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Olivia looks at him a little differently, in the weeks following Christmas. He can’t pinpoint what it is, but it’s just the right amount of unnerving to make his pulse accelerate. If he lets his brain pick up that thread and run with it, though - lets himself focus on the brightness of her eyes, the soft tilt of her head and those radiant smiles she sends his way when they meet for lunch; how he swears that sometimes her gaze flickers with something close to wistful - he’s almost sure it’ll end in disappointment. Which, he thinks - after everything - is probably what he deserves.


They’ve been stitching each other back together again, and he’s humbled that she’s allowing him the opportunity to re-learn her - and them. She’d soldiered through the cards life had dealt her during the years they’d spent apart; evenings spent tenuously opening up to each other had solidified a cruel sort of truth - that it had been a varied hand of a decade, punctuated by moments of sheer terror and sadness and, occasionally, wondrous, wondrous joy. He’d missed enough, and had spent the months since the conclusion of his court case trying to prove to her that - one way or another - he won’t ever be doing that again.


They’re at a local breakfast bar a few blocks from the courthouse on a dazzlingly sunny Tuesday when he gets an inkling that the shift in dynamic is not all in his head - that she’s getting restless with the pace she’d set. Ten years ago New York had seemed nothing but ruthless, ugly in the way any monster is when it chews up and spits out innocent lives relentlessly. He supposes that there’s been an element of re-learning there, too; she’s taken him to explore new spots and they often find themselves navigating the city together - shoulder to shoulder, like the old times. In her presence, Manhattan is greeting him like an old friend.


The establishment she’s chosen for breakfast turns out to be the kind of place where edible flowers and açaí bowls reign supreme; a little different from their usual haunts. He quirks an eyebrow when he slides into the seat opposite her, narrowly avoiding ruining the impromptu latte art photoshoot being curated by the teenagers next to them.


Clearly, they’re both decades older than the cafe’s target clientele.


She takes one look at his face and smirks. ‘Just give it a chance, El. The banana pancakes here are unreal.’


And he does, because the new Elliot tries new things; and more importantly, he trusts her - so if she says the banana pancakes are unreal, they must be. As the waiter approaches with their plates and he catches sight of the garnish, however, he realizes that he has to draw the line somewhere.


‘You’re not getting me to eat violas.’


‘You know what Noah would call you right now?’ she says, eyes glinting mischievously as she spears a section of pancake and swirls it in caramel sauce. ‘A boomer.’


He scoffs. ‘I’ll have you know I downloaded Instagram two weeks ago.’


‘Wow. Impressive - for someone who still types with their index finger.’


‘I type and text just fine, thank you,’ he sneaks the pot of caramel sauce off of her plate before she has a chance to bat his hand away, plucking the offending flowers from his pancakes and placing them in a neat arch along the rim of the plate. She's eyeing them, and it's not subtle. ‘You want to take ‘em?’


‘Sure you don’t wanna snap a photo before I do?’ she grins. ‘Hashtag our little breakfast date?’


It’s obviously a slip of the tongue as a result of her focus on teasing him and not meant in any sort of way; a beautiful blush blooms across her cheeks as she clears her throat, rolls her eyes and tries to sweep the connotations of what she’s said under the rug. Part of him knows he should give her an out, breeze past this quickly, onto safer ground.


And yet.


He can’t tear his eyes away from her. Knows how he’s staring; with a feverish sort of hope that leaves him desperate to reach out and hold her in his arms, crush her to his chest, feel her heart beat wildly in its rightful place - against his own. It’s almost too overwhelming until big brown eyes glance up at him - shy, questioning. Without thinking, he reaches over the table and takes her left hand in his. Watches in wonder as their fingers interlace instinctively.


‘That what this is?’ he asks softly. ‘A date?’


Her nose crinkles in amusement as she looks away, fighting the smile on her face as she expertly slices her pancake one-handed. It leaves him short of breath and throws him off kilter in the best of ways, because she’s not said yes, but she’s not said no. ‘Here,’ she says, avoiding the question by shoving the forkful - complete with obnoxious floral garnish - under his nose. ‘Just eat the goddamn flower, Stabler. It’s not gonna kill you.’


‘Says you,’ he grumbles, squeezing her fingers before taking the fork from her, trying to read her expression. She beams as he slips the fork between his lips, and he’s got to admit, she was right. The flower tastes of nothing at all, but the pancakes are fucking incredible.


‘Told you so.’


‘Yeah yeah, I’m sold on the Insta-pancakes. Totally hashtagable or whatever. Gloat about it, just don’t tell my kids, whatever you do.’


‘Okay, boomer.’



They step out into the crisp spring air an hour later, warm and sated from the pancakes and easy conversation. He always gets antsy at this point - disappointment at the thought of having to say goodbye mixing with the giddy anticipation of wanting to suggest plans to see her again. Time spent with her is never enough; as soon as she hints that she might be free on Saturday, he’s counting the minutes until they’re face to face again, trying to tame the butterflies in his stomach that are so insistent on making themselves known.


