"Who wants ice cream sundaes?!" Olivia called out, putting four bowls and spoons on the counter, next to an assortment of toppings she knew would be a hit with the others and a fresh carton of vanilla ice cream. "Better hurry, before it starts to melt!"
"Me! Me!" Two voices echoed their reply as they came careening around the corner into the kitchen, and when Noah and Maureen's daughter Hannah – her step-granddaughter, she had to remind herself with a smile – came into view, she had to take in the sight. "I wanna scoop my own," Hannah said proudly, flashing her newly gap-toothed smile. One of her front teeth had fallen out that morning, her first one, and her and Elliot were already discussing Tooth Fairy plans.
"Okay, but Grandpa Elliot is going to watch you," she said, helping Hannah onto the stool so she could better reach the counter, while Noah scattered a layer of multi-colored sprinkles on the bottom of his bowl.
Elliot leaned back against the counter and popped a maraschino cherry in his mouth. "I'm not sure how I feel about this whole 'Grandpa Elliot' business," he said, with a grin.
"Well, you better get used to it fast, or else Maureen and Carl's new baby won't have anything to call you," Olivia said, swatting him lightly with a hand towel, before wiping a smudge of chocolate syrup off the counter.
"Yeah, Grandpa Elliot!" Hannah chimed in, dropping her Rs; it was something they'd been working on with her at school and home, but she still struggled with it sometimes. She dug into her chocolate syrup-laden bowl of ice cream and flashed a happy grin at her grandparents.
Noah rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath, but Olivia didn't press. He was in those early teenage years of emotional, sullen angst, and the fact that he was even outside his room and freely associating with his parents and niece was a remarkable sight to behold. Then again, he'd always had a weakness for Hannah; she worshiped her Uncle Noah, and the look in his eyes when she was around was enough for Olivia to realize the Noah she'd known, and raised and loved as her very own, since he was a baby was still in there.
"So, Hannah, can you tell me who's all in your family?" Elliot asked, as he prepared his own bowl now that the kids had made theirs. It was something her counselor at school had suggested, before the baby arrived, to gauge how she felt about the new arrival.
"There's Mama and Daddy, and you, Grandpa Elliot, and Grandma Olivia, and I also have Grandma Linda and Grandpa Steve," she started, counting off on her fingers as she went. Linda and Steve were Carl's parents, and lived an hour or two outside the city. They were away on a Caribbean cruise – Maureen had gone into labor a few weeks early. "And there's Grandma Kathy, Mama's mama, but she says we can't see her anymore, but she loves me so, so much. I never met her," her little face frowned. "And Aunt Kathleen and Aunt Liz and Uncle Rich and Uncle Noah and – and – " she squinted her eyes shut as she tried to remember the last name she was forgetting. "Oh, Uncle Eli! And soon, I'll have a baby sister! Yay!"
"That's right!" Olivia exclaimed, rubbing the top of her head. The little girl in front of her had her mother's long blonde hair, but her father's sparkling green eyes. "You're such a smart girl!"
She beamed. "Mama and Daddy won't tell me what my sister's name is going to be. Said they want it to be a surprise," she said, putting extra emphasis on the Rs.
"Do you have any idea, Elliot?" Olivia asked. "The one time I brought it up, she changed the subject to how to get a fingerprint ID card made for Hannah, now that she's in school."
He shrugged his shoulders and drew his spoon through the filmy layer of melted ice cream at the bottom of his bowl. "I don't know. They were weird about it with me too. Something's up with those two. Isn't that right, Hannah Banana?! Aren't your parents a little crazy?!" He started tickling her, and she yelped in surprise, and Olivia and Noah joined in, and soon, what remained of their ice cream sundae treats was left in melted puddles and replaced by raucous, resounding laughter and joy.
It was always a treat for them to babysit Hannah. Especially knowing that any time now, they'd get a happy phone call from the hospital with news of the newest branch on the Benson-Stabler family tree.
"Kathleen just texted," Elliot said, looking up from his phone. "Her and Carl are at the hospital with Maureen, and it sounds like they're taking her into delivery now." They were curled up on the couch in the living room, her head drooped against his shoulder and his arm comfortably wrapped around her side, holding her warmth against him.
"Oh, that's exciting!" Olivia replied, gently stroking his hand with her thumb. Noah and Hannah had run off whispering like a pack of thieves after they'd cleaned the ice cream up; they didn't know what the kids were up to, but they could occasionally hear them happily giggling from what sounded like Noah's bedroom. "You remember the day Hannah was born? I heard you were pacing up and down that hospital hallway for three hours."
