Yesterday, Eli had come home with an essay assignment - “Write about a monumental moment in your life.” There was no way he was going to write about his mom being murdered, and moving back to New York is so intrinsically tied to her death that he can’t write about that either. Halfway home he decides to write about his birth. His mom had once thrown out the words “dramatic” and “loud” and then promised to tell him the whole story one day and then never did. Now she never will.
He had been eager to hear it from his dad, though. He waited for him to get home, excitedly handed him a beer and sat him down in his favorite spot on the couch. He was disappointed when his dad frowned and sighed, ran his hand down his face in that guilty, tired way he does. There was a tiny part of Eli that wasn’t really surprised at all when his father told him he wasn’t there when he was born.
“So, was Maureen there? Or Kathleen? Or Grandma? She didn’t have me all alone, did she?”
Eli knew there was no reason to worry or be angry for his mother anymore. She didn’t have to worry or be angry about anything ever again. But, the thought of her being alone and in pain, the thought that his dad couldn’t even be there for her then, that hurt.
“No, she wasn’t alone. Olivia was with her. She helped deliver you.”
And that’s a surprise he wasn’t expecting. His dad pulls out a picture. It's him, a few hours old, held by a younger Olivia with hair to her ears, tears in her eyes, smile bright, covered in blood.
“Let me call her, maybe she can meet with us and she can tell you the whole story,” his dad told him, a small sad smile gracing the corners of his mouth.
Except Dad doesn’t make it. He got stuck at work (again) and Katie has to pick up Grandma from some art thing, so here he is, sitting in an old diner by the 1-6, alone, with Olivia Benson.
Eli has tried really hard not to be rude to Olivia, but he knows he comes off as cold towards her and her son. The thing is, he just doesn’t see what his siblings see in her, this woman who they call the moment something goes wrong, who randomly shows up at his games to cheer him on when his Dad can’t, who looks at him the same way his mom used to - with endless love and worry and awe. He doesn’t know her. He knows she’s Dad’s old partner. He knows that his grandma and his siblings look so relieved when she’s around and that just the sight of her makes Dad happy in a way he’s never seen before. He knows that she’s supposed to be some sort of family to him, but he just doesn’t see it.
“So, your dad said you’re writing an essay?” she asks, finally breaking the awkward silence after they order their food and get their drinks. He nods. “And you want to write about your birth?”
“Yeah, they want us to write about a big moment in our lives and I don’t want to write about Mom dying.”
She nods in understanding. “Well, what did your mom tell you about it?”
“Just that it was dramatic. She promised to tell me the whole story one day but then…” he shakes his head and shrugs. “Anyways, Dad said you were there? Why were you there but not him? Like, was he in court or something and you went to the hospital for him?”
She blinks at him, an emotion he can’t quite name briefly flashing behind her eyes before she hides it away.
“You weren’t born in a hospital, Eli. You were born in an ambulance.” Eli blinks back. “Your dad wasn’t there because he was finishing up a case he needed to see through. Your mom had a doctor’s appointment and he asked me to take her. On the way we got hit by a drunk driver. Your mom got pinned under the dashboard and they had trouble getting her out, so I stayed with her in the car until they did. Kathy was in bad shape and she was so scared, but she did it. She had you right there.”
The tears in her eyes shine as she looks at him. “But then, the moment you came out her heart started failing and they just shoved you into my arms. You were so small,” she tells him, clutching her chest and looking across at him with wonder. “I was so scared, the most scared I’d ever been in my life. I never pray but I prayed. I prayed so long and hard that day. I was so afraid I was going to watch her die, that I’d have to go to your dad, to my best friend, and to your brother and sisters and tell them I couldn’t protect her.”
“But she was okay?”
Olivia smiles brightly and nods. “Your mom was amazing and you were perfect.”
They sit in silence again, not awkwardly this time. Eli looks out at the busy street and lets her words settle into his mind. He finds comfort in knowing that his mom wasn’t alone in one of the scariest moments of her life, that someone was there to hold him when his mom couldn’t. He’s glad to know that that person was Olivia.
He turns back to look at her and finds her watching him with thinly veiled adoration. It’s like how his mom sometimes looked at him when it was just the two of them, grabbing lunch somewhere in Testaccio while dad was at work before getting some meat from the butcher and heading home.
It’s at that moment that he starts to understand. This is why his siblings call Olivia whenever something happens, good or bad. This is why she comes when they call, why she comes to his games, and worries about him, and gets hurt when he pushes her away - because she loves him. She loves all of them. He sees it now, how Olivia has been there for all of them when their parents couldn’t be. She’s their family, too.
Their food comes, a club sandwich for her, a burger for him, and a plate of fries between them. As they begin to eat, a thought begins to germinate in his mind.
“Dick and my sisters all talk about how important you are to us. But, if that’s true, then how come we never came to visit you? Or talk to you on the phone?”
