them, that Olivia’s earlier proposition had been forgotten.  At least by her.  Her bed would continue to be explored only in his thoughts, remaining nothing more than an unproven and untested conjecture.

“If we slide by Cragen…” he began, his words hesitant, working their way around the impatience that was beginning to constrict his chest.  Christ.  Her mood ring was changing so quickly he couldn’t keep up with it.  Maybe she couldn’t either and that was the problem; it had become a fucking strobe light.  Black to green to blue to… The sequence wasn’t relevant, because no matter what order they flashed and combined in, the end result was always the same.  Black.

“If we slide by Cragen,” he continued, “then… Nothing.  Before the day is over, we’ll pick up a case, spend half of the day either working our way through some crime scene or banging our heads against the wall at the hospital trying to get a vic to talk, and then we’ll spend the night exhausted and doing a half ass job with the paperwork.  It’ll be normal, Liv, because that’s all either of us have left ourselves with.  What we see as being normal.”

“I’m not trying to piss you off,” she grumbled.  “Just being realistic.”

“And that’s what you’re best at, the realistic bullshit.”

“In your opinion losing our jobs is bullshit?”

“No, that’ll suck,” Elliot hissed, his knuckles whitening as he applied more pressure to the steering wheel.  “Everything else is bullshit.”

“If you have something to say, Elliot, just say it,” she groaned, propping her elbow on the edge of the door and nestling the side of her face into her hand.  She closed her eyes; the ache in her head that their lighter conversation had managed to temporarily allow her to forget had come back with a vengeance.  It traveled along her jaw line, throb by throb, and cut a traceable path across her forehead before heightening to full strength directly between her eyes. 

Elliot chuckled, far too irritably for it to be mistaken for indulgence.  He had one hundred different things he could say—that he wished he could say—but he knew none of them would make a damn bit of difference.  Olivia was too focused on reality, on the black and nothing else, to let her guard down enough to see any other colors.  The green that didn’t have to signify average but could instead represent above average, and the blue whose meaning didn’t have to be restricted to relaxed but could be expanded to include contented.  But Elliot knew—the past twenty years as a husband and father had shown him at times when he needed to be shown most—that when things were blackest, other colors could still shine through.  If you looked hard enough for them.  But it was hard work to find them; the hard work that Olivia had made it clear she didn’t feel, in the end, was worth her expended energy.

He took in a breath, swirling the hot air between his cheeks.  Releasing it in a gush, he heard Olivia grumble with expectance towards his failure to pick up on her unspoken command to shut up.  “You’re a quitter,” he announced. 

“I’m a…” Olivia chuckled resignedly, pressing the tips of her fingers into her forehead.  “I’m too tired for this right now.”

“You’re a quitter, Olivia,” he repeated, louder and more forcefully.  “You’ve quit on every relationship you’ve ever been in, including this one.  Things get tough, the work gets harder, bam.  You quit.” 

“It’s not gonna work,” she whispered.  “Trying to start a fight.”

“Who’s trying to start one?”

“You,” Olivia sighed, flattening the palm of her hand over her forehead.  “You want to say I’m a quitter, Elliot?  Fine.”  She shook her head, her eyes narrowing as the invasive lights of the city began to reflect off of the windshield, creating kaleidoscope streaks across the dusty glass.  “Say whatever you want, just keep driving.  My head’s killing me.”

He could say whatever he wanted, but he couldn’t make her hear him, Elliot knew that much.  When it came to the job, she could accept others’ opinions and theories.  She could—and willingly did—use others’ insight to push her further along in an investigation.  But when it came to her personal life, to her, she only ever heard one perspective.  Her own.  And everyone else’s viewpoint could be damned as far as her pessimistic mind was concerned.

“It’s already two strikes,” Elliot mumbled, turning his head a fraction and tracking a light-colored SUV as it sped past them in the opposite direction.  

“Two strikes?” Olivia asked, scrunching her nose as she moved the tip of her index finger in circular motions in the center of her forehead.  “What the hell does that mean?”

“First strike was when you ran off to Computer Crimes, second was when you ran to Oregon.  You run this time, Liv, and it’s the third strike.”

“Who said I was running anywhere?  Right now I’m trying like hell to think of a way for us to keep our jobs.  If I didn’t care, what happens tomorrow morning wouldn’t matter to me.”  She dropped her hand into her lap, tilting her head from side-to-side and stretching out the tensed muscles in her neck.  “And you know, I’m getting tired of having Computer Crimes and Oregon thrown in my face all the time.  I left, okay.  And both times I felt I had damn good reasons for doing it.  So, let it go.”  She let her head fall back against the headrest, squinting as a line of cars came towards them with their headlights bright and blinding.  “Besides, if anyone should know about quitting, it’s you.  You quit on twenty years with Kathy, right?  But I’ve never thrown that up in your face.”

“Hey, it was Kathy’s decision—”

“Kathy just took the extra step to make it official.  But you left her a long time before she told you it was over.  So, why don’t you figure out your own bullshit instead of spending so much time calling me on mine.”

“You see my divorce as bullshit?” he asked quickly.

“No.  I see your excuses for why it happened as bullshit.”  She laughed softly, with incredulity, and closed her eyes to block out the intense lights that pierced the windshield.  “You hide behind this job just as much as you accuse me of doing.  Every time you screwed up at home, a case or a victim was always your excuse.  You couldn’t ever admit that it was you, Elliot, just you.  You couldn’t admit that you lost sight of the one thing you’ve always told me is most important, the one thing you’ve always said I couldn’t understand.  So, no more lectures, okay?  Maybe I’ve sacrificed some things for this job, but it wasn’t my marriage and family.  At least I understand enough to know there’s no way to do both justice if you try to have them at the same time.”

“It’s not really a sacrifice when you don’t have anything to lose.”

She opened her eyes in mid-roll, chuckling.  “Just because you see yourself as the martyr of Special Victims doesn’t mean anyone else does.”

“I’m a martyr?”

“Haven’t we already had this conversation?  Yeah, Elliot, you’re a martyr.  You’ve always been one.”

“Okay,” he responded, his voice low and disagreeing.  “Then what’re you?”

Olivia shook her head, taking in a breath, and letting the thick air roll down her throat along with the harsh words that her irritation had formed.  Because she knew if they were said, they wouldn’t ever be able to be taken back, and they sure as hell wouldn’t ever be forgotten.  “Tired,” she finally answered.  “Too tired for this pissing match, at least.”

Elliot didn’t retaliate with either words or a glance in her direction.  Because he knew if he said anything else she wouldn’t hear him and if he looked in her direction, he wouldn’t be able to see her.  Not at that moment, maybe not ever again.  

Because everything had once again faded to black.

+++

Elliot didn’t know why he had followed her inside.  Olivia hadn’t asked him to and each of her heavy steps as they made their way through the quiet building made it clear that she didn’t want him to.  But when they pulled up to the curb, the street dark and deserted and with over twenty minutes of silence festering between them, he had turned off the car and was already one step behind her in the lobby before realizing it.  He was tired of fighting, tired of trying to second-guess her mood, tired of feeling like he had fucked up, and even more tired of trying to figure out exactly when and how he had.  But when she unlocked the door to her apartment, swinging it open and crossing over the threshold ahead of him, he continued to follow.  Because it was easier to keep the anger and awkwardness between them than suffer through an uncomfortable end to an evening that had fallen so far below either of their expectations.

Expectations. What had he expected?  An impromptu dinner where the main course would consist of easy laughter and idle conversation and flirtatious glances?  He had asked Olivia out for Christ’s sake, not some clueless woman whose biggest worry in life was whether or not her designer shoes coordinated with her overpriced, modish outfit.  He had known even before he dialed her telephone number and asked her to make the drive to Mel’s Seafood Palace with him that their conversation would be anything but idle.  It would have a purpose, Olivia would make sure of it.  Because she made damn sure that every one of her actions and words were functional and had a point, a clear-cut intent.  Except once, the one—what she viewed as unforgivable—time when she had acted on instincts only and let down her guard in the corner stall of the ladies’ room in Raspberry Vodka.  And if she couldn’t even forgive herself for giving into one act of spontaneity, Elliot knew that she sure as hell wouldn’t be able to forgive him for, the first time in nine years, not overriding her irrationality with a good slap across the face of common sense.  It was what she relied on him most for, to help her find her focus—her sagacity—again when her control was stolen by rarely acted upon emotions.

“Damn it.”

Elliot let her voice pull him out of his thoughts, his gaze drifting through the sliver of space Olivia had left between the bathroom door and frame.  She stiffened her arms, leaning into the tile-topped counter, and let her head drop forward.  From his vantage point, Elliot could see the purplish bruise that covered the left side of her face, and could hear the tiredness in her voice as she issued another, more quietly spoken, “Damn it.”

