“That was class for today, guys. Johnny, remember to finish your homework for tomorrow,” the voice of his favorite teacher said, a few seconds before the bell rang. Noah quickly packed his bag. He had about three seconds to get out of this place if he wanted to avoid getting bothered in the hallways.
“Hey, look who we have here!” A boy two grades above him shoved him hard against the wall.
“What did you get for Christmas, little ballerina? A dead man’s body?”
“Let me go.”
“Go where? You really think your mama loves you? A boy who dances… No wonder she didn’t want to spend Christmas with you. You really think she would care if you never returned home?” The blond guy with blue eyes smirked at him, his eyes empty as he taunted Noah.
It had been like this all year. The bullying, the harassment… It took a toll on him, and even his mom had started to notice it when he was reluctant to go to school last week. Up until this schoolyear, everything had been fine. The kids talked, sometimes – obviously – but they had never truly bothered him until now. They’d started with how he’s so abnormally tall for his age, but after they overheard him talking with his best friend during the break they went for his deepest insecurities. The fact that everyone knew about his passion for dancing didn’t help a lot, either.
“YES, my mom would care. So let go of me!”
Deep down he knew she did, but the big boy with blond hair and blue eyes struck a nerve and he knew it. Because, did his mom really care about him? She would always choose her job over him, after all, wouldn’t she?
He kicked Noah in his belly, and he doubled over, gasping for air as tears sprung in his saddened eyes. Was this really his life now? From mama’s little miracle, to somebodies punching bag? Maybe he was pathetic.
“Hey Noah, what’s taking so long?” he heard Lucy yell from a distance, and the blond boy glanced at his friend. “See?” he started as Noah’s eyes locked with his again, “she isn’t even here to pick you up.”
Noah’s eyes casted down in shame, and he heard the boys run off as Lucy’s footsteps neared. “Noah? Anything I should know about?” Her eyes studied him frantically, searching for any physical harm, and Noah let out an annoyed sigh. “I’m fine. I just wanna go home.”
The concerned expression didn’t leave her face, but she nodded in agreement. “Yeah, let’s go kid.” A long conversation was awaiting him, he knew. Lucy wasn’t dumb, and she wasn’t about to let this go so easily.
They walked out together, towards her car when Noah suddenly stopped and turned. “Actually… Mom won’t be home until after my bedtime, right?”
Lucy frowned, but nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think so. She told me it’s like a zoo today. Why are you asking?”
“Take me somewhere else.”
“Are you sure this is the right place?” Lucy asked, eyeing Noah warily. She’d never been here, after all, and didn’t quite trust the place. Noah knew she’d never met Elliot, so he couldn’t really blame her for being worried about dropping him off here, at a random person’s gate.
“Yes, I’m sure. Mom and I went here a week before Christmas-, please don’t tell her I’m here.”
“I know, I know.”
Lucy grabbed her phone, and tapped on his mom’s name before holding it to her ear. He sighed loudly, pouting a little. Nobody trusted the word of an eight-year-old like himself. Not even Lucy. Because kids have a tendency to trust the wrong people, and it causes them to end up in bad situations. He knew all that very well, his mom spent some serious time teaching him what ‘stranger danger’ means. Plus he’d heard things on the news, or saw it on social media. But Elliot wasn’t a stranger. Elliot was… Elliot. He was a grandfather to kids who were nearly as old as he was (how strange was that?). He was his mom’s former partner at work, her former best friend. Most importantly, he was the only person on earth who could make his mom smile so brightly. So, he’d written down Elliot’s address when he was here. Just in case.
His mom trusted Elliot, so he did too.
“Your mom wants to speak to you.”
Noah sighed again but grabbed the phone, lying off his butt about how he had texted Eli and how they’d agreed on playing some game on his Xbox for a while.
“Be safe, Noah. Call me as soon as you need me to come pick you up.”
“I will, bye Lucy!” He handed Lucy her phone and jumped out of the car as fast as a lightning bolt. As he opened the heavy gate, surprised it was even unlocked (because his mom locks literally everything), he started to doubt a little. Would Elliot even be okay with him showing up at random?
“You really shouldn’t leave your doors unlocked, you know? It’s dangerous.”
Elliot’s head shot up at the high pitched voice behind him, hitting the piping of the sink he was fixing with a bang. A sharp pain shot through his scalp, and his eyes closed in reflex. “Fuck- shit, Jesus.”
“Mom says we’re not supposed to say bad words. You owe me like… four dollars now.”
Rubbing the sore spot on the back of his head, Elliot turned around to find his former partner’s son looking at him with big amused eyes.
