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Arrendersi - Italian. Verb meaning to surrender, to give in, to yield

"There are some people you'll never see again. At least, not in the same way." -Iain Thomas

It's dark by the time he wakes, but he doesn't remember falling asleep. He tilts his head to check the clock on the dashboard in the front seat. It's just after five o'clock, but it feels like midnight. He can barely recall the last time he slept and his heavy eyelids are slowly pulling him under, urging him back into unconsciousness, but he fights the exhaustion just for a moment.

Just for a moment or two.

His head is aching and his eyes sting from the way he has cried all day long. He knows he didn't cry this much when his mother died and he is trying not to think about what that means; why the last twenty-four hours have taken more of a toll on him than the ones that existed in the wake of losing her. He wonders if it was pure shock in the beginning, but now it has more to do with the settling of sorrow. He wonders if it's been more than the last twenty-four hours, more than the last five days of the trial, more than the last few weeks of preparation. He wonders if today has been brewing for more than nine months. He wonders what Dr. Stutz would say if he asked.

He keeps hearing Maureen say that all of this has forced him to grow up too fast and he wonders if she is right. He knows what he wants more than anything is to go back to a place where things make sense. He wants normalcy and calm so that he doesn't have to spend every minute of his life worried that it's about to be his father's last.

He wonders if he is homesick for something that no longer exists. It isn't Rome he misses so much as the sense of stability he had when he lived there.

When he lived there with his mother.

He isn't sure his father has ever really lived anywhere, except exactly where he is right here.

Right now.

They are talking quietly in the front seat, his father and his partner. He can't make out the words, just the soft hum of their voices. It's lulling. He wonders if Olivia has always had this effect. He leans back against the seat and squints through his eyelashes. He can just make out her profile in the dark. She looks tired and he wonders about the degree of tenderness this woman has for his father and for his family, that would make her drop everything to help.

It isn't the first time. He hopes it won't be the last.

He isn't sure of much at this moment except he knows that they need this woman. They need this woman whose life is irrevocably intertwined with his father's, his family, his own. He doesn't know her yet, but he feels like he knows just enough.

He knows the story of the day he was born, how he drew his first breaths in Olivia's arms as his mother nearly took her last. He knows how Olivia fought hell and high water to hold on to his sister when she nearly lost herself years ago and he has watched her do the same for his father over and over again.

She loves him. The thought blooms unbidden in his mind in a voice that sounds suspiciously like Leen's.

He wants to roll his eyes at his own sentimentality, but he thinks he's right. He thinks she is.

They are.

His father loves Olivia. This, he knows.

For as long as he can remember, she was a ghost and it was a given. His parents' arguments always seemed to center around her presence [from half a world away] and the lack of his father's. He remembers how they only fought when they thought he had drifted off to sleep, as if they wanted to preserve some illusion of happiness or security for him. In Rome, they lived within walking distance of the Colosseum and he recalls learning about the history of the place and the purpose of the structure. He wonders how long his parents lived within the metaphorical war arena of their own making. He wonders when they donned their armor and began to fight on opposing sides.

He wonders why. He knows his brother and sisters have their own speculation. He also knows he is the tie-breaker in the underlying unspoken.

Maureen and Dickie say it happened, Lizzie and Leen swear it never did.

Tonight, he has made up his mind.

The truck is slowing now. He can feel the way his father's driving becomes more deliberate and he figures they must be nearing the city.

He wonders about what it took his father and his partner to forgo sleep and work, food and routine all in the name of bringing him home.

It's love, he realizes. His mother had loved him. His father loves him and he thinks Olivia might, too.

He wonders if his parents had let go of each other years ago, instead of holding on to a dying thing, whether his mother might still be here. He wonders about things like selfishness and its opposite, about sacrifice and surrender. His parents clutched too tightly for too long and they pushed each other away.

He can feel the familiar prickle of emotion spreading across his cheeks and he ducks his head to try and stop his tears. He has cried too fucking much today. Olivia isn't his mother, but he knows she isn't trying to be. He knows she has her own kid to worry about, but she is someone safe and soothing and he feels like she could help to settle his father.

The truck rolls to a stop and he wants to sit up and glance out the window, to look around, but his exhaustion keeps him still.

In the front seat, his father reaches for his partner's hand and Olivia reaches back.

They meet in the middle.

"You cannot save people. You can only love them." Anais Nin

She can't warm up.

She sinks her hands into the soft pile of laundry until her palms hit the bottom of the basket.

The clothes are fresh from the dryer and they still hold the warmth she craves. She shivers unconsciously and lets the fabric swallow her arms in its heat. She thinks she has been cold for weeks, since the night of the family Christmas get-together.

She can feel the silken material of the deep green blouse she wore that night beneath her fingertips. She deftly pulls it up to the surface and sets it down on the top of the pile.

She takes one breath and then another.

She has been trying to practice mindfulness lately, presence, when everything inside of her is tugging frantically toward the mire of the past or the murkiness of the future.

Neither of those are safe places to stand, so she sits. She perches on the edge of her bed and plucks the blouse from the basket. The apartment is unusually quiet for this early hour of the evening. Noah passed out on the couch playing video games with Eli and she thinks she might just leave him there to rest tonight.

She soothes the wrinkled silken material over her lap and remembers…

The unseasonably warm mid-December morning had given way to a chilly late afternoon. She pointedly ignored her son's exasperated sighs as she changed her entire outfit three times before settling on the dark green ensemble that is now spilling across her yoga pant-clad thighs.

She had asked Noah early in the week how he felt about spending an evening at Elliot's, with his family, for Christmas. She hadn't made up her mind just yet, [couldn't without his input], and she wanted his genuine, unfiltered opinion. Her son had twirled his spaghetti with his fork before he glanced up and gave her an eager smile.