He pushed open the wooden barrier, walking lightly, unobtrusively, and came to a cautious stop behind her.  In the mirror, he watched her eyes shift, rise, and saw a pain fill them that had been engendered by so many—too many—obvious sources.  He smiled, expending the energy to lift only one corner of his mouth, and left his gaze locked onto her unreadable brown eyes.  Raising his hands, he dragged his fingers across her shoulders, ruffling the wispy ends of her hair.  He dug into her tensed muscles, pushing and prodding and applying more pressure as she dropped her shoulders downward and relented to his touch with a throaty moan.

He slid his hands up her tight neck, her knotted muscles serving as bumpy paths to guide his movements, and pressed the tips of his fingers into the base of her skull.  “Still hurt?” he asked, staring into the mirror, not breaking his stare.

“Yeah,” she whispered.  

“Doesn’t have to.  There’re things you can do to make it hurt less, Liv.”

“It’d just be temporary relief.  And when that wears off, chances are it’ll hurt even worse.”

“Or it might just make it go away all together.”

“It’s not going to go away, Elliot.”  She tilted her head back, falling into his gentle touches.  

“Then it’s time to make a choice,” he said, his voice soothing, soft, but demanding that she let go of her anger long enough to hear him.  “Cragen’ll say we can’t have both, we already know that.  So, what do you want more?”

“What am I choosing between?” she asked, leaning forward just enough for his fingers to fall away from her scalp.  She held onto his stare through their tensed reflections in the mirror, not blinking or balking.  Not attempting to do what she knew he expected her to do, maybe what she wanted most to do.  Run.  “We’re talking about our jobs, who we are, versus…” She shrugged a shoulder, unmistakable realism hastily chasing the look of pain out of her eyes.  “Sex.  Because there’s no other way to define what’s happened between us.  You aren’t in love with me, and I’m…not…”

“There’s no rule that says we have to be, not after just a couple of days.  You think I knew after Kath and I went out the first time that I’d spend the next twenty years with her?”  He shook his head.  “It doesn’t work that way, that fast.  Not for anyone.”

“You had something with Kathy.”

“Maybe I have something with you.”

She turned around, becoming flush against the counter.  Elliot was close, his breath warming her face, each of his exhales becoming her inhales, his smell melding with hers until she could no longer separate them.  He was too close for comfort, too close to hide from, and too damn close to lie to.  “You know what we’re like?” she asked.  “Those people you read about who think they’ve fallen in love after surviving some horrible experience together.  It’s the rush of adrenaline—the fear—that brings them together.  It’s the experience, not them.  But once the shock and excitement wear off, there’s nothing to replace it.  And that’s who we are, Elliot.  Every day we share that rush of adrenaline, but if it’s taken away, what do we have?”

“I don’t know what we’ll have, because the rush of adrenaline is the only thing we’ve ever given a chance.”

“And Monday morning at seven o’clock, there’s a good chance we won’t have that anymore.  And I don’t want to be left with nothing.  So, if you’re asking me to choose, if you’re saying that’s what I have to do, then… I have to go with the sure thing.”

Elliot took a step backwards, folding his arms slackly in front of him.  She would stick with the sure thing, the sure fucking bet, even though it hadn’t proven to be anything more than a parasite in her life.  The fucking job, the broken victims, the excruciating hours, the unimaginable devastation and frustration, the constant sacrifice of her time and wants and dreams and self.  The ongoing bullshit that they all endured but had, at different times of either weakness or fictitious clarity, decided was worth every second that they suffered through.  Even though their submission did nothing more than strengthen the parasite that continued to grow by ingesting their lives minute by minute, day by day, year by year, and who wouldn’t stop its self-seeking consumption until nothing remained.  Of her, of him, or of them.

He took another step that delivered him over the threshold of the doorway into the unlit living room.  Muffled by the low-lying shadows, hanging thickly in the artificially chilled air, he heard indistinct moans and whimpers and hesitantly admitted truths that neither of them had ever dared say before.  And he wondered if the shadows were preserving each until they were relived again, or if they hid within their indistinctness the parasite that would continue, if ignored, to feed until every memory and possibility was devoured, leaving them with what Olivia seemed to fear most.  Nothing.

Or maybe it was simply what she expected, because it was the most she’d ever had.

Elliot cleared his throat, motioning with a tilt of his head toward the bathtub on the far side of the room whose rim was littered with half-used bottles of shampoo and conditioner and shower gels.  “Why don’t you soak in a hot bath for a while?” he suggested as Olivia’s gaze followed his to the beige-colored tub.  “It might help the headache, and while you’re doing that I’ll make us a pot of coffee.  We’re gonna need it because I have a feeling we’re gonna be up for a while.”

“Elliot, c’mon.  We’re both exhausted.”

He turned halfway, facing the darkness of the living room, the parasite that was taunting him with its mouth wide open and stomach empty.  “We’ve got until seven o’clock Monday morning,” he said, glancing down at his watch.  “That only leaves us...just short of thirty hours.  So, you might want to hurry with that bath.”

+++

“Did the bath help your headache?” Elliot asked, his back to the kitchen doorway as he filled two mismatched mugs with black coffee.  He’d had to use every tactic learned through his years working as a detective just to find the nearly empty can of Folgers shoved to the back of the cabinet above the refrigerator.  She rarely drank it anymore, it was one more change he had fought getting used to since her return from Oregon.  But he also knew there were still parts of her unchanged, and one of those was her willingness to give him a win when her exhaustion was the only weapon she had left to fight with.

“The hand full of Motrin I took didn’t hurt either,” she said, combing her fingers through the sides of her steam-dampened hair.  She leaned a shoulder into the smooth, wooden doorframe, nodding toward the full pot of black, murky liquid.  “I’m surprised you found any coffee.”

“Almost didn’t,” Elliot answered, curving his fingers through the looped handles of the cups and turning towards her.  He stopped short, the liquid sloshing within its stoneware boundaries, as his eyes made a slow—and obvious—dissection of her.  Her hair was unkempt, the ends darkened from soaking in the water when she had laid back in the tub, and her face was scrubbed clean of every trace of make-up.  Her right cheek glowed with a robust rose hue, contrasting with the blend of blue and black that stained her left cheek.  She was dressed casually, comfortably, in loose fitting sweat pants, a stark white that made the natural bronze color of her skin appear even darker.  But even though he saw it all, the complete package, his gaze continually returned to the snug fitting tank top whose hem fell only slightly below her bellybutton and thin straps hugged her shoulders.  Purple.  Maybe it was lavender, maybe lilac.  Hell, he’d never been able to tell the difference.  All he knew, undeniably, without question, and in every twisted vein in his sleep deprived brain, was that it was purple.

“Nice, uh.”  He walked across the room, waiting until she pushed off of the doorframe and straightened before handing her a mug.  “Shirt.”

Olivia glanced down, shrugging a shoulder before settling the rim of the cup against her pale lips and taking a drink. 

“Good color,” Elliot added, sliding past her and heading into the living room.  “Looks good on you.  Purple.”  He stopped beside a sparsely decorated end table, reaching beneath the shade of the lamp that sat on top of it and twisting its grooved-edge switch.  

“Thanks,” Olivia said, sounding more questioning than flattered as she stepped around him and lowered herself onto one end of the sofa.  She pulled her legs up in front of her, leaning against the cushioned arm and balancing the pale green mug on her raised knee.  Watching as he sat down stiffly on the opposite end of the sofa, her dark brows arched as she took in his haggard appearance.  “You look like shit, Elliot.  Don’t you think we should call it a night, actually get some sleep before we have to face off with Cragen?”

“You mean Donald?” he joked around the rim of his cup before taking a drink.

“No, I mean our captain,” she corrected, leaning over the edge of the sofa and depositing her mug on the coffee table.  “The guy who just happens to have us by the balls right now.”

“All Donald knows for sure is that we had dinner together.  And, okay, he told us to steer clear of each other this weekend, but there’s no rule in the NYPD handbook that says partners can’t eat a meal together.”

“But there is a rule about…” She lifted her eyebrows again, arching them more tautly, looking as if she were preparing to launch into a lecture about an understood policy of expected conduct versus admitting any type of guilt about breaking it.  “Cragen isn’t stupid.”

“I like to think we aren’t either.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning…” He shrugged, balancing his right ankle across his left thigh.  “C’mon, Liv.  If Cragen and Petrovsky were going out for an innocent dinner, they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of driving so far out of the city.  But they did—”

“So did we, Elliot,” she groaned.  “And even if that gives us a tied game at this point, we both know he has the edge on taking the win.”

“Not necessarily.”

“What’re you going to do, threaten him again?”  She rolled her eyes, burying her fingers into the sides of her hair and combing out the wet strands.  “Good plan considering how well it worked the first time.”

“I didn’t—” His feeble excuse became muffled by the smooth edge of the cup as he filled his mouth with stoneware and took another drink.  Slowly, playing for time, he lowered the mug, staring down into the contents that only half-filled it.  “You said you never think about it, what you’re missing.”

“What I’m missing is sleep,” Olivia rebuked through a yawn.

