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spring thaw

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Elliot brings his mother a cup of tea, still steaming in its ceramic mug, out to the garden. It’s a sunny day, and it’s warm enough for the first time this year to be without a jacket outdoors. His mother has a sun visor on, and she’s just finished fussing with the planting boxes she’s been slowly working on as she’s been removing the weeds that picked up during the winter.

He sits beside her on their garden bench and they enjoy the day for a moment, their blue eyes both brightly matching the clear skies above them. “Mama,” he says, and she turns to him, taking in his slumped-down hulking mass. 

“Elliot,” she says. “I think we’re going to have a robin family very soon.” She points at the corner near the gate where he can see two birds flitting in and out with detritus Bernie has discarded on the cobblestone floor. “Spring really is here in full force now,” she says, and he thinks it’s about time. 

Bernie looks at him with her brow furrowed and places her hand gently on his arm. He knows she can read that something’s bothering him, and maybe she can help him figure out what it is because fuck if he can put his finger on it. She leans into his shoulder, resting her head on his chest, and he drapes his arm behind her, pulling her into him. “This about your dad?”

There’s no doubt that his father has been on his mind during this op with The Brotherhood, but the restlessness he’s feeling is more than that. It’s so tangled into the threads that make up him in general that he doesn’t know how to answer her.

“Maybe,” he finally says, and she doesn’t push the subject of his dad. “Not really,” he says.

“This about your partner?” she says, and his internal motion stops for a moment before he remembers to breathe again. Okay, he thinks. Maybe that’s what it is. “You’ve seemed quiet since you worked that case with her last weekend.”

“Working with Olivia again was…” She patiently waits for him to continue. “It brought up a lot of…”

“Nostalgia?” she guesses.

“Awkwardness,” he says. He’s surprised at his own words; he didn’t realize that’s what it was until he just blurted it out. She sits up so she can look her son in the eyes. 

“Guilt, you mean,” she says, and he remembers why it’s so hard to be around his mom sometimes. Even when she has her medications sorted, it doesn’t change her ability to know his heart and to call him on his desire to buffer his poor choices with whatever bullshit he’s trying to float instead. 

“Yes,” he acquiesces. “It’s just so hard to know where to go with her, how to make things up to her. I just keep screwing up the approach.”

“You overthink her, you know,” Bernie says. “Your Olivia is not that complicated of a creature. What you see is what you get.”

Elliot knows that about his Olivia, and Bernie knows he knows that, but she doesn’t understand, he thinks, how hard it is for him to settle with his feelings. To even sort his feelings, whatever they are. 

“Have you talked with her? About anything important, I mean?” His avoidance of her eyes is answer enough, and he knows she’s nailed him. “Son, you love her?” She’s burrowed back into his chest again, and she’s wrapped her hand around his waist.

“Yeah, Mama,” he says. “Of course, I do. She was my partner for 13 years.”

“Stop that,” she says. “You know what I’m asking. Are you in love with her?” 

And there’s the question he keeps contemplating. He… feels so damned much for Olivia, and he knows it isn’t what he felt for Kathy. It’s different, fundamental in a way his relationship with his wife never was. It’s complicated and thick and layered. He knows he was lost, solitary and rudderless, for so many years when he was gone from her. And he knows, having seen her again, nothing will ever pry him away from her orbit.

Is that being in love? he thinks, and it sobers him whenever he lets his mind wander there because it means he has to rethink everything he ever felt for the woman he did have at his side from the time he was 14 years old.

He still hasn’t answered his mother, and she nudges his leg with hers to prompt him. “I don’t know how to live without her in my life,” he finally says, and that’s as much as an answer as he’s able to suss out at this point. 

“Does she make you happy?” she counters, and he knows the answer to this one.

“Yes,” he says, without hesitation. “When I’m with her, I feel… at peace.” It’s a partial truth, because Olivia also makes him feel like a schoolboy asking a girl for a first dance when they share space lately, the nervous undercurrent that always has been between them un-tethered and winding around them whenever they’re together. “But I don’t know that I’m good for her.” She sits up, drinks some of her cooling tea and touches his knee. 

“Seems to me, that’s up to her to decide.” He knows she’s right, but he thinks part of the decision has already been made by her, and where does that leave him?

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes with her, Mama.” He thinks of the curly-haired boy he shook hands with last weekend and his mouth runs a bit dry. “She has a son now. And I only just met him because she isn’t sure if I’m…” Of all of the things he’s fucked up with their relationship, this one probably stings the worst. He prayed for years for Olivia to be a parent, and it hurts him deeply that he cut himself out of her life and wasn’t there to see it happen. To have her withhold her child from meeting him for so long has been, without a doubt, the worst punishment he’s caused himself to face. And now that they have met, getting to know Noah has moved to the top of priorities in his life without him even knowing if she’ll let him get close again.

“Elliot,” Bernie says. “Look at me.” He does, and she speaks slowly, clearly, and without hesitation. “You had plenty of reasons to cut me out of your life, and I understand why you did when you were younger,” she says. “But here we are now, and don’t believe for a moment that I’m not grateful for every second I get to have with my son, that I’m not constantly thinking of ways I screwed things up and how I can ever possibly atone for my mistakes.”

“You know I love you, Mama,” he says, but she cuts him off.

“Yes, I do. I know you do. My hot-headed son found a way to forgive me my trespasses. And I’m eternally grateful.” She looks at him pointedly. “So you think that generous woman that’s had you gripped for two decades now doesn’t have the capacity for forgiveness?” He doesn’t answer. Can’t answer. Is afraid to contemplate what happens if she just can’t bring herself to let him back into her life fully.

“You planning to leave again, son?” Bernie takes another sip of her tea, lifts her eyes to the skies and listens to the sounds of the robins singing as they build their nest.

“Of course not,” he says. “What kind of question is that?”

“The kind I’d have as a parent if I was considering bringing someone I loved so deeply into my son’s life,” she says. He swallows. He does understand Olivia’s hesitation, and he knows the majority of his frustration is spent on knowing he made the choices he made and how their consequences take time to unravel. He longs for the days when his trust was something that was Liv’s default setting, and he knows he’s having to rebuild it and earn it again. And it’s a slow bridge they're building, but they are finally taking some steps across it.

What do you say, partner?

“Son, I think part of the problem you’re having is you keep thinking in terms of wanting to get back what you had with Olivia before you left.” She places her hand on his chin, turns his eyes to where he’s facing her. “That’s never going to happen,” she says, and it burns inside him until she clarifies.

“It’s not going to happen because your feelings for her have changed. Son, there are opportunities for you now that weren’t there before. I know you love her, but what you don’t know is your heart is leading you into the places that were previously blocked by closed doors.”

“Is that why I’m terrified?” he asks, so quietly that he wonders if he even spoke aloud, if his voice has even made it to her ears.

“You tell me,” she says. “But maybe not right this second.” She pats his leg again, stands up, and drains her tea cup before moving towards the door. She turns before she enters the house and places her hand up by her visor, cupping it and looking towards the corner.

“Those robins picked a nice spot,” she says. “The sun, it’s really casting a beautiful glow on what we’re building back here, don’t you think?” With that, she moves inside, leaving Elliot alone with his thoughts and the sounds of birdsong as they fly headlong into the thaw of spring.