"Like a Christmas party?"

She laughed and leaned back in her chair. Somehow, her child made it seem so simple. A Christmas party with family, with friends.

For now.

Her son had peppered her with questions about Elliot and his children for the rest of the evening. He knew about the bare bones of the Stabler skeleton in her closet. How Elliot had been her partner for a long, long time, how they were best friends, but sometimes things happen and something did. Something big and scary happened at work and Elliot had to leave, so he did, and they haven't seen each other for a long, long time.

"But Elliot's back now, right?" Noah asked, helpfully drying the silverware as she washed. She watched the soapy water swirl in the sink for a moment before she answered. She had wanted to say yes, absolutely and unequivocally, but uncertainty still spills from the last decade and she wants to keep her son on solid ground.

It's one thing to let herself venture into the unknown, it's another thing entirely to bring her child.

"He's going to try," she answered, remembering Elliot's plea for the chance to find balance in this, in them.

"I wanna know," Elliot told her more than once. He asked and she understands what it takes out of him to do so, to loosen his grip on the control he clutches so tightly in his strong hands.

He asked and she told and now the door is open…

"Tell me one more time," Noah had whispered, as if he were afraid the entire family might be able to hear him out on the sidewalk. She knew what he was asking for…the rundown, the team roster, the family tree.

"There's Elliot and his mom, Bernie. There's Maureen and her husband, then Kathleen, Lizzie and Dickie and -"

"Eli," Noah supplied. "He's just a little older than me, right? Like he could be my friend?"

She nodded, hoping against hope. "He could be your friend."

She remembers thinking back to a week ago, when the child she held first was struggling for air, standing on the edge of a bridge in the freezing morning, contemplating ending it all because of precisely how much he cares.

She hadn't breathed a word of Eli's story to her son, but he had gravitated toward Elliot's youngest son, nevertheless.

Noah smiled again and tugged on her arm to bring her with him up onto the sidewalk. Her child had asked her more than once over the last week about the dynamics, the relationships that occur with a family as large as this one. She initially passed it off as curiosity, but now she thinks it's something more like longing.

Her son wants something she hasn't been able to provide.

Until now.

Her knuckles barely connect with his front door before it swings open and she looks up into Ayanna Bell's face. She thinks she must be as surprised as the sergeant looks because all at once Ayanna is apologizing.

"Your family's here, Detective Stabler," Bell says quietly over her shoulder and she knows Elliot must be close by.

The moment he lets them in, she knows. There is something stirring in the perfect blue of his eyes, something besides his attention and affection. There is something afflicted and apologetic and she wants to find out what has upset him so.

He doesn't take his eyes off of Noah's face, but she watches him nod reassuringly, in a way that has nothing to do with what her child is saying, so she knows it's just for her. As if he understands how she senses something is brewing and he'll tell her as soon as he can.

Eli appears a moment later, greeting Noah in his quiet way and inviting him in. Her son doesn't glance up at her for reassurance before he takes Eli up on his offer and she thinks that must mean something. Her usually shy child is warming up exceptionally fast.

"Elliot," she whispers his name over the commotion from the kitchen. It's a melodic mixture of laughter and Christmas music and it makes her think that whatever has happened has happened to him alone. She feels his hand brush the small of her back before he presses his mouth to her temple and kisses her there.

"Thanks for comin'."

She closes her eyes for a moment because for once in her life she is glad he can't read her mind. A week ago, he told her he wanted her here, to just come and God, she has.

Many times.

"You wanna take off your coat and stay a little while?" He asks. His voice is softer, tentative as though he knows she might be considering hightailing it the hell home and he can't blame her. She nods and lets him slip her coat from her shoulders.

In the moment before Kathleen comes running to hug her close, he issues a warning.

"My mother went overboard on the mistletoe," he whispers, giving her the gentlest push toward the living room. "So watch where you stand and who you're standin' with."

She isn't sure what she expected at the family Christmas get-together, but she knows it wasn't what she found.

She didn't expect Lizzie's kiss to her cheek, gifts with Noah's name on them beneath the tree, or two precious little boys calling Elliot, "Grandpa."

There is a raucous game of post-dinner Pictionary going on in the living room. Eli is complaining that Kathleen takes too much time to draw and Noah hasn't stopped laughing. She watches Bernie ruffle her son's curls affectionately from her seat on the couch when he makes a winning guess. Maureen is making hot chocolate for the boys and Elliot isn't anywhere to be found. He disappeared moments ago after she caught him staring at her for the umpteenth time and threw half an amused look his way.

He appears again now with his coat on and hers in his arms.

"Do you wanna take a walk with me?" He asks, she nods, and they go.

The night is cold and crisp so she slips her hands into the warmth of her gloves while he slides his into his coat pockets.

"Can I talk to you?" He starts and his words take her back to a week ago in the sunbathed hospital waiting room. He'd asked her the same question then and she gives the same answer.


She glances up at him and watches the way he worries his bottom lip, shakes his head before he speaks as though he is trying to figure out where to start.

"Just tell me," she implores and he does.

"Ayanna showed up five minutes before you this afternoon to tell me Wheatley's out."

"Out?" She presses her hand against his arm to slow his pace, to hold him still.

"What do you mean?" She asks. The question is rhetorical because she knows what he means, but she can't comprehend the waking nightmare he has been living since just before she arrived.

He shakes his head again and exhales sharply into the night. "Fuck."

She takes a deep breath in and silently concurs. Her brain is racing a million miles a minute with contingency plans and ways to help, but suddenly his hands are in her hair, and he is cradling her face in his palms.

"I'm so sorry, Liv," he whispers. When she looks up, his blue eyes are too full, and she doesn't understand what in God's name he is apologizing for until he explains. "I shoulda called you, but there wasn't time."

She closes her own eyes, so he doesn't see the way they well.