“No,” he disagreed, shaking his head.  “The other stuff.  Life, Olivia.  You said you never think about it.”  He looked up, his expression conveying far more sullenness than curiosity.  “Does that mean you don’t want it, a family?  Are you really happy spending every day trying to climb your way out of someone else’s filth?”

“I knew what this job was all about before I ever signed up for it.”

“No, you didn’t.  No one does.  We just, we all got sucked into it, and by the time we realized it, it was too late.”

Olivia pushed off of the sofa arm, wrapping her arms around her bent legs and leaning closer towards him.  “So, what’re you saying?  Are you done with all of this, Elliot?  What, are you actually hoping Cragen cuts us loose?”

He shrugged, lifting his mug to take a drink but lowering it before the ceramic touched his lips.  “For the right reason, yeah.  Maybe I could be done.”

She chuckled lowly, disagreeably.  “I’m not that reason, Elliot.  I’m sure as hell not the right reason.”

He leaned forward, sliding his cup across the polished wood of the coffee table.  He kept his fingers locked around it for a moment, his eyes narrowing as if he expected it to move without any prodding from him.  “You were right earlier.  With Kath, I used a lot of bullshit excuses.  I couldn’t let this job go, not even for her.  And I never could admit it.”

“That’s a mistake you made with Kathy, not me.”

“It’s a mistake I made with Kathy,” he agreed, settling back into the cushions.  “But it’s also one I learned from and don’t want to repeat.”

“Oh, Jesus.  Elliot.”  She dropped her feet over the edge of the sofa, groaning as they landed on the floor with a vibrating thud.  “You need some sleep, okay?  We both need to get a good night’s sleep before we talk about this anymore.”

“We both need to stop hiding behind the bullshit,” he said sternly, glancing up.  “I know you think about it.  You can say you don’t, but I know you do.  You thought about it before you found Simon, and you think about it a helluva lot more now.  Family.  It’s the one thing you’ve never had—”

“I had a family,” she reproached, straightening, tensing.  

“You had a mother who was there for you half of the time, if that much.”

“And you had the American dream and turned your back on it.  I’m not the way for you to recapture that dream.”

“Not the one I had with Kathy,” he agreed.  

“Not any one.  I’m…” She sighed, closing her eyes as her head began to throb again.  A grating gnawing at the base of her skull that had been temporarily masked, but had begun to pound again with heightened force.  Reminding her, as she had tried to convince Elliot, that quick fixes didn’t work.  Solutions had to be absolute, otherwise you only gave pain an opportunity to become stronger instead of weaker.  “This isn’t me, Elliot.  I took my marriage vows nine years ago and I’ve never broken them.  This is who I am, who I want to be.  And I’m sorry if—”

“Bullshit.”

“Don’t start again.  Please.  We’re both working off of too little sleep, and I think we need time to think about all of this, to decide—”

“We spend every day trying to put other people’s lives back together, Olivia,” Elliot said, scooting to the edge of the sofa until they were side-by-side with shoulders touching and stares avoiding one another.  “So, when’s it gonna be our turn?  When will it finally be okay to take care of ourselves for once, to work on putting our own lives back together instead of giving so fucking much to everyone else that we don’t have anything left for ourselves at the end of the day?  Because you’re right, that’s what I did with Kathy.  I gave so much to the job that when I got home at the end of the day—if I made it home—I didn’t have anything left for her.  And you’ve given so much that you’ve never had enough left for yourself let alone anyone else.  So, when do we say enough is enough?”

“Not Monday morning.”

He shrugged, his shoulder lifting hers as it rose.  “Gotta start somewhere, don’t we?”

She knocked her hand into the front of his shoulder, pushing him away.  “And then the rush’ll wear off and where will that leave us?”  She jumped to her feet, hurrying around the coffee table and coming to a stop on the opposite side, silently willing its deceitfully irrelevant purpose to once again be redefined.  For it to no longer be an object that could bring them closer together, but one whose help she needed to keep them separated.  “What in the hell is going on with you?  I mean, this…it’s not…it’s…”

“Purple.”

She squinted one eye, leaning forward a fraction with her hands braced on her hips and one knee cocked as if she hadn’t yet decided if she would remain where she was or take off at a full sprint.  “Purple?” she asked with an indistinct shake of her head.  “Jesus, Elliot.  You really have lost it.”

“Maybe I have,” he agreed skeptically, rising to his feet.  “Or maybe…” Maybe he had just found it, or merely just begun to recognize something that he had spent far too much time trying to ignore.

“We aren’t in love, Elliot.”

“No, we’re not.”

“We never will be.  It’s not us, not who we are with each other, to each other—”

He glanced down at the coffee table that stood between them, dried water-streaks still visible across its polished top.  “You said the work is too hard, and if that’s what you think, if the work really isn’t what you want, then why are you working so damn hard at this?”

“At what?”  She slapped at him as he reached for her, skin reverberating against skin as her hand landed against his.

“Us,” he answered simply.  He snagged her hand in his and pulled her forward until their faces were only inches apart, the aroma of too strong of coffee attached to each shallow breath they drenched each other in.  “You wanna know what I think?  You’re not afraid of doing the work, Olivia.  You’re afraid of admitting that you want to do it.”  He released his hold on her, straightening, staring into her darkened eyes.  With a vague smile, a shake of his head that told her he believed more in his theory than her continuous, unproven argument, he stepped around the table and headed towards the bolted front door.

“It’s not that simple,” Olivia said, her unsure voice trailing after him as he stepped through the doorway into the quiet, dimly lit corridor.  “That…easy.”

“No, it’s not.  I think we’ve already established that.”

She walked towards the door, stopping in the center of the room.  “This could be it.  If we don’t…if we…do…” She dropped her head forward, taking in a breath that was a potent combination of coffee and him, air that swirled bitterly in her lungs before finally allowing her to breathe deeply and with ease.  

“Yeah,” Elliot agreed, turning towards her, remaining in the hallway as she took another hesitant step in his direction.  “This could be it.”

“Even if it shouldn’t be?”

He shrugged, disappointment sweeping fleetingly across his tensed face.  Glancing down the long hallway, he buried his hands in the front pockets of his jeans, a metal key ring tangled in his fingers as he slowly brought his left hand back into view.  “Like you said, it is what it is.  You can fight it as long as you want, Liv, but you won’t be able to change it.”  He lifted the key ring, jiggling it.  “I’d better head home.  You’re right, we could both use some sleep.” 

“Elliot.”  She hurried through three more steps that delivered her to the doorway, her gaze traveling tentatively from the compilation of metal grasped loosely in his hand to his face.  “Don’t go.”

He made another quick glance down the hallway, looking equally as surprised as relieved by her softly spoken command.  “What do you want, Liv?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered, twisting her fingers around the even wood of the doorframe.  “But there’s still a full pot of coffee, right?  Maybe we could…” Her voice faded as his smile emerged, and she shook her head, stepping to the side as Elliot passed in front of her.  “We’re just going to talk, Elliot.  I’m not sleeping with you again.”

“No, you’re not,” he said smugly, resuming his spot on the end of the sofa.  “’Again’ implies you’ve done something before, and to the best of my memory, we haven’t actually slept yet.”

Olivia gave the door a push, letting it glide closed unhindered.  “You’re a son of a bitch, Stabler.”

“And you should wear purple more often, Benson,” Elliot said as she settled in beside him.  “It looks good on you.”












































CHAPTER FIVE

It was oddly relaxing, even with so much unsettledness stifling the air.  The melodious sound of Wynton Marsalis’ trumpet chased away the possibility of quietness in the room, taking over the tasks of filling awkward moments when words couldn’t be accurately formed and providing something to focus on, to anticipate, when one song track ended and another was about to begin.

But it was oddly relaxing, Olivia decided, even though she knew it shouldn’t be.  Elliot spending the early hours of the morning—or late hours of the night, depending on perception—stuffed into one end of the sofa with her folded into the other end.  A plastic bag lay between them, defining marked out territories, with a jagged rip down its center from where Elliot had torn it open in expectancy of its cubed prizes inside.  Squared pieces of cheese, stark yellow in color, that had spilled onto the sofa cushion when Elliot dropped the bag between them.  A late night snack, or just another way to pass the awkward seconds when both knew what needed to be said, but neither could figure out how to say it.

“So, um.”  Olivia leaned forward, reaching around her bent legs to snag a piece of cheese that had tumbled into the crack between two cushions.  “How’d you propose to Kathy?”

Elliot smiled, reaching into the ripped top of the bag and removing a piece of cheese.  He studied it for a moment, its exact edges, before shoving it into his mouth.  “How’d I propose?  Why?  You fishing for something, Benson?”

She made a pronounced roll of her eyes, her lips smacking as she chewed.  “Just some peace and quiet.  Don’t flatter yourself.”

“That’s why I keep you around, to make sure I never do that.”

She chuckled, nodding both in agreement and amusement.  “So?  How’d you propose?”

