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Cercare

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Cercare - Italian. verb meaning to seek, search, look for


She can feel his gaze boring into her back as she walks, jogs, nearly runs. She knows she looks ridiculous, irrational, insane, but at this moment, she doesn't give a damn.

He walks quickly, just as fast as she does and she knows he is close behind. He grabs her forearm beneath her dark blazer, twisting her around, turning her, spinning her the same way their world is whirling.

Twisting,

Turning,

Spinning

Off its axis

"What are you gonna do?"

He knows her too well.

He knows she is the one who will handle it because she knows that he can't.

They can't.

Out of the five of them, she is the only one who can. The burden, the weight falls on her shoulders because she is sure she is the only one who can carry it. She wants to shield them, to protect them, to keep them safe, but the damage is done and now all she can do is try and temper and triage.

Over his shoulder, she watches as a figure appears in the hallway.

Seeking, searching, secure.

Olivia.

The woman with decades of compassion coursing through her veins for children who aren't her own.

"Stay with Eli," she commands, pressing against her brother's arm.

Pushing him backwards at the same moment she propels herself forward.

She leans into the heavy wooden door and in her haste, nearly falls into the empty stairwell. She takes the downward flight one step at a time. She doesn't hold onto the railing because the smooth surface will only slow her down and she wants to fly.

One floor and then two, sinking below. It doesn't escape her that the descent to hell is paved with good intentions, but even the best of people can lose themselves in the fall.

The heels of her ankle boots resound with her pace against the shining marble of the floor as she moves. She isn't sure if each step will bring her closer or further away, but she can't shake the irony that here in these hallowed halls of justice, she has come to find the truth.

She knows instinctively where to find him, as if there is some invisible draw leading her through the empty halls to where he waits.

For weeks, he has begged them not to come, not to waste their energy, their time. She thought she understood why he'd urged their absence, but now she wonders if this is his reason why. If a strange woman's convoluted confession in open court is the real reason he hasn't wanted them present.

She doesn't know.

She has to know.

Her stomach rolls at the freshness of the memory…"We grew close."

She doesn't understand.

She wants to understand. She wants to shake and scream.

She rounds the ornate corner to find him.

There, at the end of the long-deserted hallway, he sits on a bench with his head bowed, his elbows pressed hard into his thighs, his hands clasped before him as if in uneasy prayer.

"Dad!"

He glances up at the echoing sound of her approach, once, twice. A double take, as though she is the last person in the world he has expected to seek him out.

"Kathleen."

She hears the low rumble of his voice as he presses his palms against his knees. Her father wears his dark suit and his blue dress shirt that makes the depths of the ocean in his eyes seem to sway where he stands.

She doesn't slow. She doesn't stop. She isn't sure she can. She steels herself and marches right up to him.

"You all right?"

She shakes her head vehemently.

She isn't.

"Why didn't you want us here today?" She asks.

"I don't ever want you here," he starts slowly. "You shouldn't have to listen to–"

She motions with her hand, waves away his placation. This isn't the answer she is after.

"You're right. I shouldn't have to listen to a complete stranger swoon over my father days after I buried my mother," she says sarcastically.

She watches her father's eyes grow wide for the briefest moment with disorientation as he tries to follow her words.

"You let Olivia sit there while that delusional woman told everyone…"

"I don't let Olivia do anything. She decides," he corrects heatedly.

"That's crap, Dad and you know it," she fires back. "Is it true?"

"Is what true?" He watches her, bewildered. A furrow in his tired brow and she knows she should back off, take it easy, approach with caution…but if he has given her anything in life, it is his low tolerance for bullshit.

She exhales sharply and skims the floor with her gaze. She tries for control, but it is slipping through her fingers like grains of sand on a beach.

She tosses a look back over her shoulder. The corridor is still empty, but she isn't about to have this conversation in a place where what she has to say to her father could be overheard. The bones of her family's skeletons have already been strewn from their proverbial closets for all to see, but she has to preserve this one last thing.

For now.

She glances to her left, toward a closed door of a conference room and she hopes against hope that it gives way when she pushes hard against it.

It does and as soon as she hears the door snap closed behind them both, she rounds on him and speaks again. She can't help the way she spills.

"Did you sleep with Angela Wheatley?" She demands.

Her father steps back against the strong wood of the door as though her question has slapped him across his face and he shakes his head, in denial or negation, she can't be sure.

"Did she say that?" He asks, his tone has a bite.

"You're not answering the question," she fires back bitterly. If his avoidance is his confirmation, she may never speak to him again.

A particular peculiar expression she isn't able to define passes over her father's face. He is looking at her, but she can't shake the feeling he is seeing someone else.

Déjà vu

"I didn't sleep with her," he asserts. His voice is low and even as if he is measuring his answers and she hates him for it.

She wants the truth.

"But you wanted to?" She challenges. Ordinarily, she knows better than to put words into her father's mouth, but in this moment she forgets.

Her anger has a life of its own.

"Leen."

She hears the cautious way he says her name through the fog of her fury, but she ignores him.

"She said you kissed her. She said you wanted to get to know each other better…" She throws her hands up in a mock shrug, moving around the room toward the head of the table.

"What more could you want to know about the woman who may have killed my mother?"

She fixes her glare on her father from across the room and watches the way he bites down hard on his bottom lip, shakes his head as if to clear it before he speaks again.

"She didn't, Leen."

She gives a light scathing laugh and tilts her head on her aching neck. She wonders if he has finally lost his damn mind.

"Forgive me, Dad, if I don't entirely trust your judgment on this one."

More than two decades as an NYPD detective and suddenly the man is blind as a fucking bat. His intuition should be screaming, just as hers is. His instincts, which have always been razor sharp, seem to have failed him in the most cataclysmic of ways. She wonders what other pieces of her father have been lost to the monster of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

His silence surprises her. He can't seem to speak, and she wonders why. She wonders if he considers this, her rebuking, his penance for his sins.

"Angela said you both had feelings for each other. Is that true?"

"No."

"Was it true?"

"No. It was…it was complicated, Leen."

She thinks her father is wrong. It was senseless and simple.

Her father went looking for solace in the insignificant rather than face the most meaningful truth of his life.

She wonders how much it will cost him in the end.

"When did this happen?" She asks. She is trying to put together a curious morbid timeline.

"What do you wanna know?" Her father replies, rasps as if his throat is parched.

"When did you first go to see her?" Her mind is working in overdrive, rewinding and playing back the last nine months of their lives. It's all a muddled blur, but she forces herself to think, to remember.

She doesn't have to try hard because she sees the answer in the shattered shutter of his eyes.

She hears it, the gentle quiet plea inside her head as clearly as she did nearly three hundred days ago and all at once, she knows.

"Tell us what you need…"

She remembers his quaking, shaking, disjointed daze. His short temper, his distressing distraction.

Only one thing he said that night came out clear as day.

Unequivocal and indisputable, but…

"You went to her that night, didn't you? The night you told Olivia…"

She remembers. He'd left and he hadn't come home for more than an hour. The minutes ticked by slowly while his partner rubbed her trembling back.

"How could you do that, Dad?" She asks, but it's rhetorical now. She doesn't think there's an answer he could provide that would satisfy her. Her stomach is rolling again. She feels off balance, dizzy as she stands still.

She watches as he crosses his arms, his sole posture of defense.

Her father is quiet enough that his silence is jarring. She isn't used to this. This isn't the man she knows. He isn't fighting back, standing up for himself, protecting himself against her claims. She wonders if he has given up, if he doesn't see anything left to fight for.

He shakes his head again. "I don't know. I was –" Her father is trying to explain, to justify and she can't take it. She knows she is being merciless, and he deserves a chance to speak, but she can't help herself.

No more.

She is finished. It's a cop out and they both know it. She can't let him off easily, not this time.

She cuts him off, interrupts him. "I understand that you have been to hell and back this year, but I think you do know, Dad."

She places her palm on the smooth surface of the table, gripping the edge so that she spares the delicate skin of her own palm with her blunt fingernails.

"I think you do know," she repeats. Her voice is nearly a whisper, and she thinks he can sense the warning winds in the way he watches her. She has never spoken to him this way, so blatantly, brutally honest. She is his truth-teller, his open-book of a child and yet she has never felt the need to rage at him quite so violently as she does in this moment.

"I think Angela seemed like the safest alternative," she says quietly. The repulsive paradox does not escape her, and she has to swallow to keep her nausea at bay.

"Alternative to what?" He asks, fixing her with his stormy gaze.

It's the calm before the storm. She takes a gulp of air before she speaks. She thinks she is going to need the reserve when the rain comes.

"To Liv."

She sees her rightness in the widening of his blue eyes, and he plants his palms hard against the surface of the table as if it is the only thing holding him up. She watches the way he momentarily fractures beneath the unspoken weight she has whispered from his shoulders. She has conjured it, bringing the enduring implicit into existence.

"Kathleen," he rasps her name. His voice is a raw, brewing ache. She wonders fleetingly if his tempest is coming, because she has a gale of her own.

The thunder rolls and the downpour begins.

Her father turns as if he can't face her anymore and the sight of his back only serves to make her seethe. She plunges into an untouchable chasm she knows is more than two decades deep.

"I think you're terrified of Olivia," she asserts. She knows he hears the way her voice nearly cracks as she watches the muscles of his shoulders jump with an invisible ache.

"You lost mom and you got Liv back in one fell swoop and I think that terrified you."

She steps closer, into the lion's den.

He rounds on her now. His jaw is tense as though he is holding himself steady and still. He doesn't shake his head in denial. Instead, his eyes are an unwitting mixture of shock and surety.

"I loved your mother -" He starts fiercely, but she can't let him finish. He thinks this, her outrage, is about his late wife, but it isn't. Her mother is gone forever.

This is about who is left.

"Every single day for ten years, you mourned Liv in ways you will never mourn mom because you can't!"

"Stop." He growls the word in desperate admonishment, but she isn't finished. She knows she is his daughter, and she has no right to yell, to speak to him this way, but if she doesn't, who will?

Her father is untouchable to everyone, except for a few.

She moves closer as he steps back.

"What you have with Olivia is different and special and I think you're terrified of that because it's real."

"Leen." His voice is gravel, and she wonders if her confrontation has reduced his vocabulary to one word. He reaches for her, to grasp her arm, to step around her toward the door, but she holds her ground. She steps backward, puts herself between her father and the only way out.

Now, he has to go through. If he were a little boy, she thinks he would have put his hands over his ears by now.

