Fear Of Love Of Hope


elliot_icon.gif merlyn_icon.gif

Scene Title Fear of Love of Hope
Synopsis A whirlwind of old (and new) emotions force Merlyn and Elliot to re-examine the changes in their lives.
Date April 21, 2021

Red Hook
Red Hook Park

It's not too long a walk to get to the park. Enough to get there in twenty minutes at an even pace, though Merlyn's pace shifts from quick to carefully measured back and forth along the way. Twenty minutes is a lot of time for thought. She looks a little more dressed for an evening walk in the park, the pastel blue coat worn over her otherwise dark mix of black jeans and a grey shirt giving a small pop of color. It's probably one of her nicer outfits, or at least the coat is. It's not quite her usual, but it looks comfortable and the color suits her.

Merlyn's hands are shoved in the pockets of her coat as she walks, slowing her pace down from the quickened one once she makes the turn into the park. The slower pace allows her to observe the park better. There's a quick look, assessing the surroundings before she really starts to look for who she's supposed to meet. Neither of them really established an exact location in the park which leaves her scanning to see if he's made it there before her.

Heartbreaker, Lovetaker
See you in a bit
I'll be there.
7:03 pm
April 21 ᛫ 7:33 pm
Only remembering now that there are like 500 entrances to this place
Which road did you enter from?

When the vibration of the phone near the hand she's already in her pocket, she pulls out the device to check it. She lets out a small exhale of a laugh before replying, glancing around her to get her bearings.

The south side. Not the farthest east south side but kind of the middle entrance from the south?
I have no idea if that makes any sense. I'm wearing blue, if that helps.
It does! I’ll be around that way in a minute
Or two, who knows considering my apparent level of understanding of meeting someone in a Very Large Location

There's another small chuckle from Merlyn as she looks down at her phone, then back up to double check if there's any sighting.

I mean, if you tell me what direction you're coming from I can start walking that direction and we can meet in the middle
Currently on Bay St across from the pool, so also middleish

She starts walking northward, initially starting on the path that meanders that direction before she decides that the path is not the most direct route. He most likely, she figures, will not find the most optimal route anyway. Merlyn will have to get there first. She exits the path onto the dirt, cutting across in that general direction at a moderate off-path pace.

Okay, I'm coming to find you
If I get lost in the woods coming to you I just want you to know that I am the infiltrator, not the exfiltrator, so please don't tell Wright I got lost just let me die in the woods or she will never let me live it down
You aren't going to get lost in the woods, I'm going to find you
No dying, I need you in case I get attacked by a rabid squirrel or something on the way to find you

Merlyn's gaze alternates between the phone and the area around her. While she looks, she's still keeping enough of an eye on her surroundings to make sure she doesn't trip. "He'd better not get lost in the woods," she mutters to herself, then pauses in her thought to look around the park to see if there actually are enough trees for him to be lost in.

Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me
Please also don't tell Wright that I told you that I'm the medic, she's the one who did all the training, I just borrow it
If I DO become lost in the woods I'll just start screaming so you can find me

As she's becoming accustomed to, Merlyn lets out the slightest laugh at in response to the messages, her eyes lifting upwards to make sure she's not going to run into anything as she types a reply.

Oh, so was that line to just try to impress me? Cause it did and you're never going to live it down
We can just play Marco Polo until we find each other, but be aware we're going to look like total dorks doing that
Ok I do know some first aid and emergency medicine, gone to trainings and the like, plus what I borrow enough to remember on my own. But Wright now demands that I make sure to cite her correctly wherever I try to impress people with her skills
Which, as you know, is difficult for me because I dropped out of high school before citations were a big deal
When you see me, pretend I didn't just trip on a rock
Well good, because I know absolutely no first aid. You can let Wright know I'm impressed at her skills that she lets you use
I didn't have much high school either so anything I do that sounds intelligent I basically picked up watching someone else
Where the HELL did you end up? I don't see you.

Glancing up from her phone, Merlyn scans the park around her to try and determine if she can find the lost-and-fallen Elliot. Her face remains a picture of amusement. This may be a wild goose chase, but it's not a terrible one.

Also don't fall again. Don't worry, I'm coming to rescue you.
This is embarrassing but I assumed you meant were wearing like a bright blue not a slate gray blue so I walked towards the wrong person at first, which they were not a fan of
How annoyed would you be if I was right behind you?

"Also," he says, "hi." Not right right behind like a horror movie villain, though behind enough.

“Dammit,” Merlyn mutters, nearly jumping at the sound behind her. She turns so she can face him head on, but the smile that grows is certainly not one indicating she’s actually annoyed. She moves to bridge the gap between them.

“It’s nice to see you, hopefully unbruised. I thought I was never going to find you and that the forest had eaten you.”

Elliot is wearing similarly black jeans, better cared for than the pair he was wearing the day they met. Normally he'd wear a likewise black hoodie with some small splash of vibrant color, but refrained from meeting a woman at night in a park dressed all in black. Instead, he's opted for an unadorned magenta hoodie beneath a gray jacket.

When Merlyn turns to him, a sly smile turns briefly to a bashful one. "Nice to see you too," he says, clearing his emotional palette with a look around the park for other visitors. He walks toward her casually though he's full of energy. "Always happy to be a damsel in distress if you feel like rescuing me. I could probably stick it out for a while in the woods, especially directly adjacent to a road, but eventually I'd become feral and start fighting raccoons for dumpster food."

“Okay, the thought of you being feral and fighting raccoons is way too good of an image in my head.” Merlyn’s grin is wide as she slowly tucks away the thought to try and save it. “You make a good damsel, even if I was slightly concerned about you this entire time.”

She manages not to slip her hands into her pockets, determined not to fully withdraw into herself both physically as well as emotional. Her grin turns into much tamer but still warm smile as she watches him.

It's impossible for Elliot to miss the little details, even with emotions held at guard. Her to the point, he thinks. There was a reason for this meeting.

"So, you may have noticed that I suggested we meet up next week," he says, trying to not just quote what he'd practiced earlier when they were texting. He looks apprehensive, worried that what he's going to say will be taken poorly. If he's honest with himself, he's also hopeful it won't. "Only to change to suggesting tonight instead."

He can't help but put his own hands in the safety of his jacket pockets. "But you said I knew you well enough to presume some things," he continues. "So I just need to let you know in person to avoid any unpleasant surprises down the line." He pauses, not wanting to bulldoze her with a rambling explanation.

Merlyn seems impressed by the restraint in pacing and inclines her head a little in his direction as she studies him. She’s definitely putting things together but manages restraint, on her part, to jumping to conclusions. She doesn’t barrel him with a witty response, instead watching him with a calmer expression. She doesn’t, however, quite manage to hide the slight hint of worry coloring her expression.

“All right,” she says. “Go on.”

Fast like bandaid, then. "I've been in a non-monogamous relationship for the past seven months," he goes on. "Unlike my partnership with Wright, iIt's both romantic and sexual. I realize that polyamory isn't everybody's cup of tea, but if you want to be closer you should know that." He doesn't rock back and forth on his heels even though it feels like he should do something to diffuse the tension he feels.

Merlyn’s expression is hard to read for a moment before she grins and it’s clear that the expression was just to make him squirm a touch longer. “First of all, I was almost entirely convinced you were gonna tell me you had cancer or something. This is very much not the conversation I thought we were having, so this is a fucking relief.”

Then there’s the matter of the actual confession. “Secondly, that’s not the sort of thing that bothers me unless it’s some asshole’s way of cheating by not telling the other person at some point. It’s way too easy for someone to lie about that and pretend it’s just fine when there’s that lack of communication. Thankfully, while you’ve done some asshole things in the past and that’s something that doesn’t heal easily, I don’t really think you’re an asshole at heart.”

She’s still got the grin on her face as she continues. “Lastly, this reminds me of when we first met and you felt the need to clarify your relationship with Wright. You were incredibly awkward about it and it was cute. You’re getting better at this sort of thing but it turns out the slightly less awkward is pretty cute too. So I know that this has been a lot that I’m addressing and that’s on purpose because I think you deserve to be a little nervous for a minute.”

Her expression shifts, less of a grin, more of a smile, and eyebrows slightly raised in questioning. “So I clarified a lot of shit, I hope, but you left an important detail out. Do you want to be closer?”

Elliot's relief is plain, and he accepts the mild torment with grace. Something shifts along the way, and by the time she's asked what he wants there's clearly something else he has to say. A part of him had hoped it was a deal breaker so he wouldn't be compelled to make things worse.

"I really do," he says quietly, though there's obviously more. Fast like bandaid.

"There's currently no extraction plan for my upcoming assignment," he says, hoping that somehow a gentle delivery will keep the changes of the last two days from spiraling all the way back down to where they were for the last two years. "In a best case scenario I'll be gone for months. People are still working to figure out a possible means of extraction, and the operation has the best resources I've ever worked with. But the truth is it may be a one-way trip." It pains him to say it aloud.

“Aha, there’s the cancer,” Merlyn says, not bothering to hide the concern as well as pain that creeps up into her expression. To her credit, her voice remains level. “Well, not quite cancer, but the bad news.” She lets out a deep breath. “So there’s an expiration date on things. Well, potentially.” It’s definitely harder for her to make jokes to lighten the situation simply because it is as serious as it is.

“You’re being really honest and vulnerable so it’s only fair I do the same. That scares the hell out of me. Not even from a getting closer sense, but because the thought of you just not being there hurts. At least before all this I could make up stories in my head that things were at least okay and maybe you grew as a person and shit. This is kind of a…” She shrugs her shoulders. “It’s fucking scary is what it is.”

