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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.”

“Me too.”

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. 










Chapter Text

Fridays are Noah’s second favorite day of the week. Nothing beats Saturdays, but Fridays come a close second. Fridays mean staying up late, free play in P.E., pizza at lunch, and, best of all, french toast with Mom at the cafe. 

This Friday, however, is a special Friday. Today Mom’s friend Elliot is joining them for breakfast.

Noah likes Elliot. They spent Christmas day with the Stablers, all of them (and there were a lot of them) and it was fun. At first, Noah had been a little anxious about the change in Christmas tradition, to spend the day with these people he’s never met instead of watching movies with his mom; but it was so much more fun than he expected it to be. The Stablers had presents and hung up stockings for both of them. Elliot’s older kids, the grown up ones, asked him a million questions, like they wanted to know everything about him. Elliot’s mama told him to call her ‘Grandma B’ and gave him so many cookies he actually got tired of them. He built legos with Elliot’s grandsons, Kieran and Seamus, who are a little younger than him but fun all the same. He played video games with Eli, who is older and probably the coolest kid he’s ever met. It was the best Christmas Noah can remember having.

He’s been seeing a lot more of them since then. Sometimes he and Mom go back for Sunday dinners and some Saturdays they go to the park with Eli. Sometimes Elliot is in the car with Mom when she comes to pick him up from school or dance and, other times, he shows up at their apartment for dinner. Noah likes it when he’s there. 

Mom likes it, too. He can tell because when she sees Elliot waiting for them in a corner booth at the back of the cafe she smiles so big and wide Noah is sure her cheeks must hurt.

“So, Noah, tell me, what’s good here?” Elliot asks him over their menus. 

“Mom and I always get the French toast, but the pancakes are really good, too. They also have latkes and cheesy omelets if you don’t want something sweet. I like those, too.”

Elliot nods and taps his chin in though. “Pancakes sound good. It’s been a while since I’ve had a good one.” He takes a sip of his coffee and Noah can tell his mom is trying not to laugh at the face he makes.

“Still not used to American coffee, huh?” she asks through her smile. “Snob.”

He pretends to glare at her before turning back to Noah.

“So, Noah, anything exciting going on in the third grade?” Noah shrugs and shakes his head. “Well, how about dance? You’re doing pirouettes now, right?”

This is why Noah likes Elliot, appreciates him, really. Other adults tend to talk to him like he’s still little and then ignore him in favor of his mom. Elliot talks to him like he’s a person. He remembers the stuff Noah tells him and asks him for his opinion in a way no other adult other than his mom and Lucy ever has. Noah knows that Elliot is here to spend time with his mom. He can see it in the way he looks at her, with big eyes and a dopey smile. He would describe it as disgusting if it didn’t make his mom so happy.

She’s been smiling so much more since Christmas, since they started spending more time with Elliot and his family. He’s heard her talking to him on the phone most nights. Sometimes he catches her smiling at her phone and, last night, he swears he heard her giggle like the girls in school do when they have a crush on someone. He’s never heard her giggle like that before, and he’s never seen her eat off of someone else’s plate like she is right now. 

‘They’re so gross,’ he thinks.

He’s only halfway through his French toast when Mom’s phone beeps. The way she groans and makes a face at the screen tells him it’s work. 

It’s always work.

“McGrath wants me down at 1PP ASAP,” she tells Elliot, reaching into her bag for her wallet. She sighs and turns to Noah. “We gotta go, bud. I’m sorry.”

Elliot reaches across the table and squeezes her hand.

“Why don’t you head downtown and I take Noah to school,” he says. 

She shakes her head. “But you’ll be late.”

“I’m not scheduled ‘til ten. Let him finish his breakfast.” She chews her lips, looking between the two of them and Elliot rolls his eyes. “The sooner you go, the sooner your meeting with the brass is over.”

She sighs and grabs her coat. “Noah, you’re okay with Elliot taking you to school?” 

He nods and takes a bite of his French toast. “Go save the city, Mom.”

She gives him a grateful smile before kissing an ‘I love you’ into his hair and squeezing Elliot’s shoulder. She waves at them from outside the window and, then, she is gone.

‘Finally,’ Noah thinks.

*

Noah knows it takes about two songs to drive from the cafe to school, so he knows that it’s now or never.  Elliot has the same kind of car his mom does, and when he turns on the radio it’s the same kind of music his mom listens to. Noah has never been in Elliot’s car before, but already it feels familiar. He takes it all in before he jumps. 

“Are you my mom’s boyfriend?”

Elliot glances back at him through the rearview mirror. 

“No, buddy, I’m not. We’re just friends. Really good friends.”

“But you want to be her boyfriend.”

Noah can see Elliot’s hands go rigid on the steering wheel.

“Do you love her?” 

“Yes. Yes, I do. I love her a lot,” Elliot answers without pause, without hesitation. “I love you, too, you know.”

Noah furrows his brow. “You do?”

“Yes, very much.”

No one other than Mom has said that to him. Certainly, no man has ever said that to him and the way Elliot says it catches Noah off guard. He says it like it's an undeniable fact, like saying that he loves him and mom is the same as saying that grass is green or the sky is blue. He says it like it’s the truth and Noah wants to believe him.

“If you love her so much, then why aren’t you boyfriend and girlfriend?”

Elliot sighs and turns the radio down, trying to buy as much time as he can but knowing there is no way out of this conversation. Especially in a car.

“You know how I’ve been gone for a long time?” Noah nods. “Well, a lot’s happened since I left. I mean, she got you and became a captain. Meanwhile, I lived in other countries and became a grandpa. So, your mom and I decided that, for now, it would be best if we stayed just friends for a while.”

“So you can catch up?” Noah concludes.

“Exactly.”

They both see his school just ahead of them, getting closer and closer by the second.

“Are you going to leave again?”

Elliot’s shoulders slump and from the rearview mirror Noah can see there is something sad in his eyes.

They're both quiet as Elliot parks the car.

“Other people have left, you know,” Noah eventually continues. “Uncle Rafa, Tuck, Coach Stone. I don’t want Mom to be sad again and if you left again she’d be extra sad. I’d be sad, too. I like playing with Kieran and Seamus and hanging out with Eli. I like going to your house ‘cause, when we’re there, it’s like we’re part of this great big family and I don’t want them going away either.”