“I- Noah, what-”
“Just kidding, we don’t do that money thing. Although, you could get me a new fish. My mom flushed mine down the drain accidentally when I let it swim in the sink. I mean, I was just trying to be a good caretaker so I tried to clean the tank in the bathtub so mom wouldn’t have to and she just killed my fish! Don’t tell her I told you this, but she did cry about it. So I’m not mad at her. But-”
“Noah,” Elliot urged once more when Noah kept on rambling, and tried to stifle a laugh. Olivia Benson flushing her son’s fish down the drain and then crying about it, who would’ve thought? A small smile crept through despite his attempts to hide it. This story reminded him an awful lot about the time he’d flushed Dickie’s turtle down the garbage disposer.
“I’ll get you a new fish, if your mom’s okay with it. What are you doing here? Where’s Liv?”
If Noah Benson was here in his kitchen, it means Olivia must be near. Parking the car, maybe?
“Oh, she’s not here. Lucy brought me. Didn’t mom text you?”
Elliot pinched the bridge of his nose before he grabbed his phone, and indeed. A message from Olivia.
“Eli has school until four, wanna watch some Netflix while you wait for him?”
Noah shook his head, smiling sadly. “I actually came here for you. I hoped we could… Talk, about something.”
Elliot’s eyebrows furrowed, his hands getting somewhat sweaty. He hadn’t been that obvious at the Christmas gathering, had he? If he had, why did Noah only come to him now? A bad feeling settled in his stomach. He’d only met Olivia’s son once and might’ve already managed to make him feel bad for weeks.
“Sure, bud. What’s up?”
Elliot grabbed two glasses of the mango smoothie his mother had made this morning, and guided Noah to the couch. Whatever this was, it was serious, because Noah’s playful behavior was replaced by a dreadful look and slumped shoulders.
“What’s going on?”
Noah’s sad blue eyes looked up into his, and tears started to form as soon as he opened his mouth.
“I really shouldn’t say. I’m sorry, I-”
“Hey,” Elliot placed his hand on Noah’s knee and squeezed softly, “you can tell me anything. I promise.”
The boy with curly blond hair sighed softly. “Boys at school have been teasing me, and I’m usually good at blocking it out but…”
Elliot’s heart dropped, feeling a different kind of pain in his chest. Olivia’s little boy was getting bullied, and he of all people knew what that was like. Especially at such a young age.
“You were mom’s best friend for a long time, right? Like, even before I was born?”
Elliot’s eyes studied him, but to his surprise he couldn’t get a single read on this kid. “Yeah, I’ve known your mom since 1998.”
“Did she ever.. You know, talk about wanting kids?”
What the hell?
“Yes, she did. It was her biggest wish, ever since I met her. And you know what? I’ve never seen her happier than when she’s with you.”
This seemed to get to the small kid that carried a part of Olivia inside of him, because it only took a few seconds before his tears started to spill over. Elliot reached out to him, wanting to wrap him up in his arms and keep him safe from the demons he shouldn’t be dealing with at such a young age – but Noah flinched away.
“They say my mom doesn’t love me. That… She does it on purpose, working so much. Because she doesn’t want to be with me.”
Elliot’s fingers stilled, and so did his heart. He’d seen the way Olivia’s eyes lit up whenever she talked about her little boy. She’d told him about how he’d pulled her out of a dark time, about how he was her little miracle. Her sweet boy. He’d seen her get teary-eyed whenever she had to call her son to cancel their plans again, because she was stuck at work. She hated disappointing him, and this was her biggest fear, he knew. He knew because it was his biggest fear. The fear of nearly every cop who was raising a child.
“Hey, why would you believe that? You’re your mom’s favorite person, you know that?”
Noah started sobbing even louder now, and Elliot felt helpless. He’d raised five kids, dealt with this particular situation before, but right now he didn’t have a damn clue what to do. Because this isn’t just any kid. It’s Olivia’s kid, and he’s asking him for help. God knows he only ever makes things worse – especially in Olivia’s life. He didn’t mean to, but he always managed to say the wrong fucking thing at the wrong time. This had to go right, he thought. It just had to. Because if it didn’t, well, Olivia might just disappear on him for a change.
“Hey, buddy, look at me.”
Noah’s tears had been flowing for nearly two minutes now, but he did what he was told.
“Olivia- your mom loves you more than anything in the world. She hates working so much, and if it were her choice she’d be with you every second of the day. She told me that, and your mom is a very bad liar.”
A small smile appeared on Noah’s face, but it still didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“They told me nobody wants a son who acts like a girl. Because you know, I do ballet. And everyone knows about what happened on Christmas, so it’s even worse now.” He sounded small and scared, and the urge to just grab him and hold him tight is strong. But he knows he can’t risk it – he has to do the right thing here.
