He can't stop himself. He has been staring at and obsessing over the computer screen for nearly twelve hours. It's not healthy, but his mind has been reeling, and there's only so much he can answer for himself.
He shouldn't do it—he knows he shouldn't—but the house is unspeakably quiet right now, and his thoughts are terrible company. And he has to ask. He has to know. He clutches his phone and dials the number, long since deleted from his phonebook.
"I thought we said we weren't going to do this," she says when she picks up.
"I know. But, look, I saw that press conference, and—"
"What, the Coral Dragon?"
"Yeah," he grunts, now uncomfortable with the real purpose of his call.
"And?" she asks after he's silent for too long.
He clears his throat and scratches his nose. "Well I wanted to check out The Endless Truth for myself," he finally admits.
She waits, probably expecting him to continue. When he doesn't, she prompts him: "Okay?"
"So, I dunno, I've been reading it."
"C'mon, El," she admonishes with a faint laugh.
He opens his mouth to ask, to finally broach the very reason for his call, but the words won't come out.
On the other end, Olivia waits another moment for him. The silent air between them seems to shift, even through the phone. "There's no substance there, just sensational lies," she tells him. "Intentionally inflammatory 'stories' that have zero journalistic merit," she adds when he doesn't respond to her first assessment. Her voice drips with superior derision.
He needs to say something before she gets the wrong idea and thinks he's calling to defend the damn thing. "What's his name?" he asks feebly. It's not what he meant to say, and it's not when or how he planned to ask, but his throat is unrelentingly dry, and those were the only sounds he could get his body to make.
Her reply is as immediate as it is bitter: "His name?—Duca. Ronald Duca."
For a moment, he's confused, and he frowns into the phone, there in the middle of his living room. And then he realizes. "No, not the jackass from the site..."
There's a slight pause on her end, and he imagines her similar confusion. And then she realizes. "Oh." Another pause, but he would give her all the time in the world if he thought she needed it. "Noah," she tells him quietly.
Elliot's eyes well up of their own accord as he rolls the name around in his head a few times and thinks of her as a mother. An ache had crept into his chest when he first saw the picture on the website, and it returns now in full force. It's a familiar sensation for him, though, where she's concerned. He traces it to an unnameable longing—for her, for what might have been, for any path other than his. The pressure of the ache forces the next words from his lungs: "Is he mine?"
"How can you ask me that?" she responds breathlessly.
"Olivia," he rumbles, and just that easily, he's back in her dimly-lit bedroom, three years earlier, with her stretched out beneath him, breathless, reaching out, reaching up. For him. It's not the first time he's thought about that night in the time since it happened. But rather than wandering to the memory now, his mind careens there.
He had called her after another press conference, when she publicly admitted to having perjured herself in the trial of a convicted rapist. He couldn't understand what was going on; that was not the Olivia he knew. He had heard and seen the other reports, too, from the previous summer, but he was too much of a coward then to do anything. It had hurt too much, realizing that something terrible had happened to her and thinking that if he'd only been there, it might not have. And then he had thought of all the ugly, hurtful things he had said to her over the years, including the accusation that he couldn't do his job because she couldn't do hers, and that he was constantly having to look over his shoulder to make sure she was okay. It simply wasn't true; she was one of the most capable and independent people he had ever met in his life. He understood now what he was really angry about back then, but he could never tell her the truth, so he could never take back what he said, which meant he would have been too embarrassed to contact her when she had, in fact, been gotten the better of. Oh, down for the count? I left you to fend for yourself, and you couldn't. Just like I predicted, remember? Silence had seemed like the better option at the time.
But watching the press conference on the news that night, beer in hand, he was alarmed by what he saw. He had never known any details about her assault—had tried desperately to avoid them, in fact—but perjury was never Olivia. And brutality was the fine line he had always walked, not his partner. Even Kathy, sitting beside him, expressed some concern. "Call her Elliot," she told him. "I know you want to."
And he had. That night her phone rang through to voicemail. The next night, it didn't even ring before cutting to the familiar outgoing message. The news came out that the escaped psychopath had abducted Olivia again and had been killed, and Elliot battled once more with his guilt and cowardice. He almost hadn't tried her a third time. A few times since then, he has almost wished he hadn't.
"Hey," she answered softly.