"You don't want us here," she breathes in realization, but he shakes his head in adamant denial. As suddenly as he'd reached for her, he lets her go.

"I want you here," he tells her. His voice is low and fierce and there is something in his eyes that looks wounded, as though her assumption has hurt him.

"I always want you."

He says it quietly, reverently, like a prayer or a promise and she can't help the way her tears slip down her cheeks. She moves to wipe them away with a gloved hand, but he beats her to it. His fingers are cold against her flushed skin as he gently brushes her cheek with his thumb.

"I wanted you to have a chance to decide," he explains, elaborates. "I wanted to give you a choice."

"But you don't have a choice," she whispers automatically. The words fall unbidden before she can stop herself. She thinks the endless brutality of it all must be getting to her because she is so fucking tired. He must be too, because all at once he caves in around her. She feels the way his breath leaves his strong chest as he pulls her in.

His chin bumps her temple when he shakes his head. "I don't," he confirms, and her chin bumps his shoulder when she nods because she knows.

He pulls back ever so slightly and ducks his head so that he can see her eyes. His face is wet now, and she doesn't know when he started to cry.

"I know I told you I wanted to find balance here…in this, for us."

He looks down and fixes his gaze on the solid concrete of the interim, the inches between their bodies. She nods because she knows, she remembers, and she wants it, too.

He takes a deep breath and starts again. His voice is too low and he has to clear his throat so she can hear what he has to say.

"Balance isn't possible 'till this is over." He breathes the claim, the confession on a rushed hush and it's so startlingly honest that she nearly sinks in her stance. His strong hands are there at her waist holding her up.

It's a release, a relief, because all of a sudden she can see their next steps forward. He is giving her the map, the topography of the land they'll try to navigate hopefully together.

She can feel his concerned gaze on her face and she realizes she hasn't given him anything to go on. She nods in agreement and understanding and wholehearted fucking support.

"I know," she whispers, and his expression turns surprised, as though he thinks she hadn't known this was the answer all along. The man is a gladiator, a guardian with a lionheart of gold and she knows him.

After all this time and always.

"I wanna do this right," he tells her, motioning with his hand across the minuscule chasm between their bodies. "I wanna do right by you and our kids and -"

"And you," she interjects, pressing her palm to his chest. "I need you to want to do right for yourself."

He nods and it's a gracious unexpected acceptance from a man who has never admitted the need for assistance. She thinks they used to be the same in that regard, but becoming a mother has changed her. She has needed help and she has both asked for it and received it in spades. He is a father, a strong, private, proud, persistent man who has never sought help all his life long.

Until now.

She is a mother and he is a father and maybe she could teach him a thing or two, if he is willing to learn.

"Have you ever read To Kill A Mockingbird?" She asks abruptly. She watches the corner of his mouth lift as he tilts his head in thought.

"Read it in high school," he says, "then again every couple years with four out of five of those kids in there."

She nods. He knows it well enough. "Before I can live with other folks, I've got to live with myself."

She quotes, pressing her palms to his chest as if she can impress the lesson into his very being.

He is quiet for a moment, then two before he searches her face and seems to find the answer.

"I'm Atticus."

She closes her eyes and nods. "You're Atticus," she confirms.

"Before I can live with other folks, I've got to live with myself," he repeats quietly, reverently as though he is taking in the full meaning of her words. "I hear you," he says. He seemingly needs her to know.

"Good," she whispers and catches the way the smallest smile lilts across his face. She reaches for his arm and they fall into step along the sidewalk.

He is silent for long moments and she listens to the sound of him breathing beside her in the cold night air.

"I need to hear you more," he proclaims into the quiet. "Need to start listening better."

She can't help the way she laughs aloud.

"What?" He asks startled, a grin tugs at his mouth again.

"I might have to sit down," she says playfully, clinging to his arm to remain upright as though his proclamation has rendered her weak at the knees. He shakes his head and rubs the growing five o'clock shadow on his jaw with his hand. She thinks he is trying to hide the fact that he gets a kick out of her in the moment before he assures her it's no secret.

"You're my best friend."

She ducks her head to hide her own smile, but she knows he could probably make it out from a mile away.

"You're mine."

He squeezes her hand in his own before he tucks both of them into the pocket of his coat. She follows him along the concrete, lets him go first when he insists the ground might be icy, and listens to the specific brand of silence she has only ever experienced beside him.

When they reach the garden gate, he lets her in first and then he follows. They stand together, the only living things in this winter deadened space and she wonders what it could look like in the spring. She thinks there could be flowers and herbs and maybe a tomato plant or two. She doesn't have a knack for gardening, so she'll have to ask Bernie or Kathleen what they think, but it would do them all some good to find some green amidst all the gray.

She turns to glance at him over her shoulder, but this time he isn't looking for her. His gaze is directed toward the window where his children, his mother, and her son are. From here, she can see Noah's smile and she can almost hear the way he must be laughing. They have broken out the boardgames and appear to be in the middle of a rousing tic-tac-toe tournament.

She hears Elliot heavy swallow beside her and when she looks up, she finds him again.

"Gonna be hard to separate 'em," he says, nodding toward the kids. "Now that they're together."

She thinks the same thing about the two of them. "Even after ten years apart."

"Four-thousand, three hundred and seventeen miles." He knows what she means.

Four-thousand three hundred and seventeen miles and home again.

She takes a deep breath because one of them has to be rational here and she learned a long time ago that they take turns.

"You need time," she says softly. "You need space and stability." She closes her eyes because even after all these years, she can still hear his late wife's voice in her head.

You give him stability.

He nods. He doesn't deny a word she says and she thinks he is starting to take this listening thing to heart.

"The kids need that, too," he says. His voice is too low again as if he is about to lose it. He always does when he talks about his children. She knows. Better than anyone.