Merlyn's hands seem unsure if they want to be out of her pockets or in them and she finds herself at a loss as to what to do with them. “But, y’know, cancer patients aren’t dead yet and it’s really not fair to treat them like they are because they could survive. There’s all kinds of equipment to help, good resources. Sometimes the best.” She pauses. “I’m trusting you not to be the asshole in this. You could be lying just to get out of something in the next few months, so you’d better be honest about this because otherwise I’m going to kick your ass.” There’s another pause. “And if you don’t come back I’m going to find you and kick your ass wherever you are.”

“I can’t say much about it,” Elliot says, taking a step forward and offering up his hands so she has something to occupy her own. “Except that it's real, and it’s critically important that it gets done. I know I sabotaged what we had because I wasn’t ready, and I understand that it makes you afraid for now. This isn’t running away, especially not preemptively. This is making sure you’re safe.”

“I know you don’t owe me your trust after I’ve lost it,” he says, fighting the impulse to look away ashamed. Keeping the importance of the moment in his eyes as they stay locked to hers. “But I promise you that I will spend as long as it takes to build new trust on a better foundation. That I’ll do everything in my power to come back and pick up where I left off.”

“Knowing the risks, do you want to be closer?”

Merlyn does take his hands, squeezing them nervously as she takes a moment to try and gather her thoughts. “You’ve apologized and been incredibly honest with me so far and those are major points in your favor. You put your cards on the table. That means a lot. Doesn’t mean I’m not scared of being hurt, but knowing what the situation is and preparing for it makes it an entirely different ballgame.”

She clears her throat. “That being said, if you had told me you had cancer and only a couple of months to live, I wouldn’t fuck off because there’s a risk. There’s always some kind of hope and that’s the sort of thing I desperately want to believe is actually still in the world. So my answer is yes. I’m not fucking off because I’m scared. I don’t think you want to this time either.”

What would it be like, to truly hope? Elliot has lived his life without much of it; there’s been barely a drop of it in the last ten years. But to have hope for a real future—free from the cage of inevitable horror—what would that feel like? Could he take this small flame of hope and nurture it?

Could he forge this seed of hope into a Lock?

It seems foolish when the idea begins to take root. But in the here and now he’s smiling, heart beating, making right what he’d done wrong despite righting it on a foundation of lies. Maybe he can hope to be forgiven, when the time comes.

He squeezes Merlyn’s hands carefully, not presumptuously. He’s at the bottom of this flight of stairs, it’s too early for easy confidence. He has to continue to earn this, day after day. He looks nervous but happy, and for the briefest of moments, words won’t go in order. It’s so uncommon at this point that every reminder of who he used to be is a small wonder.

“I’m not fucking off,” he finally says.

“Good, because this would be really awkward if you decided to now,” Merlyn says with a small smirk, going for the lighthearted joke because it’s what she knows. It’s what she’s used to breaking tension with, a defense mechanism. When she realizes it, she squeezes his hands and relaxes, letting the smirk soften to a smile and her tone level out to something more serious.

“Sorry, bad timing for a joke,” she murmurs. “The point is, I’m willing to risk that pain. I already know there’s going to be some pain. You are doing something that’s probably important and you’re leaving and that’s going to be rough as hell. That’s not your fault, though. The real risk is the bit after, but I’m willing to try. If there’s anything I’m a sucker for, it’s those moments of what seems like impossible hope.”

“I’ll do everything in my power to be worth the risk,” Elliot says. He holds on to that moment of serious vulnerability. He envies that hope, wishes he could borrow it. His own will have to do, this one faint coal amidst the ashes. He can grow it bright enough to get home, to get Rue, to get back here to this promise. This first glimpse of the possibility of forgiveness. What a dangerous, heart-breaking feeling this is.

“Also I can’t in good conscience ever fault you for comedic deflection, that’s been my main coping mechanism for like a decade.”

Merlyn laughs, the smile that follows fading into something more comfortable. Familiar. “It’s easy to fall into. It’s what I do. But sometimes you have to be vulnerable and allow a moment to be just that. I’m just trying to balance the urges to make a joke, flirt, or let the moment be a moment.”

She certainly seems to be cycling through the options, as if calculating a next move. “I’m sorry if I’m bad at this. I’m really not used to letting someone be close enough to hurt me. So you’ll have to pardon if I become the awkward one being unsure what to say and how to say it.” She keeps his hands in hers, as if almost afraid that if she let go he’d somehow drift away.

“I’m okay with being awkward together,” Elliot says. “Though, I’ve had it longer. So I’m going to want at least fifty-one percent of future awkward moments. I’m not budging on this point. But also I’d like some of the vulnerability, so you’re not doing that alone either.”

He takes one of his hands back, stepping away and beside her. “I believe I promised you food cart food,” he remembers. “We should find one before the raccoons chase them all away.”

"You did promise me food," Merlyn agrees, and she squeezes the hand still in hers before she she laces her fingers between his. "I'm going to enter into aggressive negotiations on the exact percentages of awkwardness and vulnerability, so you'll have to accept that. Don't worry, it won't be a hostile takeover, but I'm sure we can both find some sort of peaceful balance of being awkward." She glances around for a moment. "I can't say I know exactly where one is, I was surprised we found each other."

“Don’t know exactly where a food cart is,” Elliot asks, heartbeat raised at the feeling of their fingers intertwined, “or don’t know where some sort of peaceful balance of being awkward is?” He’s happy to start looking for either, and begins walking toward the nearest path.

Merlyn offers a small grin in response to that. "I meant the food cart, but the balance of awkwardness is also sort of hard to find." She looks ahead of them on the path, looking away from him for the moment as she searches for the cart. "Maybe if we don't find the food cart we'll at least find something. Maybe not the raccoons though, I'm not sure how we'd fight them off." She looks back over at him. "The odds of running into each other I imagine were incredibly low. So I'm going to assume luck's on our side." Merlyn's smile is certainly softer, but no less fond, and then she laughs. "Fuck, what are the actual odds? I mean, the Safe Zone is small enough of a place that it's likely but to actually have it happen?"

Elliot chuckles, running the numbers while looking ahead. "I'm kind of surprised we hadn't already," he says. "Considering we both still deliver for Sherry's House of Pizza on occasion. Probably also other food industry gigs. Though I've done fewer of those lately."

His attention turns down to Merlyn. "Honestly though, I'm glad I had the chance to change before we did meet again," he confides. He holds less of the self loathing and guilt in his posture than he did yesterday, but there's still something in the haunting of his eyes. "I'd have just done something stupid again. Or wouldn't have accrued enough courage to apologize when I did just slinked out of the room after a well deserved fuck off."

“I guess that’s fortuitous timing on our part,” Merlyn replies, giving him a little nudge with her shoulder and a smile. “Honestly, I’m grateful you did manage that courage. I’m not sure if we would have gotten another opportunity. I’m not sure I’d believe you’d changed if we ran into each other and you didn’t apologize.” Her eyes scan his face and she catches a glimpse of something she can’t read. “Mostly, I think, because it would have been a poke at a wound that never healed.”

She pauses for a moment, the corner of her dipping into a frown. “I—“ She starts, then wets her lips and starts again. “I can’t really assume, but I want you to know that the world doesn’t work on the scale of who does or doesn’t deserve good things, or even bad things. If it did, I’d be incredibly less jaded and maybe even trust the world more than I do now. Things just happen to people.”

Merlyn’s pause is longer, as if she’s unsure if she’s got more to say, but she eventually continues instead of giving him full rein to speak. “Y’know, I could always be getting this wrong and making this incredibly awkward. I think I ramble a bit when I’m nervous.”

Elliot slows from their already ambling pace, wanting to dispel an idea. “You don’t owe me your trust,” he says, making sure his eyes don’t stray from hers to avoid the vulnerability. “I’m not going to ask you to rush deciding whether or not you ever will. I’ll do what I can to fix what I broke, and you can trust me if and when you’re ready to. I know even these little admissions require trust, and I’m thankful for that much. It’s okay to make me work for it.”

He smiles, not like he’s deflecting at the end, but because he really is grateful she hasn’t slammed the door in his face yet. “And you do ramble when you’re nervous, as do I,” he says, just a touch of humor in the smile now. “You may only get forty-nine percent or less of that but you get at least fifty-one percent of being adorable for it. You also repeat yourself when you think something is important, which I find very charming.”

Merlyn laughs, a genuine smile on her face rather than merely a playful or teasing one. “Thank you,” she murmurs, “I’m glad you at least are aware that this is a lot. Because it is a lot, but I’m not running from it just because of that.” With an exhale of breath, she gathers her composure to resume with her own touch of humor.

“… fuck, do I really repeat myself? I’m glad you somehow find that charming, because I find it rather embarrassing,” she grins. “You’re right though, we both ramble when we’re nervous. The key here though is that I’m not exactly used to being nervous in a social situation. Not like this. But we’re partners in the shareholders of awkwardness, 50-50, and I will not budge. I think your brand of it is cute.”

Elliot's smile changes in tone as Merlyn opens up and jokes in equal measure, but it stays in place. "If you're nervous," he offers, "now or just in general, you're always welcome to let me know if there's anything I can do to alleviate that. Obviously I can't magic it all away. But I have no problem answering your questions honestly or just giving you the space to vent your worries so they're not just building up unaddressed. And if there's something I can do to reassure you, I would be happy to."

"I'm supposed to do the magicking away, Elliot," Merlyn jokes, cracking a smile that looks equal parts amused but also vulnerable. "I don't think it's really much more than you already know. I'm nervous only because you're someone I never really got over. It was a situation I didn't know how to fix or brush away so I just kinda hid it. I'm only nervous because you're the only damn person who even knows it's there." She manages a grin to break the tension. "I mean, Wright probably does but that's a given."

