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The Thing About Mothers

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“The Thing About Mothers”

His lips tasted of salt the first time he kissed her.  Not that granulated, mined, or manufactured kind, but real, earnest, and earned.  And she was less surprised by the salt than by the fact that he had kissed her, and less surprised by his kiss than by the fact that he was there at all.

She’d been going there off and on for almost eleven years.  Every few months, she’d carve out time to get away, and the two women would meet for coffee or lunch at Hal’s or something.  Sometimes Olivia would insist on picking the older woman up, an excuse she used in order to check on essentials like groceries and the plumbing, or just to tidy up a little.  It wasn’t pity, and it wasn’t charity; Olivia knew they both benefited from the visits.

It had started the Christmas after they first met.  Olivia had kept her promise to Bernadette and never explicitly told Elliot about his mother’s involvement in Kathleen’s case, but it ate away at her as secrets do.  Elliot fell quite easily back into his old habit of never discussing his mother, and that gnawed at Olivia, too. She wondered idly whether any of Elliot’s brothers or sisters had the same kind of relationship with their mother—or whether, maybe, they all did.  Olivia knew a thing or two about strained relationships with mothers, and when the holidays rolled around that year, she found herself unexpectedly awash with a mix of guilt and longing. And she had called Bernadette.

Olivia knew that it wasn’t exactly a friendship, and she pretty consciously always kept their conversations light.  She never spoke of work, and she never mentioned Elliot. If his mother ever did, Olivia skillfully steered them away from the subject.  No sense in putting either of them through the pain of considering what could have been.

In the first few years following Elliot’s retirement and disappearance, Olivia actually found a great unspoken solace in her occasional afternoons with Bernadette.  They were two women who had suffered the same injustice, whose company had been rejected by the person who knew them best, left to question their own value and place in a world suddenly devoid of a defining figure.  For what is a mother without a son, and what is a partner alone? They were two women scorned by the same man. Two women who should hate him but couldn’t. Bernadette would never know, but Olivia felt closer to her once she, too, had been abandoned.  As the years dragged on, Olivia took a quiet comfort in believing that Elliot’s behavior wasn’t because of anything she did or didn’t do. If he could treat his own mother that way, maybe the problem lay with him, not her. (She wouldn’t let herself dwell on the thought that it might really mean that he saw her as even more damaged than his mother.)

There was something, too, about that house, that town, that felt safe.  She could escape the city there, but she could also travel back to a time when things were normal and familiar.  Her visits became a way to stay close to Elliot in his absence. Bernadette had never asked about the fateful precinct shooting, so Olivia imagined that she had no idea.  And as long as she never told Bernadette that Elliot had quit and left her, then they could still be partners whenever she was in Long Beach. Furthermore, she could feel secure in the knowledge that he was unlikely to ever visit or otherwise shatter the illusion she had indirectly built over the years.  Maybe that was desperate of her, maybe it was sick and illogical, but in that house, that kind of thinking found an easy home.

And even if she never said it aloud, Olivia knew that she had always yearned for a parent—a father she could know, a mother who wanted her.  ‘Bernie’ was far from perfect, and Olivia knew that—understood how confusing and terrifying Elliot’s childhood must have been at times—but the plain fact was that Bernadette Stabler wanted to be a mother in a way that Serena Benson never had.  Neither was fully capable of handling the demands of motherhood, and they each had their problems and their destructive coping devices, but Bernadette loved her children unreservedly and made an effort. Still made one.  She was there; Serena was not.  Olivia wasn’t consciously looking to fill a parental void, but Bernadette missed her children, and Olivia had always craved a mother’s love.  Their symbiosis evolved quite naturally.

Sometimes Olivia brought Noah with her.  That practice had started a year or two after she’d been granted permanent custody, and she had happened to visit on one of Bernie’s manic days.  Olivia normally spent two or three hours there, but this visit had lasted twice as long; Bernadette hadn’t wanted to say goodbye and kept suggesting activities they needed to do.  Olivia indulged her as much as was reasonable, but eventually she had to put her foot down:

“Bernie, I can’t.  I have to go, really.  My sitter’s waiting,” Olivia had said.