"I'm a Mom now, El," she says and he nods again. His expression changes to pure pride before she speaks again.

"I'm not ever going to be Kathy and I'm not ever going to try, but if your kids need a mom…"

He sinks into the frozen lawn chair as if she has just made the most extraordinary pronouncement and not simply offered to be there for children she has loved for the length of their lives.

"Olivia," he rasps her name into the quiet of the night. "I don't expect any– You don't owe me any–" He tries and tries again. She is shaking her head, but he isn't looking at her because he doesn't think he can.


"I can't be anything to Noah until I finish this," he tells her. His voice is gravel and she thinks she loves him. She loves the way he understands and respects the way she is trying to raise her child. "I gotta be better, healthy." He raises his eyes to meet her own. "I gotta be whole."

He says this as if he can see the vision in her eyes, as if she is his tether to that dream of a day.

"But if you want, if Noah wants…he has a family. You have a family."

He tells her this with such confident conviction that she nearly sinks down into the chair beside him. He has no way of knowing that history has repeated itself in her child or that it is her son's greatest wish to be part of a family with brothers and sisters and grandparents. To be part of something bigger than just the two of them.

She steps closer and he reaches for her waist, pulling her toward him so that she stands perfectly framed between his denim-clad thighs.

"We'll be best friends for now, Benson?" He whispers, reaching up to brush an errant wave of her hair away from her face and she nods.

"For now."

She likes the sound of those words. They leave room for potential, for possibility, for promises.

She watches the corner of his mouth lift in a grateful grin before he pulls her closer, closer still. He presses a kiss to her stomach, the silky material of her blouse scratches against his jaw, and she forgets how to breathe.

She inhales sharply into the quiet of her bedroom and opens her eyes. Her deep green blouse is spilling over her thighs and the rest of the laundry in the basket by her side has lost its warmth.

She leans over the edge of the bed to check the clock and she sees it's a little after nine. She can't hear Noah stirring from the living room, so she gives herself a moment more. She reaches for her phone on the bedside table and checks her text messages. She has two.

One from Maureen asking whether Noah would like to go to the park on Saturday with her boys and the other is from Bernie.

They shared their weekly dinner last night. She and Bernie, Eli, Noah, and Liz. It's a standing date they have held every week since Christmas. The older kids show up when they can, but it gives Noah something to look forward to and Eli a sense of routine.

He told her last night it was something he had missed. Routine. The child she held first has missed something so simple as the safety that comes with routine.

If she is honest, she needs it, too.

Elliot hasn't been able to join them yet, much to his mother's chagrin. She tells her every time that her son needs time and space and she thinks hearing it helps her, too.

She misses her best friend, but he needs time and space, and she has promised to give them both to him. He texts when he can, calls when he gets the chance, and she has to believe that this is not forever.

She tells him it won't always be this hard. She tells herself.

Her phone rings in the palm of her hand. Speaking of the devil…

"Are your ears burning?" She asks as soon as she answers.

She hears his soft laugh, but he sounds tired. "You talking 'bout me?"

"Just thinking."

She knows if he were in a different mood he might joke with her, ask her what she is thinking about, but she knows him well enough to be sure this isn't that type of call.

"You okay?" He asks, he beats her to the million dollar question and she nods before she realizes he can't see her. She fires the question right back and gets his heavy exhale in response.

"Be honest with me?" He requests and she laughs lightly.

"Aren't I always?"

"Do you think I'm obsessive?" He asks the question slowly and she realizes she knows where this is coming from.

"The psych eval?" She guesses and he makes an "uh-huh" sound in her ear. He told her the other night about what they've asked of him, the powers that be. She takes a breath because she knows this isn't an easy conversation to have. For either of them.

She takes a moment to think and he gives it to her. She wonders whether she is supposed to be his superior officer at this moment or his best friend in the world, so she asks.

"Do you want to hear from Captain Benson or from me?"

She hears him give the softest laugh and she can imagine him shaking his head because it's a damn good question.

"Is there a big difference?" He inquires tentatively as though he is having second thoughts about asking her at all.

She sighs.

"I think you're dedicated," she starts, "I think you're driven. You're determined.". She hasn't meant to use alliteration. He doesn't say anything and so she continues. "You're protective," she tells him. She nearly smiles because that is an understatement. His protective streak is a mile-wide. Both she and his children can vouch for the veracity of that trait. "You're passionate. You have good instincts. You're stubborn as hell…""

She wonders what else he wants to hear, but all at once she is tired of the performance review. She thinks she is simultaneously reminding him of who he is and who he isn't.

"You're a damn good cop, Elliot," she says, all formality gone. "You're the best."

He is quiet for a moment more while she ponders whose ass she has to hand to whom tomorrow morning at One-Police-Plaza.

"What are they telling you?"

"I told 'em if I was wrong 'bout Wheatley, that they wouldn't have to ask for my gun and my badge. I told them I'd hand 'em over myself."

She takes a deep breath and seemingly reminds him to do the same. She sinks down onto her bed and lets the weight of her head fall back on her neck. She knows what it takes for him to relinquish this particular kind of control. It is a mark of just how serious, just how sure he is about Wheatley that he is offering himself up as the sacrificial lamb.

That thought strikes something inside of her and she closes her eyes before she speaks again.

"You aren't wrong," she tells him and she hears his heavy swallow in her ear. She believes it. She believes him.

"Can I ask you something?" She breathes. She thinks she can hear the faint click of his seatbelt as though he has only just climbed into his car.

"Course you can," he answers.

"Be honest with me?" She is trying for mild amusement by repeating his own request, but she can tell he isn't finding her funny.


