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Time to Come Back From the Dark

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She runs into him on her way out of the courthouse late one afternoon in September, the toasted light slanting down between the buildings and a snap in the air that tempts fall. “Captain,” he says, falling into step beside her.

“Detective.” He’s been back for a year and a half and it’s still that same moment of raw, gaping shock every single time she sees him, a cattle prod straight to the bones. “How you been?”

They stop and chat for a few minutes–about his kids, about the weather. About Rollins, who’s recovering decently well in a rehab facility uptown. Finally they run out of topics that don’t make either one of them want to kill themselves, so Olivia pulls her phone out of her pocket like it buzzed, which it didn’t. “I should get back,” she says, waving the thing vaguely in his direction and hoping she sounds convincing. “It was good to see you.”

Elliot glances at his watch. “Almost quitting time,” he says. “You want to–?” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder, which she guesses could mean either get a drink or fling ourselves directly into traffic. With Elliot there’s really no way to tell.

Either way, Olivia shakes her head. “I gotta get Noah from afterschool.”

“This weekend, then.”

She hesitates. ”I don’t think that’s a good idea, Elliot.” It comes out in the same weird, stilted way it always comes out when she turns him down for things like this, forced and sort of patronizing. “Maybe another time.”

Elliot takes it like a boxer. “Sure,” he says with a nod. “Yeah, I get it.” He tucks his hands into his pockets. “See you around, Liv.”

“See you.”

He waits until she’s halfway down the block to hit back. “Can I ask you a question?” he calls. “Any idea how long you’re gonna keep punishing me?”

Olivia whirls on him, surprised even after all this time by the vastness of her own rage and heartbreak. “Ten years,” she deadpans. “Ask me another.”

Right away, she can tell he knows he played that wrong. “Liv–”

“What are you even envisioning here, Elliot?” she asks, stalking back across the sidewalk in his direction. “When you ask me to–what would we even do? Go out and get shitfaced at a cop bar? Take a stroll to the farmer’s market, process our various traumas?”

He shrugs, almost sheepish. “If you wanted to.”

“Of course I don’t want to!” she explodes. “Who would want to do that? That’s insane. This whole–” She gestures between them in a way she hopes effectively conveys the entirety of their tortured acquaintance–“is insane.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

Olivia shakes her head in disbelief, rakes her fingers through her hair. And see, this is what nobody gets, what she’s never been able to explain to anyone who’s ever winkingly alluded to their complicated relationship. It’s not that they wanted to fuck each other but he was married. It’s that fundamentally both of them are lunatics, and when they’re together they make each other worse. “I’m not punishing you, Elliot. I sincerely don’t know how to fix this. I don’t know if it can be fixed.”

Elliot licks his lips, absorbing that blow in silence. “Look,” he says carefully, and his voice is so quiet. It’s coming on rush hour, the sidewalk filling up all around them; he nudges her closer to the building, and she lets him. “I know that what I did–a lot of the things I did, before I left and after I came back– are unforgivable. I’m not the kind of…person you deserve. But I would like to try to be in your life again, Olivia. Outside of work. In–” There’s a pause here, him clearing his throat a little– “in whatever capacity you choose. ”

Olivia gazes at him for a moment. She thinks of Lindstrom saying she needs to pick a lane, one way or another. She thinks of Rollins telling her to get a room. She thinks of Elliot way back at the beginning—thirty-two years old, with heat and light to power the entire island. Both of them were so, so young.

“Breakfast,” she says finally. “City Diner. 7:30 on Thursday.”

Elliot grins.

*

He’s already there when she shows up, sitting in a booth by the window overlooking a mountain range of black garbage bags oozing slime all over the curb. “Is it just me,” he asks as she slides onto the bench across from him, “or is New York, like, significantly dirtier than it used to be?”

“It’s you,” she says, though in truth he’s not actually wrong. She smiles at the waitress, then orders coffee and a spinach omelet without looking at the menu. She doesn’t want to get her reading glasses out of her shoulder bag, and she doesn’t want to think about why.

Elliot shakes his head. “I don’t think so,” he says, still squinting out the window. “Also, everything is just banks. Every block. Just…banks.”

“You realize you sound like an old man.”

“I am an old man.”