"Yeah, and you had that nasty deposition downtown." He remembered the day all too well; there'd been the nerves of being a first-time grandfather, and knowing how much Kathy would have wanted to be there, and not even having Olivia there with him as he waited with Carl. He'd never liked hospitals, even less so after Kathy's death, and to be back in one less than a year later was difficult on him. Even if the end result was a lot more pleasant.
"I was thankful I got out of there and could get down to the hospital before she arrived," she said. "I didn't want to miss that."
"You could have flashed your badge at any officer who tried to pull you over that day, y'know."
"Don't think it didn't cross my mind."
"A valued NYPD detective needed urgent assistance at Presbyterian Hospital in Queens and he called the one captain he knew would answer immediately," he said, smiling at the fond memories. It'd been the look of sheer joy on Olivia's face as she looked at Hannah's tiny, sleeping form through the nursery window that pushed him to buy the damn ring already, and make it official in front of the law. His family and God already knew and didn't need further confirmation; they'd known long before he did, but it'd taken him far too long to act on it, even once he'd realized it himself.
Despite all the time they'd spent apart, aware of their feelings but unable or unwilling to do anything about it besides simmer in longing for one another, he couldn't regret anything that brought him and her to this moment here together. Their son and granddaughter were in the other room having a good time – no matter what biology tried to say, he considered Noah both of theirs, which legally, he was after they'd amended the adoption paperwork, and Olivia couldn't be a "step" anything to a true Stabler.
Even with all the wrong he felt responsible for, he'd done at least one thing right in his life. And she was sitting right beside him, as beautiful as the day they'd first met.
"I would have loved to see the lawyers' reaction if I tossed that one out under oath. Carisi already looked like he wanted to spit nails at how they were treating me."
"He and Rollins moved, right?"
"Yeah, she wanted out of the city, and he wanted to be with her. I think he's District Attorney somewhere upstate now. He'd have gone anywhere as long as she was there too."
"Can't say I blame the guy." Hanging on the walls in their living room were pictures from their travels together; he'd taken her to Rome and shown her all the places she'd been with him in his thoughts, making them into a vivid reality. They'd cozied up on the ski slopes of Chamonix and basked in the sun in the Maldives. Once they retired, and mandatory retirement was around the corner for both of them, they'd be able to see more, travel more, and the weights on their shoulders could finally dissolve. "I'd do the same thing for you."
The corners of her smile reached the edges of her face. "You're a softie, El." She admired the glint of her wedding ring off the sunlight streaming in through the window behind them. It was enough to be a symbol of their devotion, and the fact that he'd had their old badge numbers engraved on the inside of the band was the kind of little touch that meant so much.
"Only for you, Liv." He tilted her chin up to meet his and he brushed a soft, warm kiss across her lips before deepening it. "Only you." He stroked the side of her jaw with his hand, marveling in her radiance and coaxing hushed whimpers from her mouth. If they weren't careful, they'd end up tangled in each other's embrace and Hannah would get an unplanned lesson on how her and her sister were made.
She was about to formulate a reply when she heard Noah clear his throat from across the room. "One, gross. I don't need to see you two making out again. And two, Hannah and I have something we want to show you."
"Sorry, sweetie," Olivia said, but the sparkling light in her eyes suggested how not sorry she actually was. She straightened herself up a little bit, though she still leaned against Elliot. "What did you and Hannah want to show us?"
Hannah came around the corner wobbling in an old pair of Olivia's heels that she hadn't worn in years and one of Olivia's favorite blue blouses, which came down well below her knees. Smudged smears of coral lipstick stained her mouth; Elliot made a mental note to replace the tube for Olivia next time he went out. She clutched a hairbrush in one hand and grinned at her grandparents. "Noah and I wanna put on a show!"
"Yeah, well, the munchkin can be very persuasive," Noah said, with a laugh. "I couldn't say no."
"She's definitely got some Stabler genes then," Olivia replied, eyeing her husband with a look that suggested later. He suppressed a chuckle; all they'd ever had was an indefinite later, but now that they had each other, later didn't seem so daunting anymore.
"Presenting Noah Porter Benson-Stabler and Hannah Joy Dixon, for Grandpa Elliot and Grandma Olivia!" Hannah held the hairbrush up to her face like a microphone, and Noah hit play on his tablet before stepping into his usual starting position for dance. The first poppy beats of Pharrell's "Happy" echoed out across the room, and Hannah began to sing along. Noah immersed himself in his dance moves, moving as if he was fluidity and grace in motion.
"Because I'm happy, clap along if you know what happiness means to you, because I'm happy!" Her youthful energy and exuberance made up for anything that was technically lacking in her singing ability, and both of them looked on the youngsters with pride.