Bernadette had stopped dead in her tracks.  “Sitter? You have a baby? You had a baby and didn’t tell me?!”

“It’s not like that—”

“When did you have time to have a baby?!”

“I didn’t—listen to me: I fostered then adopted him.”  Olivia had watched as Bernadette slowly deflated and composed herself.  “I do have a son.  It’s still pretty new; I wasn’t hiding it from you.  But I do have to get home.”

“Well yes,” Bernadette had mumbled.  “You shouldn’t leave a baby waiting like that.”

“Exactly,” Olivia had agreed, and then she had hugged her hostess goodbye.

“Bring him next time, hmm?” Bernadette had called to Olivia as she reached the door.

Olivia had turned and smiled wistfully.  “We’ll see.”

Truthfully, Olivia was reluctant to introduce Noah to Bernadette because the woman could be so unpredictable.  But Bernadette largely seemed to understand and appreciate how special it was to have the little boy there, and she took Olivia’s cues pretty well.  At Noah’s first visit, Bernadette was a typical doting aged matron, full of love and awe. Olivia was naturally protective of Noah, so as long as Bernadette maintained that air with him in subsequent visits, she permitted their interaction, but if things took a turn, she was quick to intervene.  Bernadette couldn’t recognize her own immoderate or erratic behavior when she was in the moment, but she could usually tell when she was unnerving Olivia, and she always managed to dial herself back. Olivia recognized the joy that Noah brought Bernie, and as she was short of family herself—and with other adults like Nick and Ed and Rafael and Peter and, God, Sheila coming and going so often from his life—she appreciated the affection and relative stability that Bernadette provided, so she felt guilty for still wanting to keep Noah away from her.  But she couldn’t ignore the trauma that Elliot had suffered as a child. She didn’t want that for her son. He’d been through enough.

Once Noah started school, it became easier for Olivia to visit without him.  When he wasn’t there, however, Bernadette would ask after him, calling him “my youngest grandbaby,” which gave Olivia pause.  She couldn’t be sure whether the term was meant affectionately, as one might call a dear family friend “uncle,” or whether Bernie had gotten confused.  Had she forgotten who Olivia was? Or Noah himself? Or did she somehow think that he was Elliot’s? Each visit, Olivia made a point to look for other clues that might tell her whether Bernadette was slipping.  It was tough, though, to distinguish the warning signs of dementia from the symptoms of bipolar depression.

In November, Bernadette was listless and withdrawn.  In January, she made tea three times without realizing they had each already had a cup.  In March, she panicked in the car when Olivia was driving them to Hal’s because she didn’t recognize the route.  In June, when Noah joined his mother for the visit, Bernie called him Eli.

Olivia didn’t know what to do.  She was sure that Bernadette was in decline, but she didn’t know whom to contact for help.  She knew Bernie wouldn’t willingly see a doctor, nor would she willingly move into assisted living, and as Olivia wasn’t family, she had no authority to explore other options.  Even requesting a police welfare visit would be inappropriate because Bernadette wasn’t missing phone calls or visits. What was she to do, call Elliot and confess that she’d been secretly visiting his mother for the last ten years?  Call Kathy and try to explain just how she knew the woman’s mother-in-law without reigniting any former suspicion or worry? Neither idea was particularly appealing. Still, she knew she had to do something, so she called Elliot. He didn’t answer, and she left him a voicemail simply asking him to call her back.

In July, after three weeks had passed without a return call from Elliot, Olivia took Noah back to Long Beach for a special visit.  It was hard to get away, but she knew she had to. She spent the afternoon prepping meals for Bernadette, and Noah spent the day frolicking in the water, with Bernadette supervising from the shore.  When Olivia left, she gave the older woman a list of the various packages now tucked carefully in the freezer, along with heating instructions. As she handed the list off to Bernadette, Olivia couldn’t help reflecting on how time and motherhood had changed her; fifteen years earlier, she was barely able to remember to stock her own fridge, much less prepare her own meals—or weeks of meals for someone else.  But here she was. On the drive home, her thoughts were consumed by whether she would have had the same patience and care for Serena.

