Their next meeting was one day after the first reported death of a child in New York City from COVID-19. Olivia's unconscious desire to have another adult physically with her to share the emotional load of that news, of her renewed fear for her son, was what finally got her to give in to Barba's suggestion that they ride out the rest of the stay-at-home order together. It was also what made her go along with his plan to complete the move the same day she'd agreed to it.
The fact that he hadn't seen her in a long time, coupled perhaps with the fact that he hadn't seen another human being up close in 17 days (not that he was counting), made it especially difficult for him not to step into her space when he arrived at her door. But when it was she who tried to initiate an embrace, he mustered the fortitude to put up a hand in warning. "In case I picked up the plague in your elevator, how about we wait and do a proper hello once we're settled at my place and I've burned these clothes?"
She gave him a tender look. "Washing is probably sufficient," she jested lightly. "According to, you know, science."
"I'm aware. But you can't be too careful."
Her stress level that day had been at an all-time high, from all the news she couldn't stop herself from consuming, to her internal back-and-forth about whether or not her pride would allow her to follow through with the move, to her surreptitious packing throughout the day whenever she was out of Noah's eyeline, not wanting to get his hopes up because she still didn't know what part of her was going to win the fight. And as the day wore on, she started to feel anxiety about leaving the apartment for the first time in almost two weeks. With the exception of grocery deliveries which Olivia had treated like they were laced with anthrax, compulsively cleaning and sanitizing, if nothing else she felt safe within the walls of her home, felt like Noah was safe. Was this what agoraphobia felt like? She worried that when the time came she wouldn't be able to bring herself to cross the threshold.
Seeing and hearing first hand how seriously Barba was taking the threat and the lengths he was willing to go to in order to protect her son didn't erase her stress or anxiety, but still made Olivia feel a little lighter, as though he was carrying some of it for her.
From looking at Noah when he played sports or danced, no one would ever know that he would be considered among the "at risk" group. But multiple hospitalizations in his early life and the way every cold had to be closely monitored in case it became bronchitis or pneumonia had led Olivia to make the tough decision to pull Noah from school and work from home.
It was made especially tough because of Lucy. On top of her duties in the Benson home before and after school, she also worked for another family with very small children. This family didn't have the same luxury as Olivia, continuing to toil away from what would become known as the "front lines". Trying to limit contact with an older parent who often filled in the child care gaps, they had asked Lucy if she would be able to live-in with them for the duration of the crisis.
After much consideration Lucy offered to give notice with that other family -- she'd worked for Olivia much longer, after all -- but Olivia couldn't in good conscience leave them without support, especially considering the work they were both doing.
Besides, it wouldn't have been ideal for Lucy to be coming in and out, increasing Noah's risk of exposure. And while she would have been happy to move in with them as long as needed, unlike the other's family's home, the Benson's tiny apartment wasn't exactly made for "permanent" houseguests.
And so Olivia and Noah were hunkered down together, just to the two of them. And the novelty of that wore off very quickly. Not because of the togetherness, since that alone would have been an incredible blessing, but because her time was not really her own, and certainly her time could not all belong to him.
The squad and her boss had supported and even encouraged Olivia's decision to work from home. Noah unfortunately was not as supportive. He was used to his mother's work responsibilities interrupting their time together in the mornings before school, in the evenings, on her days off. But he WASN'T used to feeling like ultimately he was not her top priority.
Obviously he WAS her top priority; after all, he was the reason she was at home in the first place. But when she had very early on been forced to sit him down after a whining fit to remind him that even though she was in the apartment, during certain hours she was actually at work and he would need to adjust to that and not interrupt her when she was on the phone or working on her computer (shared in measured tones but with enough exasperation that he felt suitably chastised), she could see him visibly deflate. It didn't get better from there.
"Can't you just ask to be furloughed?" Barba had inquired once when Olivia found herself unloading all of this on him over video chat after a particularly difficult day. "How many calls can you guys be getting with everyone stuck at home?"
She raised her eyebrows. "I'm just going to let you think about that for a second."
A second was all it took. "Right. I'm an idiot."
It was hard to track the increase of domestic abuse during the lockdown because so much was hidden away. A lot of what Olivia was currently finding herself overwhelmed with was local organizations reaching out to SVU to try to forge partnerships in the time of COVID. Where they were once able to be more hands-on with their clients, with the stay-at-home orders and the very real risks to their staff, along with the increased volatility of women and children being stuck at home with their abusers, their boards and umbrella societies were urging them to get police involved more quickly than they might normally. It had become impossible to sneak in in-person wellness checks except when one or both people involved still worked outside the home. They were relying on the third parties who had the connections by phone, email or text to alert them when it was time to intervene. It was an unstable ecosystem that had her right in the middle regulating it.