His vow has all the innocent seriousness of a little kid and all at once she can feel her eyes welling. She leans back against the softness of her comforter and takes another deep breath. She hadn't been sure he would play the bureaucratic game, do the paperwork and meet with the therapist. Jump through the hoops. He has surprised her…

"Olivia?" She hears the edge of concern in his voice and she realizes she hasn't spoken, hasn't given him anything to go on. She wants to know and so she has to ask.

She steels herself for the answer, tells herself it's ancient history and it doesn't matter…

"How come you went through with it this time?" She asks, "The eval and everything?"

"Liv," he says her name again and it's an acknowledgement, not a question. His voice is heavy as though he carries in it every as yet unspoken implication. He knows what she is referring to, what she is asking of him. The last time the brass had demanded his cooperation was the last time she ever saw him.

He pauses for a moment before he speaks and in that instant she feels like she can't breathe.

"Are you ready to hear what I have to say?" The question hangs in the balance. It is at once confusing and cautionary, heady and intriguing and she isn't sure she will ever be ready so now is as good a time as any.

He is waiting for her. "Yes."

"Last time, I gave up and I'm not ready to do that again. Last time, there wasn't anything left of me to save…" She wants to interject, to fight him on this the same way she would have fought for him ten years ago, but he continues to speak and she has to listen in order to hear.

"Last time, it wasn't gonna get me you," he rumbles with such a fierce finality that she has to press her free hand to her lips to stop the sound of her sob.

For her, for himself, for them. This is the pursuit of balance. He is seeking and searching and she has to believe at the end of this that they would be found.

"Liv." Her name is a whisper in the dark beneath her eyelids. "I love you."

He has told her before, but this time it's pure and simple and she is glad that she is already flat on her back because she is certain she wouldn't be standing.

"I know," she breathes. The words fall from her lips without thought, but they are the truest she could hope to whisper in reply. She knows and somehow that is everything.

She can hear his smile in his voice when he speaks again, "Good." He sounds grateful.

She listens as he turns off the ignition of his car and jingles his keys in his hand while he walks toward his apartment door. She won't hang up until she knows he is home safe.

"G'night, Han Solo," he says and she laughs aloud.


"I love you. I know." He repeats. "Tell me you've seen…"

"The Empire Strikes Back," she fills in the blank. She is a boy-mom, after all. She can hear how impressed he is by the sound of his laugh.

"Don't know how I feel 'bout being Princess Leia, but I guess we'll talk about it…" She tries unsuccessfully to stifle her laughter once more and she shakes her head.

"You are definitely more Han Solo material," she tells him.

"You mean I'm a handsome rogue?" He teases and she teases right back.

"I was thinking more of cocky and swaggering and a pain in Princess Leia's royal ass."

He barks out a laugh so loud that she wonders whether her son will wake up in the living room.

"But she loves him," he says softly after a moment or two.

"She does," she replies and thinks that she does, too.

Before she goes to sleep, she checks her phone once more. There is a text message she forgot to open. It's from Bernie. She reads the first line and then the second before she realizes it isn't simply a message she has typed. It is a poem. She recognizes it. Mary Oliver.

I have just said
Ridiculous to you
And in response,
Your glorious laughter.

These are the days
The sun
Is swimming back
To the east
And the light on the water
As never, it seems, before.

I can't remember
Every spring,
I can't remember

So many years!
Are the morning kisses
The sweetest
Or the evenings
Or the inbetweens?
All I know
Is that "thank you" should appear

So, just in case
I can't find
The perfect place-
"Thank you, thank you."

She knows Bernie is slowly losing pieces of herself to dementia, but at this moment she wants to believe there is a reason why she sent her this particular piece tonight. She wants to believe this is the inbetween that will lead them to the perfect place.

"My first memory is of light - the brightness of light - light all around." - Georgia O'Keeffe

She is dying. This, she knows.

She thinks she has made peace with it. She takes one long drag of the cigarette and then another for good measure. She has never been much of a smoker, but now, what does it matter, really?

At this point, she thinks she is simply helping it along.

The cancer.

Last week, the doctor told her it's metastasized to some vital organ or another. She can't remember which and she doesn't think it does her any good to know. She is only sure of two things: one: she is dying and two: she isn't going down without a fight.

She knows what she is taking with her is far better than what she is leaving behind. She is leaving behind a freedom and an unburdening. She is taking with her a menagerie of memories.

Maureen is a darling and doting mother. She remembers her as a child, her baby's first baby now has two little ones of her own. She thinks her first granddaughter got to spend the most uninterrupted time with her own mother, maybe that's why she knows how to be a good one. For everything Kathy may or may not have been, she can't deny the way she cared for these children.

Kathleen is her creative legacy. She blazes bright and fiery with quick wit and honest ways. Lizzie is calming and quiet, but she knows her youngest granddaughter sees too much. Dickie holds onto resentment she wishes she could rid him of before she goes and Eli is just finding his way. The baby of the family has grown up too fast and she wishes he could have stayed little forever.

She feels the same way about her own child.

She has only recently added a new grandson to the running list she keeps under her pillow at night, the list of people for whom she prays. Her Noah is smart and silly and she wishes she could squeeze him for minutes on end, but he is always on the move. She thinks it is ironic because the child's name means peace and rest, but he has only brought one of those things into her life.

She knows he has brought both to his mother's though. There is a settled feeling about Olivia Benson she knows the woman didn't have more than a decade ago. Motherhood suits the woman her son should have called his wife.

There's still time.

She knows Olivia never had a mother of her own, so she wonders where she learned how to be a good one.

She followed Noah to dance class last Tuesday night on a special invitation and listened while he told everyone his Grandma had come. She stood and wept, swaying to the sound of Chopin's Nocturne in E-Flat Minor until she felt a little hand tug insistently on her own. In the dying light of dusk, in a near empty studio, she danced to the perfect piano strains with a graceful, glorious abandon. She doesn't remember what happened when the music stopped except she knows that Noah never let go.