"I need some air," he says, but she ignores him.

She thinks a woman meeker than she would wither beneath the glare he is giving her, but she has never been frightened of her father.

"You're afraid of Olivia and what she means to you," she presses fiercely. He fixes his gaze on the floor and she steps closer into his chest, forcing him to meet her eyes.

"I'm not stupid. I'm thirty-one years old. Don't look at me like I'm crazy!" She cries bitterly. He shakes his head, and she thinks he is about to contradict her claims, but his voice is so quiet she barely hears…

"You're not crazy."

"You're afraid to delve into the depths of what it means to love her, so you'll take the easy way out, the meaningless fuck, instead of staying and sitting in the pain and holding her hand."

Her father flinches as though she has thrown a powerful punch his way. He exhales sharply into the quiet and she can't catch her own breath as his eyes fill. Before he can open his mouth, she speaks again.

"I've never been anything but proud to be your daughter, but now?" She whispers, shaking her head. Her vision is blurring, and her tears are coming fast.

"You have to make this right."

She can't help herself. This may be the only chance she ever gets.

"Angela called you two grief partners?" She rolls her welling eyes at the utter ridiculousness of the concept.

"You have a partner, Dad. You don't need another."

She hears his heavy swallow, and she leans into the door. She presses her shoulder into the door for a moment before she turns toward him one last time.

"You know what I think?" She asks. She doesn't want a reply because she knows the answer.

"I think you've assumed that you still know who Olivia is, like nothing has happened, like nothing has changed in ten years. You act like she's been encased in glass for the last decade. Liv knows more about grief than you can imagine, but you're afraid of what she has to say, so you haven't bothered to ask her about that, have you?" Her question is punctuated by the sharpness of her sob. She pushes against the door and steps out into the empty hallway.

Her mind is glaringly blank with exhaustion, but she can't let herself mentally collapse. It isn't over.

Her father catches her arm in his hand and pulls her back toward him. His face is paler than moments ago, his expression is pure anguish.
"What happened, Leen?" He asks desperately.

She shakes her head because it isn't her place. It never will be, but he has to know. She squeezes her father's hand with her fingers.

"You're going to have to ask your partner."

Chapter Text

Trovare - Italian. verb meaning to find, encounter, discover

"You and I will be lost and found a thousand times along the cobbled road of us." - Atticus


It isn't the first time he has found her waiting for him.

At a quarter to six this morning, in the bitter December darkness, he found her standing on the sidewalk, ready and willing to come.

With him.

Across state lines at an ungodly hour to try and help.

The truck rolls to a stop at a red light and he closes his eyes for an instant.

The day has been long, too long. He glances down at the clock on the dashboard to see that it's just after one in the afternoon. He has been going strong for too many hours and his adrenaline is starting to wear off.

His son is safe, that much he can process. He knows his phone will chime shortly with Ayana's message that the charges have been dropped and he can pick his son up at Bergen General.

Minutes ago, Olivia's voice was in his ear before he left Jet's desk as he explained, expounded, exposed.

"I'm headin' back to Fort Lee," he told her.

"Not without me."

He tried to reason with her. He is taking her from her son, all while she fights for his.

"Noah is fine. He's at school for another two hours."

She has been with him since before the sun rose in the sky. She answered her phone on the first ring at five thirty, so he knows that neither of them have gotten any sleep. His missing child had kept her awake as if Eli were her own. Yesterday never truly ended, it simply bled uncontrollably into today.

He thinks back to yesterday, less than twenty-four hours ago.

The trial, the verdict, his daughter's words.

He hasn't had a moment to put together everything Kathleen confronted him with, but he knows he is going to have to collect the pieces and examine them.

Sooner than later.

Despite all her simmering frustration with him, his child compartmentalized last night in admirable ways he can't begin to understand. She worked to temper and to triage their family while he tried to collect as much information as he could from his son's faint voice on the other end of the line.

His child took control in the late hours of the night, the early hours of this morning. She sent his inconsolable mother to bed and Lizzie into the guestroom to sit with their grandmother until she fell asleep.

She stood at the door and waited with his coat in her hands while he and Dickie searched the apartment for his hastily discarded wallet and his keys. The only evidence of her losing her carefully crafted control came at the last possible second before she closed the door behind him. He felt her hands shaking against his shoulders as she helped him into his coat. He reached for her, grasping her hand in his and pulled her close.

Her forehead bumped his chin as she shook her head against him.

"I'm so sorry, Dad," she whispered, but he'd shushed her quietly, urgently. He recognized every second spent was precious, but he wasn't about to leave one child to save another.

"You got nothin' to be sorry for," he rasped sincerely into the quiet. She let him go and he wonders if she understands just how much he meant it.

His child has done nothing except make him face brutal essential truths. If anyone has to atone for their sins, it is him.

He turns the corner onto her street, her new street. He isn't sure how long it's been since she moved and he wants to ask her, because it's new to him. It's all new to him, except that she is still here waiting for him.

And he can't begin to fathom why.

He pulls right up to the curb where she waits.

His partner.

The perfect strands of her dark hair are pulled back from her face in a ponytail as though she had hastily tied it back in the hour since he has seen her last.

He can see that her hands are full, so he leans across the truck to push the heavy door open for her.

"Thanks," she says softly.

She climbs into the passenger seat beside him and presses a carefully wrapped package into his open palm. He watches her as she situates herself next to him and unwraps her identical parcel in her lap.

A peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. Homemade.

"Noah's favorite," she tells him. She gives the slightest shy shrug as if she is apologizing for the meagerness of the meal, when he hasn't remembered to feed either one of them.

He wonders if she recalls their early years together when he would bring this very sandwich for lunch because it was easier to make five of the same. She'd joked about his schoolboy lunch enough times that he had taken to making her an extra, just in case. There is something about the way she is watching him that makes him think she does.

He can't take his eyes off of her and all at once, he knows. His daughter is right. This woman beside him is the most familiar stranger he has ever known.

"You have to eat something," she pushes, taking a bite of her own sandwich as if to remind him how. Her velvet voice is colored with a maternal tint, and he wonders if this is the same knowing tone she uses to remind Noah to eat his vegetables.

"Always knew you'd be a great mom," he whispers. The words fall from his mouth unbidden because she may be a stranger in every conceivable way, but this he knows with all his heart.

More than a decade ago, he thinks she chalked up her desire for a baby to an impossible dream and yet…Ten years gone and she is a mother to the luckiest little boy. She packs his lunches and drops him off at school as often as she can. She lights up when she talks about him as if he is the one true love of her life and it makes him wonder where Noah's dad went wrong. No man in their right mind would ever leave her.

He counts himself among them.

"You're a great dad," she replies earnestly. She makes him laugh, a quiet mirthless sigh. He bites down hard on his bottom lip and shakes his head.

If he were, they wouldn't be here.

She has always both sought and seen the good in him, while all he can recognize are his trespasses. He wonders which one of them has a more accurate view.

Not for the first time today, she reaches for him, for his hand, and this time he isn't letting go.

He wants to bring her hand to his mouth and kiss her fingers. There is the faintest hint of peanut butter on her skin as though her sandwich has more than his does and he wonders if he would taste it on his lips.

She is watching him closely, cautiously as if she is going to ask him if he has lost what precious little is left of his mind and whether a madman like himself should be behind the wheel.

He settles for squeezing her hand gently with his own.

One, two, three times.

His daughters have a silent shorthand he wonders if she knows.

She leans across to hold the steering wheel steady while he unwraps his own sandwich with his free hand and takes a bite. She has fed him, nourished him. The man who left her starving…

He shakes his head at the thought and he feels the press of her palm against his shoulder.

Her wordless check in.

He is fine and he tells her so. His voice is a low rumble in his throat because he isn't sure he is telling her the truth. She settles back into her seat, but he can feel her gaze on his face as if she is afraid he will disappear if she looks away.

The streets are busier than they were in the moments before dawn and traffic back to Jersey is heavy with the lunchtime rush. He grips the steering wheel tightly with both hands at ten and two. It's quiet between them, save for the hum of the heater, but he doesn't feel the need to make small talk. He doesn't think either one of them ever has.

God, how he has missed this particular kind of calm.

He glances across the front seat to take her in. Her eyes are closed now and her perfect sooty lashes sweep against her cheeks. She is leaning, tilting her head back in her seat and he wonders if she is falling asleep.

He remembers the longest nights on stakeouts in the sedan and how she would assert that she wasn't tired at all before fighting her exhaustion all the way to sleep. He would watch her head bob out of the corner of his eye and smirk at her until she lowered the back of her seat just for a minute. He felt most like her partner in those moments, when she would let her guard down and let him take the watch.

He wonders how she feels now.

With her eyes closed, the glances he usually has to steal are free.

He wants to categorize the new. Her voice is soothingly familiar and startlingly different all at once. Her eyes are darker, deeper as though she has discovered depths his daughter alluded to and come back simultaneously haunted and whole. She touches him easily, while he has no right to reach for her. His hands are stained with blood and bodies and no matter how many times he has washed, he can't cleanse himself of the stain.

She is even more breathtakingly beautiful than he remembers and he thinks that is saying something because he hasn't forgotten her, not for a moment. What died on the old squadroom floor that day, more than a decade ago, didn't stay dead. He resurrected their partnership, and she has lived, safe and sound, in his head every moment he hasn't spent by her side.

According to his daughter, according to Olivia, what he remembers is no longer the reality.

He grips the steering wheel tighter until his knuckles start to ache.

It's unfathomable.

Ten years ago, he left as her greatest liability. She, his Hercules and his Achilles heel.

In an instant, across the body-strewn linoleum, he made up his mind. He would lose everything, so that she wouldn't have to. The whispers that he was a wrecking ball and a loose cannon had grown in volume to shouts and he had put her job, her well-being, and her life in jeopardy for the last time.

He had surprised IAB when they hadn't had to do much convincing because he was already gone. He had given up. He wasn't about to jump through hoops, paperwork, psych evals, and therapy.

Even for her.

His mistakes were grave, his sins were mortal, and they had caught up with him one last time.

Tearing himself from her side was the hardest thing he has ever had to do. He convinced himself automatically that it had to be a clean break, a complete annihilation of them. To this day, he knows, without a doubt, if he had heard her voice one last time, he never would have been able to leave.

There wasn't anything left of himself to salvage.

So, he ran.

The aftermath was an exorcism of an angel and he traveled to the holiest city in all of the Catholic world for help. He confessed his transgressions to more priests than he can count, but he stopped begging for forgiveness when he realized he has never and will never be sorry for loving her.