Elliot is still quiet as he drags his hand down his face. He doesn’t look at Noah, not when he gets out of the car, not when he walks over to Noah’s side, not when he places his hand on Noah’s door and pauses.

Noah watches him take a deep breath and, when he opens the door, Elliot’s blue eyes meet his.

“Listen, Noah,” he says, his voice low and soft as he places a firm hand on his shoulder. “I’m not going anywhere. Not if I can help it. And, even if I did have to go away, you and your mom will still have Grandma Bernie and my kids. They’re not going anywhere either. You feel like you’re a part of our family because you are. Do you understand?”

Noah, wide eyed, nods his head slowly and Elliot nods back.

“Do you know I’ve apologized to your mom for leaving?” Noah shakes his head. “Well, I have. I’ve apologized a lot . But I haven’t apologized to you and that’s not fair. So, here it goes - Noah, I am sorry I haven’t been here. I should’ve been. I should’ve been here to watch you grow into this awesome kid and I am so sorry I wasn’t. I can’t make up for all of the time I’ve lost being away from you and your mom but, if you let me, I’d like to be there for you now.”

They sit in silence  for a moment or two, an old rap song plays from a passing car, a gaggle of kindergartners run by, all the while Noah studies this man who he knows is important to his mom, who he is starting to understand is something so much more than just his mom’s best friend.

The school’s warning bell rings and pulls them out of the silence.

Noah gathers his backpack, makes sure he has his water bottle and his dollar for the extra cookie at lunch before climbing out of the car. Elliot watches him and Noah knows that he’ll keep watching him until he sees him go inside because that’s what Mom does.

“Elliot, will you come to my spring recital?”

Elliot’s face blooms into a great big smile, the same kind of smile his mom wore that morning, and it makes Noah feel warm and happy and safe.

“I’ll be there.”

Chapter Text

At first Eli was relieved when they told him that Olivia was coming. He’s been wary of his dad being around school ever since he heard some girl in homeroom refer to him as a “Zaddy”; but now seeing Olivia walk down the hall towards the main office with heavy steps and her badge on her hip, he starts to reconsider his blessings. 

She looks equal parts angry and worried and Eli really doesn’t know which one is worse.

“I’m really sorry they called you, Liv. I know you’re busy with work,” he tells her. There is a disappointment in her eyes that guts him and leaves him wishing for the worry and anger instead. 

She moves to speak but then the door to the assistant principal’s office opens and Mr. Morris calls them in.

Olivia is momentarily caught off-guard by the two extra adults sitting at the small conference table in the corner of the room, a 30-something gym teacher in a bright white polo and a middle-aged brunette with a dozen keys and badges on a lanyard around her neck. 

“Ms. Benson, good afternoon, please have a seat. I am Assistant Principal Morris. This is Coach Greene and this is Eli’s guidance counselor, Mrs. Callahan.”

Mrs. Callahan gives her a tight polite smile while Coach Greene looks like he’s been chewing on his cheeks for a little too long. Eli catches the half-concealed glare Coach Greene sends his way and hopes Olivia has caught it, too. 

“I’m sorry that Elliot, Eli’s father, couldn’t make it. He was in Connecticut this morning and he’s still stuck on the turnpike.”

“We understand, no worries,” Mrs. Callahan politely says, the slight downturn of her mouth indicating that there are, in fact, some worries. 

Mr. Morris scribbles something on a notepad and clears his throat. “Ms. Benson, I know you must be wondering why you were called here today, so we will just cut to the chase. Eli is in trouble because he disrupted class and disrespected both myself and Coach Greene.”

Olivia frowns and looks at Eli in confusion and disbelief. “Wha-”

“Ms. Benson,” Mrs. Callahan interrupts, “we understand that the past year has been very difficult for Eli, and, perhaps, there may be a bit of cultural confusion here. However, Eli needs to understand that even if this kind of outburst is acceptable in Rome, it will not be tolerated in New York.”

Eli fights the urge to roll his eyes and Olivia sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose. “What happened here, exactly?”

“We were just doing a routine dress code check,” Mr. Morris starts and Eli just barely contains a growl. 

“They were only doing it to the girls,” he says, eyes wide and blazing. “They came in the middle of history class and had the girls line up against the wall. They told Alison that her shirt was too short because you can see her belly when she raises her arms and they told Hannah that the straps of her shirt were too thin and showed her collarbones, of all things. Her collarbones? Really ? Then, they got mad ‘cause I started asking questions.”

“That’s not why we got mad,” Coach Greene finally says, his voice low and even.

Mr. Morris placidly raises his hand and clears his throat again. “We explained the process to Eli. We explained that, sometimes, students wear clothes that are not appropriate for school. They can make male faculty and fellow students uncomfortable, so, periodically, we do dress code checks to make sure that there are no issues. That is when Eli lost his temper and was incredibly disrespectful.”

Olivia shakes her head, disbelief still painted on her face. “How was he disrespectful?”

Eli huffs and crosses his arms, looking decidedly anywhere but at an adult.

Coach Greene takes a deep breath, his temper also seemingly close to its limits. “He looked us both in the eye and said, and I quote, ‘If male faculty are uncomfortable around teenage girls, then maybe they shouldn’t be working around minors’.”

Olivia’s jaw drops. 

“You said that to them?” Eli nods. “To their faces?” He nods again. “God, you really are your father’s son.”

“Ms. Benson -” Mr. Morris starts.

Captain Benson,” Olivia interjects. 

Eli can’t help but feel a shiver of satisfaction as all three adults sit up just a little straighter in response.

“Captain Benson,” Mr. Morris continues, “as Mrs. Callahan said, we know that Eli has been through a lot. We just want to establish that there is communication and that, perhaps, there needs to be a discussion at home about respect.” 

Eli can see Olivia’s eyes narrowing, her mouth falling into a straight line. He holds his breath as Mr. Morris stupidly continues.

“We, meaning Coach Greene and myself, would also like to have letters of apology co-signed by his father by the end of the week.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Excuse me?” 

“You’re not getting a letter of apology.” 