Elliot looked down at Olivia and saw her recording the duo on her phone. "I want to show this to Maureen later. She'd love it."
"I know she would." He kissed her forehead and went back to watching the performance. They were high-energy and clearly enjoying themselves more than anything else.
As the song wound down, Hannah ungraciously stepped out of the heels and spun herself into a series of cartwheels before flopping on the floor. "Because I'm happy! To be a big sister!"
Noah laughed. "Yeah, so that's my solo routine for the recital next month. It's this whole 'songs that were popular when you were born' theme and I had to arm wrestle Theo for 'Happy.'" Theo was the other top boy in Noah's dance class, and they were fierce competitors, but also close friends. The fact they both got solos wasn't surprising to either Elliot or Olivia.
"You did wonderful," Elliot said, reaching out to give his son a hug. "Your mom and I will be thrilled to watch you perform that on stage."
"And me too! If I get to come!" Hannah piped up, and she squeezed herself into the hug, as Elliot reached over and pulled Olivia in and made it a true family group hug.
They were only just finishing up their dinner of pizza from the place down the street with chocolate chip cookies for dessert when Elliot's phone rang. "Shhh, guys, it's Maureen!" he said, as he answered.
"Hey, Dad, or should I say, Grandpa?" Maureen said, and she sounded very exhausted but happy. Almost as if she'd pushed a human being out of her body that day, come to think of it. "Can I talk to the big sister first for a second? Then put me on speaker."
"Sure thing." He handed the phone to Hannah, and her eyes grew wide and she began to bounce in her seat as she listened to her mother's voice. When she handed the phone back to Elliot, she almost dropped it on the table from the thrill of excitement that she was feeling. "So, I take it it's good news." He tapped the speaker button and laid it on the table so Olivia and Noah could hear the conversation as well, as Hannah went to bounce off the walls in celebration.
"Haley Olivia Dixon, 6 pounds 11 ounces, 21 inches long. She's perfect, Dad, looks just like Hannah did as a newborn."
"Olivia?" Olivia said, feeling tears spring to her eyes and threaten to fall. "Like me?"
"Carl asked me why I didn't want to name her after Mom at all, but I said that my parents kinda cornered the market on naming kids after themselves, so it'd feel a little repetitive. And you, Olivia, you're the person who's kept my family together all these years. You are family, and you were before you knew it. And now, Haley is going to carry your name. Hannah brought us joy when she was born, and Haley is our strength, like you've been to us."
"I'm honored. Truly," she said, with a barely disguised sniffle. To realize Maureen thought so highly of her was to realize that everything she'd ever done for the Stabler family, ever since she first met them almost 30 years before, hadn't been a waste. "When can we meet her?"
"The doctor says you can come by tomorrow. Haley and I need our rest tonight, and besides, Hannah should probably be getting to bed soon anyway. And I know she's going to want to meet her new sister."
"I'm proud of you, Maureen," Elliot said. He gently caressed Olivia's hand as he spoke. "Not only for the beautiful name, but I know Haley is one of the two luckiest little girls in the world tonight to be able to call you her mother."
"Thanks, Dad. That means a lot."
"Any time. Get some rest, we'll come by tomorrow."
With the call ended, Elliot turned to Olivia and pulled her into a tight embrace, as Noah made a face and left the table for the video games in his bedroom. "I had no idea she was going to do that, honestly."
"I guess that's why she was so cagey with the name," Olivia said, and she sniffled again, this time into the warm fabric of his t-shirt. "She didn't want to ruin that surprise. I bet little Haley's precious."
"If she's anything like her Grandma Olivia, she will be."
"Her and I don't have anything in common genetically, so I don't see how that's possible."
"What have I told you before, Liv? 'It's not all about the genes,' remember?"
She remembered the comment all too well; she'd been in a self-deprecating mood that night in the precinct, and he'd found a way to build her back up while barely trying. It was one of the kindest things anyone had ever said to her. "I remember," she murmured. "You don't know how much it meant to me to hear you say that."
"Then I'll tell you every day for the rest of our lives."
"That sounds great, but I'd rather you show me instead." She batted her eyelashes at him and gave him the smile that had always been the smile that had been solely reserved for his eyes only. "But I need to make sure Hannah takes her bath, brushes her teeth, and I did promise her another chapter of Charlotte's Web tonight."
"Do you know how much the going rate for the Tooth Fairy is these days? I think dental inflation's gone up since I could leave a quarter under Maureen's pillow and call it a night."
"Give her a few dollars and she'll be happy. Besides, we already gave her ice cream and cookies today, along with the excitement of her new sister, so she's going to be a fun one to get to sleep."