Kathy wanted it, them, buried deep underground.

Instead, he kept her alive inside his head.

She became his own personal mythology, his sacred history, his guardian angel, his imaginary everything.

According to his daughter, according to Olivia, he is a coward and up until now, he has proven them right. He has been afraid. He has been selfish. He hasn't asked Olivia one damn thing about her life because asking leads to telling and hearing and listening and shattering the precious illusion he holds in his hands.

In his head, she has been safe. In his head, she has been whole. In his head, she has been loved…by him for all this time and forever. Finding all of this contradictory will shake him to his core, but he has to know.

His daughter has begun to lift the veil, giving him his first glimpse into something that is teasing the edges of his anxious mind like the beginning of a nightmare. There is something he doesn't know, but he can sense it's deep and dark and monstrous. It is a particular brand of utter unknown that terrifies him completely. He replays Olivia's voice in his head despite the fact that she is beside him…

"You have not asked me one question about what has happened to me since you left."

Something happened and she is right.

He has worshiped a memory, an idea, a ghost without letting her let him into her reality.

For a decade, he has preserved an untouchable idol of the woman he loves most in the world without truly knowing, loving, holding her.

He has to be a man, the man she deserves [that fucking letter], the man she believes him to be.

She told him he has let her down. He has frightened her, upset her, thrown her world off its axis with his own. He has barged back into her life, with all the tact of a fucking bull in a China shop, sure that she is still his partner in every conceivable way.

For his wife, his mother, his children, his job, his health, his heart, his son…she has been nothing but help. He has whirled in the brutality of the reality of changes to his life since he returned to Manhattan. He has consciously guarded her with his life, keeping her pristine picture in his mind intact while she stood alive before him with open aching hands, waiting for him.

Now he understands, he has to ask.

He has to ask her who and how she was, is, and wants to be. He has to swallow his pride and ask her openly and honestly what she wants, needs, and if there is still room for him, for them, in her life.

He is afraid of her answers, but if he doesn't ask, he knows with certainty that he will lose her once and for all. That will never be an option.

He told her didn't know how to begin.

Now, he does.


Bergen General Hospital's parking lot is busy, and his phone hasn't yet resounded with news of his son, so he has to sit tight. As tempting as it is, he can't go inside and throw his weight around.

He checks his phone once more and he turns off the engine of the truck as quietly as he can. He clutches his keys in his hand so that they don't jingle loudly as he slips them into the pocket of his coat.

He leans his head back against the seat and exhales, slow and controlled, before he loses his breath completely.

He lets his gaze travel across the truck toward the passenger seat.

Olivia.

She is sound asleep, content or exhausted, he isn't sure which, but wonders if he is simultaneously responsible for both. He momentarily debates letting her sleep, leaving the engine running to keep her warm, and running in to pick Eli up by himself, but something holds him back.

Today alone, she has both soothed and saved him. She has kept him from drowning on dry land. He doesn't underestimate how much he needs her. He can't do this without her. He has tried.

He leans across the center console because he wants to wake her as gently as possible. He is afraid she might be disoriented and he doesn't want to frighten her.

"Liv," he whispers her name into the quiet and she stirs ever so slightly. Her eyelashes flutter against her cheeks and she takes a deep sleepy breath.

"Hmm?" She hums softly. He almost wants to laugh until she leans toward the sound of his voice, then slowly and suddenly she is against his shoulder. She unconsciously shifts in her seat and angles her body toward his own and before he can think, she is moving closer, snuggling into the space where his collarbone meets his chest. His jacket is unzipped and she moves her right hand beneath the fabric to rest against his abdomen.

His heart is pounding in his ears, but he tries hard not to breathe. If he could, he would shake his head at the improbability of this moment. If someone had told him eleven months ago that come Christmastime, he would be home, he would have called them insane. Home is snuggled against him.

Home, horror, and hope all at once.

His daughter is right and he is nearly numb with the realization he has kept at bay for more than two decades of his life.

He is terrified of what, of who he holds in his hands. His greatest fear is tangible; this living, breathing woman who smells faintly of peanut butter, spearmint gum, and fragrant shampoo.

She is everything he has ever wanted in his life, and he wonders what kind of man that makes him, to covet a woman he has never had divine right to, except the claim he made the moment he met her. He has always been possessive of what he prays could become his.

She is a gift. She is the most precious thing he knows and the strongest woman he has ever met. She doesn't know it, but she holds all the cards. He thinks she always has. She has all the power in the world. The power to build him up and the power to cut him down both reside within her. The way he loves her, needs her, wants her surpasses every desire he has ever known. He has never understood it, their immediate inexplicable connection that has always felt like a blessing and a curse because they didn't belong to each other, at least not in any way that anyone else would understand.

She terrifies him with the way she might not need him, might not want him, might not love him.

Anymore.

He wonders if she ever has.

He knows he doesn't deserve her, but the thought he might not be enough for her nearly suffocates him. He wants to give her everything she has ever wanted. If she wants him, she has him. She always has. He wonders if she knows.

Her forehead is warm against his neck and he slips his arm around her shoulders so that he can hold her, support her, cradle her against himself. Her eyelashes flutter against his skin and he knows he only has a moment before she comes to. He knows he should wake her up, but she has unconsciously drifted toward him like the moon on the tide. He wonders if somehow she knows instinctively that he is holding her just as she has always held him.

The invisible ache of a decade without her is suddenly nearly too much and the reality sets in. There is an absolute innocence in this moment. She is asleep in his truck, in his space, in his arms. He closes his eyes against the wave of emotion he feels threatening to engulf him and he presses his mouth to her forehead.

She leans closer, unconsciously lets her perfect weight fall into him more fully and inhales. Her breasts brush against his chest with the rise and the fall of her breathing.

She mumbles something into the collar of his sweater and he swallows hard at the sound. He is getting old and he knows his hearing is going, but he swears she just muttered his name.

"You okay, Liv?" He whispers and to his surprise, she replies, an adorable muffled yet unmistakable sigh of the sound of his name.

She knows. She knows he is holding her. She knows she is holding onto him.

His phone chimes in his pocket and at once he curses and praises the heralding sound before he painstakingly extricates himself from her to answer it.

She helps.

She lifts her head from his shoulder, slips her hand from his chest beneath his coat. She ducks her head and he watches the softest blush appear on her cheeks as she sits up, fighting to straighten her coat from her seated position beside him. The dark strands of her hair are falling from their ponytail and she pulls her scrunchie out to let the waves fall over her shoulders. She brushes an errant piece behind her ear and someday he wants to do that for her, if she'll let him.

He lifts his phone to his ear, and she looks up at him, her eyes are dark and serious. He knows she is listening to Ayanna's updates in his ear and before he can speak, she has her door open. The cold air shakes him, wakes him, brings him back, and reminds him.

Then she is right there beside him, falling into step.

Up four floors, an elevator and a set of stairs, their footfalls match and he doesn't have to look around to know that she is right behind him. He holds the door for the psych ward open and she slips in at his side.

"I'm here to pick up Eli Stabler. I was told he is being released." He announces to no one in particular.

"You want the Psych Attending. That would be Dr. Stutz," a nurse tells him off-handedly as though his son is a number, a statistic, a patient file.

"No, Miss. Miss, I want my son," he asserts. He doesn't want to talk to a physician or a shrink. He wants his child, who has been through hell and back over the last twelve hours, within an arm's reach.

The woman gives him a look and he realizes he is in trouble before Olivia rescues him once more. She sidles up beside him at the desk and leans intently forward. Her tone is efficient and calm with all the finesse he lacks.

"Marisol, hi," she says, reading the woman's name tag. She greets the nurse as though they are old friends and she has just stopped by for a chat. She has a way of making people feel safe and comfortable, while he is all power and protection.

"We would be so grateful if you could call Dr. Stutz for us." He steps away because his anxiety is creeping over his skin again. He hears a pregnant pause and he can feel the nurse's eyes on him as though she is trying to make sense of him.

Good luck.

"Please?" Olivia adds for good measure and the woman gives in.

"Sure."

"Thank you."

He is sure her phone call is the longest fifteen seconds of his life.

"Dr. Stutz, I have the parent of Eli Stabler…" She is quiet and he listens. She hangs up the phone and speaks once more, relaying a message from the physician himself. "He wants to speak to you before you see Eli."

He watches Olivia nod. "Thank you," she says once more as though the child she held first is her own.

Marisol directs them to a small quiet waiting room down the hall where they can sit. The space is decorated for Christmas and he thinks it feels incongruent with the chaos of the day. Olivia takes off her coat and drapes it across one of the chairs. He keeps his on because he can't warm up, no matter how hard he tries.

There is a coffee pot on a small beverage cart. Its brew is probably hours old, but he pours two cups anyway because it gives him something to do with his hands. Marisol told them not to worry, that Dr. Stutz is so busy that it could be nearly half an hour and so he has time to kill.

Fears, too.

He sets one of the cups down on the surface of the round table as he settles himself into the nearest chair. He watches her silently while she is occupied with her phone, with the other things that fill her life…things he knows nothing about.

He has to ask. If she wants to tell him, she will. It's a loss of an illusion of control so profound that he can't quite catch his breath despite sitting still.

He has to ask. He needs to know. He wants to. This won't ever be a one-way street ever again.

"Can I talk to you?" The words fall unbidden, but he figures they are decent ones to start with. He almost wants to wince at how childlike they sound, but this is the way it has to be. His voice is so low it barely rasps against his sore throat and yet she looks up at the sound.

She slips her phone into the pocket of her coat and perches herself lightly on the edge of a chair as if she is poised for flight. He can't blame her, but he will do anything to help her to stay.

He thinks back to two nights ago, how she confronted him about Angela and so much more. He'd expected her to be frustrated with him. He knew how to handle that, how to deflect, but she hadn't come at him swinging. Instead, her dark eyes had held an expression that terrified him, one of resigned and discouraged exhaustion.

She looked at him as though she had given up. As if she had finally grown tired of him, of them, of the roles they slip into every single time without fail, repeating the same behavior over and over while expecting a different result.

His daughter calls it insanity.

It's the only dance he has ever done with her that he wishes would end.

Now, she is gazing at him with such a wary mixture of expectation and delicate curiosity that if he were close enough, he would grasp her hand. She sits just out of reach and he thinks somehow, it's fitting…across their desks, across the sedan, across the Atlantic.

"I wanna know," he rumbles. It's a plea, a prayer, and a promise all at once.

