Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labor in its cause?
I don't think so. - Mary Oliver
He tilts his head back against the cool tile of the wall and closes his eyes. It’s been more than fourteen years, but he remembers it as though he is the anticipative father in this moment now.
He has done this three times. Maur, Leen, and the twins. He remembers each one for different reasons.
Maureen was born when he was just nineteen, and a baby himself. Kathy had passed him every book in the library about parenting and what to expect when you’re expecting , but nothing in the world could have prepared him for his daughter’s arrival. She made her entrance into the world quietly, the antithesis of her young mother’s grueling sixteen hours of labor, with a shock of fluffy blonde hair and the biggest blue eyes he’d ever seen.
He was there.
Leen was born six weeks premature, tiny and tenacious from the moment she was delivered into his shaking hands in the lobby of the hospital. He remembers holding her against his chest, for hours on end amidst the bustle of the NICU, the moment his baby girl could breathe on her own.
He was there.
The twins were something else entirely. Kathy had been on bedrest for weeks leading up to their birth with a Cesarean section scheduled and two little girls who needed him purposefully present at home, so he doesn’t recall as much. His first boy and his third daughter were born within four minutes of each other and he no longer remembers which one came first. Kathy always knew, but it has never mattered to him, so long as they were healthy, happy, and here.
He was there.
Five children. Four pregnancies. Three times.
As long as you were there when it counted.
He can hear Bridget’s voice, the light tone she’d used the afternoon of the picnic because she hadn’t known.
She hadn’t known he wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there when his son was born. He wasn’t there when it counted.
He clutches the small Styrofoam coffee cup like it’s a lifeline. His hands are still shaking more than an hour later. His forearm is sore from the way Bridget’s fingernails dug through the fabric of his coat while she cried. Her screams are still ringing in his ears. He thinks it’s ironic, the degree of violence at both the beginning and the end of a life. Blood and tears, pleas and prayers. The helplessness, the surrender…
“No, Elliot! Don’t leave me!”
This isn’t his child, but he has never felt more helpless than the day his own son was born.
He wasn’t there, but he has done everything he can to make damn sure that Frank was.
He stands outside the door, just across the hall from the room where Bridget, Frank, and the baby are. He told them he wanted to give them a moment, but in truth, a moment is what he needs. He needs some space. He isn’t a part of their family, as much as Frank is asserting, even more insistently than usual, that he is his brother . He is on the outside looking in and the thought alone made his chest feel tight until there wasn’t enough air left in the small room and he’d excused himself for this.
The hallway is quiet for ten after ten in the evening and he wonders whether the maternity ward ever really rests. His grandsons arrived before he could make it back from across the world, so he met them for the first time at Maureen’s. He hasn’t stepped foot in this particular brand of sacred, sheltered space since the day his son was born.
The moment the doctors and nurses had taken over, rushed Bridget from his side, had nearly been too much and he needed air.
The cold night wind whipped against his face until it became the wake of the helicopter rotor. He remembers hearing four words: There’s been an accident and asking one question: Who? Bridget’s cries became the crackle of his wife’s across the wavering cell phone connection and all the while he never heard her .
Olivia’s taking really good care of me.
He lowered himself to sit on the freezing concrete, letting his palms contact the rough sidewalk beneath him. He silently asked the question that has been on the tip of his tongue for the last fourteen years. He has swallowed it most of the time, but this night has brought it all back up.
Who’s taking care of Olivia?
His stomach had rolled more than once and then he was emptying its contents into a nearby trashcan and chewing fervently on a piece of spearmint gum from his pocket until he could catch his breath.
Sometimes, he chokes with the absolute unfairness of it all. The fucked up twist of fate which tangled them that November day. He knows she watched the life drain from his wife at the same moment she was entrusted with his son’s new one. He’d been desperate and angry and in his selfishness he almost lost them all.
She wanted a child and he wanted her.
Wants. Needs. Always.
His child was delivered into her hands and then given to his mother. She’d waited just like this, beyond the door of the hospital room, on the outside looking in.
By the time he arrived, the horrors had already happened. He sailed in on the tail end, the denouement, the happy ending with his wife safe and sound and a healthy baby boy.
All thanks to her. She held the shattering pieces of his life together while all he wanted was to hold onto her.
She held his son and he held her, both for the first time on the same heavy day.
Then he let her go. He let her go home with a bloodstained sweater and dazed gaze. He let her go because she asked him to.
El, I’m fine. I promise.
He knows now, the same way he did back then, he should have fought. He should have fought her, fought for her. He should have dismantled her fragile armor and fought for her to be checked in to the hospital and checked out by a doctor. He should have run from bedside to bedside, from his wife to his partner, making good on his promise to them both, to protect and to serve, for better or for worse.