This time, it’s Coach Greene who huffs. “Miss - Captain Benson, what Eli said was not only disrespectful, it was also hurtful -”

“Well, unfortunately, sometimes the truth hurts.”

Now it’s Mrs. Callahan’s jaw dropping as both Mr. Morris and Coach Greene fumble over themselves. Meanwhile, Eli, with his eyes wide and his mouth pressed tight, grips his chair to keep from jumping up and crowing.

“I am the captain of Manhattan SVU. I have been there for 25 years, 13 of which, by the way, was spent with Eli’s father as my partner. So believe me when I tell you that both of our jobs would be a hell of a lot easier if people spent less time policing women’s bodies and more time teaching young men how to respectfully treat people, specifically women and girls. These dress code checks only work to further the sexualization of children and reinforces victim-shaming if, God forbid, something were to happen.

“You may not have liked Eli’s behavior, but he reacted exactly how he and his siblings were raised to. So, no , you will not be getting an apology. Let’s go, Eli.”

They are both quiet as they go through the sign-out process, Liv as tense as a steel rod beside him as they walk through the school. It isn’t until they step out into the chilly March air that they both collapse into fits of laughter. Olivia gathers him close, her arms holding him tight, her hands cradling his head as they did when he was a baby. 

“I am so proud of you, Eli. It takes a special kind of bravery to do what you did.”

“But I didn’t really do anything,” he says, shrugging in her arms.

She pulls back and gives him a smile so warm he forgets about the cold. “You saw that people, people in positions of authority, were doing something wrong and you called them out on it. That takes bravery.”

He shrugs again. “I wasn’t feeling brave. Really, I was just angry. They were embarrassing all of these girls and it wasn’t fair. I wanted to punch Coach Greene so bad .”

“But you didn’t.” He’s surprised when Olivia chuckles and rubs his shoulders. “You know how your dad has a bad temper? Well, it's for the same reason. You both see something wrong, someone doing something horrible or cruel or just plain bad, and you get angry. You get angry for the right reasons, Eli. So do I.” 

She loops her arm through his and pulls him towards her car. 

“After today, I am sure that Mr. Morris and Coach Greene will scale back on those stupid dress code checks. And, if they don’t, then I am sure other kids will be less scared to call them out on how gross the whole thing is.”

“You think?”

“Yeah, I do. Now, how about some hot chocolate?”

*

They find Elliot waiting for them back at the apartment, frowning at them and their Starbucks cups as they walk in. His frown quickly shifts into a proud smile once Eli starts telling him the story, boasting about Olivia and their, albeit minor, victory against the The Man.

“Your son did a good thing today, Elliot. He deserves some overpriced sugar,” Liv tells him after Eli disappears into his room. “He’s a good kid and he’s growing into a good man like his father.”

Her heart flutters as she watches the tips of his ears turn pink and he gives her an almost bashful smile. 

A phone rings in Eli’s room.

“Thank you for being there for him.”

“Always.”

Eli’s door opens.

“What the hell are you talking about? Of course I didn’t get arrested,” he says into his phone as he digs through the kitchen pantry. “Yeah, they’re cops…. No, she’s my step-mom. Well, sort of my step-mom.” He grabs a bag of chips. “I insulted them , not assaulted, Alex.”

They watch him stumble back to his room, Elliot not daring to breathe until Eli closes the door behind him. He turns to Olivia and finds her staring at the closed door with wide and hopeful shining eyes. He feels that same hope thunder in his chest.

Still, he feels the need to tread carefully.

“Liv -”

“I didn’t tell him to say that.”

He blinks. 

“He knows we’re not together. I told him,” she says. There is a trace of fear in her voice and he’s praying to God that he can still read her right. 

“I know. I just…” he sighs, plotting his next works. “That’s how the kids see you. All of them. And, Liv, I’m okay with it if you are.”

Hope, that beautiful, glorious hope he’s been nurturing in his heart for months now bursts across her eyes and it takes everything he has not to kiss her right there and then.

“Yeah,” she tells him almost breathlessly. “I’m okay with it.”

He pulls her close, because he doesn’t know what else to do, because, finally, he can. 

Elliot doesn’t kiss her that day, at least not on the lips. Both of their ringing phones pull them apart and they look at their screens in disdain. They say quick goodbyes to Eli and walk out the door side by side. 

“Are we still on for Sunday dinner?” He asks her as he locks the door. “Work permitting, of course.” 

She nods, her smile brighter than he’s ever seen. 

He walks her to her car and brushes a kiss to her cheek because, really, he can’t help himself at all now. Her rosy cheeks, her smile, her warmth - they carry him through the rest of the day and, for once, it feels like more than enough.

At least, for now.

Chapter Text

Noah bounces on the balls of his feet as he and Elliot wait at the crosswalk.

He’s going to get a haircut today, which he usually doesn’t really enjoy, but this time it’s different because, this time, he’s getting it cut at a barbershop . When he was little his mom would take him to a special kid’s salon that had chairs shaped like cars and trucks and animals. Now she takes him to her salon which is loud, crowded, and smells weird. Luckily, and thankfully, Elliot helped him convince Mom to let him go to the barber for once.

“I can take him to O’Henry’s on Saturday. It’s where I take Eli and I used to take Dickie when he was a kid,” he told her over dinner a few nights ago after Noah begged and pleaded to not go back to her hair salon.

She had looked at Noah with those eyes that told him she wasn’t seeing a nine year old but a toddler in his stead. 

Elliot reached across the table and clasped her hand in his. “He’s a boy, Liv. It’s only a matter of time before he goes to the barber.”

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and gave in with a forlorn, “Okay, fine.”

That’s how Noah and Elliot end up at O’Henry’s Barbershop on a crisp Saturday afternoon.

Immediately, Noah is struck by how quiet and oddly calm the place is. There is still the buzz of hair clippers and the smell of disinfectant, but there is only one blow dryer going, and there is no yucky nail polish smell, and no loud old ladies gossiping about who knows what.  There are a handful of men there and a kid about Eli’s age getting a fade in a corner. The TV in the front corner of the shop is playing a baseball game.

“Well, that is not Eli,” the white-haired man behind the counter says as soon as they walk in. 