‘Want me to walk you to work?’ It’s a little ritual they have, almost mandatory at this point. He always asks, she always declines.




‘I’d like that.’


She’s giving him that look again; dark eyes soft and playful and he’s so lost watching her bite her lower lip that he barely registers her hand slip around his forearm, coming to settle in the crook of his elbow.






Good,’ he affirms quietly, tucking her into him as he steers them in the direction of the precinct. Even through the layers of clothing, wisps of her warmth and scent seep into him. It takes everything within his power not to turn his head just so and nuzzle into her hair, but the last thing he wants to do is rush her; she’s taken a step toward him and he’s not sure how for now holds up in this new territory. He settles instead for admiring her side profile as they stroll down the street; the elegant slope of her nose, the apple of her cheek - how the corners of her lips quirk as she recounts her son’s latest antics at dance class. Searches for the faint freckles he knows lie underneath her makeup and tries not to think about waking up to her basking in his bed, bare-faced. Well, bare-everything.


As they round the last corner and he prepares to say goodbye, she suddenly stops in her tracks, forcing him to turn and face her. ‘Um- there’s just-’ she starts, ‘-y’know, at risk of turning us into even more of a Hallmark movie cliche…’ for a startling moment he thinks she’s going to kiss him, but her thumb has come up to swipe just under his lower lip, snagging an errant drop of caramel from his chin and licking it from her finger triumphantly. ‘Figured I’d save you the embarrassment of Bell thinking you need a bib when you eat, or something.’ As he blinks his surprise away, she flashes him a grin, stepping backwards into a patch of sunlight and closing her eyes like some sort of resplendent lioness sunning herself in the middle of New York. ‘Bye, Elliot.’


The last of his resolve, hanging by a thread, crumbles into oblivion as she shifts towards the entrance.


‘Go out with me?’


And shit, he’s terrible at this, but then suddenly her hands have found his and she’s squeezing his fingers, looking at him with a patient kind of love that floods him with confidence. ‘Go out with me,’ he repeats firmly, finally pulling her to him and wrapping his arms around her waist. They fit just right, like this. ‘Just- on a date,’ he mumbles into her hair. ‘I’m not sure how long for now’s supposed to last, but to be clear, Liv, I’d like to take you out on a date.’


She trembles against him, chuckling against his neck. ‘You really took that ‘for now’ to heart, didn’t you?’


‘Wanted you to be ready. Don’t wanna pressure you to, ah - move in a certain direction too soon.’


‘I want,’ she sighs, and her tone coupled with her lips brushing his skin is enough to make him shiver. They sway on the spot for a little while; he can tell she’s deliberating how to continue. Eventually, she raises her head to look at him. ‘Believe me, that’s kind of the problem. I want to - badly - but I need to take things slow. For me. After everything-’


‘I know,’ he strokes her back. ‘I get it. You set the pace with this, Liv. I’m not goin’ anywhere.’


‘Thank you.’


‘Hey - what’s another few months after twenty-three years?’


‘Okay, well,’ she smirks, bringing her hand up to cradle his jaw, nudging his nose with hers. ‘Maybe not that slow.’


Their breathing mingles, slow and steady, in the seconds before she tentatively closes the gap with the most delicate of kisses, soft and chaste. It just about knocks the air out of him, and he can’t help but press forward gently when she pulls back; chasing her mouth as she smiles against his lips and melts into his embrace. ‘Hi,’ she whispers shyly when he finally breaks away, turning her hand to gently brush her knuckles against his cheek.


‘Hi,’ his laughter erupts as a joyous rumble as he presses his lips to the backs of her fingers, watching as she shakes her head bashfully and tucks herself further into the cradle of his body. He knows he cannot possibly explain it to her now; that it’s too soon to tell her how this has left him aching to start forever with her - but the twinkle in her eyes when she finally finds it in her to extricate herself from his arms suggests to him that perhaps he needn’t say it at all. And it all comes down to that, really; after all these years, all that longing, they’re finishing each other’s thoughts as if no time has passed at all.


She looks down at her shoes as her hand slips to the lapel of his pea coat, steadying herself. When she finally meets his gaze she’s sporting a smile so ravishing it has him leaning forward for more of her, but she holds up a finger and dodges him playfully until he’s at arm’s length, tips of her fingers still grazing his scarf. ‘Saturday.’


‘Yeah?’ He doesn’t give a fuck that he’s grinning like a fool.




‘You’re gonna bask in the knowledge that it’s all I’m gonna be thinking about this week, aren’t you?’ he watches the sway of her hips as she heads toward the entrance.


Her laughter resonates deep and rich as she turns to look over her shoulder one last time. ’You fucking bet I am.’