It was a huge responsibility, and she felt it heavier than her normal day to day. Added to the weight of feeling like a bad mother, when she let herself hold both at once it was too much.
She was incredibly grateful that Barba was back in her life and so willing listen as she worked through these things, as she bitched and vented. She was also very surprised that day after day he refrained from trying to fix things for her. She assumed he recognized that there was really nothing much to be done. But in truth he was holding his tongue because his suggested fix was so likely to be shot down that he was waiting until he sensed she had nearly reached the end of her rope.
That day came when Noah had thrown himself into a rage when he'd barged into her room (which was doubling as her office that day) excited to show her a Lego creation he'd just completed and she'd snapped at him (after muting her mic, thankfully) that she was in an important meeting and had asked him not to interrupt her. He slammed the door behind him and she could hear him stomping and screaming and Legos flying and she had to shut her laptop abruptly and run to physically restrain him to keep him from hurting himself or their belongings.
As the days and weeks wore on and Noah had limited success holding onto his mother's attention during her work day, he was occasionally still whiney or lippy, but mostly tended to become withdrawn or sullen, even resigned. She'd actually come to think that he was getting used to the new normal, though he spoke less and smiled less. She attributed it to normal behaviour for kids adjusting to quarantine, and counted herself lucky. But now she realized he'd been suppressing, and everything had just all rushed to the surface.
When he stopped struggling against her the tears began, crying so violently that he couldn't catch his breath, then panicking as he gasped for air. Olivia never returned to the meeting she'd abandoned, and it was hours before he'd even allow her to leave his side.
That night, after the story had tumbled out and Olivia had poured a second glass of wine to calm herself, Barba felt like he'd finally found his opening. "Why don't you come stay here? There's more space, and Noah and I can hang out while you're working." His delivery was quintessential nonchalance, but it did nothing to dampen her shock at what to her seemed like such a huge and sudden suggestion.
When she started to recover, Olivia was expecting all of the excuses to say "no" to be easily accessible. But she found that that well was dry, leading her to blurt out the only thing that came to mind. "I don't feel safe taking Noah on public transit." This was actually 100% true, and would 100% be a deterrent. But offered alone, and so uncouthly, not even prefaced with some expression of a "thanks, but no thanks," it made her objection sound rather pathetic.
Barba just chuckled. "Well, you're in luck, because I kept my rental car since *I* didn't want to take public transportation either. And it's just been sitting in underground parking for 11 days, so it's free and clear." Back to silence, which led Barba to cock an eyebrow. "That really the best you can do?"
"Rafa, I can't ask you to do this." There was no telling how long the quarantine would last, and to invade his space seemed an enormous burden that her pride and her sense of civility just couldn't allow her to place on someone else, not even him.
"If I recall, I was asking you," he reminded her with a warm smile. "Listen, you don't need to make any decisions right now. I have 3 more days of self-isolation, anyway, so it's not like I'm asking you to upend your life this minute. But, please just promise me you'll at least think about it?"
"Rafa - "
She shook her head, but verbally relented. "Fine. I'll think about it." But then after a moment of reflection, her tone softened. "And thank you, by the way, for the offer. It's very generous and sweet of you."
"What can I say? I'm a sweet and generous guy!"
He didn't bring it up again, and neither did she, until a few days later, the day when she'd still been in bed reading her newsfeed and found out about the child that had died. It was early enough that he was still sleeping when she called him. "Did you hear?"
He hadn't, obviously. But when she filled him in and he heard the fear barely masked in her voice, he wasn't asking anymore. "You two are coming here. Today. We'll ride the rest of this out together."
The move ended up feeling like they were fleeing from a warzone. They waited until late that night when they figured they were least likely to run into others in either of their buildings. At Olivia's, they took turns bringing the Benson belongings to the car while the other waited in the apartment. Barba had already narrated his plan not to touch anything, using the eraser end of a pencil to poke elevator buttons, switching out gloves every time he had no choice but to open a door that needed to be unlocked.
When they had everything loaded up, Barba carried Noah to the car; he stirred several times but never fully awoke.
At Barba's, Olivia tucked Noah into bed before stationing herself just outside the door with a spray bottle of disinfectant, which she used on the bins and suitcases as Barba brought them up from the parking garage. Task complete, they retreated to separate bathrooms to strip off their (potentially contaminated) clothes and shower.
They stepped back into the living room at almost the same time, and finally Olivia felt like she could breathe, like they were safe. "Hi."
And then she was walking toward him, arms outstretched, and they held each other for a long time.