Elliot chuckles, placing his hands on Noah’s shoulders. “No, this is my friend Noah Benson. He’s my partner’s son. Little Man got tired of going to his mom’s salon all the time.” He squeezes Noah’s shoulders. “Noah, this is my old friend Danny O’Henry. This is his shop.”

“Nice to meet you, son,” Danny says with a kind smile. “I don’t blame you one bit for wanting to get away from those salons. Those places give me migraines.”

“Nice to meet you, too, sir.”

Danny looks at Elliot approvingly. “So polite! Don’t get that very often anymore. Well, come on through Noah.”

He ushers them through his shop, past the counter and a few chairs to a man who looks like he’s about Dickie’s age. He looks a little like Danny, but younger and blonder.

“This is my son, Liam. He’s gonna take care of you today.”

Elliot hands Liam the picture Mom gave him, his last school picture with the hair exactly how he and Mom likes his hair to be, and let’s Liam get to work.

“So, Noah, how old are you? Eleven?” Liam asks as he sprays his hair with something that smells not nearly as flowery as the stuff from the salon.

“No, I’m nine. I’m a tall nine.” That’s what his doctor said last week.

“Whoa, you really are.” He grabs his scissors and comb and starts snipping. “Do you play any sports? That height’s gotta help win some games.”

Noah bites his lip. Sometimes he hesitates in telling people about dancing. He’s proud of his dancing, he knows he’s good at it, but some grown ups tend to have weird reactions when they find out that a boy likes to dance ballet and sometimes it’s hard to tell which grown ups they will be. But, Elliot is here and Liam is his friend’s son, so he tells the truth.

“I dance ballet.”

“Oh yeah? My brother dances.” Liam spins him around so he faces away from the mirror and towards the front of the shop where he can see Elliot talking to Danny, showing each other pictures on their phones. “He used to do ballroom dance competitions and stuff, but since the ‘rona he’s been stuck dancin’ solo.”

They talk about dancing and school and video games, and before he knows it, it’s over. His hair is cut and styled and he’s got a blue lollipop in his hand. 

Elliot inspects his hair, comparing it to the picture, saying, “I’ve gotta be sure it’s right or she’ll kill me.” Once he’s satisfied he pats Noah on the back and climbs into Liam’s chair himself.

Noah watches in sheer confusion as Liam throws the black cape over him. 

There’s nothing for Liam to cut!

“Um, Elliot, what are you doing?” 

Elliot chuckles, clearly finding the boy’s bewilderment amusing. “I’m going to get a shave,” he explains, rubbing the stubble on his face. “It feels nice, kind of like when your mom treats herself to a facial.”

Noah watches intently as Liam pulls a lever and leans Elliot almost as far back as the chair can go. He watches Liam wrap Elliot’s face with a hot towel and then put a white foam all over the hairy parts. Then, Liam picks up the longest and sharpest looking blade Noah’s ever seen and Noah can’t help but hold his breath as he watches scrape across Elliot’s face. When he’s done, Liam pours some kind of lotion on to his hand and gently pats it onto Elliot’s face. When Liam pulls the chair back upright, Elliot looks like he’s just been awakened from the best nap of his life.

He climbs out of the chair and crouches down for Noah’s inspection. 

His face is definitely smoother than ever before, smoother than even in the mornings at breakfast, and he smells a little different. He smells like cinnamon and leather and The Ramble in Central Park. It’s the dad smell, Noah realizes, the smell most of his friends’ dads at morning drop-off and at dance recitals. This is where it comes from. 

“You smell good,” Noah tells him and Elliot smiles wide and bright.

“Do you want to try some of it?”

Noah nods and Liam drops a little of the cream into his hands and pats it on his face like he did Elliot’s. 

He smells like Elliot now and it makes him feel something funny and new in his chest. He feels proud and loved and happy and safe and something else, something big that he can’t name or describe but he knows is a good feeling because it’s warm and soothing and makes his heart flutter in a nice way. Noah finds himself wishing he could somehow box up all of these feelings he’s having right now, both old and new, and take the box home to show his mom. 

He can’t. Instead, as Elliot pays Danny at the counter, Noah leans into his side, and takes a deep breath, closing his eyes when Elliot squeezes him closer.

When they walk out of the shop, Elliot directs them to a little Italian bakery down the block.

“This is almost exactly as it is in Rome,” Elliot tells him. 

Noah takes note of the rows of wrought iron shelves full of cans and jars and the many, many pastries on display. He hopes this isn’t the closest he ever gets to Rome. He hopes he can go there one day. Maybe with Elliot and Mom and Eli. He thinks that would be cool. It would be like the trip he took to Paris with Mom and Tuck, but better because now he’s bigger and he’ll actually remember all of it. 

“So, what do you think of your first trip to the barbershop?” Elliot asks as they take their drinks to a little table by the window.

Elliot got him a strawberry cream soda that he claims is different from the one they sell at the bodega.

“It was nice. Quiet,” Noah tells him. “Well, quieter than the salon, anyways. And there were no old ladies telling me how cute I look.” He scrunches his nose. “That can get annoying.”

“Is that why you wanted to go to the barbershop so bad?”

“Part of it.” Noah looks down at his drink, swirls it with his straw, watches the bubbles and cream and strawberry syrup whirl around in his cup. 

Elliot is quiet, watching him, studying him, waiting. Noah knows what he’s doing. It’s the thing that Mom does when she knows something is wrong but is trying to wait and see if she should push or if he’ll come out and say it himself. It doesn’t matter how long he stays quiet, though; she finds out eventually, one way or another, and Noah is sure Elliot is the same way.

“Some boys at school were talking about going to the barber with their dads and tried to make fun of me for going to the salon with my Mom. My friend Joshua, he goes to the salon his grandma owns and he stuck up for me, but it still kind of bothered me, though.”

“Joshua sounds like a good friend.”

“He is.” He takes his straw and pushes it through the hole in one of his ice cubes, stabbing a stray chunk of mussy strawberry at the bottom of the cup. “Elliot, can you take me the next time I have to get my hair cut?”

“Sure.”

“And can you teach me to shave and stuff?”

“Yeah, if that’s what you want. We’ve gotta wait ‘til you’ve got something to shave off, though,” Elliot says with a smile that almost looks grateful. He takes a sip of his espresso. “Noah, I’ll be here to help you with that stuff. I know I’m not your dad, but you’ve got me. And you have your Uncle Fin and Uncle Sonny and Dickie, too. If you want to know anything about guy stuff, you just come to any of us.” 