"Yeah, you're probably right. I'll take care of that, you do the rest."
"Oh, so I get the hard part, while you get off easy?" She laughed. If anyone would have told her even eight years ago that she would be sitting at a kitchen table with Elliot, laughing over their granddaughter who they were babysitting while her sister was being born in a hospital across the city, she would have told them they were absolutely crazy. But her life had never been anything resembling predictable, and yet, it made complete sense that this was where it had ended up.
"Hey, I was also going to clean up the dinner mess!"
"Sure you were," she said, giving him a quick peck on the cheek before running off to corral Hannah into the bathtub.
An hour later, Hannah was bathed, her teeth brushed and pajamas on, and was laying in her pink princess sleeping bag in the spare bedroom, clutching a brown teddy bear to her chest. "Are you sure you don't want a bed to sleep on?" Olivia asked. "There's a bed right there if you want it."
"No, Grandma, I like this! It feels like I'm camping, like when Mama and Daddy took me to the mountains last summer. I can't wait until I can show Haley everything!"
"She's so lucky to have such a wonderful big sister who's going to teach her so many things." Olivia said, brushing fine wisps of blonde hair off Hannah's forehead. "Now, are you ready for Charlotte's Web?" At the girl's enthusiastic nod, Olivia took the book off the nightstand and thumbed through to where they'd left off the night before. "A spider's web is stronger than it looks," she started to read aloud, "Although it is made of thin, delicate strands, the web is not easily broken."
As she read on, Hannah's eyes began to flutter closed, as if she was coming down from the energetic sugar high she'd been on most of the day. It was moments like this that she'd yearned for as a child; despite growing up as the only daughter of a literature professor, her mom hadn't been the kind of person to read her daughter to sleep each night, and the few times she was read to at all, it tended to be literature far above her comprehension level.
"Good night, Charlotte! Good night, Wilbur! Good night! Good night!" she finished the chapter, and looked down at a sleeping Hannah. "And good night, Hannah. Sweet dreams." She stood up, kissed Hannah's forehead, set the book down on the nightstand with the bookmark snugly intact, and turned out the light before walking out of the room.
When she got to the door, Elliot was standing there, his arms crossed over his chest and a soft, content smile playing at his features. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough," he said, wrapping his arms around her and nuzzling his jawline into the crown of her hair. "Seeing you read to her like that, seeing how much you care for her, care for all of us, really – I can't describe it, but it makes me so happy."
"You saw me deal with kids for years as part of the job. You're telling me this is different?"
"I've always known you were special, Liv. I knew you'd be a fantastic mom if you had half a chance, and Noah's proven that, and now you're a fantastic grandma to two wonderful little girls and counting. One of them loves you, and the other will love you the minute she lays eyes on you. Just like her Grandpa Elliot did. And yes, it's totally different. She's our granddaughter, not a victim we'll hopefully never have to see again."
"Our granddaughter." The words still felt like a marvel in her mouth, to be able to repeat them and know they were true.
"For a moment, when you were reading to her, I thought about if that was our little girl, with her mom's gorgeous brown eyes," he said, and he hummed and slowly rocked himself against her, and she allowed herself to momentarily picture that little girl. Or maybe a little boy with Elliot's eyes sleepily blinking back at her, trying valiantly to fight off sleep long enough for her to finish one more chapter. "I wish I could have done that for you."
"I do too," she said softly. "I don't like to think about what could have been, but I can't help but wonder sometimes. I love our family as it is, and I wouldn't change that for anything."
"That's right, Liv, it's you and me and the rest of our lives." He scattered kisses through her hair, and she smiled. "When I retire next year, where do you want to go on vacation first? I was thinking somewhere warm, tropical, my sexy wife in a bikini on a beach…"
"If we even make it out of the hotel room, you mean." She knew them well enough; get the two of them alone for very long, especially with no kids anywhere around, and they'd start making up for every single moment they'd ever deprived themselves of the intimacy of the other's touch and feel. "But seriously, I'm good with wherever, as long as I'm there with you."
"That sounds like the perfect trip to me."
As they swayed in tandem to the rhythm of something only they could hear, watching Hannah cradle her teddy bear tightly against her sleeping form while the occasional muffled sound came from Noah's room, and thinking about the new granddaughter they'd meet in the morning, they shared a quiet smile before slipping off to their bed for some time alone.
Genetics and biology didn't determine their family; they never did. Love and commitment, that was what wove their disparate strands together into the unbreakable bond that they shared. She would have never believed this was possible, but here they were.
"I've looked around enough to know
You're the one I wanna go through time with"
- "Time in a Bottle" by Jim Croce