He has thought Donnelly a selfish prick for cheating on Bridget, while he knows that he is no better. He made vows to two women and broken them both.
He knows he will never forgive himself for as long as he lives. The day his son was born haunts him like a ghost.
Frank’s laugh pulls him from his reverie. He hears the hum of Bridget’s voice, but he can’t make out the words. He thinks she is saying something about wishing they could go home already and he shakes his head. No one deserves Donnelly, but if any woman could give him a run for his money, he thinks it’s her.
He lets his gaze travel down the hall, past the restrooms and the nurses station. He watches eager families trickle into and out of rooms, one visitor at a time. They all wear the unmistakable expression of contagious hope that comes with babies being brought into the world.
A woman quietly bows out of a room five doors to his right. Her dark ponytail sweeps the slope of her shoulder and when she straightens up…he is moving toward her without a second thought.
He wonders whether she is really here or if she is a mirage of memories. The late hour, the stale coffee, the dying adrenaline. He wonders if he is hallucinating, seeking comfort, seeking her. This night. The car, the screams, the hospital, the baby. He remembers nothing at all and all too well because he wasn’t there.
She was. She stood in his place.
She’s here tonight.
He reaches for her the same way he did on that unseasonably warm November afternoon. Tucked against him, she feels exactly the same, but a decade of different. Her hair is long, and her body is softer in his arms. Her palms are insistent in their press to his back and he knows she can feel the way he is shaking ever so slightly, held in the first cradle his child ever knew.
“Are you okay?” Her breath is a whisper against his neck, and he doesn’t want to lie, so he doesn’t answer at all. He knows his silence is costing her and she needs an answer as to what the hell he is doing in a maternity ward in the middle of the night, before he realizes he could ask her the same question.
“Are the kids all right?”
The kids. It’s her concern for the children she never bore, but mothered like her own, that breaks him.
In a parallel universe, they are theirs .
He kisses her warm forehead and nods against her so she can feel his acknowledgement.
“I went to Donnelly’s house tonight to see him. He wasn’t home, but his wife was there waiting for him. Nine months pregnant with her first baby. She was havin’ contractions and the baby wasn’t gonna wait, so I drove her. Got here just in time. Frank, too.”
He hears the quiet sound she makes and senses rather than sees her small smile. “How’s the baby?” She asks. Her voice lilts the same way it did when she asked him fourteen years ago. He closes his eyes and in darkness he can pretend that no time has passed. He can pretend the last decade of dissolution never took place. The severing separation never happened and he’s been here every minute. He has been here when it mattered.
“Are you okay?” She asks again. His swallow is heavy in the quiet and the press of her breasts against her chest as she inhales reminds him to breathe with her.
“Hit a little too close to home,” he explains, holding the only home he has ever wanted in his arms. He watches her sooty eyelashes brush against her cheeks as she closes her eyes. He feels the way her forehead bumps his jaw when she nods.
“We never talked.” The words fall from his mouth on a rasp he immediately wishes he could take back.
He feels the way she leans back in his arms and he panics momentarily, certain that she is trying to leave, to push him away, to extricate herself from his grasp. She surprises him when her seeking hands find his shoulder, his chest, the space above his heart.
She is grace personified because she doesn’t ask. She doesn’t ask him if he has lost his damn mind or if the events of the night have given him temporary amnesia, as though it is his baby who was born within the hour and she is the reason he is alive. She doesn’t ask why it’s taken more than fourteen years. She doesn’t ask, but if she does, he has answers.
“No, we didn’t,” she whispers simply, shaking her head.
“We should’ve,” he asserts. Should have, could have, would have… if he lets them, his regrets will eat him alive.
“We couldn’t.” In their previous life, her words would save him. Now they’re a life sentence, separating him from the only life he wants. “We couldn’t,” she repeats and he realizes she isn’t finished.
Couldn’t. Past tense.
Her dark eyes are watching him with an intoxicating mixture of tentative trust and when she speaks again, she gives him all the hope in the world.
“We could talk about it now.”
He caves in. He pulls her closer, tucks her against his chest once more and presses his mouth to the top of her head. He kisses her there for moments on end until he can find his voice. He needs a minute more before the gravity of what she is offering to him sinks in.
It’s a moment more than fourteen years in the making. He can’t make up for anything, but he can tell her what she needs to know now. What she should have known back then.
“It’s my fault you were drivin’ the car.”
She shudders against his chest, wordlessly letting him know that she too remembers it as though it happened only hours ago. She shakes her head and pulls back to look up at him.