Noah drops his straw back into his cup, pulls his sleeves up over his hands and grasps the cold, wet cup, letting the condensation soak into his cuffs.

“Would you want to be my dad?”

Elliot’s smile turns a little sad, a little wistful, or maybe it’s wishful.

“Noah, I would love to be your dad.”

“But it’s up to my mom, right?”

Elliot nods. “You and your mom.”

“Well, I want you to be, so I’ll put in a good word for you.”

Elliot laughs and gently pulls Noah’s soggy sleeves away from his cup. “I appreciate it, but you don’t have to do that. Your mom and I are doing pretty good. Just focus on being nine, all right?”

“All right.”

*

Mom is folding laundry when they get home and Noah can smell the soup in the crockpot the moment they walk in. When she sees him she drops the sweater she was folding and pulls him into a tight hug before running her fingers through her curls and dropping kisses on his cheeks.

“You look so good, my sweet boy!” 

“Thanks! Are we eating soup? What kind?”

“It’s broccoli cheddar,” she tells him and he can’t help but bounce just a little because it’s his favorite. 

“Yes!” He spins to face Elliot, his curls flying, his smile bright. “Elliot, are you staying for dinner?”

“Sorry, bud, I can’t. I’ve got to go to work for a little bit.” He bites back a sigh as he watches the bounce leave the little boy. “But, I will see you tomorrow at Sunday dinner. 

“You do?” Noah asks with a frown, the bounce leaving him quickly. 

Elliot nods his head almost sadly. “Unfortunately, bad guys don’t keep regular hours. But, I will see you tomorrow for Sunday dinner. Maureen says she’s making coconut cream pie.” 

“That’s okay, I understand. Thanks for taking me today” Noah says, stepping towards him and slipping his little arms as far around his waist as they’ll go, burying his curls into Elliot’s chest and breathing him in deep. “I love you, Elliot.”

Noah can hear Elliot’s breath do a funny thing through his chest, and for a moment he worries he’s said something wrong, but then Elliot squeezes him close and kisses his head.

“I love you, too, Noah.”

When he pulls away and turns to the kitchen, he catches sight of his Mom’s teary eyes. She’s smiling, though. They must be happy tears , Noah thinks. Although, he’s not entirely sure what she’s so happy about. Broccoli cheddar is great, but it’s not worth crying over.

Chapter Text

It takes Eli ten minutes to walk to the 1-6. It takes him longer to actually walk in.

He had planned on spending the afternoon working on a project in the library, but then he got kicked out of the Rose Reading Room for taking out his phone, so he decided to park himself at a random table in Bryant Park and take a break before diving back into the French Revolution.  In retrospect, he never should have opened up TikTok and he sure as hell should have never followed Grace Fleming and her true crime bullshit because she showed up 5 videos in, pointing at a picture of Olivia, and saying “When I say ‘ACAB’, I don’t mean her”.

Grace’s voice filled his head and drowned out the sounds of the city as he listened to her describe Olivia and her kidnapping, a wave of nausea building inside of him as he heard the words “captive for four days” and “torture” and “burns”. He held it together until Grace put up a picture of Olivia, bloody and bruised, being led out of a building - that’s when he puked his afternoon snack all over his shoes.

He knows he should have called his dad or one of his siblings or even Olivia herself but the pounding in his chest and the cold sweat drenching his shirt made it hard to think. In the moment, all he knew was that he needed to see her in person, touch her, hug her, and make sure she was okay because he had talked to his mom on the phone and then she was gone and it cannot happen again.

But that was twenty minutes ago. The pounding in his heart has subsided, his hands aren’t nearly as sweaty, and he can smell the vomit on his shoes. He stands in front of a door that says ‘Manhattan Special Victims Unit’ and watches as people walk around with badges and case files, answer ringing phones, and click-clack away at keyboards. Eli thinks that maybe he really should have called first.

“You need help, kid?” A uniformed officer asks. He’s tall and slim and Eli has only just noticed that he’s stationed at the door and has probably been watching him for a while.

“Um, I’m here to see Oli-Captain Benson,” Eli manages to say, his voice sounding oddly high to him.

“Do you have an appointment?”

Shit. “No. It’s okay, I’ll just, um, I’ll see her later. Sorry.”

“Eli?”

It’s an unfamiliar voice, but for some reason his face seems like someone he knows.

“Sergeant Tutuola, this young man says he’s here to see Captain Benson but doesn’t have an appointment.”

Sergeant Tutuola waves him off. “It’s cool, Mark; the kid’s family. C’mon, Eli.”

The older man leads him through the office and into the empty breakroom, handing him a bottle of water.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Eli says. He really doesn’t like how young he sounds.

“Call me Fin.”

“Thank you, Fin.”

Fin watches him take a sip of his water and shakes his head with a chuckle. “Man, the last time I saw you you were blond. Barely came past my knee and now look at you.”

Eli closes his water bottle. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.”

Fin shrugs. “It’s okay, I don’t expect you to. You were practically still a baby when you guys left.”

“So, you used to work with my dad?”

“Yeah, a long time.”

Eli glances out into the office as Fin fiddles with his wallet.

“She’s in a meeting with Carisi but she’ll be done soon,” Fin tells him before tossing him a bag of chips. “C’mon, you can sit with me at my desk. Tell me about soccer.”

Eli does as he’s told, sits next to Fin’s desk and tells him about soccer and the project he’s supposed to be working on. He knows that Fin knows that something is wrong and he’s glad that Fin isn’t pushing to find out what it is. Eli has only really known the guy about five minutes but he decides that he likes him.

Before long the door to Olivia’s office opens and Counsellor Carisi walks out, giving him a nod and Fin a fist bump before making a beeline for a blonde frowning at a computer screen across the bullpen.

When Olivia appears, it’s suddenly like someone opened a window somewhere in the room and whatever was sitting on his chest was quickly swept away in the daylight.

“Hey, Eli! Come in, come in.” Her voice is husky and warm as she gives him a bright smile and extends her arm to him, pulling him into her office before closing the door.