"Sorry?" Olivia inquires, leaning closer. She hasn't heard him properly. She settles back into her chair and slips her arms around her own waist. He wishes he could hold her like that.

"I wanna know," he repeats slowly. "I wanna know 'bout your life, what you've been through, the things I've missed."

There is an invisible gaping wound he bears on his chest, like the one from the lance thrust into the Lord's side. It's the hole where he has kept her whole for the last decade. He is about to learn the truth, if she'll tell him. He wonders if what she tells him will bind the wound or if he is about to begin to bleed.

"The other night you said I hadn't asked you anything 'bout what happened after I left you…" His throat is already too tight. "And you're right and I'm sorry, but I'm askin' now. I wanna know."

His hands have begun shaking ever so slightly. The coffee cup isn't a safe resting place for his trembling fingers anymore, so he folds his hands in his lap.

"If you wanna tell me…" he trails off, swallowing hard.

He has to give her the option to tell him to go to hell. She has to know she has the right to remain silent, all the while he prays she won't.

Olivia gives him the briefest hint of a smile. He wonders if she is going to ask him what took so long, tell him to take that trip to hell, tell him that this isn't the time or the place, but she doesn't.

"That's a lot of ground to cover," she says lightly, and he realizes what he has tasked her with. Putting together her side of the ten-thousand-piece puzzle that is the last decade, so that in the end they can both see a clear picture.

He wants to tell her that they have time, but he doesn't want to push her. He has no right to ask anything of her, except that she asked him. If they want to move forward to face the music, take a step in one direction or the other, they have to talk.

He has to know. So does she.

"Where do you want me to start?" She asks. He can tell from the expression playing across her beautiful face that she is going slow, approaching with the same brand of caution he is using with her.

She knows him too well, but he is hoping against hope that this time, he can prove her wrong. Whatever she has to say, whatever he hears, he isn't leaving ever again.

This tentative nature goes against everything he is. He wants the kid gloves gone so that the truth can come out to fight for itself, but he knows there is merit in this gradual gentleness. It's giving them both time to acclimate and despite her pause, her question is open and accepting and he thinks he could just about cry.

He shakes his head. "Anywhere you want."

It's a journey of more than four thousand miles. A journey of more than three thousand days apart.

It's not an easy task.

Olivia tilts her head and presses her lips together as though she is trying not to smile at the ridiculousness of his response.

She stands before him; straightens that gorgeous blazer she wears and steps to her right. She seems to be deep in thought, considering her options, pondering where to begin…

He watches her. The late afternoon sun is turning the room golden behind her. The light plays with the richness of her dark locks, crowning her with a halo.

"I missed you," she says softly, and he closes his eyes because God, if she hasn't said everything in those three little words. He realizes he hasn't told her. He hasn't told her anything. He hasn't told her about the burn of missing her, the constant ache of the last ten years. He squeezes his right hand with his left, unconsciously mirroring the way he used to pretend he could feel her fingers intertwined with his own. She reaches for him now. She has held his hand twice today alone, but he wonders if she knows he held hers all the way to Rome and back.

He fixes his gaze on the floor beneath her feet. She has only just begun with the simplest of the truths and he is already falling apart. He can tell she isn't going to be pulling any punches and he deserves every single blow.

"I missed you," he replies solemnly, and she shivers where she stands, as if his identical sentiment has caught her by surprise. He prays he hasn't blindsided her with something so fucking simple. It's such a given, if she doesn't know this in her bones, everything else will be far more startling.

She watches him for a moment until she seemingly can't anymore. Her dark eyes are too full from this alone and he realizes what she is silently confirming.

It's a revelation to her that he missed her.

God.

What has he done?

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

"I missed you for a long time," she continues. Her voice sounds far away now, and he shakes his head to pull himself back across ten years of trespasses to sit before her and listen.

"I think I went through all the stages of grief," she says, shaking her head. She fixes him with her dark stare for a moment and he wonders if she is trying to convince herself that he really is here.

"I was so angry with you."

There is a breathy anguish to her tone that makes his chest crack. He nods. He knows that he deserves the embers of her fury and so much more. He thinks she must be doing the same thing inside her own head, reliving moments that remain all too vivid while fighting to remain present.

Here.

With him.

Now.

She takes a breath and tucks an errant wave of her hair behind her ear before she continues once more. She slowly begins her pacing again. The movement must help her to collect her thoughts, numb the ache he feels all too acutely. He wants to stand, but he holds himself still. He has the sense he needs to sit and stay.

"After a while, I came to the conclusion that you weren't coming back and I had to move on."

She says this casually as if he hadn't waged a bloody decade-long war within himself over their separation and he needs her to know, but now is not the time. He can hear his daughter's voice resounding in his ears that this isn't his time.

It is Olivia's.

He swallows hard because he also knows she is easing him in. It will only get harder from here, but he has to hear. He has to know. He wants to.

"I went to work every day and I came home and I tried to live."

It is her use of the word that so often doubles as her name, as his ceaseless mantra every moment away, as his dying wish for her the day he left that breaks him. His chair scrapes loudly against the shiny Limonium of the floor and he leans forward, heavily pressing his elbows into his thighs.

"You lived," he whispers before he can stop himself. It's a plea to the heavens. He has no right to assert this, she thinks he doesn't know anything about her, but he does. He knows. He may not know the specifics, but he has to believe that he knows her still.

If he doesn't know her, he doesn't know anything.

He knows that she is a warrior and a worrier and a hero. She is the singular protagonist of a decade worth of daydreams he has had in his head. She is a woman, a lover, and a mother.

Most importantly, he needs to know that she has lived because without her, he hasn't.

One of them had to make it out alive.

"I did," she says quietly. He hears the lilt of her inhale and it reminds him to breathe.

"You met Noah's dad," he whispers, watching the floor beneath her feet. He needs something, some sliver of something so that he can begin to put the pieces together. He needs to know that she was safe, and she was loved and someone looked out for her the way he always had, has, always will.

He hears her give the softest laugh and he looks up at the curious sound. There is a shy smile tugging at her lips that makes him want to kiss her. She tilts her head and her hair tumbles over her shoulder.

"I didn't," she says simply. He watches her closely and furrows his brow. He may be old, but he is fairly sure he still knows where babies come from. He doesn't think that's changed since he had his fifth. He shakes his own head because he doesn't understand and he watches her smile unfurl completely.

There is a hint of teasing in her dark eyes and it makes the knot inside of his chest feel as though it's loosening ever so slightly. He is sure his expression must be betraying him because suddenly she is laughing that perfect sweet soft laugh again.

"Noah is adopted," she tells him slowly, as though she understands he is experiencing difficulty comprehending simple sentences.
"What?" She asks mildly. He shakes his head because he can't believe it. He has spent the last nine months believing…
"Nothin'," he says.
"Not nothin'," she repeats. Her eyes are alight with amusement. He is glad at least someone is getting a kick out of all this.

"Tell me."

He presses his fingertips into the back of his aching neck and gives her an embarrassed grin.

"Fin told me you'd been in a relationship. A solid one," he quotes, remembering back eight, nine months to when he had no business asking…in truth, he never has.

Olivia rolls her eyes in what he can tell is her affectionate exasperation.

"Fin likes to rile you up," she tells him. He gives half of a quiet laugh and nods in understanding. He can't forget Fin's years of playful badgering with a ceaselessly protective undertone. He is grateful the man still watches her back.

"I got promoted," she continues as if she is listing momentous occasions in her life as casually as writing a grocery list. He knows she is giving him the CliffsNotes version, but he'll take anything.

He tosses her a barely there smirk. "Promoted is an understatement, Cap," he replies proudly, and she ducks her head in modesty.

She never has known how to accept praise for all that she is, but he hopes someone celebrated her when he couldn't. He missed it, her moment, her advancement. He regrets this and so much more. He knows she won't let him laud her, but his admiration of her, his devotion has never and will never wane. He hopes to God she knows.

"Olivia."

His voice is too low, but he knows she heard him because she changes the subject back to her son.

"Noah is smart and funny…" She details. "And he's a good kid."
"Of course, he is," he interjects sincerely. "He's yours."

She tosses a thankful look over her shoulder as she resumes her pacing before him.

"I was so worried about that," she admits. He doesn't understand what she means so he remains silent, trusting she will elaborate, and she does.

"Him becoming a good kid, I mean."

He watches her back, the rise and fall of her shoulders as she faces away from him. For the first time in this conversation, he feels like he can see the road ahead of them.

It's unfathomable.

The monsters she fights for her own self-worth five precious decades into her life are the same ones he does battle with daily. His father beat the hell out of him, his mother is mentally ill, and he remembers…

Half my genes are drunk and the other half are violent and cruel.

"Look how great you turned out," he rumbles into the quiet. She inhales sharply and turns to look at him with her full dark eyes. He wonders if she knows how much he meant it then and just how much he means it now.

"It's not all about the genes…" she whispers haltingly. "All you can do is love your kids."

She breaks him in the way only she can. She holds his heart, his hope, and his history in her outstretched hands. He bows his head and folds inward, pressing his elbows hard into his denim clad thighs as he tries to remember how to breathe.

He senses her more than hears her and then the soft press of her palm is resting against his back.

She has fought both hell and highwater for him, for his son, for her own. There is nothing he can ever do to repay her as long as he lives.

"I owe you," he rasps. His voice grates painfully against his sore throat. He raises his welling eyes to meet hers and she shakes her head. He isn't sure if she is silently asking him what he means, or negating his words with the motion, but either way he is going to elaborate. He is going to explain.

"I owe you, Liv," he repeats. The sentiment is sincere, but all at once, he is overwhelmed with the realization that the list of things for which he is beholden to here is more than two decades long.

He owes her for her time, her strength, her patience.
He owes her his own.
He owes her for his children, for his wife, for his family. He owes her for his sanity, his stability, his life. He owes her apologies and explanations and everything in between.

If she wants to hear them.

More than anything else, he owes her the truth, two decades too late, but maybe better than never.

If he is honest, he owes her everything.

He tells her so. He tells her more.

She perches lightly on the chair opposite him and leans forward. He assumes on the pretense of hearing him, considering he can't seem to find his voice. Her knee bumps his own while she stays still and silent. It reminds him of the last time they sat bruised and broken in a hospital waiting room and breathed confessions to each other no priest has ever heard.

"I owe you an 'pology," he rumbles. She mirrors his posture, pressing her elbows into her thighs and holding herself as though she is her own armor.