She slowly puts her sandwich down and thinks quietly for a moment before answering. “Something happened at work and it made your dad realize that it was time to leave the NYPD, at least for a while. We were really close. Really, really , close. Looking back now, we were too close. He felt that he couldn’t leave the job without cutting all ties completely, so he just left.”
Eli frowns. “Wait, so he…he just, like, ghosted you?” Olivia shrugs. “No! What? But you were partners for forever. You helped deliver me. You saved Kathleen and Dickie and me and Mom and he fucking ghosted you? For ten years?”
What the hell was wrong with his dad?
“Please tell me you’ve slapped him.”
She laughs and it's a rich sound, like warm caramel on a chilly day. “No. But I’m not gonna lie, I’ve come close.”
He picks up his burger and sighs. “Noah’s birth must have been so boring compared to mine,” he says into his burger, changing the topic before he gets even more upset with his dad.
Olivia smiles kindly as she squeezes the ketchup into a corner of the plate and not, thankfully, all over the fries. “Actually, Noah is adopted.”
"Oh. I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, but, yeah. I found him when he was a baby while on a case and, well, long story short, no one wanted him but I did and the court let me keep him.”
“So, it’s just you and him?” She nods and he frowns. “He doesn’t have a dad?” She shakes her head.
It makes sense now. Noah tends to look at his dad like he’s Superman and constantly asks him questions and wants to be around him whenever he can. Eli found it kind of annoying at times. With his siblings grown and having lived half a world away from them, he was used to having Dad to himself; but now there is this kid who wants to be around them all the time, this kid who seems to have no problem sharing his mom with five whole other kids he barely knows.
“Well, then it’s good that Dad came back, then.”
Olivia gives him another bright smile, her eyes shining in a way that makes him feel proud of himself for making her just a little bit happy.
Eli takes a sip of his water and grimaces. “Ugh, this water still tastes weird.”
She tilts her head. “You really miss Rome, huh?”
“Yeah. New York is great and I love being close to Grandma and everybody, but…”
“It’s not home.” He nods. She watches him take a fry from the plate and takes a breath. “Is that part of why you took Bernie’s meds?”
He shrugs. “I was mostly just mad at Dad and missing Mom. I get why he had to go undercover, but I just wish he had stayed home.”
He looks at her with wide eyes, the fry in his hand forgotten.
“It was too soon after…everything. He needed to be at home with you guys, not out there pretending to be…” She shakes her head and sighs, a sliver of her weariness slipping through. “He just should’ve been home. And I had a word or two with your dad and Sgt. Bell about it, too. Hopefully, they won’t try to send him out like that anytime soon.”
Sometimes Eli forgets that she’s a captain, someone who outranks her dad and almost every other cop he’s met. She has always seemed like such a mom and not this fearless warrior his siblings paint her to be, but now he sees some of it coming through - her protectiveness, her loyalty. He gets why his brother and sisters want her around.
Later, Olivia drives him home, happily indulging him in his tirade about the inferior quality of gelatos in the city and telling him all about someone named Mrs. Carisi who, allegedly, makes the best meatballs in the tri-state area. He’s surprised to feel disappointed when she finally pulls up to his building.
“Do you wanna come in for a minute?”
“Sorry, honey, but I have Noah waiting at home. Thank you for offering. And, hey,” she takes his hand in both of hers, giving him a warm smile that wraps around his heart like a blanket. “I just want you to know that no matter what happens between me and your dad, I’m here for you. I’ll never replace your mom, and I never would try to, but just know that I love you and that I’m on your side. Always .”
He hugs her as tightly as he can across the center console. He breathes in her scent, a floral perfume and coconut shampoo and coffee and the city, an entire world of difference from his mom but just as nice and almost just as comforting. She hugs him back with a fierceness that he didn’t know he craved and she doesn’t let go until he does. Even as he walks up to his building, past the gate, and into the apartment, he can still feel her with him.
Dad is there.
“Hey, bud, how was dinner with Olivia?” He’s still wearing his work shirt, but his tie is gone, so he must have just gotten home. “Do you have what you need for your essay?”
Eli nods, watching his dad open the fridge and try to decide between grabbing a bottle of beer or a bottle of water. “You ghosted her for ten years?”
Dad grabs the beer and turns to him. He must see the indignation in his son’s eyes because, then, he sighs, puts the beer back and grabs the water instead.
Eli scowls at him. “She saved your wife and half of your kids and you ghosted her. For ten years. Your best friend. Your partner. For ten years.” He shakes his head and rolls his eyes at him because, really, he just doesn’t know what else to do.
“I’ve apologized to her. Really, I have. I’ve done nothing but grovel for weeks.”
Eli rolls his eyes at him again. “Dad, if you hurt Olivia like that again, I’m moving in with Maureen.” His dad smiles back at him like his threat is something he’s always wanted to hear.