The moment of amusement and levity makes it easier for Merlyn to relax in the next moment. "Maybe you're not gonna fuck up, but what if I fuck up? Talking again is nice. I missed it. I know that at some point you're going to have to do your whole secret important assignment thing, but that's not right now." While it did give her a more relaxed tone of voice, there's a sudden swelling of emotion that follows in her words. "I think some part of me blamed myself and I never really felt like I knew what I did wrong but that I did something." She clears her throat to try and composure herself. "Sorry, I'm rambling."

Elliot’s hand draws away from Merlyn’s so he can hold her shoulders for a moment. He sighs in frustration at his own actions, that he left her with this. “You have absolutely no blame in this,” he says, hoping the stern sincerity might push back the heartbreak of seeing her heart broken.

“You were kind, and caring, and trusting. I took action to undermine what we had so that I wouldn’t have to honestly assess what a future with you would be like in the absence of a passing fancy. What it would be like to have love as a promise, not just the chemical reaction of seeing a beautiful woman.”

His hands lift to take the sides of her face gently. “This was my doing. And if there’s a voice that tells you that maybe some of it was you, you tell that voice that I will burn this fucking business to the ground before it gets one single share. I’m taking it private. Total stock buy-back.”

The mention of the stock gets a laugh from Merlyn, even if she's doing her best to stay as composed as possible. It's not easy, mostly because she can't entirely put up that front–he knows her too well to believe it. Which, of course, leaves her feeling vulnerable and uncomposed. Her smile is smaller, but still there. "Thank you," she says, sounding more honest and genuine as she ever has before. "But please tell me if I do fuck up. 'Cause I'm not perfect in the slightest and I really, really, don't want to end up in a position where we're not talking again."

She reaches a hand up to rest over one of his against her cheek, seeming eased by its presence. "Tell me if I fuck up. Don't run. I promise I won't either. The running, I mean. I'll let you know if you fuck up."

“Now that I can agree on a fifty-fifty split,” Elliot promises. He takes his hands from her face, but never breaks contact with the one she raised. Their fingers are intertwined again as he begins moving. It’s late, and the park is nearly vacant. He hasn’t seen one food cart yet. It’s also cold, so he shoves his hands into his jacket pockets, hers along for the ride.

“I may have planned this date a bit hastily,” he says. “How mad would you be if there were no street carts and we had to settle for getting a Pryr to a pizzeria where the slices are so big that it’s literally impossible to eat?”

Merlyn seems fine with the cozy hands in pocket, and her other settles in her own pocket. It is cold and she almost didn't bring a warm enough jacket. The blue one was a last second decision–because it looked nice. She cracks a smile and squeezes the pocketed hand. "I do think we're late for the food carts, but I don't mind. I honestly wasn't in it for the food anyway." She does grin after a moment, a look of realization on her face. "It is a date, isn't it. I didn't come in thinking it for sure because I wasn't entirely sure where we stood, but I like calling it that now."

She glances around for a moment, as if to double check that there really weren't any food carts. "You know, I'd settle for pizza. It's not even settling really. Pizza is amazing and that's what we had the first time we went out together."

Elliot remembers fondly. “This time will be better,” he says. Not just because the pizza they had on their first date was only okay; he’s here for something more than attraction. A phone is produced from a jacket pocket, and as they pass through the thin veil of trees onto the sidewalk he’s already typing in the address to their intended destination.

On the street, there’s less obstruction of the wind, and he stows his phone quickly so he can return his hand to the safety of a warm pocket. “We may want to find somewhere to huddle for warmth.”

Merlyn glances towards the street, then back towards the park. "You're very right. I'm not going to lie, I didn't think it would be quite this cold, but I didn't take the wind into consideration. I did briefly think of not wearing a coat on the off-chance I felt like trying to steal your hoodie, but I'm glad I chose to stuff those mischievous whims back in the box. Maybe leaning against one of the trees?"

She gestures back behind the treeline they left. "I'm really starting to crave that pizza now, I'm glad I ate something small earlier." Merlyn takes a few steps forward, then looks back over at Elliot to see if he agrees that the clustering of trees is the right spot to huddle. "I promise I'll protect you from raccoons."

“I’m kind of glad I didn’t get to eat all of my wings,” Elliot admits.

He nods in the direction of the trees. “Also this hoodie has been surgically grafted to my body to prevent theft, so the shelter of trees is, sadly, your only option for warmth. Lead the way,” he says, as though they aren’t locked side by side with their hands in his pocket. “I really hope there’s a raccoon you have to fight now that you said that.

"I didn't say I'd win against the raccoon, so I hope you're prepared for that. I just said I'd protect you," Merlyn grins, then leads the way to the treeline, as if somehow she needed to be the guide. As they reach one of the larger trees, she leans her back against it and looks over at Elliot. "The real reason for hoodie theft is because then you have to come back and see me. Given I still have one of your hoodies, I would think it would work, but you seem to not mind having it in a new home."

She tilts her head as she looks at him. "So I've got to come up with something to keep you coming back that's not a hoodie."

Elliot settles in beside her, silent for a moment as he ponders what it could be. “I’d keep coming back just for this,” he says.

The hand in his pocket squeezes gently and Merlyn tilts her head to lean against him. "Even if we're cold and missed the food carts and you got lost and we couldn't find each other for a long time?"

Especially if,” Elliot says, leaning in just enough to show his contact is purposeful. “You fight the raccoons, I act as a wind-break.”

Merlyn laughs, leaning in further against him to do just that, letting his taller form work to block the worst of the wind from getting to her. "Raccoons are smart, they all probably went home and aren't out taking strolls in the park. I'm not sure how I'd fight one, but I'd defend you any day."

“I appreciate that,” Elliot says with a chuckle. “And in that case, if you like, I could upgrade your windshielding package to include standing face to face and combining our jackets.” His look isn’t mischievous, not suggesting something other than sharing their warmth. Perhaps nervous at the thought of being that close.

"That sounds like a tempting upgrade, honestly," Merlyn agrees as she only slightly reluctantly removes her hand from his for just a moment so she can face him properly. While he had spent a lot of time ripping off bandages before, she instead doesn't leave them in the slight awkwardness and nerves of the moment. Mostly because the last time they were close like this was a long time ago–enough time that they had changed some as people. Familiar, but different.

She bridges the gap and just goes for it, leaning in closer against him before she murmurs, almost as an afterthought. "I didn't ask if there were any hidden fees in the upgrade."

“No fees,” he says simply, opening his jacket to wrap around her smaller form, holding her through his pockets.

Merlyn settles in for a moment against him before she decides to wrap her arms around him as she rests her head against his chest. "I think I got a good deal then. Upgraded package, no fees, equal shares in the stock of awkward and vulnerable. Honestly? This went way better than I could have expected. You're a lot better at getting under my skin than I remember. Not literally, of course. It's hard to be anything more than… whatever I'm feeling and thinking. No faking, no grifts, no lies, no cons. An actual thing."

With her arms around him, Elliot sighs, relaxes, closes his eyes, and rests his chin on the top of her head. He takes in the intoxicating scent of her, different and the same. Warm, here, real and in his arms. “I know what you mean,” he says. “I want us to be this for each other. To just take off the masks and be.”

She doesn't seem to care if the car ever really shows up. Her focus is in the moment–especially because she's not certain how long she'll have these moments. Merlyn breathes slowly, letting silence fall for a spell before she speaks again. "I'd like to have this. For however long we can have it. Time's just time. It sorts itself out in the long run. I just missed feeling…" She stops, searching for words, words she can't seem to find. She doesn't know what she's trying to describe.

Elliot doesn't press her to define something nebulous. He cocks his head to the side, just enough to feel the warmth of her temple on his cheek. His embrace tightens slightly just to trap a little more heat between them. Just to stay in the moment for as long as he's able.

Silence in general is something Merlyn tends to avoid, mostly because it means she's less in control of the situation. In this case, if silently staying there meant loss of control of the situation, she's allowing it for once. The vulnerability. She squeezes gently, breathes deeply, and remains in the moment of warmth before she tilts her head so she can look up at him. "I didn't see any of this coming," she murmurs. She seems as if she's going to try to say more, but she doesn't, simply looking up at him with the slightest hint of a smile on her face.

Elliot cranes back his neck to meet Merlyn's eyes without having to otherwise shift their comfortable contact. "Neither did I," he says. "In my head it always went as bad as I could imagine. I'm not entirely sure if this isn't a dream." He tries to fly just in case, but mostly to amuse himself, feeling so light in this moment. Pushing against the world of Matter nets nothing.

"I could pinch you if you want," Merlyn grins up at him. "They always say that's how you know for sure. But… you're right. I didn't exactly think this would happen. Sorry that I didn't put much faith in you, but I didn't think you'd ever apologize. I didn't think we'd have this chance, a chance to pick up the pieces." She blinks a few times at him. "Maybe it is a dream? It's nice though. If it's a dream, though, I hope it sticks around for a while. I miss talking to you. It's been too long and now it's…" She shuts her eyes and relaxes against him, smile on her face.

"Just what I needed, I think."

“You don’t have to apologize for not having faith in me,” Elliot reminds her, more than happy to work off that debt. He could drift off right now if it weren’t for the wind. He thinks of her faith in him. He needs to earn it, even if he doesn’t deserve it.

“My assignment,” he begins, not sure exactly how to address it. Normally he’d just lie, but Merlyn is one of the very few people who are aware that his link with Wright is permanent. “I won’t have cell service where I’ll be working. Is it okay if Wright plays switchboard to our conversations?”