She has always been his.

He hears Kathleen's disgusted disappointment in him inside his head and it urges him on. He has to make this right.
"The other night when you asked me 'bout Angela Wheatley." He watches her eyes grow wide for the briefest instant at the mention of her name.

"I turned it 'round on you and I got defensive. I had no right to do that and I'm sorry."

Olivia shakes her head and presses her palms to her thighs as though she is going to make a move to stand. He prays she stays.

"Why are you protecting her?" She asks wearily.

All pretense is gone. She is asking. She needs to know.

"I'm not protecting her. I'm protectin' myself." The words slip from his mouth before he can overthink. They are the truest ones he can find. This vulnerability is a tangible, physical thing that goes against everything he is, everything he tries to be, and he thinks she knows because her knee bumps his once more. It's a tap, the lightest touch, but it's enough.

She doesn't understand. "It's just me."

"Just you," he repeats with a light scoff. The pair of words find themselves contradictory. She has never been just anything to him.

He shakes his head at the floor. He has to keep going.

"I'm sorry I let you sit through her testimony." He can hear his daughter's revulsion and he winces at the memory.

"Let me?" she interrupts pointedly. He looks up to catch her frowning at him and he nearly smiles. They both know he has never kept her from doing anything she has ever wanted to do. He lapses into silence. He doesn't know where to go from here. The rest of what he has to say will spill out like an undammed river if he isn't careful and he is trying his best to tread in the choppy water.

"Elliot, where's all this coming from?" She inquires. She doesn't know about the reservoir. She doesn't know anything. He wonders if she'll go silent on him if he doesn't answer.

Instead…she whispers the loudest question he has ever heard.

"Why haven't you asked me any of this before?" The million-dollar inquiry. The woman will be the death of him, this he knows.

"I was afraid," he whispers the only answer he has. His voice is too low, and he tries to clear his throat, but he can't. The ache is too much.

"Of what?" Olivia breathes. He looks up to meet her gaze and she must see something in his eyes because suddenly her eyes are filling once more.

"El," She whispers his nickname in the perfect velvet of her voice and he closes his eyes at the sound.

He nods because he can't speak and she gives him a moment, then two. She is grace personified and she waits. He knows her and he knows that it is taking everything she has not to hightail it the hell outta here while he fights in vain for an ounce of control.

He swallows through the tightness in his throat and his breath catches in his chest as he inhales. This is a fragility he has never felt in his life.

He doesn't think he has any strength left. He nods again and fights for one more breath before he tries to make some sense of what he has just placed into her hands.

"I talked to Leen," he tells her, as if she should understand that the mere mention of his most perceptive child's name can serve as answer enough.

"I was afraid to let you go, so I didn't. If I'd heard your voice…" he trails off and he knows by the look on Olivia's face that she remembers.

"I kept you safe in my head and I came back expecting nothin' to be different. I came back into your life–" He shivers the same way he did in the cold rain on the night of her awards ceremony.

The fucking gall he must have had to think that he could ever just show up, smile and shake her hand and then walk away for the rest of their lives…

"Like a bull in a China shop?" She interrupts quietly, using his idiom while he ignores her.

"I expected nothin' to be different and I was so fuckin' selfish. It's all different now," he says. He looks across the chasm between them, the inches separating their knees.

"It's all different now," he repeats, "'cept you still scare the hell outta me." His voice is sandpaper against his throat, but he isn't sure he can stop now that he has begun.

"Why?" She whispers. Her eyes are imploring as though she is mining his for answers. He wonders if she can see them the same way his late wife always could.

He tries to remember his daughter's words. His child is far more eloquent than he will ever be.

"'Cause I love you and in the war zone in my mind I didn't know what to do with that."

His stomach rolls with the terrifying thought that he is a coward. He sees all the mistakes he has made when it comes to her, to them.

More than twenty years too late, the time has come for the truth.

He presses his palms hard against his knees and pushes himself up to stand. His anxiety is crawling over his skin and he has to move while he attempts to help her understand. He rubs his smarting forehead with the heel of his hand. He tries to remember their past while the only future he wants sits before him, so utterly present.

He thinks back to Rome and the blaring silences, the warring clashes he and Kathy had amidst the city, as though the archaic place knew they weren't destined for ancient history.

"I let Kathy write that fucking letter and I signed it because I didn't know what to do and it was something to hand to you, something to get us started. I didn't think 'bout what she wrote 'cause I meant what I did."

Olivia had it memorized, this he remembers. He was high as a kite, but he remembers the sound of her voice repeating every hateful Godforsaken word. He wonders what she thought when she read the last ones for the first time, the ones that contradict every other written. He wonders if she can ever forgive him for making her wait so long, for letting her think for an instant of her precious existence that she doesn't mean everything to him…

In a parallel universe,

"I kissed Angela because I wasn't brave enough to kiss you," he manages.

She winces at the sound of his admission as though his revelation has physically hurt her, and he wants to run and reach for her all at once. He wants to dive in and hold her hand and find out why.

If she loves him, God, if she loves him…

He should have gone to her, this time and the last one, too. More than fourteen years ago. He knows. He has always known…

"It should've been you."

It will always be

"It should have been us, but I wasn't brave enough," he whispers, half to himself and half to her. If she is still listening. He is ranting and raving and rambling now, but he means every word. He is barely treading water.

you and I.

He wonders if he is making any sense, if she can hear him at all. He swallows hard and tries again. He has more to say if she'll stay.

"I love you," he tells her again [and again and again and again because something loosens in his chest every time he does.] She doesn't flinch when he says these words.

"But I was afraid 'cause you and me? What we got, Liv? The way I love you? God, it's not average. It's never been."

He doesn't know what it is. He has never had words for it, this inexplicable magnetic pull, the draw like the moon on the tide, the invisible string.

The incomprehensible that kept her close for so long and brought him back to her now.

He is assuming. He is surmising, he is presuming and pleading and praying all at once and he needs some kind of confirmation.

If she wants him, if she needs him, if she loves him…

He watches the slightest bob of her head, the dip of her chin.

Olivia nods.

It's the last thing he knows. He closes his welling eyes against the wave of emotion and suddenly she is there. Her soft hands are insistent against his chest, and he doesn't understand until he feels her push. She is trying to get him to sit. He feels unsteady on his feet and he sinks into a chair against the wall, but she doesn't let him go. His hands find their purchase against the perfect curve of her waist, and he wants to reach for her, to pull her closer.

She stands perfectly framed in the space between his thighs and he looks up at her. She looks tired and tearful and tender. Her blouse and blazer are wrinkled from sleeping in the car. Her hair cascades over her shoulders and tickles his neck when she leans forward.

"You're all there is for me," he rumbles. He reaches up to brush the silky stands behind her ear. He wonders if she can feel the way his fingers are trembling. She leans ever so slightly into his touch and he wonders if she realizes she is doing so. It's nearly too much and he can't help the way he sends his sharp exhale toward the floor.

"If you want me, you got me, you got all of me forever." He swears, he promises. He has never wanted anything more in his life.

"For better or worse?" She whispers the vow, and he nods.
"Gonna be better," he asserts, and he doesn't miss the way her lips lilt in the smallest smile.
"It's going to take a while, El," she says.

He knows. He nods. He doesn't expect anything overnight. She nearly makes him want to laugh because after all this time, she is the pragmatist and he is the romantic in this.

"We got time," he says. He prays he is correct now that he isn't biding it anymore. Her smile unfurls fully this time at what he knows she considers his protective predictability.

He wants to protect her. He hopes she knows. "I wanna take care of you," he tells her, and Olivia sinks ever so slightly in her stance. As if she can see the day in and day out reality of the sentiment behind his words. He has never meant anything more. She is brave and bold and brazen, but she needs someone to take care of her. She needs someone to…He remembers.

There is something left…something that he doesn't know, and his anxiety is gripping him again at the thought.

"I wanna do this right," he swears. "I wanna listen and I wanna talk." She nods. She lets him know this is what she wants, too. He has to ask.

"There's something else," he says quietly. "Something happened to you." He has her in his hands and yet he can barely breathe. The images his wild imagination has conjured haven't left him and he needs to know.

If she will tell him.

Olivia leans closer. She presses her hands against his shoulders and he can feel her finally starting to fade. The day isn't over, and they still have battles to fight, but at this moment she is strangely soft. She fixes him with her dark gaze and shakes her head slowly.

"Not now," she whispers.

He swallows hard as he tries in vain to bite back the tangle of anger, regret, fear, and confusion brawling inside of him. She has asked for time. He has to give it to her, and he can. He will. He must.

He knows she can feel the way his hands have automatically tightened their grip on her waist as if holding her closer will help her to reconsider. He closes his eyes as she leans close and presses a kiss to his temple.

He fights for a breath and so does she.

"I wanna take care of you," he asserts once more because it's a desperate, clawing thing now and he needs her to understand.

"I know you do," she says. It's a stunning accepting acknowledgement from the woman he loves the most in the world. "I promise, I'll tell you. Just not tonight."

He nods because he knows she is right. They are waiting on his child, and he needs to be wholly present when the doctor arrives. She has always possessed the thoughtful kind of foresight he lacks.

He can feel the lightest press of her fingertips tracing his shoulder blades through the heavy fabric of his coat. She isn't stepping back or moving into her own space, and he doesn't mind at all. His space is hers, if she wants it. She seems to be contemplating something he doesn't understand. He holds his own hands ruthlessly still against her waist beneath the material of her blazer.

"I just need you to know that I'm all right." She announces this wildly bewildering proclamation quietly and he nearly stands because why wouldn't she be? If she weren't, he wouldn't be here.

"Livia." He can't help the way he growls.

She presses her hands to his chest once more, holding him in his seat.

"I need you to listen to me because what happened…what happened to me isn't your fault."

She leans over him and he frantically searches her eyes for some telltale sign to help him understand. She is just as fiercely protective of him as he is of her, and he knows he won't learn anything tonight. He knows…his gaze falls to the deep v-neck of her collar. Her black blouse has shifted in their push and pull, and something catches his eye. Her proximity registers with her gasp at the same moment his understanding does and then she is standing up, giving him space, backing away. He only caught a glimpse but it's enough to tell that there is a scar, a wound, a blemish to the gorgeous golden skin of her chest.

"Liv." Her name is the only sound he can make. He stands and she lets him and then he is reaching for her. His eyes are fixed on the exposed skin of her chest. He slips his shaking fingers beneath the collar of her shirt and she grasps his hand.