Olivia had intended to visit again in August, but with all the unexpected transitions at work, she wasn’t able to get away again until mid-September.  Bernadette should have been expecting them that afternoon, Olivia and Noah, so Olivia thought nothing of letting herself in when her first knock went unanswered.  Bernie’s hearing was going, on top of everything else, and sometimes she was in the bathroom or digging through her closet or out back when Olivia arrived, so it wasn’t uncommon for her to miss a knock.

“Bern?” Olivia called out as she and Noah entered.  “Bernie? You in here?” She gestured for Noah to drop the grocery bag he’d carried in and check the bedrooms.  He scampered down the hall while Olivia put away the perishables in the fridge before moseying toward the small sun porch to check the beach behind the house.  Some mail on a small table by the back door caught her eye, and she paused to shuffle through the envelopes to make sure there weren’t any unpaid bills among them.

She barely registered the sound of the door beside her, so the gruff voice that followed was certainly a shock: “ Olivia ?”

She froze.  Her stomach dropped and her face flushed before she even looked up at him.  “Elliot. Hi,” she wheezed unsteadily.

He still had the door open with one hand and was standing on the step just outside.  “What the hell are you doin’ here?” he asked, squinting at her from under the brim of his ballcap.

She took a breath and cleared her throat.  Moment of truth. “I—”

“Wait.  All that stuff in her freezer.  That was you?”

With that, Olivia was no longer embarrassed at having been caught—she was far more worried about Bernadette.  Her body slumped and she sighed in defeat. “Did she not eat it? I left very simple instr—”

But before she could finish the thought, Elliot had vaulted through the door and kissed her.

His lips, slanted across her mouth to accommodate his hat, were dry and firm in that distinctly masculine, commanding way, and they tasted of salt, like the sea air he must have just been breathing outside.  Early on in their partnership, when she first disturbed herself by imagining what he would taste like, she imagined that his mouth would taste of coffee. She had eventually begun drinking tea to avoid accidentally fantasizing about it.  Later she imagined that he might one night taste like beer, and that became the impetus for her drinking red wine. Never in twenty-two years did she imagine he would taste of the sea.

He pulled back almost instantly.  “Sorry!” he exclaimed before fumbling through another apology.  “I’m—God, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—I just—it’s good to see you.”

Her whole body was still in shock, her wide eyes even wider than usual.  “Uh, you too,” she breathed. And, despite the fact that she was more an interloper here than he, she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “But what are you doing here?”

If he thought the question was out of place, it didn’t show.  “Uh, today? Storm clean-up,” he said, gesturing with his head back to the beach.

Olivia nodded and peered through the windows towards the ocean.  She had called Bernadette before and after Dorian came through, but she hadn’t really thought about property or beach damage that the older woman might not have disclosed.  “I didn’t think you two talked anymore,” she observed quietly.

“Well, that’s the thing about family, I guess,” he said.  “Or mothers. You never really get over them.” Olivia’s breath hitched a little at the implication that he might be over her.  It shouldn’t matter as much as it did, but it stung to realize what it meant that he still talked to his mother but not to her, despite his unprecedented kiss just moments earlier.  Elliot’s steady gaze hadn’t left her; she could feel its heat even without looking at him. He shifted slightly closer and crossed his arms. “She came to see Kathleen in lockup, before her trial.”

Olivia’s eyes snapped immediately to his.  “She told you?”

“Kathleen did,” he clarified.  Olivia relaxed a little and resumed looking out the window.  “But not until last year. And, uh, that was huge. I figured that if she could sacrifice herself like that, maybe I could, too.  Mothers, you know?” He was still watching her intently, but she was stoic as ever. “Kathleen said you brought her. You been comin’ here ever since?” he asked.