Elliot eased his shoulders into the stuffed backing behind him, reaching into the bag that lay between them.  Tossing the squared food into his mouth, he chewed through it slowly before saying, “We were out, parked somewhere, just talking, and I, uh.  I asked her how long we had before she started to show.”

Olivia nestled the side of her face against the sofa back, looping her arms around her bent legs.  “How could she turn down a proposal like that?”  She laughed softly, with teasing, and reached into the bag, causing its brittle packaging to crackle.  “Smooth, El.”

“Hey, she’d just told me she was pregnant.  I wasn’t exactly thinking about getting down on one knee.  I was more worried about whether or not I could get out of town before her dad and brothers found me.”  He hooked his arms across his chest, his gaze making its way to Olivia’s bare feet situated between them.  “Just wait.  If you ever actually give a guy the chance to propose, you’ll find out it’s not usually violins and candle light—”

“I already know,” she interrupted, her voice low, smooth, harmonizing with a drawn out note from Wynton Marsalis’ flawless talent.  “I’m not as naïve about all of this stuff as you like to think I am.  I’ve had a proposal, and I can tell you it was a helluva lot more romantic than the one you gave Kathy.”

“Your proposal,” Elliot said, nodding, his strong chin lowering until it almost skimmed the top of his chest.  Her propsal.  She had mentioned it in passing from time to time, a young love, a love lost, a love stolen by her mother’s anger and alcoholism.  But she had never ventured into details or actualities, merely spoke about it as if she rarely ever thought about it—or him—anymore.  “So?  How’d he propose?”

“In bed.  After sex.”  Her dark eyebrows rose, arched, not to make a point but to assure him that she was being truthful in her divulgence.  “And I said yes.  I don’t know if I really wanted to marry him, but at the time being married seemed better than…”

“Staying with your mom?” he asked insightfully, nodding as she answered his question with a like gesture.

“She wanted to get married once, my mom.”  Her gaze shifted downward, peeking between her separated knees at the half-empty bag and its remaining, scattered contents.  Glancing back up, staring for a moment, she tried to gauge Elliot’s reaction to her revelation.  When he didn’t offer one, not of overwhelming interest or otherwise, she shrugged a shoulder and plopped a piece of cheese into her mouth.

“I was about thirteen, I think,” she continued through chews.  “His name was Max, Max Wiedenheimer.”  

“Weiden-what?” Elliot asked, tossing a cheese square from his left hand into his right one.

“Heimer,” Olivia enunciated before swallowing the slivery remains of her bite.  “He was older than her.  She met him at work; he was a professor of…” Her dark brows dipped questioningly.  “History, I think.  I never really got to know him; she didn’t bring him to the house very often.”

“So…” Elliot grinned crookedly.  “You could’ve been Olivia Wiedenheimer?  Detective Wiedenheimer?”

“If my mom had her way, I guess.”  Dropping her head forward, she trapped a piece of cheese beneath her fingertip, rolling it from one of its flattened sides to the next, directing it back and forth in front of her on the sofa cushion.  “She woke me up late one night after she’d gotten home from a date, and she told me that Max had proposed to her during dinner.  She, um.”  She frowned, pulling her hand back after Elliot stole the cube out from beneath her finger.   “She seemed happy, and I was happy for her.”

“So, what happened?” Elliot asked, sliding his hand over the top of her foot and curving his fingers around her wriggling toes.

“He came to pick her up one night for a date,” Olivia answered, a nuance of hesitance detectable in her voice.  “It was about a week later, after she’d told me about the proposal.  After I’d let him in the house, while we were waiting for my mom to finish getting ready…” She breathed out deeply, seemingly painfully, as she shoved a piece of cheese along the cushion towards him.  “I said something to him about it, told him I was…excited…about them getting married.”  She glanced up, the slow rise of her eyes alerting him that the climax to her story would be predictably melancholic.  “He didn’t know what I was talking about.  He’d never proposed.”

“He hadn’t…” Elliot began after biting through the center of the spongy, air-warmed cube.  

“My mom never came into the room.  I finally went to check on her, to see what was taking her so long… She’d heard us talking, Max and me, and she was already halfway through a bottle of vodka.  She was…mad…embarrassed, and she started yelling.”

“Let me guess, Professor Wieden-whatever heard her?”

“He heard her,” she confirmed with a defined, slow nod.  “And it wasn’t what you’d call a good drunk night.”  She smiled, a hint of embarrassment causing her full, pale lips to tremble through the coy gesture.  “She said it was my fault that he didn’t want to marry her.  She said…because of me…she didn’t have anything good in her life, that she’d never have anything good or the things she really wanted.  I’d ruined everything for her.”

Elliot picked up a piece of cheese, studying its equally sized sides before tossing it back inside the jagged rip that had split the bag in two.  “I’m sorry, Liv—”

“No,” she said quickly, adamantly, and with a stern shake of her head.  “That’s not why I told you.  I told you because…” She pushed herself up, digging her elbow into the back of the sofa to steady her.  “What I said earlier about the rush of adrenaline being all we had between us?  I wasn’t trying to be metaphoric, Elliot.  I was speaking from experience, my experience with my mom.  With us, it was always there, always between us, the rape…my conception.  And even though I think we both tried hard to connect with each other, it was the only thing that tied us together.  It’s what brought us together, obviously, and it never stopped giving us that rush of adrenaline.  Every argument we had when I was older ended up being about it, no matter what started it.  And even when we were getting along, when things were good between us, it seemed like that’s what our conversations centered around.  Me feeling angry for her and her trying to convince me that I shouldn’t.”  She tightened her arms around her legs, dropping her chin down onto her knees.  “It was a relationship that never stood a chance of working.  Because when you removed from it that one horrible experience, we didn’t have anything else.  And it got to be so tiring, you know, just trying so damn hard to find that something else.  That’s why I… It’s not that I’m afraid of the work, Elliot.  It’s just that I’ve already done it, and I’m too tired to start doing it again.”

“Cubed cheese,” Elliot said, smiling, his heavy brows rising.  “We both like cubed cheese.  It’s something besides our jobs that we have in common.”

Olivia chuckled lowly, shaking her head.  She grabbed a square that was half inside of the bag and half out, tossing it at him.  “Smartass.”

“We both hate Munch’s coffee,” he continued, leaning towards her and placing the tip of his finger on the side of her wrist.  He marked out a tickling path halfway up her forearm before retracing the invisible route back to her hand.  “We both get in pissy moods when we get stuck at our desks for too long doing paperwork.  And, let’s see… We both like jazz music, both hate rap.  Both suck at the whole dating bullshit, both like Chinese food, we’re both A-positive blood type—”

“Okay,” she interrupted, still chuckling.  “I get your point.  But…” Both her voice and laughter faded, giving way to a weighty sigh.  “Is the fact that neither of us can stomach Munch’s coffee enough to—”

“I don’t know if it’s enough,” Elliot broke in, “at least not for the long term.  But it is a start.”

“And what if a start is all we get out of this?”

“Then it turns into a try, and if you don’t try something, Liv, you’ll never know if it’ll work.  You’ll never know if you’ll like it.  It’s kind of like hummus.”

“Hummus?” Olivia asked, her dark brows once again making a harsh dip downwards.

“You said you didn’t like hummus,” Elliot said, nodding, pursing his lips.  “Remember?  It was about, what, maybe five years ago?  Kath and I had that New Year’s Eve party and you came.  When you were filling your plate with food, you passed by the bowl of hummus, said you didn’t like it.”

She rolled her eyes, her shoulders slumping.  “After I’d admitted I’d never had it, you made me try it.”

“And during the evening you single-handedly ate the whole bowl,” he teased.  “Earlier when I was looking for the coffee, I noticed there’s a container of hummus in your fridge.  It’s been five years, Olivia, and you’re still eating it.  If you hadn’t tried it that night, think of what you’d be missing now.”

“You’re actually comparing hummus to… This?”  

“It’s no different than you comparing me to your mom.”

“Elliot, I’m not—”

“Yeah, you are,” he cut in, reclining and propping his crossed feet on the edge of the coffee table.  “Your mother’s rape only connected you to her for the obvious reason, but it wasn’t a basis for the rest of your relationship.  Whatever you didn’t have with her was that way because she chose for it to be.  It was because of her.”

“But it doesn’t change the fact that she couldn’t separate me from her rape, from what was the worst experience of her life—”

“And if she’d never been raped, Liv, if she’d gotten pregnant from a one-night stand or during a long term relationship or after five years of marriage to Professer Wienden-what’s-his-name, it doesn’t mean she would’ve been any better of a mother.  She was an alcoholic.  She drank before she was raped, and chances are good that she would’ve continued to drink even if she hadn’t been raped.  And if that had been the case, with or without that one experience to connect the two of you, she still would’ve been a crappy parent.”

“Okay…” she returned, her voice dragging contemplatively.  “So, how am I comparing the two of you?”