His accepting blame and fault and desire to earn back trust and faith makes Merlyn squeeze him tighter, burying her face against his chest for a moment. The assignment is a tough thought to think of, but he's still right there. She looks back up at him slowly, cracking a bit of a smile. "If she's fine with that. At the very least I want to check in and make sure you're okay. I do hope that Wright is fine really full messages so you get all my wit and charm with no lost information along the way."

She nods at him. "I'll be alright."

Elliot chuckles, desperately wishing he could return Merlyn’s embrace without removing his hands from his jacket and expelling their collected warmth. “I’ll be able to read everything she sees,” he says. “I could also hear a phone call, I’m sure I’d love to hear the sound of your voice now and then. She would have to transcribe or speak for me, but I trust her absolutely. Even though she suggests edits to everything I say. Worse than me. She wouldn’t mess with you though.”

Merlyn's smile grows as she gazes upward. "I'm glad you have her, honestly. There's a certain safety knowing she's there and somehow has your back in everything. Plus she's pretty badass in my opinion. Knowing all those cool battle medicine techniques you steal from her." The last of those words causes her smile to grow to a mischievous grin immediately after. "I don't like that whatever you're doing has a potential for you not coming back. I think the worst thing about that would be not knowing anything. She can tell me you're safe."

She lets out a breath she didn't even know she was really holding. "And if you'd like to hear the sound of my voice, I'll absolutely call her. Even if it'll be a little strange having to translate, I'll be happy knowing you're okay." She almost, for a split second, looks like her eyes might well up with tears but it passes as she continues. "That was the sort of thing I hated when you left me. I spent all that time wondering if you were okay, if you found something or someone that made you happy, that you were safe."

She clears her throat. "I know I could have called just to know, but I didn't want to open that wound further. Kind of figured I'd just make up a story about what you'd been up to."

“I love the sound of your voice,” Elliot says, pulling his hands from his jacket finally to wrap around her shoulders. The car should be here in not too long, they won’t die of exposure. “And I worried about you too, even though I didn’t have any right too. The ball was in my court the whole time, as you pointed out yesterday.”

“I’m not going to be going solo on the mission, either,” he says. “There’s a whole team, we’ll watch each other’s backs.” Or constantly watch his own looking for Richard. A man he knows at an intellectual level isn’t the one who’s responsible for what happened in the Ark. He needs to find a way to deal with that cognitive dissonance.

“Just because things weren’t great between us doesn’t mean you weren’t allowed to worry,” Merlyn chuckles. “That’s just what happens when you give a damn about someone. You’re allowed to have feelings, and people don’t just stop caring overnight.” She rests her head against his chest as she listens to him talk, explaining the few details he can actually give her.

“You not being alone does make me feel better.” There’s a soft sigh from her. “I’m gonna worry, but that’s kind of a given. At least there are people who’ll help you get out when the mission is over.”

Elliot doesn’t respond with words, just lifts one hand to cradle her head as she rests against him. Eventually he lets out a short sigh. “I never stopped caring at all,” he says. “Overnight or otherwise. I just didn’t deserve—”

His phone vibrates in his jacket pocket, and he manages to fish it free without releasing Merlyn. “This’ll be the Pryr,” he says, tapping through his security then locking the phone again shortly after. “Should be here in a minute. Are you excited to not be standing in the wind?”

"Yes and no? Glad to be not freezing, sad to be leaving my newly reclaimed comfortable position," Merlyn flashes a smile, looking up at him. "Life isn't a transactional relationship. You don't rank up points of deserving good things or bad things, y'know, karma or whatever else is similar. When I was a kid, my mom was this saint of a woman. She always saw the positive in everything and would give the shirt off her back to someone who needed one. She never got a break, though. Struggled with money, raising a kid, and she didn't even get a good death. If that sort of karma existed, she should've gotten something great."

She squeezes him tighter for a moment. "You might not think you deserve things, but life just randomly gives us shit. You gotta fight for more or be content with it. I'm a fighter."

“You’re right,” Elliot admits. He forgets sometimes that he started with nothing, but Merlyn lost everything. “I’ll fight too. And any relinquishment of your newly reclaimed comfortable position can be remedied whenever feasible. Other comfortable positions as well; we probably won’t be allowed to stand upright in this taxi.”

She laughs, pausing only to glance in the direction of where the car should be soon. "I think that's a fair deal," she says. "I'm really glad you apologize. I missed this more than I even realized. I kinda knew I did when I ran into you, but the text messages really made me realize how I missed sending you texts like that. Even when you're clearly editing your messages to sound more impressive. Especially then." Merlyn inhales deeply for a moment. "I want to know what you've done since then. How you've been. I might even interrogate you about your other relationship if that doesn't feel too weird."

“It does not feel too weird to me,” Elliot assures her. “Interrogate away. Do you still want to eat pizza somewhere, or should we get takeout and go somewhere with softer furniture to eat it while the interrogation takes place?"

He thinks better of that, and quickly clarifies. "I mean to suggest my living room, not like… the other, totally presumptuous kind of soft furniture one finds in a home. Not that it's normal to eat pizza in a bed either way. I should stop digging this hole, right?"

"I like it when you dig yourself into a hole. It's fun to see you try to talk your way out of it. Just remember to let me do the talking if we need to talk ourselves out of a mess," she replies. "But honestly, you're right. Taking it to go might be better. Besides, you're allowed to be a little presumptuous. I know we can't just… pick everything back up exactly how things were." Merlyn's smile is soft, the hint of vulnerability there still buried somewhere in her eyes. "There's stuff to get over, trust to try and build, but it doesn't mean I'm not comfortable with you. I might be a bit awkward until I figure out how comfortable you are, but the bottom line is your couch is soft and talking over pizza might be better at your place."

“You make a series of excellent points,” Elliot says, letting go of her begrudgingly as he sees their ride slowing down to find them.

Elliot’s Townhouse

8:14 PM

“If you don’t mind,” Elliot says, offering the pizza box to Merlyn as he fishes his keys from his pocket. The wind is less biting with the shelter of the building, but the night is still chilly for spring.

Merlyn happily takes the pizza box, resisting the urge to open it up to breathe in the scent. She might have eaten earlier, but by now she's certainly hungrier than she was letting on. She scans the street while Elliot handles the door. It's a reflex, always watching her back, always checking for who might cause trouble.

"Thank you," Elliot says, unlocking the door and pushing it into the breezeway. He steps in first, kicking off his shoes and taking the pizza so Merlyn can do the same. The small space is tidy, two other pairs of shoes sit beneath a narrow bench across from coat hooks. There's a rain jacket on one of them, but the room is otherwise spartan. The upper half of the inner door is a window looking in toward the stairs to the second floor, the room beyond otherwise dim.

With the pizza taken from her, Merlyn balances carefully as she takes her shoes off and tucks them out of the way. The dim interior doesn't seem to bother her too much simply waiting for Elliot to lead the way. It's not the first time she's been there but the familiar space isn't hers–she's a guest. She's something. That's not something they've talked about. "You know, I'm kind of glad you didn't move."

"I'm very glad that I didn't," Elliot says, pushing open the inner door. "Packing. Ugh." As though that would have been the only downside, though his smile is knowing and easy.

In the living room he switches on the lights, revealing the dining space and kitchen beyond. Everything in here looks simple but quality, nothing gaudy. Everything made to withstand use in a world where replacements were until recently more difficult to find than not. "Make yourself at home," he says, crossing into the dining room to set the pizza down before traveling further on to the kitchen.

She watches him leave, her gaze lingering just long enough for her to catch herself doing so and stops. It’s been a while and it still feels a bit surreal. She crosses the room to find herself a position on the couch. Merlyn does make herself comfortable, a habit she’s picked up from dozens of times crashing on someone’s couch. Being here again makes her feel strange. A familiar place, but she reminds herself just how different two years can make.

As she settles on the couch, she tucks her legs up under her. “Kind of weird making myself comfortable here. I was basically convinced I’d never be here again,” she says.

"It hasn't changed much," Elliot calls from the kitchen. He pulls two plates from a cabinet, and two cloth napkins from a drawer in the island. "Other than Ames's toys aren't all over the place." That and Wright and her family no longer live here.

He returns with plates and napkins in hand, grabbing the pizza on his way through the dining room. "But I'm glad you're here to brighten it up," he adds, then, realizing he hasn't yet, uses the plates in his hand to switch on the living room lights to a comfortable evening dim.

The mention of Ames' toys and the glance around is enough for Merlyn to draw some conclusions. "How is it living alone?" She pauses for a second before quickly adding, "Unless your partner lives here…?" She scoots on the couch a bit to make sure she's not hogging any extra space and double checks that the coffee table is clear for the food and supplies. "I didn't want to assume too much. But either way, I'm glad I can brighten it up. I'm glad my presence is a positive one."

"It's been very different," Elliot reflects, pausing before he sets his burdens on the coffee table. "I miss it, but I'm getting used to it. I live up here alone, but Rue, my girlfriend, does live in the garden apartment downstairs. She's currently away, also on an extended assignment."

He doesn't take a seat immediately, instead turning to open the grate on the fireplace. Neatly stacked kindling and small logs are revealed, which he lights with a single wooden match. It's not cold in here, but it's not warm either. "We weren't really at a moving in together stage when she moved in, just needed a place that wasn't above a bar."

When he starts to work on the fire, Merlyn shifts so her feet are on the ground, leaning forward toward the coffee table. She takes the opportunity to open the pizza box, carefully pulling a slice without losing any of the cheese. She sets it on a plate and then proceeds to pull out another and place it on the second plate.