Olivia took a deep breath, embarrassed by the truth.  Somehow, she never thought she’d be discovered, and now that she had been, she was terrified of what he would think.

“Thank you,” he said, not needing her answer to know.  “That means the world to me.” He shifted closer, into her space, and she could feel the black pepper and pine heat radiating off of him.  “Really, it does.”

She turned to look at him, and he was so close and his gaze so intense that her insides practically liquefied.  No man had ever had the same effect on her as Elliot Stabler. His eyes dropped to her lips and she both longed for and dreaded what surely would be coming next from any other man.  But it could never be, not with him. She knew it. Had known it for years. “So where is your mother?” she asked, straightening and pulling slightly away.

Elliot took the rebuff in stride and stepped back, pulling the ballcap from his head and scratching his fingernails across his scalp.  “Packing. I hope,” he said, tossing his hat onto the table with the mail.

“For what?” Olivia asked, mildly alarmed.

“She’s not doing well,” he said.  “You’ve seen that. My brothers and I have been looking into homes.  We haven’t decided on anything out yet, but whatever happens, she can’t stay here.  Not alone. I’m trying to get her ready for what’s coming by having her pack some of her own things.”

Olivia nodded, realizing that that’s what must be occupying Noah: either helping or exploring whatever Bernadette had unearthed.

They stood there quietly together for a tense moment.  She had never in her life been uncomfortable around this man, but now she didn’t know what to say or do.  Things used to be so easy between them, but it had been almost nine years since they’d spoken. She was angry.  She was sad. She felt betrayed and abandoned, and then she felt embarrassed for feeling so attached to someone who clearly hadn’t been as attached to her.  And she was confused by his behavior towards her today, as if they’d had a very different kind of relationship than they ever really had. She gazed back into the house, unwilling to look at him but unable to leave.  Finally Elliot broke the silence: “You called this summer?” he observed quietly.

“Mmm,” Olivia responded.  “It was about her,” she continued with a slight lift of her chin towards the hall past the living room.

“Something happen?”

In an instant, she was irritated that he hadn’t called her back.  Up until now, she had entertained the possibility that he had changed his number and she had left her message on a stranger’s voicemail, or that he had been changing phones that very day and somehow the message and the record of her call had been totally lost in the ether forever, or even that Kathy had intercepted the alert and deleted it before he saw it, or that, God forbid, something terrible had happened to him that would prevent him from ever retrieving his voicemail again.  Of course, despite those musings, she had resigned herself to believing that he was simply avoiding her just as he had been since his sudden retirement, so it hadn’t especially bothered her until this very moment: Why did he care now if something had happened to his mother three months earlier?  It wouldn’t matter now, would it? If he had called her back when she first left her message, he would have been able to address it then.  Now would be too late. Not that anything had happened—she was just going to report her concern—but it irritated her all the same.  There was so very much he might have missed. She scoffed in disbelief at him. “Why have you been avoiding me since you left?” she asked, her voice firm in its indictment of him.

Beside her, he took a deep breath and shifted, and she tried in vain not to inhale his scent as he moved.  He turned so he was staring out the windows of the sun porch before he answered her. “We were too close, Liv.”

She thought about it for a moment and eventually frowned.  “That’s not a reason,” she countered.

“Fine: I was too close.”

“What does that mean?” she asked immediately.

He growled at her apparent challenge, at having to explain himself, and it drew her attention.  He had shifted again, bracing his palms against the window frames, and his rigid stance was so very, very familiar that it hardly seemed possible that she hadn’t seen it in almost nine years.  He gnawed his lip and squinted out at the sea. “Time and time again, I chose you,” he finally said.

She shook her head vaguely, wondering where this was going.

“And after… I killed Jenna Fox… I realized that I was always gonna.  The only way for me to not choose you,” he said wetly, pausing to sniff and clear his throat, “was if you were never a choice again.”