He took a deep breath, not knowing what to say to her after all that time. He didn't know what he had expected—maybe voicemail again, maybe her anger if she answered at all—but her soft, tired voice completely threw him. "What's goin' on?" he asked quietly, glancing back at Kathy's sleeping form in the bed before walking out of their room. What's goin' on, as if she had called him. As if this were five years earlier, just another after-hours call about work. A case that had fallen to them. A missing witness. A new lead. Something routine.
"How much have you heard?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said as he stepped into the living room. "That's why I'm calling."
On the other end, he heard her take a shuddering breath.
"Talk to me," he urged, frustrated that he couldn't see her, couldn't fold her into his arms like he had before when he was terrified that she might otherwise break.
"I don't know where to start," she told him, her voice cracking.
He passed a shaky hand down his face, hoping he could sound less frantic than he felt. "Then just tell me you're okay," he said, trying so hard not to beg.
There was a slight hitch before she whispered, "I can't. I—I don't know if I am."
"God, Liv," he wheezed, "what the fuck happened?" He didn't care anymore how desperate he sounded.
Another hitch. "I'm, uh, seeing someone—a therapist, I mean—and that helps, so… I'll get there," she said. "I'll be okay."
"That's not good enough," he grated.
"What do you want me to say?" she asked. He despised how weak she sounded—and that he had caused it. It made him withdraw instantly.
"I'm sorry," he told her, "if that's working for you, then… I'm glad, but… it's not good enough for me. I need to hear it from you. I need to know what's going on."
"Why?" She sounded both defeated and disgusted.
"Damnit, Liv, don't make this another prison basement between us!" He instantly cursed himself for bringing up another memory of assault (he supposed—she never had told him what had or hadn't happened that day).
"We're not partners anymore, Elliot."
"I don't care," was his immediate response. "It shouldn't have been like this. Tell me everything."
There was silence while she simply breathed on the other end. His heart was hammering in his chest, waiting for her to start. And then: "Not by phone."
"Good, I really want to see you," he blurted before he thought about the consequences. He froze once it was out, screwed his eyes shut, put a hand over his face. They had been close as partners, but they were never emotionally open, not really. Certainly not about each other. He waited for her to clam up and shut down. The long, silent moments felt like an eternity, and he was sure he had lost her.
Eventually, her soft voice came back on the line. He fully expected her to end the call. "Where are you?" she asked instead.
"I can come to you," he had replied then, already picking up his car keys from the table by the front door.
To his continued surprise and relief, she hadn't argued against the offer. She gave him her new address instantly and was waiting in the doorway when he arrived about thirty minutes later.
He said nothing but stalked down the hallway right for her and pulled her fluidly into his secure embrace, like a soldier just home from war. He held her there in her doorway for some time, pressing his palms against her shoulder blades, her ribcage, the small of her back—needing to feel her, to assure himself of her strength. Finally, when he thought he could manage it without collapsing into her again, he released her. He took her in: the slump of her shoulders, the unusual pallor of her face, the bruise on her jaw. "Hi," he breathed.
"Hi," she returned, her eyes flicking all over his body and face. They both inhaled at the same time, and then it was she who fell against him a second time, wrapping her arms tightly around his torso. It was brief, but he had needed it as much as she apparently had.
She released him and led him into the apartment, closing the door quietly as he took a few steps in and surveyed the place. "Nice," he said in appraisal, and he slid his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. "Big," he added, as he peered down the hall past the kitchen.
"You want a tour?" she asked with a certain lilt in her voice that could have been either cautious or sarcastic.
Since Elliot couldn't tell whether she was really offering, he didn't want to really accept. Instead, he just grinned and raised his shoulders shyly. Up to you, he tried to convey.
She slipped past him and did, in fact, take him through the apartment. He trailed behind her, peering into each room as she talked, hands still in back pockets because he was terrified that if they weren't, he might reach for her again. At the end of the hall, Olivia opened the door to the final room. "And the master," she announced. She glanced around it and mumbled, "Brian's still moving some things, so..."
Elliot's face went cold then flushed hot as he withdrew his hands from his pockets and crossed his arms over his chest. One foot shifted out to widen his stance, and his gaze narrowed, the pupils dilating predatorily as he scanned the room for traces of another person. It was entirely subconscious, but it happened all the same. "Brian?" he repeated quietly.