“Yeah, you did say you’ve been together for seven months. I’m glad she doesn’t have to deal with being above a bar, that must have been complicated and noisy.” She closes the box, then tucks a napkin under each plate as she continues talking. “I feel like I should have expected she did the same sort of ‘assignment’ type work. What’s she like? Personality wise, that is.”

“Yeah, we both worked for Wolfhound back in the day,” Elliot says, making sure the fire is catching before standing. “Though she’s been taking time off until she was offered this job. Neither of us are doing these jobs for Wolfhound, it’s a government contract. Thank you,” he adds when he rounds the table and sees a plate prepared. He sits sideways on the couch, setting the plate and napkin on his leg.

“I went to see her to ask about the state of Wolfhound when I was asked to come back last year, and we hooked up,” he says plainly. “I actually had a crush on her way back in the war days. She’s witty, and loving. Ferocious and tall. She’s usually too hard on herself, but she’s been coming out of her shell. We all went through it to different degrees, back then and even recently.”

Merlyn shifts a bit as she settles the plate in her lap so she doesn’t drop it. “Meeting someone through work makes the most sense, really. It’s technically how we met.” She grins, recalling their meeting as she stops to take a bite of pizza. She’s careful when eating it, mostly because she’s a bit self-conscious when there’s someone else there. Even if it is someone she was close and comfortable with. She’s trying to make a good impression.

“Anyway,” she says once she’s finished the bite, “You seem like you go for witty.” She grins at the tease, still seeming comfortable with the talk even if it is a rather complicated thing to work through. “She definitely sounds great though. I’m really glad you found someone you aren’t just pushing away.”

Elliot takes a bite of his own pizza while he has the opportunity. Nailed it, he thinks. "It was unexpected," he says when he's able. "I had made an agreement with Wright after we started getting our shit together, that we wouldn't obscure the fact that we're linked all the time. Not to somebody either of us planned on dating seriously either way. Up until that point, we'd been maintaining the lie that we were only linked frequently. Even at work, only one person knows."

"So starting with better moral footing. Trying to make sure she's comfortable with knowing it's technically possible Wright could look in at any time. She doesn't, though, we made rules about that too." He's uncomfortable admitting it, because when he and Merlyn dated, there were no such rules. Now he feels compelled to make an admission for the sake of that moral footing between them. "Which did happen when the two of us were together, though never for anything more intimate than a hug." It's clear he feels awful for having allowed it, and for letting it go unaddressed.

“Honestly? I’d kind of thought it was a little like that. I thought about it like Wright was a roommate in the other room and could know what was happening. I think if I didn’t like Wright it’d bug me, but it doesn’t. She’s your best friend and the one who always has your back and I’ve always liked her for that. Plus she’d kick your ass if I needed her to.”

She grins, taking another bite of the pizza. She watches him for a moment while she's eating and when she’s done she speaks again. “It does sound like you got your shit together after me in a few ways. Making rules, being honest, not running away. I’m proud of you. Honestly. I’m not just bullshitting you, you’ve changed for the better and that’s so fucking good.”

"Thank you," he says quietly, looking a mix of ashamed and proud. "I've been trying. I don't always get it right, but I strive to. We have a 'no streaming around people we know' policy, we have a way to get permission before we try. Sometimes if one of us experiences a spike of emotion the other will look in just to make sure there isn't an emergency, but otherwise we don't share nearly as much as we used to. I'll let you know if we are sharing for whatever reason. I want to do better by you."

"I'm sure she'd be happy to know you like her. And probably also pass on apologies for her involvement in our shared bad behavior," he says before taking another bite to give himself time to reflect on how much of what he just said is perfectly true. So many almost-truths to get through the day. "How's the pepperoni, pineapple, jalapeño, black olive, and mushroom combo?"

“I can get that. Rules and structure help for a lot of things. Communication and honesty are helpful too. You two have figured out your shit with each other, you figured out how to have a solid relationship.” Merlyn pauses for a long time, then takes a bite of the pizza to fill in the empty air. When she finishes, she gives an approving nod. “Kind of weird, but I like it. I don’t usually get all these together but I actually do like them all on one slice like this.”

She looks back at him, tone a little serious. “I’ve been kind of assuming your relationship with your partner is going okay but if it’s not and you need to talk to someone other than Wright about it, I’m pretty good at listening and lightening the mood with witty but appropriate commentary.”

She isn’t Wrong; Wright knows how he's feeling all the time, which really isn’t the same thing as talking about it. She also knows his worries, because she’s aware of the risks. Things have become more complicated since they went back to work, so many things can’t be said through the Index.

“I appreciate that,” Elliot says, eyes drawn up as he takes time to eat and think about what he can even say about it. “I’m worried. It’s been a month since she left, but her assignment is also open-ended. I miss her a lot, it’s hard to stop having that connection overnight. I uh… don’t actually have any real friends other than Wright, so the companionship is a big deal.”

“Really?” For a moment, Merlyn fixates on the idea of Elliot not having any other friends. “Well, you’ve got me as a friend and… other things.” She’s not sure what to end that sentence with. She’ll have to put a pin in that. With him having a serious conversation about his partner, though, she sets the plate of half-eaten pizza on the coffee table and tucks one of her legs under her on the couch so she can fully face him. It’s important.

“So you’re feeling what I’ll be feeling,” she concludes. “I know I haven’t experienced that exact scenario yet, but I know it’ll be tough when I get there. There’s a lot of loss when someone important in your life is just gone. That feeling I know. I wish I could say it goes away, but when you lo—“ She stops herself for a second, recomposes, then continues. “When you care about someone it sticks in there. You just kind of have to take it day by day, find ways to make it easier. Even if you know it’s a bad situation, sometimes lying to yourself helps.”

Merlyn half-laughs at herself. “Even if I know they’re not true, I like to make stories about people I’ve lost. The lives they’re living, the people they talk to, the situations they’re in… I know none of it is real. It still helps to think of what you’d rather it be like if they aren’t in your life.”

Elliot can't fault Merlyn for not knowing how to define what they are now. When she suddenly course-corrects from going all in a moment later, it pains him to realize that he could have had that unfinished love this whole time. If only he hadn't been who he was back then. He tries to focus on the fact that he can't change the past, tries to move mindfully past the intrusive imaginations of the life he wishes he lived. He tries not to focus on how much worse the Overlay would have been if someone other than Marthe saw the truth. He wishes lying to himself would help, because when it comes down to it, he's the only person in his life that he doesn't lie to.

He sets his own plate down, trying to be respectful to what Merlyn did and didn't say. His hands return to his lap, not trusting himself to not reach out for hers and say something he isn’t ready to. He doesn’t want to buy her time with an admission of love; he wants to earn her presence in his life first. “It doesn’t feel great. I wish she was here. I wish you won’t have to feel it,” he says. “I wish I hadn’t made you feel it all this time when we could have…” he shakes his head. That is exactly what he was trying to avoid saying.

He tries to course-correct himself. “What story did you make for me?” he asks.

She doesn’t reach for his hands either, but she does watch him as he talks, because there are things they both aren’t saying. Merlyn gives an amused laugh at the question, taking a moment to focus on that question and nothing else. “At first, I was upset for a while. I couldn’t lie to myself and make it all okay. After that, it was just a bunch of stupid inconveniences. Never things that would hurt you, really, just moments of frustration. Like… stubbing your toe, losing your keys, dropping food you just made.” She smiles, even if it borders on sad.

“But I got over that part. None of those stories made me feel any better. So I moved in the opposite direction. I made a ton of stories, different ones with different opportunities. Big things, like you moving to a new house or landing a promotion; I liked the small things better though. Little moments, like you and your family going on a ferris wheel at a fair. You’re sitting next to Ames and she’s a little scared at the start but you promise to hold her hand the whole time and after one full spin of the wheel, she’s excited—but she keeps hold of your hand anyway.”

She clears her throat a little, suddenly finding herself a little embarrassed and she glances towards the pizza for a moment as a distraction. “Anyway, it was just stuff like that. You were okay and happy.”

Elliot’s own smile is sad, imagining the perfect little details of a day that could have been as vivid in his mind as though it actually happened. He swallows to keep from making a sad sound; either at the loss of Ames from his daily life, or the kindness he received in Merlyn’s mind so long after having made sure he didn’t deserve it. It’s hard to hide the water in the corners of his eyes, but he looks at the pizza as a distraction as well.

“Thank you,” is all he can say, and softly.

Merlyn seems torn between the moment and the pizza, not quite reaching for it yet, but it still seems to be where her vision is focused. “You don’t have to thank me for that,” she murmurs. “I just felt better thinking that if I couldn’t see good things, at least I could think you had them. They’re just selfish thoughts to make me feel like shit is worth it sometimes.” She finally reaches for the pizza, blinking a few times to brush away any hint of water that might have been there.

“You can always talk to me. I mean, if you want to. I just mean now that we’re actually talking again, I’m here for you. Anytime you need, okay? It can be hell not having someone to tell even the stupid things to. Just saying them outloud to someone can just feel cathartic.” She takes a bite of distraction pizza, allowing it to try and curb the emotion in the words.

“I don’t deserve that—” Elliot cuts himself off. As she’s told him multiple times, it isn’t about deserving. He reaches for the pizza to distract himself but stops without picking up the plate.

“I never earned that kindness from you,” he tries again. “So thank you. You had every right to be bitter, but you were better than I ever was. And I know you think that things just happen and life isn’t transactional, but I’ll earn it this time. If you’ll let me. If you want me to.”