"Elliot, not here," she whispers, squeezing his fingers with her own. If it weren't so serious, he thinks it might be laughable because he is trying to undress her in a psych ward holding room while they wait for news of his son.

She slips closer to him and ducks her head, forcing him to adjust his gaze.

"Look at me," she whispers and he does. He will do anything she asks.

"I promise, I'll tell you everything you need to know. Just not now." She is imploring him. He steps closer to her, crowding her in a way that is so blessedly familiar for a decade apart. She doesn't move. She simply leans into his chest.

"Remember, I'm all right," she whispers. Her dark eyes tell him that she isn't lying.

"You're all right," he replies, repeats. It's a reverent mantra he will hold on to in the rare moments he won't be able to hold onto her.

"We're all right," she says. Her hands slip up his back beneath his jacket and it's a divine assurance. He believes her. When she says it, he believes it. He believes they will be; their children will be and he will do everything he can to help make it so. He steps impossibly closer and presses his lips to her forehead, kissing her there until he hears the soft knock on the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Capire - Italian. Verb meaning to see, to realize, to perceive

"Be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world…" - Paul Harding


It's nearly noon and he has yet to sit down.

He has been going strong since he arrived this morning just after seven. He'd barely made it to the elevator when his phone began to chirp with tasks, patients, and reports of his schedule for the day.

He had to triage, just like every other morning.

The terrified eleven-year-old boy admitted late last night with the history of mental illness and intellectual disability. The sixteen-year-old girl whose battle with OCD continues to worsen. He had spent the better part of an early hour trying to calm her, while she shook and sobbed over the splintered skin of the hands she can't stop washing. There is the tired fifteen-year-old frequent flier and the struggling seventeen-year-old he has three weeks left to treat before she turns eighteen.

There has been a rapid uptick in his caseload as of late, but [concerning as each unique case is], he comforts himself with the thought that it's predictable. This happens every year. The nurses' stations are playing jingling holiday tunes and the irony doesn't escape him, how the days leading up to Christmas seem to bring about degrees of struggle and strife that are neatly stuffed away during the other months of the year.

There is something about the forced merriment and the memories surrounding the holiday that make it that much more difficult for so many of his patients. It is the play pretend at normalcy in a world spinning out of control that adds to the preordained pressures of adolescence for a multitude of the children he treats. Given the unprecedented times the world has been facing for the last three years, he has never been more thankful not to be a father himself. Sometimes, he wonders whether he would have been a good one, considering how much of himself and his time he offers to children who aren't his own.

His phone has continued to ring, his emails are piling into his inbox faster than he can read them, but he'll take the time later. One call has caught his attention above the others, reporting news of a boy teetering on the edge of the George Washington bridge and a young green officer tasked with talking him down. The story evolved as the call wore on; a long night, a dead girl, criminal charges of homicide, an ongoing investigation and an arrest, perhaps pending an evaluation. A psych eval with him.

No pressure.

He wonders about the boy, about both the boys, the one on the bridge and the one who found him. He thinks he'll keep tabs on the rookie, give the precinct a call next week to check in on him. Three days on the job and successfully talking a suicidal kid off a literal ledge would make anyone's head spin. He jots down a note in his manilla folder to follow up next week.

He stands behind his desk and skims the police report concerning a boy he has never met, whose fate is somehow resting in his hands.

Eli. A Hebrew name. Biblical, he thinks. Catholic.
Stabler. Irish.
Fourteen years old. Young. Too young to be caught up in whatever all of this is…
No criminal record. Good kid.
Deceased nineteen-year-old female in apartment. No box to check for this tragedy just yet…
Evidence of alcohol and drug use at the scene. Hers or his?

There's more to read, but he stops and slips the file into his folder before he can skim any further. It isn't that he doesn't want to know or that he isn't curious, rather he wants to let Eli tell the story himself. It is his, after all and he wants to give the kid a chance before he jumps to any conclusions. He takes a sip of his now cold coffee and grabs an extra pen from his desk.

He wonders who he'll find in the locked ward room number 116, whether Eli Stabler is angry and annoyed, cold and calculating, or still and silent.

Regardless, he wants to meet him.

He buzzes his way in through the heavy door which closes with a resounding snap of finality behind him. He hates that door. He is free to come and go as he pleases, and the sound still irks him. He can't imagine how much it grates on his patients, who have no choice but to stay. He makes another note to address it with maintenance next week. He glances up at the windows into room 116. He isn't sure what he expects to find, but somehow it isn't what he sees. From this vantage point, through two locked doors, he can just make out the hunch of the boy's shoulders. He knocks lightly on the first door and watches as Eli jumps at the sound, as though he has been electrocuted. He makes a mental note not to make any sudden movements. He has a fleeting thought that approaching this boy is like encroaching on an unfamiliar animal, a deer in the headlights, a lion on the Savanna.

He taps with a lighter touch on the second door and waits for Eli to let him know it's all right to come in. He won't invade his space if he isn't ready for company. The boy isn't a prisoner. Eli turns his head at the sound and gives a quick nod signaling that it's okay to enter into his space. He opens the door and introduces himself.

"Hello Eli, my name is Dr. Stutz."

He watches the way Eli stands almost automatically and extends his own shaking hand out toward him. It's with a military precision, as though he were raised properly by an old-school father who took time to teach him about respect. He takes Eli's proffered hand and shakes it warmly. The boy's skin is cold to the touch and all at once, he is apologizing.

"Sorry," Eli says sheepishly, with a shake of his head. He crosses his arms and tucks his hands back into the sleeves of his sweater. Eli is tall and lanky with long limbs and fair skin. His dark eyes are reddened around their rims, as though he has spent more than a few moments crying today.

He wants to talk to the boy. He wants to find out why. He motions for Eli to sit back down and watches as he nods again, more so to himself as though he is mentally talking himself through the instruction and then willing his own legs to work.

"Do you mind if I sit down?" Dr. Stutz asks. He watches and waits for Eli's nod. He wants to make sure the boy knows he has some say in all of this. When he receives his answer, he settles himself into the spare chair opposite Eli's bed and rests his folder on his knee.

"Eli, I'm Dr. Stutz," he says once more. "I'm one of the mental health professionals here." He doesn't like to call himself a psychiatrist because he knows the stigma surrounding his profession still runs strong.

"I would like to have the chance to talk with you, if that's all right."

Eli nods again. He hunches his shoulders and keeps his arms crossed over his chest, as though he is trying to fold inward to protect himself. He wonders whether he is still cold. He reaches behind himself to where he knows Eli's letterman jacket rests on the back of his chair and passes it across to him.

Eli accepts it with a grateful expression and quickly puts it on, slipping his hands into the pockets. Dr. Stutz wonders what sport he plays to have earned a space on his high school's team. He wants to ask, but he wants to let Eli tell.

He gives the boy a reassuring smile. "I'm not here to judge anything you tell me, Eli. I'm just interested in talking to you. I'd like to know what's going on. I'd like to hear your side of the story."

Eli takes a breath and curls further inward as though the fetal position is his goal. He slips one hand from his pocket and runs it roughly through the length of his hair before he looks back up to meet his gaze.

"Where do you want me to start?" Eli asks, his voice is low as though he hasn't used it properly in a few hours.

Dr. Stutz shakes his head. "Anywhere you want." He wants Eli to understand he has freedom here. He motions toward the folder resting on the doctor's knee and Dr. Stutz realizes the boy thinks he has read the entirety of the report, has made up his own mind about sentences of guilt or innocence.

He shakes his head and begins to explain.

"Anything you want to tell me is fair game. Last night, last year…" Dr. Stutz shrugs. "Anything you tell me is privileged, meaning it stays between you and me, unless there's something that makes me worry, then I have to talk to the right people, but you'll be included in everything."

He wants to assure him, to help him understand. As far as he can tell, the kid has had a long night and even longer day. He wonders what happened yesterday or the day before to precipitate all of whatever this is.

Eli nods once more and his corresponding inhale is choppy. Dr. Stutz thinks he is steeling himself, mentally preparing himself for whatever it is he has to say.

"Take your time, Eli." The words have barely left his mouth when Eli is opening his own and starting to speak.

"I don't think this is gonna make a lotta sense," he says, shaking his head and Dr. Stutz does the same.

"That's okay. Wherever you want to lead, I can follow along." This boy has a story to tell and he is getting the sense that it began long before whatever it is that happened last night.

Eli takes another shaky breath and exhales into the quiet between them. He slips his hands from his jacket pockets to rest them in his lap.

"My mom was murdered earlier this year," he announces softly.

Dr. Stutz nearly drops his pen. It's a quiet sorrowful reverence with which Eli speaks and it's the last thing he expected to hear.

"I'm so sorry-" He tries, but Eli is already speaking again.

"My dad's a cop. He and my mom were on a trip here to New York from home and my mom was killed by somebody who wanted revenge on my dad."

Dr. Stutz leans back in his chair. Eli is handing him the pieces of a puzzle and he is putting them together. He remembers this, hearing whispers of this report come across the bridge.

An NYPD Detective's wife, murdered in a car bombing late last winter.

He never learned anything more. He never realized there were children left behind. He thinks it's ironic the way that tragedies work, how after a brief period of sympathy, the rest of the world moves on while individuals and families are left shattered in the midst.

"It's not my dad's fault," Eli says. His voice suddenly sounds stronger as though he is defending his father from an invisible attacker.

Dr. Stutz shakes his head in agreement. "Of course, it's not."

"But he blames himself," Eli finishes as though the doctor hasn't spoken at all. Dr. Stutz nods and adds another piece of the puzzle to the collection in his lap.

"My mom died and my dad just threw himself away. Sometimes, he doesn't eat or sleep because he's always working. I thought he was getting better but now…" He shrugs helplessly and stuffs his hands back into the pockets of his jacket.

Dr. Stutz leans forward to rest his elbow on his knee. "What's happened lately, Eli?" Something has to have changed, morphed, shifted to make the instability inside this house of cards even more pronounced.

Eli nods because he seemingly has an answer. "This week was the trial and everything got messed up."

Dr. Stutz makes a noise of acknowledgement low in his throat. This makes sense. The murder trial would bring everything back to the forefront of the family's mind. He thinks he must be wearing an expectant expression on his face because Eli is shaking his head once more.

"I didn't go to the verdict, so I don't know what happened. I couldn't…" He trails off and the doctor nods. This young man has had monumental things asked of him that mature adults would have trouble handling.

"It's all right," he says and Eli shrugs his shoulders again as if he doesn't believe that it's okay.