“Lemme tell you something. When I was your age, I used to like ballet too. My mom loved that my passion was different than everyone else’s. My dad acted the way those boys did to you. But you know what my teacher said? The boys who dare to be different are the only real man. They’re the strong ones, because they’re not afraid to do what makes them happy. They’re strong because they chose for themselves. I bet those boys play soccer, or basketball?”
Noah nodded, his tears subsiding and hiccuping slightly. “Basketball,” he croaked.
“See? Most of them are just trying to impress the girls, or they want to prove they’re a man. Sometimes they just play it because their parents want them to. You do what makes YOU happy. That’s brave.”
This time Noah’s smile did reach his eyes. He stood op, and threw his weight upon Elliot’s unexpectedly. “Thank you.”
His eyes watered, maybe he finally did something right in Olivia’s life. He knew how reluctant she was to letting him meet Noah, afraid her son would get attached to someone who’ll only leave in the end. But that was not happening ever again.
“So mom doesn’t mind that I dance?” Noah whispered into his shirt, and Elliot tightened his arms around him in response.
“On the contrary, she loves it. Every time I see her she pulls up a video, the last one being you with that new partner of yours, the brunette. How’s that going, anyway?”
Elliot pulled back slightly and wiggled his eyebrows at him, smirking. This seemed to do the trick, because Noah poked him in the ribs and started laughing. “Don’t be silly, she’s my friend.”
“Alright, if you say so,” he laughed warmly, “I’m probably not the best person to ask about girls, anyway.”
Noah grinned, “If you say so.”
He climbed off him and turned around, grabbing the mango smoothie and taking a big sip. Elliot watched as Noah looked around the place for the first time since he got here, taking it in without all the Christmas décor in every corner of the room. His eyes seemed to linger at one place though, and before Elliot could follow his gaze, he spun back around, his jaw dropping to the floor.
“I didn’t know you had a cat!” Noah exclaimed, pointing at something behind the divider between the living room and kitchen. Elliot’s eyes widened, and he jumped to his feet. He took a few steps towards Noah and turned his eyes to the spot he was pointing at just a few seconds ago, catching a glimpse of something awfully orange.
Son of a bitch.
“Neither did I,” he responded bitterly, and sighed deeply as he made a mental note to have a chat with his mama about this trait of hers. It was sweet of her to give homeless cats a shelter, but this was his apartment, and not setting boundaries might cause him to end up returning to a home with fifty cats in it.
“Can I keep him? Please, Elliot?’’
“Your mom wouldn’t answer my calls for a month if I gave you a cat without her knowledge. I love you both, so that’s a no. Sorry bud.”
The corners of Noah’s mouth shot up in a small thoughtful smile, before it quickly disappeared again. It wasn’t until then that he realized what just came out of his mouth.
What was it with him and his damned timing?
He didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest bit, though. Instead, the boy quietly walked towards the cat and crouched down. He petted him carefully, and the cat purred contently as he rolled on his back so Noah could scratch his stomach.
“I think I’ll call him Cheeto, what do you think?”
Elliot awkwardly bounced from one leg to the other. “Uh- yeah, it’s great. You can’t keep him, though.”
Noah’s head turned towards him, a hopeful expression on his face. “Can you? He looks happy here. Bernie likes cats, right? She talked to me about them. Orange ones are her favorite!”
Elliot closed his eyes momentarily, “I think grandma Bernie would like that, yes.”
Benson’s and their persuasiveness.
Climbing back up to a standing position, Noah’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Now mom has to bring me over more often.”
“So I can play with the cat, duh!”
Elliot rolled his eyes and shook his head, kids.
“Can I tell you another secret about mom?”
His breath caught in his throat, wanting to respect her privacy but also aching to know what this kid had to say. Noah Benson was an interesting kid. A little all over the place, but interesting. Sweet. And really, how bad can a secret held by an eight-year-old be?
“I think that’s your mom’s business.”
“Nah, it’s about you. I’m not even supposed to know about it.”
Elliot swallowed audibly. If he was going to make a trip down to hell for this, so be it.
“What about me?”
Noah suddenly turned shy, a blush creeping up his cheeks.
“Come over more often? With Eli, maybe? It’s nice having a… having a man to talk to. And another boy to play with.” He was nervous, Elliot could see it in the way he started picking on a loose thread of his sweater. He was clearly avoiding their previous subject, but Elliot’s heart couldn’t help feeling an ocean of love washing through it. Olivia’s kid was inviting him into their private little space.
“I’d love to. But let me ask your mother first, okay? We’ll work something out.”
“Mom talks in her sleep,” he sucked in a breath, and then, “she loves you too.”