“It was the driver who drank twice the legal limit and got behind the wheel.” Her words have a ring of rehearsed assurance to them, and he thinks it’s a nice sentiment she has held onto for more than decade, but she is wrong.
“You were cleanin' up my mess and I almost lost you.”
“You almost lost your wife,” she corrects softly, but he continues as though he hasn’t heard her at all.
She isn’t listening. He ducks his head to look at her, to make sure she sees him, makes sure she hears him when he speaks.
“You were never second. Do you think I would have gone home with my wife that night, if something had happened to you? Do you think I could have been a father again without you?” His tone isn’t heated, it’s incredulous. He is asking because he needs to know. He is bleeding honesty, but he can’t help it.
Her eyes are slowly filling and in their dark reflection he realizes why she isn’t answering. She genuinely doesn’t know. The thought is suffocating. She doesn’t know because he has never told her. He’s never told her because he never had the chance and now that he does… God help him , he can’t screw this up.
He can’t. He can’t lose her again.
“Don’t run away,” he whispers. “Please don’t run from me.” It’s his worst fear, come true too many times. It’s a plea, a prayer, and a preparation all at once. He’d get down on his knees and beg if he could do it without causing a scene.
Her eyes widen, but he feels the way her grip tightens against his sides, her fingers tangle in the material of his jacket. She steps spectacularly closer and settles in against him. It’s a wordless promise. A tiny victorious vow.
Ready? His question is silent. He knows she hears him when she nods.
“I asked God to save Kathy for my children and he did,” he whispers. His voice is a rasp in his aching throat, but he has to make sure she understands. Olivia’s lips are parted as though she can’t seem to get enough air and he wonders if he kissed her whether he would finally feel free to breathe. He feels the way she has begun to tremble against him, but she isn’t letting go. He isn’t either. Not this time. He needs her to know. He owes her this and so much more.
“I asked God to save you for me.”
Her inhale is sharp as a gun shot in the quiet of the hallway. She doesn’t sink in her stance or try to hide the way her welling eyes have spilled over. She simply steps impossibly closer to him and burrows in. He can feel her wet eyelashes skimming his neck when she blinks, her nose bumps against his jaw before she whispers in his ear.
He wonders if she can feel the way his aching chest has simultaneously cracked in two and been mended back together after more than a decade of agony. His vision is blurring before him, but she is tucked in so close he can’t see her without moving back.
Like hell he is going to do that.
He tilts his head, presses his mouth to her temple, the rise of her cheekbone. He can taste the salt of her tears. Olivia tilts her head ever so slightly to look at him. She is so close, so close. A push or a pull from either of them and he’d be kissing her lips. But he won’t. He can’t . Not tonight. She is gazing up at him like she has something to say and he forces himself to look at her, to meet her gaze, to ignore the temptation of her mouth.
“I believe you, El,” she whispers and it’s more than he ever imagined. He exhales sharply and she falls against him with the movement. He holds her close, tangles his fingers up in the softness of her ponytail until he can cradle her cheek in his hand.
“I wasn’t there when it counted.”
It’s a confession. It’s a low, loaded whisper that he prays she understands encompasses so much more than that November afternoon. It’s the decade of distance. The piercing silence. His unceremonious return. He has so much he wants to atone for, but he’ll start with all of this.
“I wasn’t there when it mattered.” He watches something flicker in the darkness of her eyes and he knows he has to continue. He needs her to know everything tonight. “I don’t know ‘bout anything that happened when I was gone, but I wanna know and if you wanna tell me, I’ll listen. I wasn’t there, but I’m here now and I swear to God, Liv…” He is desperate and he knows it’s nothing new. He prays she knows, too. “If you want me, any part of me, I’m yours. I wanna be here for you and for Noah and…”
“For us,” she finishes quietly, and he nods. He never let himself dream there could be an us on this side of the parallel universe, but here they are.
She is watching him intently and he thinks he can almost see the wheels turning in her head. He wonders if the feeling of his mouth on her neck will bring her back beside him, but before he can find out, he remembers he has no idea why she’s here. She reads his mind the same way she could when they were young. She answers before he can ask.
“A twenty-two-year-old girl was raped by her boyfriend last year. She got pregnant and she wanted to keep the baby. She asked me if I could be here when she had him.” She smiles softly at the thought. “Noah and I rushed over, and she had the baby just after nine.”
“Noah’s here?” He asks. A curious expression lilts across her beautiful face and he thinks it’s recognition. He has zeroed in on one thing she said and one thing only. Her child’s welfare. The same way she does with his children.
She nods and he feels her hands smoothing the fabric of his jacket against his chest. “It was too late to bring my sitter over. I better go check on him,” she says. “It’s been a little while.”