Merlyn finishes her bite of pizza, looking down at what's left on the plate before she sets it aside again. It's not something she can distract herself with right now. Instead, she looks back to Elliot. "I was bitter, though. I was hurt and I was angry and I was upset at you and upset at myself. I'm not perfect, but I give a damn." She shuts her eyes for a moment, mostly to refocus her thoughts before she opens them to continue. "You're right. I don't think life should just be transactional. The thing is, though, kindness is a gift I'm giving you. Doesn't have to be your birthday to give you a present. People give presents just 'cause they think about someone." She reaches out a hand but unsure of herself, she moves to just let it rest on Elliot's knee–some kind of physical connection there.

"I'd like that, though. I want you to try. I want you to do what you feel you need to in order to repair…" She's unsure of a word again, gesturing around the both of them with her free hand instead of actually saying anything. "Try as hard as you want for as long as you need. Just don't be too hard on yourself in the meantime, alright?"

Elliot seems to marvel at the contact for a moment before lifting her hand from his knee so he can wrap it in both of his own. He digs for words to make a promise that means something in this uncertain space between them. But words don’t come, there isn’t a promise he can make; the only way to prove it is with actions. “I will,” he says. “As hard as I can for as long as it takes.”

“And you can reach out to me for anything too,” he says. “If you need anything, if you want to talk, if you want to watch me stutter through a ramble when you smile at me. If you want to steal one of the many decoy hoodies I leave around the house to protect my favorite ones. I have a lot of lost time to make up for.” He’s smiling, trying to cover that the beat of his heart is loud enough to be heard.

"Oho, now that I know you have decoy hoodies I can find where your good ones are," Merlyn says with a grin, though it's the other things he says that keep her from fully deflecting with her banter. "I thought your rambling was just because you're bad at getting things out, not because I'm smiling at you." She squeezes his hand with her own, content to leave it in his grasp as she looks back at him, a little flustered. She's smiling.

Merlyn is about to try and pull out the banter, to try and make some kind of comment about how he'd given her too much power by giving her material to tease with, but as she starts to say something she instead stops, correcting her course to something else. "I like the hoodie I already took from you," she says, her voice soft.

“I imagine it’s more of a cocktail dress on you,” he says as softly, looking away but smiling as he imagines it. “But I’m glad you like it. That you kept it.” He fights the urge to scoot closer to her on the couch. Instead he pulls away one hand to rest his arm on the back of the couch. Other hand still held, he relaxes, sighs.

His eyes flicker over her features, looking for and finding all the facets of her face that captivated him, that still do. He makes a memory with purpose, trying to capture this feeling, this opportunity, this woman in the soft light of home to keep with him when he’s infinitely far away and right around the corner. “Your smile is dangerous,” he admits. “It undoes me.”

"I sleep in it sometimes," she admits, "when it's cold." She sounds unsure, as if admitting that was something a lot deeper than just the words on the surface. While she keeps one hand with his, she presses the back of her other hand against her cheek to feel the warmth. "You keep saying things like that and my face'll overheat," her tone remains soft, not drifting into the usual louder and more brash tones. "Right, ah, well, I don't know how I can say anything nearly as sweet or romantic as that, so I'll admit defeat."

"It's not a battle," Elliot assures her. "And being here is enough either way. This is really nice." He squeezes her hand gently to indicate their contact or comfort, maybe everything in this moment all together. He can't think of a time where they shared such meaningful vulnerability, even when they were at their best in the past.

Merlyn leans her head to the side, resting her head against where his arm is on the couch. "I suppose I'm just saying things because that's what I do. I'm good at saying things, not just… being speechless and losing track of what I'm saying because I'm looking at you right now. I don't know that I'd fully ever be able to lie convincingly to you because I'd look at you and the words wouldn't come out right." She lets her free hand drop to her lap, just watching him from her new point of view with her head tilted sideways.

"'Undoes' is a really good word for this, I don't think I would have even known how to describe it," she breathes out a little laugh. "Please tell me I don't sound silly right now."

"You sound happy," Elliot says, moving his arm just enough to comb his fingertips through her hair. "Now that you've reminded me, it's one of my favorite sounds. And I think we've both shown that words don't need to come out right to be meaningful."

She seems eased by the soft touch of fingertips in her hair, leaning in further to let his fingers play. “I am happy,” she agrees. “It’s just been a long time.” She watches him, the ease of the whole situation slowly sinking in. “I hope it’s just as much of a feeling for you.” Merlyn’s face scans his, feeling out just how far the emotions stretched. It’s almost a nervous gesture. “I really, really hope this is a thing you want in the same way I do.” Even if the words and emotions are charged and important to her, she still seems to want to check in—to be sure he’s okay. They’re okay.

"I'm happy, and relieved, but still afraid," Elliot says, moving his focus from his hand to her eyes. He lets it all show, doesn't make her have to search for it. "Of messing up despite my best intentions. Of getting closer than we ever really were just to have to leave so soon." Of the world ending and being unable to tell you, of not wanting you to waste your days living in fear.

His hand retracts from her hair, allowing him to lean forward. The hand holding hers lets go, allowing him to place his palm on the side of her face. "I want you to know with certainty that I'm not just looking for someone to fill a space because I'm lonely while Rue is on assignment. That when I get back I'll still want you, I'll have missed you just as keenly. I want to be better than the person I said I'd be for you and mean it. I want to hold you feverishly but treat you delicately."

His thumb brushes her ear, soft as a whisper, as if to demonstrate. "Is that the way you want it?"

“That’s exactly what I want,” Merlyn murmurs, leaning into the hand against her cheek. “I don’t want to lose this chance. I realized when I saw you again how badly I’d missed you. Missed just seeing you. I missed talking to you. I didn’t know if this was our chance again, but I wanted it. I want it now.” She exhales, but it's a release of tension rather than a release of breath.

“I know you’ll have to go on your assignment eventually,” she says. There’s a longing there, but also a measure of strength. “You’ll be back though. You came back to me once, you’ll come back to me again. It’ll really suck if it’s another two years, but I’ll be here.”

Elliot is as calm as he's been in the last two days. Everything isn't alright, but the board has been reset. He knows the other player, knows himself better than he did two years ago. He'll play this game carefully, purposefully, correctly this time.

He goes to speak, but sighs raggedly instead, suddenly overwhelmed by hope. It's an almost alien feeling, he doesn't know how to react to it. He hears himself sniffle as if from a distance before stepping back in to take control of himself. Clearing his throat, he takes back his hands, wipes water from the corners of his eyes.

"I never dared to hope," he says, voice on the edge of abandoning decorum. He holds out his hand to be taken, not to take. It stays close to him, a request that would draw her toward him on the couch.

Merlyn shifts her weight on the couch so she can move easier and takes his hand as she scoots forward to be next to him. She leans in close and doesn’t bother with composure or awkwardness. Instead, she goes to wrap her arms around him so she can settle close, so she can rest herself against his chest.

“You can hope now, hope all you want. You don’t even need to hope anymore, because I’m already here. We may not have everything perfect and there’s a lot to work through, but I like imperfect things. I like this.” She takes a deep breath. “And I’m willing to trust you enough to be vulnerable with you. That takes a lot, and it’s something no one else has. So be careful with it, I don’t know what I would do if you broke my heart again.”

Elliot wraps Merlyn in his arms. His response is a nod, not yet able to put the right words in order. It would break his heart to break hers again. Likely he will, if hope prevails and he one day isn’t compelled to lie. The day he can finally tell the truth is terrifying for so many reasons, but losing Rue and Merlyn will be the worst of it.

It dawns on him that perhaps he can combine this hope with Merlyn’s suggestion that he lie to himself. That maybe he can hope the truth won’t break them. That they’ll understand why he did it and forgive him for the ways he’s wronged them. The ways he’ll wrong them until that day.

“I think if I broke your heart again,” he says, clearing his throat again, “Wright would literally murder me. But I will do everything in my power to do right by you this time.” He’s glad Merlyn can’t see the tear that betrays him, he can’t make himself let her go in order to brush it away.

Merlyn’s small laugh is simultaneously heard as well as felt as she remains tucked in against Elliot’s chest, “Wright’s a good person. I’m really glad she has your back… and mine also.” She shuts her eyes, burying herself in against him, arms still holding tight. “We will both try,” she murmurs. “I know I can be a better partner than I was before, and I want to show you that. We’ll do right by each other. Together, as partners.”

A few seconds of thought later and Merlyn is tipping her head up a bit so she can see him. “I mean, if that’s what we’re calling it. Defining it. Uh, because we don’t have to call it anything right now, we can sort of just leave it as something kind of nebulous and just go from there. I just kind of thought the partner thing applied and then I realized maybe you didn’t want to be partner partners…” She sounds as if she might awkwardly ramble forever if left to her own devices.

Elliot smiles, content to see where she takes it.

“… because I kind of made some assumptions that this was a thing but I realized I didn’t really clarify and you didn’t really clarify either and given it’s been such a short period of time maybe that’s not what you want to call it. I just thought that with how I felt after running into you again and then how I felt when I first saw you in the park that it was kind of a little more of a structured situation rather than just having a vague relationship that we don’t even know what to call each other in front of other people.”

Merlyn stops to actually inhale, then pauses as she realizes she’s been rambling, then exhales. “Sorry, I…” She smiles sheepishly, warmth and color crawling up onto her cheeks at the mild embarrassment of the whole thing.

“May I kiss you?” Elliot asks.

The sheepish smile and warm cheeks remain, as Merlyn is likely not going to get over that embarrassment soon. The question, however, distracts her from the thought of the awkward ramble.

“Yes,” she murmurs.

They’ll need a different configuration to make this work without craning their necks. Elliot slips his arm beneath Merlyn’s knees, then rearranges her to set her legs over his. Correctly oriented, he supports her back with his other arm to keep her from collapsing backward onto the couch. One final touch: he tips her head up toward his with a gentle touch beneath her chin, then kisses her gently, attentively.