She loves that little boy. She hopes he knows.

She takes another puff of the cigarette before she puts it out in the ashtray, she has fashioned out of an old clay art class creation of Lizzie's. She doesn't think it's what her granddaughter had in mind when she made it at the ripe old age of eleven [It says so on the bottom: Elizabeth B. Stabler, 11], but it serves its purpose, nevertheless. It will be cleaned and back on the kitchen counter before anyone gets home to notice.

She likes the thought that she can do something to put the pieces of their life back together, after all of this.

This is the very last thing that she can do for her child, for his children. A mother is supposed to be selfless; a mother is supposed to sacrifice. She sees it now, the way she scared her child with all she used to be, all she had inside of her.

It is quieting now, the noise.

She has never been as strong as Katie– Leen, her granddaughter prefers now, as a beautiful, brilliant, headstrong young woman. Her grandchild is in control in ways that she could never hope to be. She asked for help, timely help, and it was given. Olivia reached out a hand and grasped her drowning granddaughter, her sinking son, and tugged them both to safety.

She is past help. This, she knows; but she doesn't mind. The doctors [not that she trusts them] have given her six months. Little do they know…

She has [at times] been a burden. The war that Kathleen wages inside of herself exists solely because she is his mother, but she wouldn't change that fact for the world. Maybe that makes her selfish, but she has loved him with her whole heart for her whole life.

She hopes he knows.

She reaches into the deep pocket of the sweater she knitted herself four – no, five winters ago, and pulls out the envelope. She perches lightly on the edge of one of the metal garden chairs and fumbles with the paper flap. She unfolds the pale blue stationary, and she reads.

Dear Elliot…

She thinks she has it memorized and that's saying something because she knows her memory is going, but this is important. She wants to read it one more time, just to make sure it's all right. She wants to make sure it's enough.

She wants to make sure that he knows, that he understands. She wants to tell him that the last six months have been some of the happiest she can remember. These last six months he has taken her into his home the same way St. John the Apostle took the grieving Blessed Mother into his. These last six months, she has had the chance to mother him for the first time in his life.

Five decades too late, but better than never.

She has cooked and cleaned and sewn and decorated. She has watched his children grow, cope, learn and live. She has watched him come, go, rise and fall. She has watched the light inside of him go out and she doesn't think that has anything to do with losing his late wife, but everything to do with the loss of his life.

She has watched him drift further and further away while he stands right beside her. She thinks he might as well be four-thousand miles across the Atlantic and back in Italy for the lost look he wears in the middle of the kitchen. It's the look of a man whose carefully controlled decade-honed illusion has been shattered into a million pieces without any hope of putting it back together. She thinks it's running away and Rome. It's distance and dissociation. It's the agony of asking for absolution without true penitence. It's guilt and grace. It's remorse and responsibility. It's graciousness and gaining. It's fear, failure, fate, and fighting to move forward. It's the way he lost his wife and found Olivia after ten years of self-imposed exile.

She has watched him become unreachable and forgot that in order to hold on, he needs to reach back and grab the hand reaching for his own. He has let that vile man torment him, given the bastard purchase inside his head. He doesn't think he has anything left to lose, but she knows better.

And she needs him to know.

He needs to come home for his children. He needs to come home for Olivia. She wants him to know there is always more room around the table to pull up another chair. She wants him to know that he is a good man, the best man she knows. He is a good father, both in spite of and because of all of the ups and downs. She wants him to let go of the control, the carefully crafted belief that he alone can protect and provide. She wants him to know he can't control anything except his own choices and therein lies the poetry of life.

She wants him to know that there is a difference between surviving and thriving and she wants him to thrive. She wants him to leave the winter of the past and stand in the light of the sun. She wants him to reach for the light and the love of his life and bask there in her warmth. She wants to tell him to stop playing his cards so damn close to his vest. She wants him to forgive himself for things that aren't his fault and the ones that are and move the hell on. She wants him to know that time is precious, and no one knows how much they have left. She wants to tell him not to be afraid of what he feels because love is the only thing worth fighting for and the love of his life loves him, too.

She is his mother, so she knows these things.

Most of all, she wants him to live.

She wants him to know that the way he loves his children is the way that she loves him. He would kill for them. He would die for them. She will do the same for him.

She draws the pen out of her pocket and balances the last piece of stationary on the small patio table they share once in a blue moon when he stays long enough in the house to grab a cup of coffee.

Damn it!

The table is damp from the morning rain and now the stationary is dotted with drops and drips of more than just her tears. She tries her best to dry the paper on her shirt, cradling it to her chest like The Madonna and Child in the Nativity or the Virgin Mary holding Christ's broken body in the Pietà.

She presses the paper to her thigh for leverage and writes. She wants him to know what he has meant to her. She wants to tell him in the only way she knows how.

She takes a deep breath, soothes the stationary out against her chest once more before she neatly folds it and tucks it away.

She stands and the softest late Winter breeze ruffles through the garden. She looks around and tries to imagine what it will look like come spring. She imagines it will be warm and green and full of life. It will be gaining and growing. There will be peas that Noah can eat right off the vine. Oregano, thyme, rosemary, basil. Her son will be a regular Gordon Ramsay by the time the fall comes again. She never had a green thumb before. She always wanted a garden for him to grow up in.

She has given him one now.

She closes her eyes now as she listens to the old record player in the living room. She has the volume turned up as loud as it will go, so that the sound spills out into the grayness of the garden. It reverberates off the hardness of the stone walls and echoes inside her chest. She is sure one of the neighbors will complain, but she doesn't care. She needs to listen just one more time...Bach and Gounod's masterpiece, Ave Maria.