He rushes into her the moment the door clicks shut, wrapping his lanky arms around her and burying his head into her shoulder, feeling her breathe, her heartbeat, her warmth. Olivia is alive. She’s here, living and breathing, not hurt, not bleeding, not buried deep in the cold ground.

She holds him close, swaying them both from side to side, stroking his hair and rubbing circles on his back. Olivia smells nothing like Mom did and, physically, she’s nothing like his mom either. Olivia is taller, broader and stronger in ways Mom wasn’t; but she loves him the same way Mom did and he feels it.

It takes him longer than he’d like, but eventually he gets it together enough to pull away. He didn’t notice when she closed the blinds on the window leading into the bullpen.

“I’m sorry,” he says immediately. “I should’ve called first-“

“It’s okay, Eli. You don’t have to call if something is wrong, okay?” He nods. “Let’s set down on the couch here and you can tell me what’s going on.”

He didn’t think about this part. All he could think about was seeing her, making sure she was okay; it didn’t occur to him that he would have to actually talk about what he saw. Sitting there on her office couch, seeing all of the photos and awards on her desk, seeing her look at him with so much worry and love, he wishes he had thought things through.

“I, uh, I was at the library working on a project,” he starts, playing with a loose thread on his jeans and looking intently at his knees. “I decided to take a break and go on TikTok for a few minutes.” Olivia nods along, encouraging him to go on. “This girl in my school, Grace, she has this true crime TikTok account and it popped up on my ‘for you page’.”

Olivia sighs and rubs his back again. “She was talking about your mom’s case?”

Eli shakes his head, keeping his eyes squarely on the vomit stain on his shoe. “She was talking about yours.”

He feels her freeze and he just knows he should have called his dad or his siblings and gone to anyone, literally anyone else other than come straight here. He swears she stops breathing for a moment or two, but then he hears her take a deep breath and let it out slowly like his therapist taught him to.

“I’m sorry-“ he starts again.

“No, baby, you have nothing to be sorry for. I just wish you hadn’t found out this way.” Olivia drops a kiss on his head. “How, um, how much did you hear.”

Eli shrugs. “I don’t know. She mentioned a kidnapping and, um, that he did things to you. There was a picture of you being rescued. I threw up and came here after that.”

Olivia takes another deep breath. “Okay. Do you… I mean, I imagine you have questions, right?”

Eli thinks for a moment. He has a million and one questions and he really doesn’t know if he wants to know the answers to all of them.

“It was a long time ago, right? After Dad left?”

“Yeah. 2013.”

He pulls on another thread on his jeans. He needs new ones. “They said he tor-, um, that he hurt you?” She nods. “Bad?”

“Yeah.” She strokes his hair as anger and sorrow rage inside of him. “I have scars, some that you might see eventually. Most of them healed really well and none of them hurt. I’m okay, Eli.”

Scars. He didn’t even think about that. Scars that he’ll see.

“Does Noah know?”

“He knows something happened, but not the details.”

Eli nods in understanding. “And the guy that hurt you, he’s in jail?”

She shakes her head. “He’s dead.”

“Good.” He knows he shouldn’t be glad someone is dead, but if that someone hurt Olivia, hurt his family, then he’s not going to feel sorry for it. “And Dad knows about it, right?”

She nods. “He knows all about it. So do your brother and sisters and Grandma.”

“And they helped? Afterwards, I mean; since we were in Italy and stuff?”

Olivia bites her lip and he watches her search for the right words to say. “There was a lot going on back then. I had my squad, Fin and Rollins and others. I had people.”

But those people weren’t his family; he can tell. No one ever talked about Olivia when they were living overseas; not in Italy and not when they came to visit. It was the thing that confused him the most about Olivia’s place in their family, because the moment Mom was gone everyone told him that Olivia was family, that she was going to take care of them. The moment she came back into their lives, the moment Dad started getting his feet back under him, every one of his siblings started bending over backwards to help Olivia – inviting her to dinners and lunches, babysitting, calling her, texting her – and Eli thinks that this is why; because they weren’t there for her when she needed them most.

Eli decides that that is never going to happen again. He decides that the Bensons will always have Stablers by their sides, from now until forever.

“Eli, Noah doesn’t know the details,” she tells him softly. “He knows something happened, that I got hurt at work, but he doesn’t know the details.”

“I won’t tell him. I promise.” He prays to God the kid never finds out. “But why didn’t anyone ever tell me. I’m not a little kid.”

Olivia gives him a rueful smile. “You might not be little, but you are still a kid and its our job as adults to protect you.”

“Yeah, but I’m almost an adult. I can take it.” He’s fifteen, for Christ’s sake. He’s going to drive soon, that has to count for something.

“But you shouldn’t have to. That’s why, whenever something happens, whenever there’s a problem, you come to us.”

Eli shakes his head, his dark locks falling into his eyes before he pushes them back again. “You guys have enough on your plate, you don’t need to add my bullshit to it.”

“I don’t need to, but I want to.” Her go soft in the way they do when she’s remembering him as a baby. “I know I’m not your mom, but I’ve loved you since before you were born and I swore that I would be there for you no matter what. Eli, I know you worry about me and your dad, but you don’t have to. He and I have each other’s backs. It’s what partners do; we help each other carry the load. So, whatever problem you have, you come to us and we’ll help you take care of it.”

“And Dad helps you with your problems?”

“Yeah, he does. We weren’t very good at doing that when he first came back, but we’ve gotten a lot better at it since then.”

“Is that why you guys aren’t, like, together? Because we would all be okay with it, you know. We want you guys to be happy.”

It’s a relief to see her roll her eyes. “Well, that’s what we want for you guys. We just want you kids to be happy. We want to put you guys first.”

Now, it’s Eli’s turn to roll his eyes, not bothering to call her out on her non-answer.

They both jump as an alarm sounds from Olivia’s phone and she rushes to shut it off.

“Do you want to come with me to pick up Noah from dance?”

When they walk out of her office, the bullpen is still busy, there are still people walking around with case files, there are still phones ringing and keyboards click-clacking. Counsellor Carisi and his blonde are gone and Fin is talking to someone on his phone.