“You were out of the city a full decade, Elliot,” she reminds him. “Things change.”

“Yeah,” he says, “no shit.”

Olivia sighs noisily. “Tell you what,” she says before she can manage to stop herself, ”next time you disappear with no goodbye and no warning we’ll be sure to keep everything right where you left it on the off chance you decide to show up again, how about that.”

Elliot scowls. “Liv, if you don’t want to be here–”

“If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t be here.”

Neither one of them says anything for a moment. Olivia shifts her weight. God, she knew this wasn’t going to work. It’s too much. It’s too big, it’s too much history. It’s awkward.

Elliot blows a breath out through his nose and cracks his neck, one side and then the other. “So,” he says, sitting back in the booth and stretching his legs out under the table, his ankle bumping hers for the barest of seconds. “You ready to hear about my traumas?”

Olivia snorts a laugh at that–a real one, she can’t help it, sharp and surprised. It’s the first time he’s made her laugh since he’s been back. “Fuck you,” she says, taking a sip of her coffee.

“Fuck you,” he answers fondly. “I’m just saying, I hope you cleared your calendar. I’m pretty fucked up. We could be here all day.”

She laughs again, only then halfway out she can feel it’s about to turn into something else entirely, and she puts a cautious hand to her mouth. “Elliot.”

“Olivia.” He smiles, shifts gears. “Tell me more about Noah,” he suggests. “What kind of kid is he? What’s he into?”

“He’s–dance, actually.” Olivia can hear the challenge in her voice, how she’s fully prepared to get up and walk out the door forever if she gets even one whiff of judgment from the other side of the table, but Elliot just nods earnestly, then asks three follow-up questions in rapid succession like middle school ballet is the most fascinating thing he’s ever heard of. Easy, tiger, she almost tells him, biting the inside of her cheek to keep her lips from curving.

They get their eggs and their potatoes and two more cups of coffee, the conversation drifting from some bureaucratic drama in the mayor’s office to their old coffee cart guy hitting half a million on a scratch-off to a trip Elliot took with his grandkids up to the amusement park in Rye. It’s easy to talk to him—it’s always been easy to talk to Elliot, except for all the times it’s been completely impossible—and by the time she checks her phone it’s almost nine. “This was good,” he says as he shrugs into his jacket, a black leather number that makes him look faintly ridiculous to her in the same way all clothes that aren’t mid-range department store suits make him look faintly ridiculous to her. “Same time next week?”

Olivia watches him for another second, his shoulders moving, the muscles shifting in his arms and his chest. “Sure,” she says, clearing her throat as she turns and heads for the exit. “Same time next week.”

*

So. That’s how it starts.

It’s like anything else, she guesses, easier the more they do it: In October she brings him a bottle of bourbon for his birthday. In November he starts walking her to work after they eat. In December they catch another case together, order a hundred bucks’ worth of Chinese to her office in the middle of the night, and by the time the judge signs their arrest warrant she’s almost taught herself to be around him again without feeling like someone’s holding her heart against a hot stove. When he texts her on the 26th to say the twins got him two tickets to a play at the Public for Christmas and does she want to come with him tomorrow night, the idea of it doesn’t seem quite as deeply farcical as it might have a few months ago.

Still: Since when do you go to plays? she can’t resist replying.

Then: Let me see about a sitter.

She meets him outside the theater five minutes before curtain, the winter air sharp and thin with frost. “Sorry,” she says, a little breathless. “I couldn’t get a cab.”

“It’s okay.” Elliot’s gaze skates up and down her body, over her dress and coat and boots. “You look …” he says, then abandons ship halfway through and clears his throat instead, holding up the tickets. “You ready?”

Olivia nods. He takes her arm to steady her as they climb the icy steps to the theater—at least, that’s what she thinks is happening, but then he stops and turns to face her and in the fraction of a second it takes her to identify his expression as the one he gets right before he does something impulsive and probably dangerous he’s already pulling her closer, looming, the heat of his broad, solid body bleeding straight through his coat.

Olivia breathes in. “Elliot,” she says, “what are you—“

“Let’s go somewhere,” he murmurs, ducking his head close enough to kiss her, his breath warm and urgent against her ear. “Liv. Fuck the tickets. Let me take you somewhere.”