The house is silent, but filled with music and she thinks it's fitting. The weeping willowy violin follows her all the way to the back of the apartment to her son's bedroom. She knows where he keeps it, so it isn't hard to find.

The gun is surprisingly heavy in her hand, and she is sure that though she hasn't fired one since – don't think about that – she had frightened her son that day.

This day, she is determined to save him.

When Miles arrives to pick her up, she settles into the passenger seat of the sedan with her cell phone GPS turned on [she asked Eli for help last night] and son's Glock nestled beneath her sweater. It only takes minutes before mild-mannered Miles becomes someone else, but it isn't a surprise.

She has sensed it all along. She has sensed something. There has been an unease, a suspicion she has welcomed because it has given her this opportunity, opened the door to this moment.

Right now.

Miles presses his own gun to her temple, and she fleetingly wonders how many times her son and his partner have felt a cold muzzle break their own skin.

The warehouse is dark and damp and chilly. She thinks it's ironic how it feels like a coffin when no one has died yet tonight. They haven't thought to search her, as though they don't consider a batty old lady to be much of a threat. She thinks it will be the last mistake Richard Wheatley will ever make. He has underestimated her and her son for the very last time.

They tie to a chair, and she rolls her eyes because this is the plot of every Lifetime Original Movie she has ever seen.

Deranged psychopath hires a hitman to weasel his way into grandma's good graces long enough to kidnap her for ransom from her police officer son.

She has seen this film before, and she didn't like the ending. She is going to write her own. She thinks they must be stupid because the bond on her right wrist is looser than her left and in the four minutes and fifty-two seconds they have left her alone, she has managed to free herself and to stand.

She doesn't think to hide or to run or to call out. This is not about saving herself. This is about dying on her own terms. She won't be a Hospice patient and go gentle into that good night. She will rage against the dying of the light.

She read that in a poem somewhere and thinks it's beautiful.

When the bastard arrives, he is smug and seething, as though he can't quite believe an elderly woman would face him and fight.

He doesn't understand because he isn't capable of love.

A few weeks ago, she watched Gladiator with Eli. She fell asleep before the end, but stayed awake long enough to hear "A good death is its own reward." Since a child in Sunday school, she has learned how Jesus asks his followers to lay down their life for a friend.

She will do one better. She'll do what she is sure the Blessed Mother would have done if given the opportunity.

She will do it for her son.

The sirens are loud, too loud. They are drowning out the sound of her son's voice on the other end of Richard Wheatley's cell phone. He taunts her child and she becomes a lioness on the prowl. She wants to shout to her son that she is all right, that this is all part of the plan. This is her personal walk to Calvary, but instead of the cross, she carries him. She carries both the Virgin Mary's son and her own.

She has left him a letter. He knows everything he needs to know.

The sirens are blaring, but somehow she can hear Wheatley and she thinks he can hear her, too. He is telling her about how she is collateral damage, but she won't be hurt if she cooperates, if she plays along. She doesn't tell him it's her game. He tells her he wants her son to come, to seek, to find, to see. She doesn't tell him that surrender is sometimes strongest. She doesn't have the strength to yell. She musters the loudest whisper she can.

"You have taken so much from my son, but you won't take his life."

The gun is heavy in her hand, but she is still a good shot after all these years. She thanks God she wasn't on that night so long ago when her son was small.

The same isn't true tonight.

Wheatley doubles over and she closes her eyes before she can see him hit the floor. She didn't aim to wound.

Neither did he.

Doors are bursting open and people are shouting. She doesn't know whether she is standing or splayed on the ground, but she knows he is here. So is his partner.

Mama…Mama, please. Don't go.

Bernie, stay with us!

She has lived the life she wanted to live and she will die the same way. She has done it all on her own terms and now she wants to tell them it's all right to let her go. She wants to tell them to reach for each other and before she closes her eyes one last time, they do.

Above the sound of the sirens, she swears she can hear the violins.

Ave Maria.

Hail Mary.

"Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start here." - Cheryl Strayed

His son's head is a warm weight against his shoulder as he listens to his child breathe. It's barely eight o'clock and he can't remember the last time he was home by this early an hour.

He has started to take the time.

It's been two months since he buried his mother and he thinks she would be proud of him for sitting still long enough for his son to settle onto the couch beside him, long enough to fall sound asleep on his shoulder.

These days, he is seeking settled.

The house is silent save for the sound of the old record player across the living room. Saint-Saens' The Swan spills softly through the space. It's Kathleen's favorite and he likes it, too. He thinks it's soothing. He leans his head back against the cushions and breathes.

He wishes his mother could see him now.

It's been sixty-two days and he has missed her for every single one. He thinks he will miss her for the rest of his life. It isn't something that time can change.

She is his mother, after all.

He slowly exhales a breath and tilts his head back against the cushion of the couch. The days immediately following his mother's death are a blur, much like the days after Kathy's, except for one stark and certain difference.

He was never alone.

All of children have always been within an arm's reach and Olivia has been so gracefully, ceaselessly present that he let himself rest. He remembers the feeling of bone-deep exhaustion and sleeping dozens of uninterrupted hours for the first time in longer than he can recall.

He doesn't think he slept through the night for ten years, until she perched on the edge of his bed and promised to stay.

These days there is a surprising softness to his life. Olivia, his grown children, and his son sleeping on his shoulder have made sure of that.

His usually quiet child has spoken to him more over the last two months than the last fourteen years of his life combined.

His son's dark eyes had been rimmed with red mirroring his own on the night when they sat together in this same space. His son spoke and he stayed silent. Eli had pressed a business card into his hand and he squinted his own stinging eyes to read the print.

Dr. Patrick Stutz. Bergen General Hospital.

The name had been familiar, but he couldn't place it until his son explained.