It’s not the first time they’d had to rearrange like this, even if it had been a couple of years ago now. All of it leaves her with a comforting sense of familiarity, the kiss most of all. Her eyes drift shut as she leans into the kiss, moving her hand up to rest against his cheek. Her body eases, whatever remains of tension or anxiety entirely escaping her.

That contentedness makes her more comfortable and confident, so while the kiss remains a gentle one, she presses into it to draw it out, unwilling to pull herself away.

Elliot lets Merlyn extend the kiss far beyond what he’d originally imagined. It lasts somewhere between five seconds and five hours; he’s too intoxicated by the contact, her presence, her need to break himself free. He wants to grip her tighter, kiss harder, and when the desires grow too difficult to ignore he finally pulls himself back. He snickers as he turns his head to rest his temple against hers. Not in joke, but a soft laugh of joyful disbelief.

Merlyn fights off the urge to make amusing commentary on their situation, instead staying in the moment. She cracks a smile, the hand that had rested against his cheek moving to slide into his hair. “I missed that,” she says, her voice remaining in that gentle, soft tone. “I hadn’t realized exactly how much. Thank you.” She traces her nails lightly over his scalp, though she makes no other movement or speech.

Elliot doesn’t respond immediately, content to hold and be held. Something prickles at him, his cheek trying to turn up into a smile against hers. “Did you know,” he asks, “that I picked this combination of pizza toppings because I though it would make me think twice before trying to kiss you impulsively?”

His words get a laugh from her, a smile blossoming. "Did you really?" It's impossible for her not to smile. "Well, you didn't kiss me impulsively, you asked me nicely, so I suppose the pizza did its job. I'm not sure I entirely believe you but the idea of you ordering to try and keep yourself from being impulsive kinda makes my heart race a little if I'm being honest." She lets out another laugh. "For the record, now that you've broken the ice, you're free to kiss me impulsively whenever you wish. Pizza toppings to prevent it or not."

“You laugh but it was a real danger,” he says, placing a kiss on her cheek in respect to her open invitation to do so. “Because I thought about kissing you, in detail, when we were cowering for warmth during our ill-planned trip to the park. But we had more talking to do still.”

He laces his fingers together behind her back so he can lean away without either of them toppling over. “So I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I’d have the courage to go in for a kiss if we both tasted like pepperoni and jalapeno pizza, right?’ It would be absurd. Who would do that.” The last a statement, not a question. What fool would attempt?

"I like our ill-planned trip to the park. Perhaps it wasn't planned with the greatest of thought towards weather and food options, but I wouldn't trade it for anything at this point. It gave me an excuse to be close when I wasn't sure to fully have the courage otherwise, and pizza gave us an option to go back here where we could honestly be just be," Merlyn takes the opportunity to look at him now that there's a comfortable space to. "So, wouldn't trade it for the world."

She chuckles lightly. "So, what gave you the courage to go for a pepperoni and jalapeno flavored kiss then?"

“Wow, let’s see,” Elliot says, an eyebrow ticks up as he ponders. “So, have you seen like, your whole face? Stunning. Unfair, really.” He marvels at the very idea of it, astounded. His thumbs tap against her back as he tries to determine other pertinent factors.

“Probably also the fact that you were rambling and awkward, in direct violation of my agreement that I be the awkward one,” he continues. She knew the rules. “So you racked up even more adorable, which was correct of you so I let the last part slide. Just, holy god it was adorable. Again, allowed but unfair.”

“I guess lastly it was that if I didn’t find out whether or not you were into that sort of thing I would have lost my absolute mind,” he says, absolutely bewildered. “And honestly, because this all went so well so fast I needed to make sure I really was awake. And there’s no doubt now.”

There's another laugh that bubbles up at his words, warmth still flooding her cheeks. "I wasn't trying to ramble, I promise, I just got nervous and I didn't want to somehow miscommunicate or give you the wrong idea and I wasn't sure how to give you the right idea," Merlyn's smile doesn't look like it's going anywhere anytime soon. "If you'd have asked me last week if this was possible I would have laughed. Not just because I'd have thought it a strange idea but it'd have been us meeting a week earlier and you asking what would be a very weird question without this context."

She leans in a little so she can press a kiss to his cheek like he had a moment before. "You're right, though. Usually when stuff goes well this fast I'm suspicious that there's another shoe waiting to drop. I don't expect the world to give me a break. If this is the one time it does…"

“Yes that question would have been bold a week before I apologized,” Elliot says. His smile feels stuck, his laughter easy. “I doubt it would have gone this smoothly.”

"It is an important question though," he admits. "I agree that we are something, and that I like that, and that certain words mean specific things in this context. There are some factors that should be considered, both label-related and not. If I release you, we could both eat more pizza and talk about it. You did say that you were actually hungry. We could then return to this or another similar posture for more kissing if the mood still suits you then.” He tries to make sure he steers clear of any suggestion that what they need to discuss is that second shoe.

"You make a convincing argument, because you are correct that I did not have a lot of food and I am a bit hungry," Merlyn notes. "So as reluctant as I might be to move at all, I should at least eat a bit." She glances over at the pizza for a moment, then heaves a dramatic sigh. "Alright, food and talking. Honestly, that's not a bad option either. It's not something I can complain about. Very well, release me from my shackles." Her grin is broad and playful, her mood still light in spite of her reluctance to move.

"Can do," Enjoy says. He briefly considers letting go very suddenly so that her relaxed posture would carry her just as swiftly away and onto her back. He stops himself, knowing that it would be better to reinforce trust. As such, he returns her to a seated position in a careful reverse of the way he drew her into his arms. Merlyn carefully deposited, he stands.

"Would you like a drink?" he asks, already heading for the kitchen. "This is a dry house, but I have a bevy of fancy beverages. Also I still have a bottle of kombucha that Sherry pawned off on me, if you're feeling adventurous."

Having been returned to her original seated position, Merlyn leans over to pull the plate with the half-eaten pizza back towards her. "I mean, I'm willing to try the kombucha. I haven't had any from her before so I don't know if it's actually any good," she notes, watching him as he heads to the kitchen before she looks back to her plate and takes another bite while she waits for his return.

"So, back on the topic of girlfriend interrogation," Elliot calls over his shoulder. "My agreement with Rue at the beginning of our relationship was that we'd let each other know about any other relationships or hookups, at least after the fact." He opens the refrigerator, producing the brown glass bottle taken home from his drug deal.

"Rue is also very insecure," he continues, not enjoying being so blunt, but unsure how else he could say it. A bottle opener is fished out of a drawer. "She is laboring under the mistaken impression that she isn't worthy of being loved, something I've been going to great lengths to demonstrate isn't true. She's been through it, and takes it all out on herself. So when she gets back, this will have to be handled delicately. Especially considering our past romantic relationship, which she knows very little about. And nothing about you in particular."

There's a soft hiss of carbonation as the bottle is opened. A test is poured into a tumbler, then tasted. "Actual vinegar," he laments, pouring the rest of the bottle into the sink. Back to the refrigerator, he ponders with the door open.

"I mean, I guess it would make sense not to talk about me in the first place," Merlyn picks a piece of pepperoni off the pizza to eat on its own. "I'll take whatever's most convenient for you in terms of drinks then." She looks down at her pizza, frowning at it for a moment. "I'm not going to get in the way or fuck up your relationship with your girlfriend, Elliot. She sounds like she needs someone good." This time, an olive is plucked from the slice and consumed on its own. She presses her lips together in a thin line of thought, though her eyes remain on the pizza.

"Fuck, I knew there was gonna be something," she mutters, though the pizza gets the worst of it as it's abandoned as well as the plate it's on as she sets it down on the table. It still receives the worst of her gaze. "Look, I'm glad you told me up front, I appreciate knowing. I'm not going to make someone feel worse about themselves because some ex showed up and he somehow still had feelings." She rubs her face with her hands. "It'll look like shit to her regardless of what you tell her. Or when you tell her. If she doesn't think she's worthy, she'll just jump on it as you wanting to find someone else. Or she'll hate me like I'm some vindictive ex trying to ruin her relationship. I just…"

The babbling, this time, is more distressed and less adorably awkward.

"Hold that thought," Elliot says to interrupt the rabbit hole. He quickly plucks a bottle of soda water and a carafe of a pink liquid from the fridge, then deposits them on a tray on the counter. A small bundle of rosemary sprigs come from a crisper drawer, as well as a lime and an entire pink grapefruit. Two tall tumblers are added, and the rest is about to be picked up before he remembers something else and produces a small glass container from the fridge to go with the rest. Then, again, also a small cutting board and a knife. All of these are readied with the speed and dexterity of a bartender.

Returning to the living room, the tray is deposited with less grace onto the top of the closed pizza box. He kneels in front of Merlyn, taking her now empty hands in his. His heart is thundering, he realizes, his face flushed from worry, not wanting to let this all get spiked. "I don't mean to say that she's going to leave me because I've rekindled my relationship with you," he says gently. "Just that her initial reaction might be self-sabotaging, or, more likely, angry at me. I'm confident we'll be able to help her understand that you are not a threat to my relationship with her. Because I very much do not want to let go of this. I'm not an either or kind of guy. And Rue's insecurities don't make her unreasonable, just reactive."

She does, in fact, hold that thought when he requests it. She watches with held thought until he’s finished, and the presence of his hands in hers again offers her a little comfort. She squeezes his hands in her own. “I’ll help if I can. I’m not sure how useful my words would be to her, but I’ll offer them the same.” Merlyn heaves a heavy sigh before she seems to settle.