“Because you’re letting experiences define the relationships instead of letting the relationships define themselves.”

“Profound, Stabler,” Olivia remarked, her lips curving downwards tightly as her eyebrows arched.  “Now you wanna explain what in the hell it means?”

“It means…” He reached for her, grasping a clump of her hair in his hand, twisting it in his fingers, and studying the silky strands as they slid across his skin.  “This job brought us together, and because of it we’ve shared experiences that only we can understand.  And you’re right, there’s also a rush that we share because we get it from the same, horrible source.  But the rush doesn’t define us.  It’s a part of us, always will be.  But it isn’t us.  We’re…” He shrugged, the cottony material of his shirt bunching around his shoulders.  “Two people who both like hummus and cubed cheese and jazz music.  And maybe, when it’s all said and done, that’s enough.”

“Wynton Marsalis and Charlie Parker,” she announced firmly, nodding as his expression fell with questioning.  “It might all be categorized as jazz, but our tastes are different.  I like Marsalis; you only listen to Parker.  So, even if things seem the same on the surface, once you’re forced to strip away the layers, everything is different and sometimes you don’t like what you end up with.  And that’s what we have right now, Elliot, a ‘surface’ that works for us, that we know how to make work.  But if you start trying to make it more, trying to make it what it’s not supposed to be—”

“Then you learn to accept the differences, and sometimes, when you’re lucky, you find out they aren’t really differences at all.  They’re just things you needed someone else to show you, to convince you to try, before you figured out you really do like them.”

“Like hummus,” she whispered, unconvinced.  

“Like hummus.”

She chuckled softly, with an insinuation of giving up.  “Your analogies suck.”

He shrugged, tightening his hold around her foot.  “So do your excuses.”

Sighing, the fringes of her warm, heavy breath reaching his hand and prickling his skin, she whispered into the ironic silence that followed Marsalis’ final note of Just Friends and preceded his enthusiastic introduction to You Don’t Know What Love Is, “I think you should go home.”

“You think…” Elliot’s hand fell away from her stilled foot, dropping heavily, palm up, onto the cushion.  “That’s what you want?  For me to go?”

“It’s what I think you should do.”

“Doesn’t answer my question.  Is it what you want me to do?”

She glanced up, finding his intense stare waiting for her.  With an imperceptible shake of her head and even less of a smile, she whispered, “Yeah.  But…” She leaned forward, closer, and wrapped one of her fingers around one of his.  “Not for the reason you think, and not because of another excuse.  I just, I need some time, Elliot, time to figure out what we’ve been doing, what we’re thinking about doing, and if the changes it’ll bring are what I really want.  And you need to think about it, too.”

She scooted forward, folding her legs and dropping her knees down onto his bulky thigh.  “This has all been crazy.  It hasn’t been us, and I think we both need to take a step back and figure out what in the hell is going on.  Because what’s happened this weekend… It can’t keep happening, not just because we’re lonely or, I don’t know.  Because we need someone else close just temporarily.  And if those are the only reasons all of this has happened, we have to stop.  Otherwise, we’ll lose everything, and I’m not talking about our jobs.”

Elliot nodded, a look of sullenness overpowering the optimism that had, a moment earlier, been noticeable in his eyes.  But now that optimism had become stuck in his throat, and he fought it down with a dry swallow that sent it on a grueling and singeing trek to the pit of his stomach.  He let his feet slide off of the edge of the water-streaked table, dropping them heavily onto the floor before climbing arduously to his feet.  Without looking back, without offering a glance or good-bye, he headed towards the bolted front door.

“Elliot,” Olivia called, straightening, still nestled on the sofa with the cheese cubes scattered haphazardly beneath her legs.  As he turned, only offering her half of a reluctant glance, she smiled.  With a hint of encouragement, with a flicker of optimism, but with an underlying look of inconclusiveness.  “I’m not saying no.  I’m saying… I’m not sure.  I don’t know if I’m ready for so much—for us—to change.  I’m not even sure if it’s the right change to make, and I just need some time to think about it.”

He nodded, just once, his face remaining tilted downward as the vague gesture came to an abrupt end.  “Alone.”  He took in a breath, one that inflated his chest. 

“It is Sunday,” she responded.  “The day we said decisions would be made.  So, let’s stick to our plan.  Just once since all of this started, let’s stick to some type of plan.”

He turned toward the door, pulling it open by its tarnished brass knob.  As the metal squeaked in soft retaliation to his forcefulness, he heard his own voice replay in his mind from hours earlier, “You know, I was thinking… It’s Sunday somewhere.”  It was Sunday.  Their day of reckoning, or possibly just finding their way back to their senses, or a day of change.  A day of further change, change he hadn’t known how much he wanted until he caught his first glimpse of Olivia in her Raspberry Vodka uniform, but now one he couldn’t imagine not working through.  With her.  

“It’s just one day,” Olivia said, her soft murmur pulling Elliot out of his thoughts.

Elliot glanced back, nodding, offering a weak smile that was visible only fleetingly.  “Or it could be more,” he said, stepping into the dimly lit hallway.  “You decide, Olivia.  Stop being so afraid for once and decide.”

As the door closed, the click of the barrier once again connecting to the frame and echoing softly through the quiet as Wynton Marsalis’ trumpet was once again, temporarily, silenced, Olivia deflated on the sofa.  She stretched out, her bare feet finding the warmth on the cushion where Elliot had sat looking hopeful, sounding hopeful, and trying to convince her to believe in a foreign hopefulness she had never before witnessed in him.

Hopefulness.  Elliot.  It was an odd coupling at best.  And adding herself into the mix would only, possibly, introduce a third wheel that would be often times overlooked and forgotten.  And hopefulness, she knew, would get remanded to the unwanted third wheel ranking.

Or.

She pulled herself up, stifling a yawn as she climbed off of the sofa and headed towards the kitchen.  Meandering through the unlit room, she stopped in front of the refrigerator and tugged open the stubborn door.  Reaching inside, she retrieved a circular, plastic container before grabbing a half-empty, crumpled bag of potato chips off of the cabinet.  Glancing down at the lidded bowl, she made her way back into the living room as Wylton Marsalis’ trumpet serenaded her with the soulful, What Is This Thing Called Love.  She flopped back down on the sofa and ripped off the hard, plastic lid of the bowl, staring down into the half-eaten dip, studying it, savoring it even though she hadn’t yet taken a bite, but knowing from experience that it would taste good.  It would be satisfying, enjoyable, and just what she needed to alleviate her hunger.

“If you don’t try something, Liv, you’ll never know if it’ll work.  You’ll never know if you’ll like it.  It’s kind of like hummus.”

“You’ll never know,” she whispered, dipping a crispy chip into the goo.  “Just like hummus.”

+++

7:17

Olivia glanced up from her desk, seeing the instant shift of Elliot’s eyes as he diverted his gaze from her to the disorganized stack of papers and files in front of him.  She resituated in her chair, the springs beneath the worn seat squeaking in retaliation to her heavy, abrupt movements.  

7:18  

She had arrived at the precinct twenty minutes before Elliot, pouring her first cup of stale coffee at six thirty-two, and having managed only two, hard to swallow sips by the time he arrived at six fifty-three.  They had exchanged “good mornings,” if only stiffly, and had spent the rest of their times at their desks ignoring each other and pretending like hell to be completely caught up in paperwork and telephone messages.

7:19

“Where the hell is Cragen?” Elliot grumbled around the brittle rim of his Styrofoam cup, wincing as he swallowed a pungent mouth full of lukewarm coffee.  “Told us to be here at seven sharp, and he hasn’t even called in to say he’ll be late.”

“Maybe he’s stuck in traffic,” Olivia offered, shuffling through papers.

“Or maybe he’s trying to make us sweat it out.”

“He could have a good excuse, Elliot.”

“Or he could just be acting like an ass.”

“Hey.”  Their gazes rose simultaneously, Olivia’s filled with warning and Elliot’s with impatience.  “You go into the meeting with this attitude and we are screwed.  Think you can try and calm down before he gets here, at least give us a fighting chance?”

“I’m not gonna kiss his ass,” Elliot rebuked, reclining stiffly in his chair.  “You want to, be my guest.  But if he’s already decided to cut us loose there’s nothing we can do to change his mind.”

“I don’t intend to kiss his ass,” she scoffed, sighing.  “But I don’t want to piss him off as soon as he walks in the door, either.”

“News flash,” Elliot returned smugly.  “He’s already pissed.”

“Because you acted like a jerk at the restaurant.”

He grumbled under his breath, lunging forward in the chair and falling heavily against his desk.  He shook his head, rifling noisily through papers and sneaking glances at her when he could no longer feel her heated stare concentrated in his direction.  “How, uh.”  He shrugged as she fell still, an ink pen steadied in her right hand and her left hand hovering above her computer keyboard.  “How was your Sunday?  Do anything?”

“Slept,” she replied, tapping quickly through a combination of keys.  “Watched some TV.  Finally cleaned out my linen closet.”  She shrugged.  “How about you?”