Tears welled up in her eyes unexpectedly, and she found herself speechless.  “But you weren’t on the job anymore,” she observed when her voice returned. “It wouldn’t have mattered—”

“I mean always , Liv,” he grated.  “No matter what. If you’d asked me to come back, I would’ve.  I’da moved Heaven and Earth to do it. If you’d needed anything , I’da been there.”  He laughed wryly at himself.  “How could I explain that to my wife?—that I would drop everything in a heartbeat for a woman I didn’t even work with anymore?”

“I think Kathy would have understood,” Olivia reasoned.  It was a pointless argument so long after the damage had been done, but Olivia was still trying to make sense of everything.

“Oh, she understood,” he muttered, his gaze still trained on the sea.  “She understood it before I did.” He shook his head once before observing, “I’m not sure you do.”

“What does that mean?” Olivia asked, reeling around on him.  “You think I’m being unreasonable? Don’t you dare try to make me the bad guy, Elliot!  You’re the one who disappeared on me. No warning. Do you have any idea how that felt? I mean, my God, Jenna Fox might as well have shot you that day.  Actually, you know what?—I wish she had!  Because a funeral might have given me some closure.”  Her upper lip twitched from the sudden release of long-held anger and resentment.  In the tight silence that followed her outburst, she replayed what she had just said, and she realized how truly hateful it was.  In the old days, if one of them had said something like that to the other, they would have walked away afterwards and just let it fester.  Maybe they’d address it later or maybe it would hang over them for years. But those were the old days, and if she walked away this time, it might hang over them forever.  “I’m sorry, that was an awful thing to say,” she quietly apologized. And she meant it.

“No, you’re right, I mean…” he murmured, “I’ve wished the same thing myself more than a few times.”

“I didn’t mean it.”

“It’s okay.  But I wasn’t tryna make you the bad guy.  I would never. Because this—you, here, after all this time—is exactly why I would always choose you.  It’s your good ness.  Your unwavering loyalty.  Your unconditional compassion.”  He shook his head a little and continued to address the ocean beyond the window.  “I was in love with you.” Olivia’s stomach nearly dropped to the floor, and the blood pounded in her ears.  “I don’t know when it happened,” he continued, “but by the end…” He blew out a breath where words would not suffice.  At last he turned his head slightly towards her over his shoulder, eyes searching something below him. “ That’s what Kathy figured out.  I didn’t know if you had.”  He stood there like that for a while, just breathing.  Finally he spoke again. “I’m sorry I shut you out. I didn’t know what else to do.”

The unbidden tears were back in her eyes, and she tried and failed twice to take a breath.  “I need some air,” she muttered, brushing past him through the back door. Outside, she put her hands on her head, elbows out, and staggered away from the house through the sand until she thought she was out of sight, and then she collapsed.  Noah would have to be content with Bernadette for the moment because she couldn’t be a mother just then.

It was easier to cry with the ocean wind already coaxing the tears out.  For years in their partnership, she had reprimanded herself for reading too much into small gestures, offhand comments, extended gazes.  After first trying unsuccessfully to ignore it, she eventually learned to live with the longing for what could never be. She genuinely respected his marriage and admired his fidelity, which meant that she supported and encouraged their continuation even when that conflicted with her own desires.  For years, she felt unspoken guilt and shame for her feelings, believing that keeping his marriage together was the only road to absolution. Her constant self-undermining gradually took hold in her own subconscious, and for a long time, even after he was gone, she considered herself undeserving of love or affection.

On top of that, she had spent almost nine years thinking she had done something wrong.  Thinking he was mad about something she wasn’t aware of. Worrying. Wondering what had happened between them.  Reevaluating their entire partnership in light of his reluctance to maintain contact. Never once did she imagine that the problem was that she hadn’t been reading too much into his small gestures, offhand comments, extended gazes—that, perhaps, he hadn’t wanted her to help him repair his marriage.  She wondered now, with horror, what sort of dreadful messages she’d sent him over the years with her own small gestures, offhand comments, extended gazes—only to shove him back towards his wife time and time again.