"A few months ago, I started takin' pills. My grandma came to live with us and she's bi-polar." Dr. Stutz watches the way Eli's body is visibly tensing. He is holding himself stiffly while his right knee starts to bounce with nerves.

"My sister's bi-polar too, but she's good." His voice is quiet with awe as though his sister is someone he respects. "She handles it. I guess she had a hard time with it when I was a little kid, but I don't remember."

There must be an age gap between Eli and his siblings.

Dr Stutz fumbles for the cap of his pen and jots this question down in the file. He will bet the forty dollars he has in his wallet that they are discussing Eli's paternal bloodlines. "This is your father's mother who is bi-polar?" He asks and Eli nods in reply.

"My grandma came to live with us 'cause she was having a hard time alone. Her illness scares my dad though. Leen..." Eli doubles back because he realizes he hasn't explained properly. "My sister, Kathleen, she says it's 'cause he feels helpless 'cause he can't control it and I think she's right."

Dr. Stutz nods again. More pieces of the puzzle. Eli's father is a fighter, a protector, and a provider. He appears relentless in this noble pursuit, but at what cost?

The man's son sits before him explaining.

"My dad was in therapy for a little while, but I don't think it helped him." Eli's pale skin flushes with apologetic embarrassment before he speaks again. "He doesn't really like talking about his feelings to doctors or to anybody really…I don't think…"

This man is proud, private, persistent.

"I mean, I think he talks to Olivia." Eli says this quietly, almost to himself before he realizes he should expound.

Dr. Stutz wonders who she is. Olivia could be a girlfriend, but this man doesn't seem like the type to dive into a relationship mere months after the loss of the mother of his children. She seems to be something more.

"Olivia is…" Eli starts slowly as though he is searching for the right words to describe this woman. "She's my dad's partner."

Dr. Stutz almost wants to ask what that means. The word encompasses so many things and he wonders which boxes this woman checks for Eli's father.

"She's a cop, too," Eli explains. "They worked together for a long time, way before I was born."

He understands this particular blue-line brand of loyalty.

"Leen says they were best friends, but then we moved to Italy, and I don't really know what happened to them. They didn't see each other for a long time."

"They see each other now?" Dr Stutz asks, and Eli gives half a nod.

"I wish he'd see her more," he starts, and Dr. Stutz thinks they might be getting somewhere. Why? He leaves the question unspoken.

"I don't know what it is, but she helps my dad, and he loves her. He told us. I mean, you’d have to be blind not to know, but…he told us anyway.”

Dr. Stutz sits back in his chair and relaxes his grip on his pen. If the situation weren't so serious, he thinks he might let himself grin. The absolute innocence of the way this boy speaks of his father's relationship with this woman is something to be grateful for. In the midst of all the complicated chaos, there is someone in Eli's father's corner and her presence seems to soothe his child. She must temper something in this seemingly temperamental man.

"Olivia was with my dad this morning when they found me," he says suddenly. Dr. Stutz looks back up into the boy's dark eyes and all at once, the child seems prepared to talk about whatever it is that happened, whatever it is that led him here.

"Last night, I skipped the verdict and I ran away from home. My dad's got cameras in the house from the last time I took some pills and left, but I figured out how to loop the footage to give me enough time to run." He says this with remorse as though there is nothing he would rather do than turn back time and stay in the safety of his bedroom until the verdict was read.

Eli shakes his head as his shoulders begin to tremble. "I don't even know where I thought I was going. I just took a walk. I needed some air." Each time he stops speaking, he seems to return to last night as he tries to remember.

"I went down to the promenade and I met this girl…" Eli closes his eyes, but his tears escape to race down his cheeks anyway.

"Her name was Mia and I'd never met her before, but she was pretty and nice and I wanted to impress her, so we talked for a bit and then she took me back to her place…or…some place…"

Eli presses his chin to his chest and keeps his eyes closed when he speaks again. "I thought my dad was gonna kill me."

Dr. Stutz leans forward once more on the pretense of hearing Eli's soft voice, ascertaining what exactly he means.

"I went to some stranger's place in the middle of the night. I mean, I'm a cop's kid, for fuck's sake."

Guilt. Regret.

"Eli, what happened when you went to the apartment with Mia?" He keeps his voice low, quiet and curious because he is genuinely curious how this cop's kid ended up on the wrong side of the tracks.

Eli struggles for another breath. He wipes his cheek on the sleeve of his jacket and tries to begin again. "We were sitting on the couch, and we were kissing and drinking. I never drank before and I think she knew that, but I wanted her to like me, and I had the pills I'd taken from my grandma. I had four of 'em," he recounts. "We each took two."

The muddled picture is becoming clearer by the minute. Alcohol and prescription medication are a recipe for disaster on a good day and, for this boy, yesterday was anything but.

He reaches across the space to touch Eli's arm and he jumps as though he has been scalded. "Sorry," Eli apologizes once, twice, three times before he starts to cry again.

"I don't remember anything after that. I woke up and I felt sick. Mia was gone and I tried to look for her. I went into her bedroom, and she was…" Eli swallows.

"She was what, Eli?"

"She was naked, but she was covered up, but she was…" Eli bites down hard on his bottom lip and shakes his head. His trembling has intensified to the point it's a wonder his teeth aren't chattering.

This boy is recounting a nightmare.

"She was…" He struggles for another breath and all the doctor can do is sit and listen.

"She was dead. I mean, I tried to wake her up, but I could tell she was…" Eli stands abruptly and barely makes it to the garbage can on the opposite side of the room before he throws up.

Dr. Stutz closes his eyes against the awful retching and waits a moment, then two before he opens them again. He wants to give the boy as much privacy as he can afford him here in this small space. He stands and presses his palm to Eli's shoulder.

"Sit tight. I'll be right back."

The kid needs a Ginger Ale and a moment to breathe. He wants to give him both.

The moment the door closes behind him, his phone chimes from within his pocket. He reaches for it and reads a text message, hours overdue and yet right on time.

E. Stabler, 14.
Cleared of all charges.
Parent is in route.
Free to go at your discretion.

The Fort Lee Police Department has no idea just how timely they are.

He retrieves a cold can of soda from the vending machine outside the nurses' lounge and makes his way back to where Eli is waiting.

He knocks lightly on both doors once more before letting himself back inside. He is relieved to see that Eli isn't crouched on his knees anymore, rather he sits on the tile floor with his back against the wall. He can't be comfortable. He must be cold.

"Found you something to settle your stomach." He opens the can of soda with a snap and Eli startles at the sound. Dr. Stutz passes the Ginger Ale into his trembling hand and Eli nods gratefully at the gesture before he takes a small sip.

"Eli," he says his name softly, as he reaches into his pocket for his cell phone. "I just received a message from the Fort Lee Police Department." Eli's dark eyes are wide as the doctor slips the phone into his free hand. He watches as the boy reads the message once, twice, three times before he crumples. He pulls his legs up toward his chest and presses his forehead to his knees.

"Mia's still dead," he manages through his tears and Dr. Stutz nods. The kid has a good heart.

"She is, but that isn't your fault." He knows he has to choose his next words carefully, phrase his next questions more tactfully than usual. He sits down in the spare chair he vacated minutes ago and waits. He wants to give the boy time to process. It's more than enough to make anyone's head spin.

"I didn't know what to do, so I ran away. I was so scared. They were my drugs and I thought I killed her, and I should have called 911, but I was so scared."

Dr Stutz leans forward and rests his elbows on his thighs. He has the sense this child has to get all of this off his chest in order to process and he is more than willing to listen. This is a different kind of purging.

"You didn't do anything wrong, Eli. You made a choice in the middle of a horrible circumstance. You didn't do anything wrong."

Eli shakes his head and starts again. "My phone was dead and I was so scared. I found a payphone," he gives a soft mirthless laugh. "I didn't even know they still had those things, but I called my dad."

Eli closes his eyes and his tears come again. There is something terrifyingly tender in the way this child talks about his father, as though he wants to take care of him, as though there is some fractured fragility in this strong, brave patriarch.

"I called my dad and I told him I was sorry. He didn't know what I was talkin' about and he kept asking me where I was and telling me he was coming to help me."

Eli exhales sharply and fixes his gaze on the floor beneath his feet. "He kept telling me it was okay and it wasn't. It's not."

Dr. Stutz nods in understanding, not affirmation. The girl is dead and it's senseless and a tragedy, but it isn't the boy's fault. The doctor thinks he'll try to get in touch with Mia's family over the next week to offer his help and his condolences. He knows Eli has to process all of this and it isn't going to happen overnight. He needs time and patience and if he wants to talk, he needs someone who wants to listen.

"What happened next, Eli?" He asks, although he is sure this is where the rookie officer comes into play.

Eli has begun to tremble again with what Dr. Stutz can only assume is the weight of the memories of the early hours of this morning. "I walked to the George Washington bridge and I climbed up onto the railing and I…"

He buries his face against his knees and cries. This child has been aching anxiously for months, last night was simply the tipping point.

"What were you thinking about, Eli?" Dr. Stutz asks gently. He needs to know where the boy's head was at that moment and where he is now.

"I was thinking that I accidentally killed Mia," he reiterates. "I was thinking I killed her and I didn't remember." Eli closes his eyes against the horrifying images only he can recall.

"What else, Eli?" He presses. He knows there is something else, something more, something potentially even bigger than the death of a stranger from a one night stand.

Eli's sob echoes loudly in the quiet. It's a moment before he speaks and when he does, his voice quakes. "I was thinking that I killed my dad."

The extraordinary revelation sounds irrational, but there is something in Eli's mind that makes it valid, and he has to find out what it is. Dr. Stutz lowers himself onto the floor across from Eli's bent knees. He wants them to have equal footing, to sit together on even ground.

"Can you tell me what you mean by that?" Dr. Stutz inquires, raising his voice scarcely above a whisper. Eli looks up and his dark eyes are brimming with tears.

"My dad's almost breaking and I don't know how much more he can handle." The admission sounds raw as though his father's strength secretly hides so much, but Eli isn't finished.

"If I killed Mia, it would have killed my dad and I couldn't live with either one of those things. I thought he'd be better off without me," Eli sobs.

Dr. Stutz reaches across the space and grasps Eli's shoulder with his hand. He gives him more than a minute to collect himself, to remember how to breathe before he speaks. He wants to ask the boy how he could believe that when his father has apparently moved heaven and earth today alone to make sure he is safe, but he can't put words in Eli's mouth. He has to ask him.