“Stayed busy,” he mumbled.  He had spent the majority of his time sulking, just as she had accused him of doing so well.  He had fought his way, unsuccessfully, through twenty minutes of sleep, had drowned his wounded ego—and throbbing appendage—in a frigid shower, had gulped down a breakfast that consisted of strong, black coffee, a lunch of salty potato chips, a dinner that was a bowl of melted butter with a few kernels of popcorn tossed in for substance, and had spent the rest of his time wandering around the apartment watching the damn clock on the wall whose stubborn hands wouldn’t move fast enough.

He laughed to himself, with irony.  Why in the hell had he been so anxious for the day to end?  He had been a few sympathetic hours away from Black Monday, and he had refused to relax through them.  Sunday was a day of decision making, but Monday had been singled out as the day of reckoning.  

“Good.  You’re here.”  Cragen’s tense voice broke through the uncomfortable silence, commanding both Elliot’s and Olivia’s stares. 

“Been here,” Elliot returned, watching the captain make his way quickly, with heavy steps, past their desks without offering so much as a glance.  “Seven AM sharp, remember?”

Olivia scrunched her eyes closed, dropping her head forward.  Shit.  Elliot didn’t intend to kiss ass, just like he had proclaimed.  He had come into work with the intention of kicking ass, and it was obvious he didn’t care whose it was.  Cragen’s, hers, or just some poor schmuck who happened to be at the wrong place on Elliot Stabler’s time.

“In my office,” Cragen demanded, shoving open his office door and flipping on the overhead light.  By the time the detectives arrived, he had already situated himself behind his desk, looking as impatient as Elliot did.  “Let’s hear it,” he directed as they stopped at opposite ends of the desk, Elliot’s arms knotted tightly, defiantly, across his chest with his hands balled into fists, and Olivia’s hands buried deep into the front pockets of her slacks. 

“What?” Elliot asked, raising a shoulder.

“What?” Cragen barked, his narrowed eyes immediately diverting to Olivia.  “Talk to me, Olivia.”

Olivia’s mouth fell open, a vibration erupting at the top of her throat that refused to strengthen enough to form words.  She redistributed her weight from her left leg to right one, shrugging.  “It was just dinner, Captain.  Nothing else.”

“And the thirty minutes of dead air time at Raspberry Vodka, was that nothing?”

“That was…” She cringed inwardly, feeling Elliot’s eyes on her.  Maybe he was daring her to tell the truth, or maybe expecting her to lie again.  Or maybe, finally, he was waiting for some type of validation.  “Captain, at, uh, at Raspberry Vodka—”

Cragen raised his hand, bringing an end to Olivia’s stammering.  “Before you dig a deeper hole for yourself, Detective, I’ve read Wyatt McGrath’s statement.”

“You’re actually gonna believe anything that prick has to say?” Elliot asked quickly, an angry smile taking root on his lips.  

“What I’m doing,” Cragen began sternly, “is asking why McGrath is claiming that he saw the two of you come out of the bathroom together the night Harley Jacobson was attacked.  He’s also claiming that you gave Olivia six hundred dollars, three hundred of which he took for both the club’s payment and Jacobson’s.  Money that, uh, for lack of a better explanation, was paid for services rendered.”

“I had receipts to account for all of the money that was missing when we wrapped up the assignment,” Elliot argued, the smoothness in his voice causing Olivia to take in a loud, guilty breath.  “Fifty dollars plus some change, that’s all that was missing from the eighteen hundred I was given.”  He shrugged, far too casual to be believable.  “You do the math.”

“And you lose the attitude,” Cragen retorted, leaning back tiredly in his chair.  He ran the blunt ends of his fingernails across his chest, scratching and digging at his shrouded skin.  “Someone tell me something, because I’m gonna have questions to answer once McGrath’s statement is made public.  And I’d prefer not to look like a complete jackass doing it.”

Olivia tensed, her own words beginning to swirl mercilessly in her mind and taunt her,  “Fuck me, Elliot.  Here.  Now.  Fuck me.”  She swallowed a breath, what little was left of her waning optimism, and inadvertently fingered the gold shield affixed to her belt.  “We, um, we were in the bathroom together.  But we, I mean…I was going to… McGrath was pressuring me, Captain, to go in the back with Warren Jenkins and Tristan Merrick.  Everyone in the club already thought Elliot was interested in me, that’s the way we’d played it out.  So, when McGrath said I had to go in the back, Elliot stepped in.  We went into the bathroom…for a while…and when we came out McGrath was there.  Elliot had to give me the money.  We had to…it had to seem…believable.”

“Then why’s only fifty dollars missing?” Cragen pressed, dragging his fingers down the side of his neck.

“To avoid this,” Elliot grunted.  

“To avoid this, uh huh.”  Cragen muttered a throaty, “Damn,” once again digging at his chest with his stubby nails.  

“Hey, Cap’n,” Fin said, poking his head through the doorway as he made two quick taps against the metal frame with his fist.  He scowled in recognition of the glances his arrival garnered, grunting irritably, “Wanted to let you know Munch and I are in the house today.  The Roselli case got postponed.”

“Postponed?” Cragen admonished, shifting uncomfortably in his chair.  “Why the hell was it postponed?  Novak said she was ready.”

Fin shrugged, jutting out his lower lip.  “Doesn’t have anything to do with that.  It’s something about Petrovsky taking sick leave.  Could be at least a week.  Novak said she heard the judge has a nasty case of poison ivy.”  He attempted a smile, only managing to partially lift one side of his mouth.  “Sure as hell would like someone to tell me how you get into poison ivy with all this damn concrete around.”

As Fin pushed off of the wall and disappeared, Elliot made a slow turn back towards the captain, his gaze landing fleetingly on Olivia as she fought a smile.  “Poison ivy…” he said lowly, with exaggerated contemplation.  “That’s, uh… It’s kind of…”

“Yeah.  Kind of is,” Olivia agreed, her voice barely audible as Cragen groaned through another angry pass across his chest with his fingers.  

“You know, Cap,” Elliot added, leaning over the desk with his eyes narrowed as he studied Cragen’s flushed face.  “That rash on your neck, think you should have it checked out?  It doesn’t look too good.  In fact…” He dropped his hands onto the desktop, supporting himself.  “I was a kid the last time I had it, but that looks like poison ivy to me.”  He glanced back over his shoulder, nodding and motioning for Olivia to step closer.  “What do you think, Liv?”

“Maybe some Calamine lotion?” Olivia suggested, peeking over Elliot’s shoulder and scrutinizing the crimson-colored rash that had become visible above the captain’s starched shirt collar.  “I’ve heard it helps with the itching.”

“Might take away some of the sting, too,” Elliot added, his lips quivering into a fleeting, albeit conquering smile.  

“I don’t think we opened it up for discussion,” Cragen barked, glaring in rebuttal to their matching smirks.  “The last I knew the two of you were part of the NYPD, not AMA.  So, do me a favor?  Stop busting my balls and just tell me whether or not there’s a reason for me to split up the two of you.”

“Split us…up?” Olivia asked with a tinge of confusion.  “New partners?”

“If there’s a reason for it to happen, you know it has to,” Cragen said sternly.  “So I’d appreciate a straight answer from at least one of you for once.”

“If you don’t try something, Liv, you’ll never know if it’ll work.  You’ll never know if you’ll like it.”  Olivia heard Elliot’s words clearly enough to startle her, and she took a quick step back from the desk.  She stared at Elliot’s back, studying the width of his shoulders and neck, the strength in his hands as he pushed off of the desk and straightened, and as he moved closer, she pulled in a whiff of his cologne.  Of him.  He made a backwards step that delivered him to her side.  Where she was used to him being, where she expected him to always be, where she trusted him to remain.

Where he had promised he wanted to be if she was willing to let a crazy, unexpected beginning become an honest try. 

“Yeah,” she said, her eyes widening fleetingly towards her own surprise for having spoken out loud.  She didn’t offer any words or movements of apology as both Cragen and Elliot’s attention fell on her, both silent and stunned, merely added, “There’s a reason why you should.”

Cragen nodded expectantly, scratching his reddened his neck.  “There’s a reason,” he repeated, disgruntled, as the phone on his desk began to chime, slicing through the awkwardness that had settled stiflingly in the room.

“There’s a reason?” Elliot whispered, turning his back to the captain as Cragen barked an impatient greeting into the telephone receiver.

Olivia nodded crookedly, watching Elliot’s lips flicker, never rising into a smile, but not falling completely into a frown.  “I told you I needed some time alone,” she returned, her voice low, hushed, almost overridden by Cragen’s louder one.  “But the only thing I was able to figure out was that I couldn’t figure out any of it by myself.  So, maybe what we really need is time together.  Some down time, you know, without that rush of adrenaline.”
 