“Cap, wait,” a dark-haired man cries out, almost falling over himself to catch them before they leave. “I just need these signed. Fin said not to disturb you with your son.” The man, Velasco by the name on his badge, looks at Eli with suspicion. “I thought your son was, um, shorter?”

Olivia shakes her head. "You're thinking of Noah. This is Eli."

Velasco, still suspicious, takes back his papers. "I didn't realize Noah had siblings."

"Yeah," Eli says, standing tall, looping his arm through Olivia's, "he's got five."

 

Chapter Text

Noah takes his time on Saturday mornings. He floats into consciousness around 8:30, gives his growing limbs a nice big stretch, and then lays in bed, cuddling his blankets for as long as his little bladder will let him. After going to the bathroom, Noah usually goes to the kitchen to get some juice and plays on his Switch until Mom gets up. Then, they make breakfast together.

This Saturday is different. Last night he went to bed a little later than usual because Elliot had come over. He and Mom were supposed to go to some art thing but Mom ended up having to stay at work, so Elliot decided to come over and hang out with him instead of going home. Lucy had been so happy to go meet up with her new boyfriend and Noah had been so happy when Elliot ordered his favorite orange chicken and told him to pick out a movie. He’d had fun with Elliot and, most importantly, he remembered how when Elliot had tucked him in, he had promised to make French toast in the morning. So, the moment Noah is up and out of the bathroom, he makes his way to the living room to find Elliot.

Except, there is no Elliot.

Elliot has only slept over twice, but when he does, he sleeps on the couch. This morning, there is no Elliot on the couch, no blankets and no pillows, no sign that anyone slept over at all. Noah remembers hearing his mom walk open the front door and coming in to kiss him goodnight. He remembers hearing her and Elliot talking and laughing in the living room. He doesn’t remember hearing the front door open or close again, so Elliot has to be here. He promised to be here in the morning.

Noah takes a deep breath and breathes out slowly the way Mom taught him to when he feels like he needs to calm down. It’s when he lets out his second breath that the door to Mom’s room opens.

It’s Elliot!

“G’morning, bud,” Elliot says, pulling Noah in for a hug and dropping a kiss on his head. “You ready for some breakfast?”

“Yeah,” Noah replies into his chest.

Noah watches Elliot starts humming, pulling all of the ingredients out onto the counter. Noah doesn’t know what song it is but it sounds familiar. Something about Elliot seems different to him. He’s not wearing the same clothes as he was last night, he’s wearing black sweatpants and his mom’s favorite hoodie, and for a moment Noah thinks that that’s what’s different; but those pants are the ones he keeps here for emergencies and Noah knows that the hoodie used to be his from before he was born. Something is different, but Noah is just not sure what it is.

“Do you want to crack the eggs?” Elliot asks and Noah nods, always eager to help in the kitchen.

Noah cracks 1-2-3 eggs into a bowl and eyes the empty couch as Elliot pulls a measuring cup out of the dishwasher.

“Did you sleep with mom?”

The cup must still be wet because Elliot almost drops it.

“W-what? What do you mean?”

“There’s no blankets or pillows on the couch and you came out of Mom’s room.”

“Oh,” Elliot sighs. “Yeah. Um, yes, I did sleep in your mom’s room. Is that, uh, okay with you?”

“Did she have a nightmare?” Sometimes, when Noah has a nightmare, he sleeps with his mom. He knows Mom sometimes has nightmares, even though she tries to hide it, and he hopes Elliot can take care of her when he can’t.

Elliot shakes his head. “No, no. We stayed up talking. She had a long day yesterday and needed to some cuddles and then we fell asleep.”

“Oh, okay.”

Milk, cinnamon, and a dash of vanilla are added to the eggs in quick succession and Noah is so focused on mixing and not spilling the dredge that he doesn’t notice Mom’s bedroom door open.

“Good morning, sweet boy,” Mom says, giving him a quick hug and kissing his head and cheeks.

“’Morning, Mom. We’re making French toast!”

“I see!” She turns to Elliot and her voice does that funny thing that it tends to do around him where it goes low and kind of whispery. “Good morning, my friend Elliot.”

Elliot chuckles and quietly says, “You already gave me a good morning.”

Noah scrunches his nose. How can someone give a person a good morning?

*

Eli practically jumps out of his skin when Noah bursts into his room.

“Dude, you need to start knocking!”

It is ten-thirty on a Saturday morning and he hasn’t even gotten out of bed yet, hell, he is just starting to become a conscious person again.

“They slept together!” Noah whisper shouts at him. “My mom and your dad slept together!”

“What?” Eli shakes his head and runs his hand across his face in a very Elliot Stabler way. “Do you even know what that phrase means?”

“Yeah, last night they cuddled and fell asleep together; but now they’re all smiley and Mom touched his butt. Like, she squeezed it,” Noah explains, turning around to demonstrate on his own tush. Eli doesn’t know if he’s exaggerating, but it seems like a hearty squeeze.

Eli studies Noah, his mind becoming sharper as each moment passes, as he takes in the kid’s wide excited eyes and the buzzing air radiating off of him. This seems worth getting out of bed for.

Walking out of his room, they turn towards the living room and find his dad and Olivia helping Bernie fold laundry. They do, indeed, seem...happy. And relaxed. Very relaxed.

Even Bernie seems to have noticed the change in them because she keeps looking at them and folding the same pair of pants over and over again.

“Good morning, Eli!” Olivia says, her smile brilliantly bright in a way he’s never seen before.

“’Morning Liv. Dad.” He takes a step forward and Noah follows. “You two look…rested. You guys got a good night’s sleep?”

Bernie squints and puts the pants aside.

“Yes, we did,” she answers.

Eli nods. “Together?”

Bernie scooches closer to her son.

Dad bites back a sigh. “Like I told Noah this morning, we were talking and we fell aslee- Gah!”

None of them noticed when Bernie had slipped under Dad’s nose, and none of them had ever seen her move as fast as she did when she pulled his shirt down low enough to reveal the massive hickey on his neck. Well, the space where his neck meets his shoulders.

“I knew it!” Bernie practically screams before dissolving into a fit of giggles.

Noah looks very concerned at Dad’s red face and his bruise. “What is that?”

“It’s a hickey,” Eli explains.

“What’s a hickey?”

“She kissed him so much she left a mark.”