Olivia sighed as she looked around the room again. "I assumed you knew."
"Cassidy?" he asked, his voice soggy with disgusted disbelief. He was trying to sound disdainful and tough, but the peculiar truth was that he felt like he could hardly breathe. It wasn't supposed to be like that. He wasn't sure what he had imagined for her, but it certainly wasn't Brian Cassidy.
She gave him a flat smile that he interpreted as apologetic. "It's over now, anyway."
He looked at her and shook his head in wonder. He was trying to work up the nerve to lie and tell her he was sorry to hear it when a thought struck him. "Your choice or his?"
She hedged for a moment as she stretched to pull the door closed again. "A little bit of both. Mostly mine, I guess."
"Please don't say, 'I told you so,'" she groaned.
He chuckled. "I wasn't going to!" he insisted.
She pivoted to face the living room, and in the tight quarters of the hall, she brushed against him. She faltered for a moment, glanced up at him, then pressed into him again. He immediately shifted to accommodate her, cupping the back of her head and holding her firmly against his chest. She breathed him in, and he rested his chin on her head. They simply stood there, wrapped around one another in the hallway, for what felt like hours. Elliot really had no idea how long it was, but it didn't matter because he would have stayed there for an eternity. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. She leaned right with him. If he hadn't felt the occasional strumming of her thumb on his lower back, he might have thought she was asleep. It was late, after all.
"I told him about you," she murmured. It stirred him and he opened his eyes.
Told him what? he wondered. "Cassidy?"
Elliot drew a deep breath and tightened his grip on her.
"I told him what you would do to him." She paused. "I didn't think he could hear me. I was really… I was saying it more for myself."
"Christ," he grated, and then he realized he was crying.
"I beat him while he was handcuffed, El. I did. The statement I made for the news—he, uh, demanded it in exchange for a girl he'd taken, but… it was true." Her voice sounded so hollow that it terrified him. The confession didn't help, either. He wiped the tears from his face and kissed the top of her head, holding her there against his mouth. "I thought I'd beaten him to death," she whispered.
"I shoulda been there," Elliot burbled in spite of himself, clutching her tighter.
"He was a monster," she said. "And he made me one, too."
"You weren't there; you don't know."
He kissed her head again, fiercely this time. "But I know you," he assured her. He cradled her head in both of his hands and pulled her slightly away so he could look at her. He frowned as he inspected the bruise on her jaw again, running his fingertips over it gently. Her eyes fluttered closed. He tilted her head and saw an unfamiliar scar on her left temple—old to her, new to him. Without thinking twice, he closed his lips over it, and beneath him, she sighed. "Tell me what happened," he whispered against her temple.
And she had. She told him everything, from the very first gun drawn in her apartment to the very last bullet in Red Hook. Every last detail that she could remember. Every impulse, every emotion. Both encounters.
Elliot listened intently, giving her time and space to tell him what she would. He didn't ask any questions, just let her talk, and still he knew he was getting more than IAB ever would. He idly wondered about her shrink, too.
They moved from the hallway as she unfolded everything for him so that by the time she was finished, they were settled on the living room sofa, and he had two empty beer bottles in front of him. When she was done, he reached over and gently pressed his thumb to a scrape on her wrist. "You have others. Don't you." He said it matter-of-factly, but the request was implicit—and she knew, because she always knew. She stretched her other arm, and her wrist became visible beyond the hem of her sleeve. Elliot suppressed a gasp at an even rougher injury: not just the irritation of cuffs, but rope burns.
Solemnly, Elliot reached for the new wrist and took it in his hands. He shifted closer to her on the sofa as he lifted her hand, then he lowered his head and kissed her injuries tenderly, reverently, rotating her forearm so he didn't miss a single abrasion. When he lifted his eyes again, she was staring at him with an unreadable expression. Wordlessly, and without breaking eye contact, Olivia reached slowly for the collar of her shirt and dragged it aside, revealing the curving bubble of a scar on her shoulder.
Elliot hesitated for a moment, but then, under her steady gaze, he shifted even closer, raising up on one knee as he crowded her to access her shoulder. He kissed this scar with the same care and tenderness as he had the previous ones. While he was there, Olivia dragged her collar down, exposing two marks just above one breast. Elliot understood and slid down her skin until his lips found one of the scars. He felt her fingers in his short hair as he glided to the second one.