Eli wanted to start to go to therapy. He wanted to start to ask for help, but his child needed his help first. Eli needed him to come, too. He'd agreed without a moment's hesitation, and he can't forget the shocked expression on his child's face. He can't imagine what he has done by inadvertently pushing the stigma around mental health to a place where he almost lost two of his children.

He is learning that therapy is all about talking and taking time. It's about delving deep and asking questions. It's about who he was, who he is, and who he wants to be. Most of all, it is about health and hope, and he likes the sound of that.

He reaches for the little book on the side table. He moves slowly, so as not to wake his child and only when he has the book in his hand does he sit back against the softness of the couch.

It's a little book of poetry his mother kept on her bedside table for as long as he can remember. He lets the worn pages flutter against his fingers until he finds what he is looking for. A verse he remembers his mother quoting from time to time.

"Hope is the thing with feathers."

He almost grins because he remembers believing his mother had made it up in her eccentric little way. Now, he knows better.

Olivia has corrected him.

Emily Dickinson meant that hope flies. Hope soars. Hope isn't earthbound.

His children are his hope, the same way he has discovered that he was his mother's. They are his life, his legacy, his hope and his heart. The same way his mother assured him that he was to her.

After more than five decades of life, he has lost his mother. After only one, his son lost his. He thinks his child, his children, are remarkably resilient.

They are stronger than he could ever hope to be, but he is learning that strength isn't always about being sturdy and unmovable. Strength also lies in reaching across the table for Olivia's hand, calling his therapist when he needs help, holding his children closer than he ever has before.

"Arrendersi," she whispered one night before she fell asleep. He'd held her voice to his ear and asked her to say that one more time.

"There is strength in surrendering," she told him. He wonders if she knows what it means to him that the words she has memorized are his mother's.

He slips the stationary from its place between the pages of the little poetry book and smoothes them out against his thigh.

My son, you are the strongest man that I know, but remember there is strength in surrendering. It isn't weakness to relinquish. There is a sanctity in surrender…

He knows now that it takes more strength to let go than it does to hold on. He has been holding on to too much for too damn long, clutching control and conscientiousness in his hands until his palms bled and his fingers ached. He considered himself a gladiator, knowing full well that the battles he waged only ended in death. These days, he is trying for the role of guardian, but only over what is his to protect.

He reads…

"One day a hummingbird flew in - it fluttered against the window til I got it down where I could reach it with an open umbrella. When I had it in my hand, it was so small, I couldn't believe I had it, but I could feel the intense lift, so intense and so tiny. You were like the hummingbird to me, and I am rather inclined to think that you and I know the best part of one another without spending much time together. It is not that I fear the knowing. It is that I am, at this moment, willing to let you be what you are to me - it is beautiful and pure and very intensely alive." - Georgia O'Keeffe.

These days, he is trying to live with open arms.

His phone silently lights up from its place beside him on the couch cushion and he grins as he lifts it to his ear.

"Hey you," he whispers and if she weren't so breathless, he thinks he would be able to hear her smile.

"Hey," she replies in a hush. She doesn't ask why they're whispering, and it makes him want to laugh. She has always rolled with the punches.

"Can I come in?"

He almost forgets that his son is sleeping against his shoulder, and he can't make any sudden moves. He can't turn his head to look toward the door to figure out what on earth she is doing at his place. His home is her home, but it's a school night and Noah had dance class, so he knows this isn't her usual social call.

"Use your key," he tells her. "I can't get up." This time he hears her laugh.
"Okay, Old Man." He stifles the sound of his own.

He glances over his shoulder as she steps inside. He loves to look at her. Her blazer is slung over her forearm and her hair is curling ever so slightly from earlier summer rain. He watches as she slips her key into her pocket and he grins. It isn't his place anymore, it's her place. It's theirs.

"You okay?" He whispers and he watches her nod. She makes her way around the corner of the living room, the chair and the side table so that she can stand right in front of him. He watches the way her shoulders soften at the sight of his sleeping son, the child she loves, and she looks as though she wants to sink down into the empty space beside them. He motions for her to come closer and she does. She stands before him, her knee bumping against his.

"You have to see this," she whispers, fumbling with her phone. He slips his reading glasses off and offers them to her. She squeezes his fingers with her own before she takes them and puts them on. He watches her and waits.

He wonders whether he should tell her that the only thing worth looking at is right in front of him.

She must find what she is looking for because all at once she is passing his glasses back and handing over her phone.

"This morning when Noah and I were walking to school, he stopped to show me a bird feeder his class had hung in one of the trees on the way…"

He listens to her voice as he gazes at the image until his eyes well. The boy's wild curls are unmistakable. It's her child, the one she has chosen to share with him. A hummingbird is perched in the waves of Noah's hair.

He gazes up at her in awe. There is no way she could have known he is reading it again, right now. He silently passes the letter into her hands and lets her read for the umpteenth time.

She smiles and passes the precious paper back. He wants to pat the cushion beside him, offer her space, but she doesn't seem to want to sit. She doesn't seem to be able to stay. She leans down and settles her hand to his shoulder. He searches her perfect dark eyes for a moment before she leans in and presses her lips to his cheek.

"Liv." Her name, his prayer.

"I love you," she whispers, her answer. For the first time and forever more.

She presses another kiss to his temple, as light as a butterfly and he swallows the tightness in his throat, the urge to cry.

She seems to know that he can't speak, so she does it for him.

"I just needed you to know." Her skin is flushed and gorgeous and he knows what it takes from her to be so brave. She is smiling just enough to let him know that he'll see her first thing tomorrow.

Then as suddenly as she has come, she is gone, and the silence is once again filled by Saint-Saens.

"Thank you," he whispers, to God and to his mother. He knows she has something to do with this, all of this.

He squints down at the letter on his lap once more and reads for the thousandth time…

This is what you are to me. This is what you will always be: my love, my life, my son.