“Eeww!”

Olivia looks back at them with concern, not seeming to care about Dad’s embarrassment at all. She steps towards both boys and pulls them onto the couch. There’s a trace of fear in her eyes and Eli can’t see why it should be there at all.

“Look, this, me and your dad, Elliot, it just happened yesterday. We wanted to wait a little bit and tell you boys individually,” she tells them, looking them both in the eye, her voice soft and reassuring. “It’s a change. We’ll probably be sleeping over at each other’s houses a little more and spending more time together, just the two of us. Your dad and I, we love each other very much; but we love you kids even more. So, if you’re not okay with this change, then just tell us and we’ll figure something out.”

“Why wouldn’t we be okay with it?” Noah asks, his little brow furrowed in a combination of worry and confusion.

“Yeah,” Eli adds, “now we can finally be a real family again.”

Olivia lets out a breath she seems to have been holding in, a few treacherous tears escaping as she pulls both boys into her arms and squeezes them tight, dropping kisses on their heads.

“Oh, I’m so happy!” Bernie cries, clapping her hands gleefully. “Let’s open a bottle of wine to celebrate!”

“Mama, it’s 11 a.m.”

“Fine, champagne, then. We’ll do mimosas.” She pats his shoulder soothingly on her way to kitchen. “Oh, my darling boy, I’m so glad you finally pulled your head out of your ass.”

*

It takes two weeks before anyone can get all five Stabler siblings are able to sit down at one table at the same time and, frankly, Eli feels that it has been two weeks too long. Elliot and Olivia made Bernie and the boys swear to secrecy regarding the change in their relationship status, telling them that they want to tell the “big kids” in person. It’s a big deal to them, to Olivia, especially.

From the moment all four of his siblings confirmed they were coming over for dinner, Olivia has been the most nervous Eli has ever seen her. She keeps wringing her hands and rearranging throw pillows, keeps making sure that Richard’s favorite ice cream is in the freezer. The part that has Eli just a little concerned is how much she keeps hungrily eyeing the bottles of wine they set out.

By 5 o’clock his siblings start to arrive one by one and by 6 o’clock they are all in the back patio, sitting at a big party table that seems to have come out of nowhere, looking expectantly at Elliot and Olivia over plates of meatloaf and potatoes.

“So, where’s Noah?” Kathleen asks. “You said you wanted all us kids here.”

“Noah is at Fin’s tonight,” Olivia answers before downing her glass of wine in a matter of seconds.

Maureen nods almost eagerly. “Because you have an announcement to make, right?”

“Yep,” Elliot says, nodding his head excitedly and turning to Olivia who looks at him with pleading eyes. He threads his fingers with hers and breathes in deep.

All four adult Stabler children hold their breath, Eli holds his phone just high enough to get everyone’s faces, and Bernie watches it all unfold with a mouth full of mashed potatoes.

“Olivia and I are together now.”

The patio is quiet.

Bernie takes another forkful of potatoes. Eli’s phone is still recording.

Elliot tries again. “Olivia and I are a couple now.”

His adult children look back at him in confusion.

More silence.

Eli rolls his eyes, “Two weeks ago. They got together two weeks ago.”

The patio is no longer quiet.

“What do you mean ‘two weeks ago’?!” Kathleen all but shouts.

“I thought you were getting married,” Lizzie whimpers.

“I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe-“ Maureen murmurs as she frantically texts her husband the news.

“I KNEW IT!” Richard crows, earning a glare from everyone at the table, save for Olivia. “I told you guys, I TOLD you. There was no way they would be doing it without telling us.”

Lizzie purses her lips in thought. “So, you only got together two weeks ago?” Her dad and Olivia nod their heads as her grandma rubs her back. “We thought you got together at Christmas. We thought you were gonna tell us you were engaged.”

Olivia’s jaw drops in horror. “You all thought that your dad and I were together and we didn’t tell you?”

“Not me. I knew,” Richard says, taking a swig of his beer.

Olivia ignores him. “I have spent the past two weeks, hell, longer than that, terrified at the thought that you might be upset if your dad and I got together. You loved your mom so much and I was afraid that you might think I was trying to take her place. That’s why we decided to tell you kids here, all together and in person, so we could discuss this as a family.”

Kathleen shakes her head. “Liv, I know Grandma and I are the certifiably crazy ones but you’re nuts if you thought we wouldn’t be happy for you guys.”

“You were always part of our family, Liv,” Maureen adds. “We always knew that if Daddy could be with anyone other than mom, it would be you.”

“Yeah, we called it after the funeral,” Richard says into his beer before his father takes it from him.

Olivia turns to Richard, her eyes wide. She can’t forget the anger in his eyes when he asked her that question all those years ago, ‘You ever sleep with your partner?’. It’s his reaction she’s been nervous about all night, making sure his favorite ice cream is in the freezer, his favorite beer in the fridge, the throw pillows he bought on the couch.

“Dickie?”

She’s the only person outside of blood who still calls him that.

“Olivia, I knew you wouldn’t keep it from us. I knew you would do this – have us all over for dinner and tell us. You were always honest with us and this wouldn’t be any different.”

And suddenly, that angry teenage boy is gone and in his place is a grown man with clear eyes and a tender heart and her love for him grows and grows.

Elliot pulls Olivia close and brushes a kiss to her cheek.

“See, I told you it would be fine.”

*

Miles away, somewhere between the Upper West Side and Midtown, Noah sits at his Uncle Fin’s coffee table and works diligently on his homework.

“Whatcha’ got there, little man,” Uncle Fin asks him.

“Something for school. I’m almost done with it. See, it’s a family tree.”

The boy proudly shows off his unfinished work, the only thing needing to be done being the color of the tree itself. Fin looks over it carefully. His smile grows as he works his way from the top down. He sees his old captain in the space reserved for ‘Maternal Grandfather’ and himself in a space reserved for ‘Uncle’. He laughs when he sees Elliot under ‘Father’ and all of the Stabler children beneath him, Noah’s own name squeezed in for last. Kathy is there too, which catches Fin by surprise, her name sitting next to Elliot’s with a small cross beside it.

“Looks like you’re going to run out of paper there, kid.”

“Yeah,” Noah sighs tiredly. “I’ve got a big family.”