He was the one who hooked a finger into her collar and tugged it out of the way to locate the next three, making a wide, scooping arc from shoulder to shoulder, his lips following to minister to the devastation he uncovered. Her hand remained on the back of his head, directing and approving his efforts. When he finished the last one, he reared back, and he felt utterly and inexplicably intoxicated.
She was the one who guided him back to her, her fingers pressing needily against his skull, so that they were eye-to-eye, but she stopped short of pulling his mouth to hers. She drew him near and let him close that distance himself.
And he had.
What had followed next was nothing short of surreal for him. He was kissing her—finally—and she was letting him. She was opening her mouth to him, pressing back into him, kissing him back. She lifted her own shirt off, exposing more evidence of the previous year's assault, and Elliot stopped in his tracks to pay his respects. He regarded each mark not as a casualty but as a reminder of her strength, of her resilience, and he traced each one carefully with both fingers and lips. He only stopped when he heard her breathe his name.
"Elliot," she said, "will you take me to bed?"
He said nothing but kissed her in response, and the two of them rose from the sofa in unison. She led him back down the short hallway to her room, and he followed her in, toeing off his shoes at the threshold.
Olivia reached the bed first and turned to face him, holding out her hands to him. As he approached, he instinctively gave her his own hands, and she immediately guided them to her hips. She tucked his thumbs into the waistband of her pants and, together, they pushed the soft material over and off her hips. He was dumbstruck. Olivia slipped her panties off next and, using his arms for support, gingerly stepped out of pool of clothing at her feet. Her bra came next, and Elliot's fingers ached from wanting to do it himself. He didn't want her to see, however, just how badly he wanted this.
Looking him in the eye, Olivia sat down on the bed, scooted towards the center a little, then lay back. All he needed as a further invitation was a slight twitch in her arm as she raised it to him, and then he was climbing onto the bed, denim-clad knees straddling her thighs as he suspended himself over her. And there she was in the dim light, stretched out beneath him, breathless, reaching out, reaching up. For him.
She grasped the bottom hem of his shirt and pushed it up enough to expose his navel. He involuntarily shuddered at the cool air that suddenly met his heated skin, but it didn't stop him from yanking his whole shirt over his head in one swift motion and flinging it blindly behind him. Olivia had turned her attention to his fly but couldn't get past the button; there was too much strain on the zipper between his spread legs and the pressure from within. It was no matter, though, because Elliot intended to take his time. He leaned down over her, threading his fingers through her short hair, and kissed her deeply. She reached up and ran her hands over the taut, flexed muscles in his arms, shoulders, neck, chest, abdomen. He had never felt more male than he did under her touch. It was exhilarating.
Her hands trailed to his thighs and then one crept inward to the firm bulge behind his fly. "Elliot," she pleaded softly, and he melted. He pulled back and stood up, his fingers clumsy with the zipper as he drank in the sight of her, skin flushed and body ready. He didn't think twice about the circumstances or their situation as he shucked his jeans and briefs and climbed back onto the bed with her. She drew up her knees, and he was glad to settle between them. He kissed her again, and as he entered her for the very first time, he was keenly aware that nothing—nothing—in his life had ever felt so right. It was an overpowering sensation, and he never wanted it to end.
Afterwards, she drifted to sleep in his arms, but he lay there alert and unsleeping. If this was all the time he would ever have with her, all the time he would ever feel this way, he didn't want to lose even a moment of it.
She stirred awake some time later, still before the dawn had broken through the bedroom curtains. Sleepily, she ran her hands over his body, and he pulled her closer. "Hey," she mumbled against his skin. She looked content as she glanced up at him, but his thoughts must have been written on his face because she sensed immediately that something was amiss. "What's wrong?" she asked, her own body tensing against his.
He huffed a little. "We can't… I can't…" He tried in vain to gain some composure by shaking his head. "I can't ever do this again," he finally said.
He felt her pulling away. "It was a mistake, wasn't it," she said evenly. Her voice was terrifyingly devoid of all emotion, all inflection.
"No, God, don't think that—please," he rushed in response as he rose to one elbow next to her. "Don't think I think that." His jaw trembled at the thought, but he didn't even care. "It's just—I'm still married, Olivia."