“Detective Tutuola!” Cragen half-screamed, dropping the telephone receiver back onto its cradle.  “In my office!”  He grabbed an ink pen, tapping its end impatiently against the desk until Fin once again appeared in the doorway.  “We have an apparent rape victim being transported to Bellevue.  I need you to meet her in the ER.”

Fin nodded once, the slapdash gesture turning into a shrug.  “I’ll get Munch—”

“You’ll be working with Benson,” Cragen interrupted.  

“Liv?” Fin asked, his face crinkling.  “Why the switch up—”

“I don’t remember inviting you in here so we could play a game of Twenty Questions, Detective,” Cragen snapped, one hand rubbing against his chest while the other dug at his neck.  “If I’m missing anything let me know, but I thought I said something about a victim waiting patiently in a hospital emergency room for you to start doing your job.”

“So, that’s it?” Elliot asked.  “We’re done here?”

“Unless you plan to spend the entire day wasting my time,” Cragen replied edgily.

“No, sir,” Olivia interjected, spinning around and heading towards the door, her steps rushed in comparison to Elliot’s languid ones behind her.

“Cap’n?” Elliot said, punching his palm against the doorframe and stopping himself before exiting the small, cluttered room.  He turned gradually, his arms hooked tightly across his chest by the time the transition was completed.  “At Raspberry Vodka—”

Cragen interrupted the unwanted explanation with a firm shake of his head.  “Don’t say anything else, Elliot.  What I know right now is that we have thirty minutes of dead air time because your wire shorted out when a drink was spilled on your arm.  I have a stack of receipts that verify your claim that only fifty dollars of the city’s money was spent during the assignment, and I have an accusation made by an alleged pimp that we both know isn’t going to hold water.”  He leaned into his desk, steadying himself on his elbows.  “I think we should stick with those facts, don’t you?”

Elliot nodded, taking a step further into the room.  “Then why the martinis at the restaurant?  If you hadn’t sent them to the table, chances are Liv and I never would’ve known you were there.”

Cragen arched an eyebrow, mulling over his response for a dragging minute before saying, “Because I wasn’t hiding, but you were.”

He shrugged, looking more perplexed than accepting of the captain’s answer.  “Then why just the slap on the wrist?  Is it because of Petrovsky?”

“It doesn’t have anything to do with Lena, Elliot.  It has to do with intuition, the intuition that I’ve learned over the years to rely on a helluva lot more than my training.  And that intuition is telling me that every story Olivia and you have fed me so far is bullshit.”  He fell still, staring, relaying through his unwavering eyes that truths didn’t have to be spoken to be clearly heard.  “In the future, save the song and dance routine for someone who’ll buy it.  Because if it wasn’t for the fact that Benson and you are two of the best damn detectives in this unit, I would’ve hung you out to dry instead of risking my own ass to save you.”

Elliot nodded, accepting his reprimand silently, stoically, and headed for the door.

“Detective.”  Cragen straightened in his chair as Elliot glanced back, his face having tensed.  “A woman was almost raped because your partner and you lost your focus.  Something like that happens again and I won’t have any choice but to throw you to the sharks.  I don’t care how good at your jobs you are, those kinds of fuck ups won’t be tolerated in my unit.”

+++

“What was that about?” Olivia asked, situating her holster around her waist as she stopped at the corner of Elliot’s desk.  “Everything okay?”

“We’re good,” Elliot confirmed, forcing a smile.  “Just getting new partners.”

Olivia nodded.  “He split us up.  Guess it wasn’t unexpected.”  She glanced over Elliot’s shoulder towards the captain’s office.  “Elliot, if you’d rather not, if you don’t want this—”

“How about I pick up some Chinese after work and meet you at your place?”

“Chinese…” She shrugged, an interested smile flickering on her lips as their meeting with Cragen shifted in status to a memory.  “Some Crab Ragoon?”

He chuckled as she bobbed her eyebrows flirtatiously.  “Thought you said you don’t like crab?”

She glanced to her left and then right before making a slow pass down the center of his shirt with her fingertip.  “I’ve never really tried it.  So, maybe it’s time I do.”

“That’s all I’ve been asking you to do, Liv.  Just give it a try.”

She nodded as Fin’s gruff voice erupted from the squad room doorway, impatiently instructing her to join him.  “No promises or guarantees, Elliot.  We need to take it slow.”

“You think that’ll be possible, for us to slow down now?”

“Maybe, if we try hard enough.”

He smiled, for the first time relaxed.  “Hey, if I’m paying for dinner, think you could take care of dessert?”

“Dessert,” she sighed, rolling her eyes.  “What’d you have in mind?”

He shrugged a shoulder, grinning.  “The purple tank top.”

“Jesus, Stabler,” she scoffed, spinning on her heels and heading for the door.  “What is it with you and purple all of a sudden?”

“It’s something different for you,” he answered, falling into his chair.  “And now that I’ve finally seen you in it, I like the way it looks.”

+++

The light was muted, sifting softly out from beneath the beige-colored lampshade and casting a relaxing shaft throughout the room.  On the floor, at the corner of the sofa, white sweat pants lay tangled in a heap with a pair of blue jeans that had a silver keychain peeking out from within one slanted, front pocket.  A step beyond, the continuance down an unmapped path, lay an unbuttoned shirt with one sleeve folded unevenly and the other straightened, and two steps further was a pair of striped boxers with the waistband rolled, a sign that it had been tugged at by impatient fingers.  At the end of the haphazard trail that denoted a conversation spoken most clearly when words weren’t used, lay a purple tank top whose slender straps crossed the threshold into the bedroom and body remained wrinkled on the taupe-colored, living room carpet.

Through the doorway, a few short steps into the room, a pale blue-colored comforter was balled, discarded without thought onto the floor.  Light fell across one crinkled end of the blanket before snaking beneath the foot of the bed, a thin beam that snuck silently through the doorway.  On the walls, shadows danced, swaying and bending without sound or technique, unsynchronized effects from the flickering flames that burned steadily in the centers of unsystematically placed candles on the nightstands that bordered the bed.

In the center of the double bed, Olivia lay on her back, her head tilted slightly and eyes shifted upwards a fraction, staring into the relaxed face that hovered above her.  Her skin was tinted subtly with a faint hue of scarlet, an impression created by the subdued glow of the candles, and her hair, wavy and tousled, fanned across a crisp patch of the white sheet beneath her.  She didn’t make a sound as Elliot’s hand roamed freely over her body, no moans of pleasure or resistance.  She merely stared, her darkened eyes exploring his unclothed body as fully as his fingers explored hers.  From where he sat, legs folded in front of him with one knee pressed gently into her side, she could see every inch of him.  The rise of his firm muscles beneath his flesh, the dark, dense hair rooted along his vein-lined forearms and muscular legs, and each freckle and mole and scar that randomly stained his skin. 

She concentrated on the slow rise and fall of his chest as his hand settled on her forehead, one extended finger tracing along the path of her hairline, beneath her unkempt bangs, down the side of her face, stopping briefly, falteringly, at the outer edge of the distinct, fist-shaped bruise that blemished her cheek.  His probing touch continued along her jaw line, ending at the tip of her chin before resuming down her neck, across her collarbone, and onto her chest.  His hands glided over her breasts, his fingers producing lingering sensations as he caressed her.  His touches weren’t hurried or forceful, but still investigative, given for the purpose of memorizing as much as inducing enjoyment.  

As his fingers began to dance around her rigid nipples, rubbing and giving gentle squeezes, she closed her eyes, a whispery moan slithering almost inaudibly from between her parted lips.  She breathed in deeply, breathed in him, and tracked his touches by the vibrations they evoked against her skin and deep into her muscles.  A gentle pass across her rib cage, onto her stomach, and the warmth and wetness of his tongue as it slid into her bellybutton, circling, prodding, tasting.  She began to squirm, her moans strengthening and stealing from the room its comfortable silence, as his tongue dampened a path from her bellybutton to pubic bone.  

Raising her hips slightly, invitingly, her first whimper of protest was released as Elliot’s hands gripped around her and pushed her flush with the mattress again.  She stretched out her arms above her head, curving her fingers around the supple edge of a pillow.  As Elliot dropped kisses along her inner thighs, holding the touch just long enough to suck a tiny area of silky skin between his lips, she dug her nails into her down-filled target, squeezing harder.  She once again began to writhe as he maneuvered his tongue in slow circles around her clit, gliding around her with only enough pressure to tickle, to tease, but not to produce the release that her body had begun to beg for through quivering muscles and moans that had suddenly become trapped in her air deprived lungs.

As his tongue slid inside of her, she raised her knees and dug her heels into the mattress.  Elliot flattened his hands around her thighs, his fingers pressing into the sides and palms, slick with sweat, cupping the backs.  He applied more pressure, further separating her legs and directing her hips in slow, rhythmic sways up and down and side-to-side.  He slipped one arm around her leg, pressing his hand against her wet center and flicking the pad of his thumb against her rigid clit.  