“I really thought you were looking for a way out for a second there… “

"Merlyn," Elliot responds, face a mix of alarm and humor, "we just kissed for an easy forty-five minutes straight without breathing even though we both tasted like Flamin' Hot Slim Jims."

"And yes, I should have gone over this part before getting permission to kiss you. In retrospect, that would have been the best thing to do. The correct thing," he says, clearly a bit frustrated. He should have. "I don't want to blame the high concentration of adorability for that, but it was certainly a factor on my end."

It irritates him that he's just addressed Rue's insecurity without seeing Merlyn's. It's so obvious, and obvious that it's his fault. "I'm not running away, okay?" he says, voice soft but insistent, eyes locked and unwavering. "I'm never running away again."

“I don’t mind that you want to be delicate with her feelings, you know her much better than I do, obviously.” Merlyn’s doing her best to add a little lightness to her words, trying to pull herself back from such a vulnerable position. “I’m not here to fuck up anything, I just want to make sure you know that.”

It’s harder to hide both physically and emotionally when they’ve locked gazes, so Merlyn flounders for a moment to find appropriate words or even what she feels would be a proper reaction. “Sorry,” she manages to say. “I’m just used to good shit going wrong. I expect it to. I just want one thing to go well for me and for a second I thought I put too much hope out there.” She’s struggling to compose herself, especially once he’s said a few very specific words that hit deeply. “Just don’t run,” she finally manages to get out.

“I’m here,” Elliot says, squeezing her hand to keep her in this moment. His eyes don’t leave hers, not flinching away from how meaningful this needs to be. “I’m not running. This is the hard part; it’s what I couldn’t do last time. I’m here, and there is not even a whisper of a voice inside telling me to run. I want this. I’ll fight for this. It’s okay to hope.” It’s a gift she’s given him that maybe he can give in return.

It’s a whole whirlwind of emotions, but Elliot’s careful attempts to ground her seem to have worked. Merlyn’s hands grip his own a little tighter and she exhales a sigh that almost feels like it had been held the entire time they’d been in his house. “Okay,” she finally says once she feels as if she’s connected to things again. “Okay, I trust you. I’m sorry if I started overreacting…”

“You weren’t overreacting,” Elliot assures her. “You were reacting based on how I behaved in the past, which was all you had to work with. You don’t need to apologize for not trusting me; that’s my burden to carry.” He straightens up to place a kiss on her forehead, happy to explore his options for permitted impromptu kiss-placement.

“How about that drink?”

Merlyn leans in to accept the forehead kiss, though she quickly follows it up by brushing her own lips across his cheek before he might get out of reach. "Yeah, I think I'd like that now that I'm done with this emotional rollercoaster for a moment." She flashes him a smile, glancing over towards the tray. "I have no idea what you're making, but I'm intrigued."

“Have you ever had a paloma?” Elliot asks, standing and rounding the coffee table. He kneels on the other side, reorganizing all of the various components of the drink. “Usually tequila, lime juice, and grapefruit soda. This is more of an homage to that than a mocktail, but maybe I’m just trying to sound fancy.”

The process is quick, most of the work is already done. Chilled grapefruit juice, freshly squeezed lime juice, a clear syrup from a small container, and soda water are all poured into a collins glass and gently stirred, then garnished with a sprig of rosemary and a slice of grapefruit. “I feel like this is kind of over the top, and I will not be even remotely offended if this isn’t for you. I also have soda.”

"You are way fancier than I'll ever be," Merlyn says, though she's grinning at the display of actually putting the drinks together. She leans forward to watch, looking absolutely delighted merely at the garnish, then she looks back at him. "Oh no, I don't even care if it's good. You're making something fancy and I'm gonna enjoy it either way. People don't make me anything fancy." She admires the glasses for a moment. "Almost too pretty to drink," she comments before she looks back at him. "But I will try it and I also kinda hope I like it."

She pauses, recalling his mention of a paloma. "I'd remember if I had that, I don't think I know the name for any sort of mixed drink. Usually if I want to impress people I go for something like whiskey because people underestimate me and then are impressed when I can drink better than them." She pauses. "I suppose I also usually don't have to impress someone who would know the names of beverages." That prompts a wink from her in his direction.

Elliot stands, handing her one of the glasses. “That’s a classic strategy,” he says, returning to his seat beside her. “I can give you a shortlist of simple cocktails if you ever want to surprise someone further. Pull a James Bond, dictate a recipe on the spot. High-class people eat that shit up.”

He holds his glass up toward her to toast. “Should you ever need to deliver an upper-crust pizza.” He cringes. “Pun absolutely not intended, dear god.”

"Like I'm going to run into anyone high-class," Merlyn holds up her own glass in a toast before she goes to make a sip. She tilts her head to the side, as if pondering the 'flavor notes' and 'dryness' and other words she doesn't entirely attribute to anything other than fancy drinking, then she grins. "I like it, it's kind of tart." She looks back over at him. "Also, your puns are adorable and keep it up, even if they are awful and unintentional."

She takes another small sip before she studies him. "You'll have to make this again. I do like it."

Elliot takes a sip of his, finding all of the tasting notes he expects, though wondering if the grapefruit juice would have been better freshly squeezed. One works with what’s available. “It is very good,” he decides. “I wanted to pretend it was summer. I will try not to avoid using all puns, but only in private. No witnesses but you.”

“And don’t sell yourself short,” he says, “With a little practice you could be fleecing art gallery regulars and limo drivees. Or just drop by the next gala and pretend you were invited. Eat all of the very expensive snacks.”

"I can probably clean up pretty well, find some kind of fancy dress and pretend I belong. I can do that until I have to talk about, uh, anything fancy people do," Merlyn takes another sip. "I'd absolutely eat all the snacks. Shove them in a tiny purse, too, save them for friends. But you know, it does seem like a great way to get another group of people I can 'network' with." She looks towards the pizza again for a moment.

"So we're good? We just handle things carefully when Rue comes back? Obviously you'd take lead for this, maybe she enjoys your awkwardness just as much as I do. I'm… here in case you need backup or something?" She frowns just slightly, thoughtfully, and then looks back up at him. "I'll be here for you. I don't want her to feel inadequate or awkward. I'd like to meet her."

Elliot sighs, giving the question more thought, but coming up with nothing new. There are a lot of variables. 'Who gets back first' being a major one; he'll have to talk to Wright about what to do if she sees Rue before he does. 'Whether or not the world ends' is probably also high on the list. "I appreciate that. The initial conversation would ideally be between her and myself; I don't want her to feel boxed in. But I'm hopeful. I think you'll like each other." There will be work to do there, but he's not running from it.

He takes another sip of his drink, then looks at his pizza. "We're surprisingly bad at eating pizza."

“We’re also surprisingly bad at resisting jalapeño and pepperoni kisses,” Merlyn adds with a wry grin. “But I can’t complain about that at all.” She plucks a mushroom from the top of her slice and eats it before going for another sip. “I trust you to figure things out. It’ll be worth it. Besides, that is a problem for the future Elliot and Merlyn. We get to enjoy the arduous task of drinking fancy drinks and resisting each other.”

She grins again. “You know what’s great about pizza? It reheats. It’s also delicious cold, so we’ve got our bases covered.”

"Letting pizza get cold is definitely part of the natural life cycle of the pizza," Elliot agrees. He takes a bite of his own, content to just eat for a minute. His eyes remain largely locked to Merlyn, her eyes, face, and other tempting physical qualities, keeping fresh in his mind what he'll need to resist.

"On the topic of resisting each other," he says regretfully, having finally finished one slice of pizza, "I am still on call tomorrow, so I'll need to sleep in the not too distant future. You're welcome to spend the night, if you want to sleep here also."

"Like, sleeping sleeping," he clarifies, now his turn to over-explain away anything that could be perceived as presumptuous. "Or I can call you a ride home. There's also a spare room here, if you want something in the middle ground between intimacy options. This couch is also very comfortable if you want at least one floor between us. For resistance's sake." He finally gets a handle on it and stops talking with something between a grimace and a sheepish smile.

The suggestion of sleeping locations (and lack of lack thereof) gets a curious raised eyebrow from Merlyn. She takes a sip from the drink in her hand for a moment, honestly thinking before answering. This time, it’s not just to leave him hanging awkwardly cute in the moment. She studies him, almost as if running scenarios in her head.

“I appreciate your honesty and candor,” she says at last. “As well as your consideration. If you don’t mind, I would like to stay. Regardless of resistance’s sake, I like the feeling of safety. I like just being here. Actually feeling safe and trusting in that is a big deal for me. So I would like to stay here for the night, if you don’t mind. It might also make it feel less like some strange and surprising dream if I’m actually still here when I wake up.”

She offers him a warm smile. “As long as you’re good with that.”

Elliot smiles. "I’m very good with that," he says. “I think we deserve some time to process these emotions before trying anything more adventurous. And it would be very nice to wake up next to you.”

There’s a sort of symmetry to this, he thinks. On the day they met he’d turned down her offer to hook up. The desire to not rush into this right now feels like such an improvement over his reasons for getting a rain check then, when—despite his immediate infatuation—the thought of touching her made him physically ill. What a difference a day makes.

“I’d like the company,” she agrees. “And you’re right about emotional processing… it’s a lot, I think we can both agree. Still, knowing you’re there makes a difference.” For a moment, Merlyn’s face is hard to read, then it shifts into a smile. “Thanks for letting me stay.”

It’s more than just a physical location for her to sleep, it’s a place to feel safe, and one she hopes won’t collapse in on her like it did the first time. This time it was a different feeling of safety she needed—but still one of emotional vulnerability, not physical.

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