She sat up and covered her face with one hand. "Wow. I didn't realize. I'm so sorry that I—"
"But I would never—" she said, turning to face him. She clutched the sheet, previously ignored, tighter to her chest. "You have to know, I would never mean to make you unf—"
"I do. And you didn't."
"I could have stopped it," he said. He glanced away and shrugged a little as he looked back at her. "I didn't want to." All he wanted to do was kiss her again—and that was the very problem at the heart of it all. He sat up and reached a hand for her, and she flinched when he made contact with the side of her neck. "And the thing is, Liv, now that I know what it's like—" he stroked her cheek with his thumb "—I would never be able to stop it in the future."
"Me neither," she whispered. It was a punch in the gut for Elliot.
"So that's why I can't—" he managed.
"I get it." Her upper lip quivered a little, and her eyes were incredibly shiny in the dim light. Her voice was thick when she then said, "I promise I won't call."
That took all the air from his lungs, and his mouth went dry. It was the only solution, of course, if he was to stay married, but it was such a crushing, permanent one. Their previous radio silence had been voluntary, if not accidental. This would most definitely not be that. He blinked determinedly at tears that wouldn't abate, and his mouth struggled to make the words. "I promise too," he grated. But then he couldn't help himself, and he fell forward and kissed her. To his relief, she kissed him back. Desperation eventually turned sweet, and they lulled to a finish with their foreheads resting together. A thought occurred to Elliot, and his voice carried it bravely in the stillness of the room: "We have tonight, though."
She quirked an eyebrow at him, then one corner of her mouth curled up.
He grinned back at her, and she advanced on him.
Indeed, they had that night. They would always have that night.
How can you ask me that?
"I—I dunno, 'human flesh payoff'? It... it does grab attention," he stammers.
"Yeah, it's a bogus headline—"
"Of course—but the 'fatherless babies' part?"
"I didn't mean that it was an out-of-the-blue question!" she says, evidently exasperated with him. "I meant how could you ask me, how could you think I wouldn't… that I wouldn't tell you?"
"I know what we said, but you should know that I would never keep something like that from you."
"I thought maybe—" he clears his throat "—you were sparing me my honor."
"Noah's adopted, El." She pauses, probably waiting for that idea to sink in. When he says nothing, she continues: "And he's a good year, year-and-a-half, older than…"
Elliot closes his eyes. He hadn't realized until this very moment, this moment when she can't bring herself to finish the sentence, that he had wanted it. Their child. "Okay," he croaks.
Olivia takes a breath on the other end. "How's Kathy?" she asks, her voice oddly bright in light of what they've been discussing.
"She's—fine." Now is probably not the time to tell Olivia that Kathy has taken Eli to her sister's again, that she still looks at him with the wild eyes of a wounded animal sometimes, that she never said anything when he got home that morning but has always treated him like she knew. It might have just been his own guilt these three years. "How're you?" he asks.
"I slept with Tucker."
"I'm sorry—I'm fine, I'm good—I just… I thought I ought to tell you."
"I don't know, I… guess I don't like keeping things from you."
"No, I mean why him?" His voice is barely stronger than his spirit right now.
"We dated," she says. "It wasn't just a…"
"I don't know," she repeats. She goes quiet for a moment, then she says, "He kind of looks like you."
"Kathy took Eli to her sister's," he blurts. "They've been there a week."
"Oh. I'm sorry, El."
He wants to tell her that he's not sorry, just as he hadn't been sorry about what they had done that night three years ago. Maybe things were finally dwindling to an end again. And maybe this time, Olivia wouldn't try to intervene and fix it for them. But he doesn't want to mention that now. "Can I meet Noah?" he asks instead.
In the silence before she answers, he is sure she will turn him down. It's too much, too soon, when they haven't even spoken in three years. She has been as good as he has about keeping their agreed-upon distance, and this request would be a breach of far more than that. Things are inevitably more intimate where a child is concerned, aren't they? Isn't that why single parents sometimes wait months into a new relationship to introduce their children? They want to make sure the new person will be around for a while? He fully expects her to reject him, and can only hope that she'll agree to think about it. "I'd like that," she finally says, and just like her, it takes his breath away.