"How do you feel now?" Dr. Stutz asks, holding onto Eli's shoulder as if his grip will impart some semblance of understanding into this young man's mind. Eli takes a few shuddering breaths before he speaks again.

"My dad loves me a whole lot, but he's in trouble. He needs help. We all need help." Eli says all of this in a rush as though help is a four-letter word in his family. He shakes his head and Dr. Stutz can tell he is grasping at straws.

"My dad needs Olivia. He needs time. He needs this all to end so that we can go back and find some kinda normal. That's all I want." This child is begging for something he can't promise. He can only plant the seeds.

"Eli, it sounds like you have a pretty good relationship with your dad," he states. He lets the boy's reaction dictate his next words. Eli nods and so he continues. "I think you need to talk to your dad about all of this. I think man to man, open and honest, he would value your input."

Eli's dark eyes are wide as though he is considering communicating in such a way with his father for the very first time. Dr. Stutz wonders if he should mention bringing his father's partner, Olivia, along for moral support. He wonders whether this woman's voice is the only one Eli's father has ever truly heard. He knows this man loves his children but wonders whether he and Olivia speak a secret language that no one else understands. He wonders whether she can get through to him when no one else can.

He wonders…

"What do you think, Eli?"

He takes a deep steadying breath and then a second one for good measure before he nods. "I think I can try."

Dr. Stutz gives him a small smile. "I think your father may surprise you. I've never met him, but experiences have a way of changing people. I think your dad almost lost you today and judging from the way you talk about him I think that's going to have an impact."

Eli's expression is simultaneously full of doubt and hope, and he prays the kid understands that things take time.

"This isn't going to happen overnight," he cautions gingerly and the boy nods.

"I know. I just can't lose him."

Dr. Stutz bows his head and studies the floor for a moment while he collects himself. The kid has just come full circle.

"I think your dad feels the same way about you."

Eli looks up in puzzlement for a moment before understanding seems to dawn. He smiles ever so slightly and takes one more deep breath.

Dr. Stutz stands and offers Eli a hand to help him climb to his feet. Standing up, he watches the way Eli's shoulders drop as though some of the tremendous weight he has been carrying for the better part of the year has been lifted.

He fumbles with his folder on the table and extracts a business card from the pocket before pressing it into Eli's hand.

"You call me if you need anything. Anytime. Day or night. My job is like your dad's. My wife is used to it after all these years."

The kid grins ever so slightly and nods his head gratefully. "Thank you for helping me," he says as the doctor offers his hand to shake. He wants to tell the boy he didn't do much, that he talked himself through the woods, but his phone is suddenly ringing from its resting place on the bed.

He excuses himself and answers. It's Marisol from the nurses' station upstairs. He listens carefully to her message before providing one of his own.
"I'd like to speak with Eli's father. I'll be up as soon as I can."

He ends the call and fiddles with his text messages while Eli slips off his coat and takes a seat back on the bed. He has two patients to check on before he can make his way to the waiting room.

"Dr. Stutz, what are you gonna tell my dad?" He asks. Eli's voice isn't fearful or apprehensive, rather he sounds tired and ready to have all of this out in the open.

He gathers his folder at the same time he gathers his thoughts. "I'm going to briefly let him know what you and I discussed. It's up to you to give him the specifics, if you want. I just need him to know that there's help out there, for all of you, if you choose to reach for it."

Eli gives a shy smile and thanks him again. "Just hang out here and I'll bring your dad down as soon as I can."

The door of the ward closes with that resounding snap of finality he regularly detests, but in this moment it feels like protection. The boy inside is safe.

His next two patients require phone calls and follow ups and nearly half an hour goes by before he gets a minute to walk upstairs to the waiting room. He stops by his office on his way, grabbing a sip of his cold coffee and spotting an envelope on his desk that he knows hadn't been there an hour before.

He flips it over in his hand and grins when he sees the writing. He knows who it's from. This job is full of sob stories and sadness, anguish and anxiety, but sometimes there are glimmers of healing and hope. This card he holds in his hand is from a little girl, who isn't so little anymore. He is sure it's her annual Christmas card photo with her family and her dogs and her yearly update about how happy and healthy she is now. He runs his fingers over the swirling cursive letters of his name and smiles. He hopes Eli's story can have a similar ending.

Upstairs, the light is changing. The afternoon is wearing on and the Christmas music is still playing. He makes his way through the halls toward the waiting room. He isn't sure what he will find when he arrives. He wonders whether the man Eli calls his father will be panicked and pacing or sober and sad.

As he approaches the waiting room, he can hear soft voices issuing from the open door.

A woman's voice is speaking so low that he can't pick up the words, but he realizes that Eli's father isn't alone.

He is sure the voice can belong to one person, and one person only. Olivia, he thinks.

"I promise, I'll tell you everything you need to know. Just not now." He can hear the hum of her velvet voice now as she speaks louder. He can't fathom what they're talking about, except that Eli said they were apart for a long time. He wonders what it would be like to be separated from one's best friend by oceans and years and circumstances only to find each other again.

He steps closer to the door and from this angle he can see inside. The man he can only assume is Eli's father has his back to him and from the proximity of their bodies, he can tell that Olivia is cradled close to his chest. He can't see her for the broadness of the man's shoulders, but he knows she must be there.

"Remember, I'm all right," she whispers and this time he hears a replies.

"You're all right." The man's voice is a low reverent rasp as though their welfare is tied together.

"We're all right," she finishes. He watches the way Olivia must lean in and Eli's father steps even closer, bending low to press a kiss to the top of her head.

He hasn't meant to spy. He gives them a moment more before he taps lightly on the doorframe, and they let each other go when they hear the sound.

Eli's father turns and his first thought is of the inherent formidable fierceness this man exudes. He is tall and broad and powerful. He is the kind of man his wife would jokingly call a "hunk" and Dr. Stutz thinks he looks just like those textbook cops on the police procedurals she regularly watches.

He sees how people could feel intimidated by this man's presence, but he knows better.

This man has raised a good son and he has a lionheart of gold.

He introduces himself first.

"Hi, Dr. Stutz. Mr. Stabler?" He extends his hand at the same moment Eli's father does.

"Yeah, Elliot Stabler," he replies. His son's namesake.

He lets his gaze travel from one partner to the other. This woman is something else entirely. She is beautiful and softer with no less of a presence. She is calming and comforting while Elliot is all power and protection. He knows who she is, but he doesn't want to give it away.

"And?" He asks, directing his attention toward her, but they both answer with her name.

"…Olivia Benson."

"I'm a family friend," she explains, and he almost wants to smile at the obvious denial these two people are living in. Granted, he is married, but he doesn't hold his family friends like that.

"Can I speak freely?" He asks. He knows the answer, that Eli is almost this woman's child too, but he has to ask. He has to make sure.

"Of course," Elliot replies as though it's the most obvious thing in the world. Dr. Stutz nods and dives in.

"Well, uh. Thankfully, all charges have been dropped against Eli. He's free to go home." He lets his gaze travel between the two of them while he speaks.

"Right and you need to speak to me," Elliot replies and the doctor nods.

"Yeah, I do." He needs to tell them about their son.

"Okay," Elliot answers and Dr. Stutz nods toward the door and motions for them to follow.

They both walk quickly, Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson. They seem to keep the same pace even though she lags behind just slightly, giving him space while letting him know she is right there should he need her.

Dr. Stutz buzzes them through the heavy door and holds it open until they can both handle it themselves.

"I had a chance to spend some time with your son since he's been here. He mentioned that both his grandmother and his sister were bipolar."

"Eli is not bipolar." Elliot's response is immediate and all at once, Dr. Stutz thinks he understands what Eli means.

"Well, I'm not suggesting that," he assures him before he continues on. "Now, the reason that I wanted to speak to you was, while Eli may not be suicidal, may not even be an immediate risk, he is manifesting real signs of severe anxiety."

"Well, yeah. He was charged with a murder that he didn't commit, so that would make sense that…" He thinks a weaker man would step back, but he holds his ground. Elliot's voice raises in confusion and distress.

"Elliot-" Olivia speaks. She says one word, his name, and as suddenly as the man reared up, he is backing down. This woman soothes him in ways the doctor can't explain, but he is grateful she is here.
He takes his eyes off of her as he watches them exchange a glance. He can't say he has ever seen anything like it.

He watches the man fix his gaze on the windows over his shoulder and he knows he can see his son inside.

"Okay, so severe anxiety," Elliot repeats, inquires, and begins again.

Dr. Stutz glances at the floor beneath their feet and quickly takes inventory of where to begin. He thinks, this time, it's best to jump.

"When your son was on that ledge, he was devastated by the possibility that he may have been, in some way, responsible for Mia's death. But he was just as upset, perhaps more frightened and upset by the thought of how his father, you, might react."

He watches the way Elliot's expression turns from one of desperation to fear.

"Are you saying he's afraid of me?" He asks. His voice is devastation, and the doctor is shaking his head almost immediately.

"No, no, no." He glances back toward Eli's room where the boy sits waiting. He wants to tell Elliot Stabler that his son has a good heart and a solid conscience. He wants to tell him how much his child cares.

"He's afraid for you. He told me what you've been through. He's just not sure how much more you can take." He watches the man before him nearly dissolve at the sound of his words. Elliot's eyes fill with tears and he clenches his jaw. He worries his bottom lip in a way that is nearly identical to that of his son.

He hears the softest exhale of breath from Olivia Benson as she watches the man before them both. She seems to know that the revelation he has just been given has rendered Elliot paralyzed. Dr. Stutz steps away to give them a moment while he opens the door to Eli's room. He turns back just in time to see Olivia press her hand to Elliot's back and push him, as if she is the only thing that keeps him moving forward.

He opens the second door and he lets Elliot Stabler go ahead to greet his son.

"Hey bud." His voice is gentle and the doctor nearly smiles at the juxtaposition. He watches Eli stand as his father pulls him close in a hug. He doesn't have to see anymore. The doctor moves out into the hallway where Olivia Benson waits. He has the distinct impression she feels as though she is on the outside looking in and he wonders if she knows how much she means to this family. He presses his hand to her forearm in passing.

"Thank you for loving them," he says sincerely. He doesn't think she can speak, but he doesn't need a reply. When he glances back down the hallway, he sees the three of them.

Together.

Chapter Text

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.

"Yes."

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.

"El."

"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.

"Promise."

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.

"What?"

"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
Something
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
Gleams
As never, it seems, before.

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

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

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.

Love,
Mama