Olivia steps back so fast she almost slips and cracks her head open on the concrete. She used to imagine herself dying all the time.

“Whoops.” She rights herself, then smiles benignly like maybe she hasn’t heard him. “Come on,” she says, tilting her head toward the entrance. “Don’t want to lose our seats.”

 

*

It’s about gentrification, the play; at least, that’s what Olivia reports when she gets home and pays the sitter. She didn’t actually hear a single word.

*

Three days go by, the temperature dropping, the old year putting itself to bed. On New Year’s Eve Noah’s got a sleepover with some friends from his studio, and while in general Olivia thinks all parents who let their kids go to sleepovers are asking for trouble, it’s important to her that he doesn’t miss out on normal stuff just because she happens to have what one might call a heightened awareness of risk. Still, a thing about being the captain is that nobody expects her to work holidays anymore, and once she drops him off she wanders the neighborhood anxious and at loose ends, the night stretching endlessly out in front of her. She picks up a bottle of wine and a chicken at the grocery store. She tightens her scarf against the chill.

Back at home she prowls around the apartment for a while: picking things up and putting them down again, folding some clothes Noah left on the floor. She brushes her teeth, scrapes this morning’s concealer from the creases underneath her lashes. Fusses with her hair in the bathroom mirror.

She’s not doing anything, she tells herself firmly. She hasn’t made any decisions one way or the other.

She changes her underwear.

By the time she’s fully dressed again it’s snowing. Olivia stares out the window, watches the cars whizzing by on the street below. “For fuck’s sake,” she mutters, even though there’s nobody around to hear her. She scoops her phone off the sofa, scrolls back to his name.

Are you alone?

*

It takes her half an hour in an Uber to get to the loft. “Hi,” he says, stepping back to let her in. He’s wearing jeans and a plain black crewneck, standing there in his socks. “Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year,” she says, and holds out the wine like a cudgel.

“Thanks,” he says, then: “Wasn’t a hundred percent sure I was ever going to hear from you again.”

Olivia nods. “I’m sorry,” she tells him, just like she practiced in the car on the way over here. “I was…not my best self the other night.”

“It’s fine, Liv,” he says, not quite meeting her eye. “I was out of line.” He holds up the wine. “Should we open this?”

Olivia looks at him for a long moment. Shakes her head.

She watches as he processes that, a hundred different expressions flickering over his face in half an instant. “Okay,” he says slowly, setting the bottle down on the counter. Gazing back.

They stand there. They breathe. Olivia feels frozen; it’s like she’s imagined this exact scenario more or less continuously for two and a half decades but also never actually pictured the mechanics of it at all. Finally he takes a step toward her, then another, backing her gently up against the counter until they’re pressed together hips to chest. “You gotta be the one to do it this time,” he murmurs, resting his forehead lightly against hers. She can feel his heart beating straight through his shirt. “If you want to—“

Right away, Olivia straightens up.“I have to be the one to do it?” Fuck, he is so deeply obnoxious sometimes. “Are you kidding me? After all this ti—“

Elliot kisses her.

The angle is wrong at first but they correct pretty much immediately, fitting themselves together like people who’ve been doing this for years: tongue and teeth and the low sound he makes at the back of his throat when she wraps her arms around his neck and pushes herself against him, familiar even though she’s never heard it before.

He keeps her there against the counter for a while, his mouth on her neck and her ear and her collarbone. She can feel the outline of his cock against her hip. When he slides his hands up underneath her sweater, one rough palm grazing over her nipple through the thin fabric of her bra, she gasps so hard Elliot lets go as instantly as if she’d kneed him directly in the nuts.

“Sorry,” he says, and for a second he sounds panicked as she’s ever heard him. “Fuck, sorry.”

“No no no,” she says quickly. “Don’t stop, just—“ Oh god, someone is going to have to scrape her off the ceiling. “Look.” She makes herself breathe. “There’s just–a lot of preamble here, obviously, so I think we should probably both…you know. Adjust our expectations.”

Elliot nods seriously. “Adjust our expectations,” he repeats, eyes crinkling up just the slightest bit.

Olivia’s mouth drops open. “Fuck you!” she says, shoving him a little. “Don’t laugh. I’m serious.”