He lets her go because he believes she’ll come back. She takes a step toward the opposite end of the hallway before it hits him. He can offer. He can try. He can start to be there when it counts.
“Liv.” He catches her hand in his own. “If you want,” he starts slowly, “I could take Noah home and stay with him till you get back.”
It’s nothing more than a proposal, but he prays she will give him a chance. Olivia tilts her head and appears to think for a moment before she visibly sinks in her stance.
“Are you sure?” She asks, her voice awash in relief. He shakes his head because she doesn’t understand. Of course, he’s sure and he tells her so. Her child needs rest and someone to look after him. He can provide both. He isn’t sticking around here for the Donnellys.
“I’ll go talk to him,” she says. It’s not a commitment, but he doesn’t expect one. He nods and squeezes her fingers. He watches her expression suddenly change as she catches sight of something over his shoulder and she drops his hand quickly enough for him to worry.
“ Stabler! ”
He hears his name. Frank’s voice comes from behind him and he silently wills Olivia not to stick around. He hopes she can still read him the same way he does with her. She can and she leaves them alone. She’s gone to check on her son. She has a perfectly legitimate excuse for her departure.
“Was that Olivia?” Donnelly asks. He knows Frank is testing him. He already knows the answer.
“That’s Captain Benson,” he answers. His tone has more bite than he intends. He is still as possessive as ever.
Frank lifts an eyebrow and smirks. “Figured you were sleeping with her.”
Protective as ever. “I’m not sleeping with her,” he answers. It’s the truth. He is a lucky man, but he isn’t that lucky. Not yet.
He doesn’t like anyone talking about her like this. He never has.
Donnelly scoffs. “Right. She was just your partner for a long time?”
“Well, you’re my partner now, Frank. Don’t see me sleepin’ with you, do you?” He banters back and Frank laughs for real this time. It’s enough that he thinks by the time Olivia returns, the topic will have changed.
“How’s the kid?” He asks and Donnelly lights up. It’s foolproof that every new parent wants to talk about their child more than any other topic on earth. He thinks if he can just get Frank back to the room before he hears the door open behind him. Now, Frank is talking to him and he thinks he should pay attention.
“Bridget wants to name him after you.”
He shakes his head and laughs lightly. “Just what the world needs. Another Elliot Stabler.”
He extends his hand for Frank to shake and the man pulls him into a hug.
“Thanks for everything, dude. I owe you.” He waves off Frank’s words, but hopes he holds onto the meaning behind them. The man owes him and he thinks he can use that as leverage with Webb tomorrow.
Tonight, he has something far more important to care for.
Olivia is waiting for him at the end of the hallway. She looks far more tired than when he left her five minutes ago. He brushes her forearm with his palm.
She nods. “Are you sure about this?” She asks, once more and he realizes what she means. He has permission to care for her child. She is entrusting him with the most precious prayer she has ever prayed.
“I promise,” he whispers, and she smiles at his earnestness. She trusts him with her child the same way he has always trusted her with his own. He follows her through the doorway toward the waiting room when a sudden thought barrels into him and he stops. She does, too.
“What’s wrong?” Her voice is soft. He shakes his head. “I wasn’t there when it counted.” There’s so much he has missed.
She stays still and silent beside him. “I wasn’t there,” he repeats. He doesn’t know anything about the circumstances surrounding her own child’s birth, the child he is about to be asked to care for.
“Tell me somebody was with you…” He pleads. He wonders whether Noah’s birth was full of fear or if her child came into the world quickly and calmly with the quiet assurance of his mother’s absolute adoration.
“Tell me somebody was here for you when he was born.”
He watches her dark eyes fill again and all at once his stomach rolls again. She shakes her head and he swallows hard. He doesn’t want to hear it. He left her for so long. He doesn’t want to imagine she was alone. His jaw bumps her hand as she moves closer and reaches up to halt his movement, to hold him steady.
“Noah is adopted,” she tells him gently.
“What?” He furrows his brow because he doesn’t understand. He can’t believe it. He can’t take his eyes off of her. She shakes her head with affection. He wonders why the growing blush coloring her cheeks is appearing before she volunteers the information. “Don’t look at me like that, Detective.”
“Like what, Captain?” He asks, bewildered. The last thirty seconds have confused the hell out of him, but he still thinks she is gorgeous.
“Like you don’t know where babies come from.”
He laughs for the first time in days.
Noah is asleep in the waiting room, dead to the world, so he carries her child to the car.
“Don’t be too long,” he tells her, “You need rest, too.” She nods in acquiescence before she lets them go. More than two hours later, he wakes to find her asleep on the couch beside him.
She brought his son to the hospital. He has brought hers home. It's a labor of love.