Olivia tightened her hold on the malleable edge of the pillow, tugging, strangling it as Elliot’s tongue glided in a circular, tickling motion around her clitoris and his thumb maintained a steady caress.  “Oh…God…” she croaked, tilting her head backwards, her trembling chin rising into the air as her muscles, from her curved toes to clenched jaw, began to spasm.   Vaguely, echoingly, she heard his voice, commanding but with a hint of smugness attached to each deeply spoken syllable, and felt his hands that were still damp and stained with her, encircle her wrists.  Her head fell back limply as he pulled her forward and she kept her eyes closed as he guided her into a sitting position.

“Look at me, Olivia.”

Her eyelids fluttered drowsily before gradually opening to expose her dilated pupils.  And when her sight cleared, she found herself staring into his eyes.  His arms looped around her waist, his hands coming to rest on the small of her back.  He outstretched his legs beneath hers, the flesh of their thighs sweaty and hot where they pressed together, and coaxed her closer with gentle prods of his fingertips against her skin.  Parting his lips, insinuating a kiss that wasn’t given, his hot breath rolled into her mouth as his hands slid onto her buttocks and he lifted her off of the cool sheet.  As he lowered her, his hands directing each of the movements she willingly submitted to, he thrust inside of her.

Olivia snaked her arms beneath his, her hands latching onto his broad shoulders.  She pulled herself up, her fingers digging into and reddening his skin before she released her firm hold and lowered herself.  She bucked against him, into him, with him; her chest flattened against his, the sticky skin of her stomach rubbing his, and flushed face only inches away from his.  Both sets of eyes open wide, seeing clearly, and watching intently.  Lips curved upwards in unison, and breathless moans filtered into the air as sweat beaded on skin, each moist globule filled with individual scents that were transferred from him to her and her to him.

As Olivia arched her back, her head falling limply, Elliot cupped his hands around the base of her skull, pushing until her face was once again directly in front of his.  “I want to watch you,” he murmured, his demand given throatily.  “I want you to see what you do to me, Olivia.”

She whimpered as he steadied his hands against her buttocks and dug into her flesh with his fingers.  Pulling herself up again, using his sturdy shoulders for support, she cried out as his lips skimmed across hers and he pulled her, harder and with more intensity, against him.  Flesh slapped against flesh and groans emerged harmoniously as muscles contracted, stealing breaths and coherency and control.

And through each shudder, through each raspy breath, through each electrifying tingle that tensed their muscles, they watched.  Neither hiding from the effect they had on the other, and neither able to deny any longer that they had been affected. 

+++

Olivia blinked sleepily as the last of the four candles on the nightstand lost its battle against time; it’s weakened flame sputtering through a slow death.  It gave a final, disgruntled pop, dying away completely amidst a thin stream of black smoke.  She blinked again, her lids falling closed and reopening in slow motion, as she watched the smoke dissipate into the shadows that clung to the wall, created by the muted stream of light that snuck in the doorway from the living room.

She shifted in the bed, balancing her left leg on top of her right one and pulling them up towards her stomach.  Glancing down, her gaze swept over her exposed breasts, bypassed the hem of the white sheet where it draped across her waist, and settled on Elliot’s arm.  He lay flush against her; his front side spooned against her backside, his arm stretched out down the length of her side and hand cupped over her hip.  She nestled the side of her face further into the pillow as another of his warm, strong breaths tickled the back of her neck, causing goose bumps to spring to life across her skin, and fought the smile that their twenty minute routine attempted to deposit on her lips.  

Inhale, exhale, warmth, prickles, goose bumps, inhale…  

She submitted to her heavy eyelids, letting them fall closed.  Concentrating, listening to Elliot’s breaths, she coordinated hers with his and let the sound of their combined inhalations slow her mind.  She felt herself begin to drift, her body twitching sporadically from both exhaustion and hazy memories that had transformed into dreams.

“You’ve ruined everything.”

Olivia remained perched in the doorway to her mother’s bedroom, her long, dark hair rustling across her upper back as she shook her head.  Her eyes tracked the clear bottle as Serena tilted its rounded mouth unsteadily and transferred its potent contents into a green, plastic cup.

“I just said…” Olivia gulped down a breath in conjunction with Serena gulping down the remains of her drink.  “You said he’d asked you, that you were gonna… Why’d you lie?”

“You’re the liar, Olivia!  You’re a liar and ungrateful and…” She slammed the cup down on her cluttered nightstand, the abrasive echo causing Olivia to jump nervously.  “Why couldn’t you let me have this one thing, this one chance to actually be happy?  To have something—someone—in my life that actually means something to me?”

“All I said was I was happy about it,” Olivia stammered, her eyes filling with misunderstanding tears.  “About you…getting…married.  And I only said it ‘cause, because you told me—” 

“What you did was ruin everything.  What you did, Olivia, was think only about yourself.  You don’t want me to be happy, and you keep making damn sure that I won’t ever be.  You’re so much like him, so selfish.”

“Him?” Olivia asked, her voice wavering timidly.  “Mr. Wiedenheimer?  But I don’t even, I don’t know him—”

“You’re like him!” Serena bellowed, jumping to her feet with the fat base of the vodka bottle clutched in her hand.  “And all of this selfishness will come back to you! You’re so intent on making my life miserable?  Well, just wait, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that misery sure as hell loves company!”

Olivia cringed, the shrill timbre of her mother’s voice jarring her out of her light sleep, causing her to startle where she lay to avoid getting hit by the phantom vodka bottle that now existed only in her dream.  She took in a chest full of air, holding it until she felt Elliot’s steady breath once again wash across the back of her neck.  Between his soft, reliable snores, she once again heard his voice, assured and forthright, maybe even hopeful, “You’re letting experiences define the relationships instead of letting the relationships define themselves.”  And she knew—maybe she had known all along—what a significant and adverse role her mother had played in defining every relationship she had ever attempted.  Every relationship she had ultimately failed at.

Misery loved company, and Olivia had sure as hell adopted the philosophy as her personal mantra.  Only she was selective about the company she kept, limiting it to her mother’s miserable memory.  Whether or not consciously, she had allowed, throughout her adult life, her mother’s lies and indignant words to become her own.  She had taught herself to believe in them even as she engaged in a fight-to-the-death battle against them.  And every time she willingly turned her back on—ran from—a relationship that had the potential to be a ‘what if’ or possibility, she gave Serena another forceful shove towards a destructive victory.  

Another of Elliot’s impromptu snores jarred her, causing her to hold her own breath until his once again evened out.  His hand slid over her hip, falling limply across her waist, and she found herself fixated on the sight of his pale fingers against her golden-tinted stomach.  Maybe it wasn’t true that misery loved company, not necessarily.  Maybe it merely—inadvertently—sought out the familiar.  It searched for what was comparable and understandable in order to avoid the tedious, repetitive task of explaining.  And Elliot’s and her misery had become far more the same than different in recent years.  The job.  The ungodly hours.  The never-ending victims.  The degenerates who brutally transformed well adjusted, productive people into victims.  The heartless pedophiles who stole innocence.  But most of all, they shared loneliness.

Or maybe it was simpler.  Maybe it could be simpler if she quit thinking so damn hard about it and submitted to just letting it be.  If she could, maybe it really could turn into something as insignificant as a proclivity for hummus and cubed cheese and jazz music.

“I’ll never let anyone else have you!”  It had been Serena’s follow up threat made three years later when a sixteen-year-old Olivia finally, for the first time, fought back against her mother’s drunkenness and misunderstood anger.  But it had been a threat that Olivia had allowed to become a lifelong promise, a guarantee of failure, of continuous repentance, of unexplainable guilt, and of tiresome self-punishment, a literal and detrimental interpretation of anger issued on yet another bad drunk day.

No one had ever had her, but it wasn’t because of a promise that Serena had brought to fruition.  The culpability rested on only one set of sagging, overtired shoulders.

Her own.

She shifted in the bed, rolling onto her back.  Elliot grumbled in his sleep, resituating in retaliation to her subtle movement.  His breaths came in wafts, low, throaty rumbles of air that rhythmically expanded and deflated his chest.  She slid her head to the corner of the pillow, fighting the dimness in the room as she studied his face.  She looked for something new, something that she had never before noticed, something that would change him from being what he so overwhelmingly was.  Familiar.  But all she found was him, all she suddenly heard in her mind was his voice, and all she felt was him inside of her, his hands exploring her, his mouth… She no longer felt her mother’s anger or the lifelong responsibility she had carried with her to keep that anger alive.  She no longer felt as if she were drowning hopelessly in misery.  Lying beside Elliot, naked, warmed by his consistent breaths, with his scent having become adhered to her skin as noticeably as her own, she felt relaxed.  Calm.  As if for the first time in almost forty years, she was exactly where she was supposed to be. 

Not in love, but immersed in comfort.

And maybe that was the most that could be hoped for.  Maybe, if you were lucky, it was what could eventually be found.

Maybe it actually was what defined love.

+++

The End