“I’m not laughing,” he says, and to be fair he doesn’t actually seem to be. In fact the expression on his face is so intimate she almost has to look away. “Olivia,” he says quietly, running his hands down her arms and lacing their fingers together, using his chest to nudge her backwards in the direction of his bedroom. “Let me try to do this, okay? Before you decide I’m inevitably going to be a disappointment to you?”

Olivia presses her lips together. She’s not the bad guy here, she reminds herself firmly. “Okay.”

In the bedroom he takes his time peeling her clothes off: the button on her denim, the hooks on her bra. “Jesus fucking Christ, Liv,” he mutters finally, pulling back to stare at her.

Olivia rolls her eyes. “Yeah, yeah,” she says, but it’s not like she doesn’t like him looking. She can feel herself relaxing, the tension seeping out of her bit by bit. “Also, how am I the only person who’s–?” She yanks at his shirt. “Take this off.”

Elliot nods obediently, reaching back to pull it up over his head. “Captain.”

Olivia smirks up at the ceiling. “That really does it for you, huh?”

“Yup.” He shrugs, utterly unselfconscious. “I think it’s hot.”

“Yeah, you always liked it when I bossed you around.”

It comes out before she has time to think about it and for a second she worries it sounds too much like…whatever it sounds like, but Elliot just nods. “I did,” he says quietly, dropping back down, scraping his chin across the soft, bare skin of her stomach. “I always liked a lot of things.”

“Like what?” It’s not fair, probably, to make him tell her the shit he used to want back when he was still married to his dead wife, but also, fuck him, Olivia doesn’t care. She wants to hear it. Needs to hear, it probably, if she’s ever going to be able to convince herself this is a real thing that’s happening between them and not some embarrassing fever dream she’s having while languishing in a medically-induced coma after being hit by a bus full of schoolchildren driven by a pedophile dressed as a clown.

“Your hair,” Elliot mutters against her thigh, and it takes her a moment to realize he’s answering the question. “Your mouth. Your ass. Your smell.”

Olivia eyes him, running the sole of one foot up and down his back. “Are you an ass guy?” she asks, interested in spite of herself.

“Sometimes,” he admits, sounding shyer than he did a minute ago. “Mostly just with you.”

He goes down on her for a long time, focused, two thick fingers curled inside her. Olivia closes her eyes. There’s literally no part of her that’s expecting an orgasm–she’s too wound up, too in her head–but then he reaches up and laces the fingers of his free hand through hers, thumb drawing circles against the sensitive skin of her palm, and all at once every nerve in her body is blooming like the amaryllis on her windowsill back at her apartment, bright and huge. “Oh my god,” she breathes when she can speak again, running her hand over his scalp. “Oh—fuck, Elliot.”

He doesn’t stop even after she’s finished, fingers still moving, the self-satisfied grin he’s wearing taking twenty full years off his face. “How’m I doing?” he asks cheerfully. “Just, in terms of your adjusted expecta—“

“Shut the fuck up,” she says, groping for him, pulling his full weight on top of her as she reaches for the button on his jeans. “Come here.”

“I’m here,” Elliot tells her, and kisses her again.

Afterward they lie in his bed for a long time, talking and not talking; they make out for a while, slow and lazy, her leg slung over his thigh. She traces the sharp cut of muscle on his stomach. He rubs his knuckles over the constellation of scars on her side. Maybe she’ll tell him about them, at some point; maybe eventually they’ll be able to hear each other’s stories from the last ten years without feeling like they’re falling into a black, bottomless canyon, Olivia doesn’t know. She guesses stranger things have happened.

“You want to order?” Elliot asks her finally, one finger trailing the slope of her breast in the half-light. “I think it’s only like nine o’clock.”

Olivia nods. “Sure,” she says, and he reaches down onto the carpet and digs his phone out of his jeans, pulls up a takeout menu. She squints over his freckly shoulder at the screen. “I wear glasses now,” she tells him. “For reading.”

Elliot glances over at her like, yeah, no shit. “I know,” he says. “Me too.”

“Oh,” she says. “Okay.”

Out the window it’s still snowing, the flakes turning dizzy circles in the sodium glow of the streetlights. In the morning the whole city will look new.