She wondered, too, whether it was worse now that she knew.  She hoped he’d be gone by the time she finally returned to the house, because she had no idea how to face him.  Now that he had said almost everything she’d ever hoped to hear for years, she wasn’t sure she could school her features around him.  And his use of the past tense unnerved her. And the thought of Kathy only brought her back to the start of her entire thought cycle again.

Her tears there on the windy dune were a mix of anger, of relief, of regret, of disbelief, and of some emotion she didn’t even know how to name.

“It’s my favorite spot, too,” came the voice from above and behind her.

“Bernie!  Hey!” she chuckled in surprise as she wiped her face dry.

Bernadette stepped carefully down the slope, apparently delighted to slide in the loose sand when she did.  Olivia smiled at the older woman’s spirit and offered her an arm when Bernie reached out for support. With help, Bernadette sank to a seated position next to Olivia.  “You doing okay, Cookie?” Bernadette asked.

Olivia barked a laugh at the new nickname.  “Better now,” she said honestly.

“Noah was worried about you.”

Olivia took it as a good sign that she didn’t call him Eli again, and that she recognized their relationship, but the mention of her son brought her firmly into the present, resulting in mild alarm.  “How long have I been out here?”

“At least an hour.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!  Where is he now?”

“At the store.”

“Oh—sorry, I meant Noah.”

“At the store!” Bernie repeated.  Olivia grew worried again, and it must have been written on her face because Bernadette continued to explain: “Elliot went to get some things for dinner, and Noah went with him.”

“They went… together?”  She had realized, of course, that the two might reasonably meet that day, but she had sort of expected to make the introductions herself.

“Oh yes.  Elliot took Noah’s booster seat and everything.”

“His boo—”

“Well you left your keys on the counter, dear.”

Olivia figured she probably deserved that.  So much for Elliot’s being gone when she returned to the house.  She wondered, briefly, whether Elliot had intentionally taken her son hostage, preventing her from leaving while he was gone.

“I insisted Elliot take him,” Bernadette volunteered, and Olivia wondered whether the older woman could read her mind.  “I thought it would be good for him.”

“To get into a car with a stranger?” Olivia couldn’t help blurting out.

“No, good for Elliot!” Bernie clucked.  “Poor thing’s been so lonely without Eli, he’s been coming out here almost every weekend.  Thought it might cheer him up to have a shopping buddy.”

“What happened to Eli?” Olivia asked, her chest tightening at the thought of an injury or worse.

Bernadette grunted in disgust.  “ Rick moved them up to Connecticut.”

“Who’s Rick?”

“Kathy’s husband!  What do you and Elliot talk about, anyway?”

“Not enough, apparently,” Olivia replied, and her mind suddenly took flight with the knowledge that Kathy was no longer in the picture.  Why hadn’t Elliot mentioned that?

“I’ll say!  Do you know he didn’t even remember Noah’s name?  And from the look on his face, you’d have thought he hardly knew you had a son!”

Olivia was quiet for a moment, and then she drew a breath and said, “Bernie, I have to tell you something.”

Bernadette said nothing but turned to face her guest with a wide, curious, expectant look.

“Elliot and I don’t work together anymore.  We haven’t for a while.”

Bernadette narrowed her eyes.  “Have you told me this before? Because the memory, you know, it goes.  I know it goes. People tell me things all the time and have to tell me again.  So they say.”

Olivia almost laughed in wonder at the woman’s unique blend of candid self-awareness and apparent skepticism.  “Don’t worry. I never told you.”

“Good.  Now, why not?”

Olivia winced and gazed out at the water as if trying to find an answer among the waves.  She didn’t want to admit the truth, not to his mother. “It didn’t end well. I… didn’t want to bring that negativity here.”

Bernadette scrutinized her guest for a moment before remarking, “I knew there was a reason I liked you.  You’ve got a good energy—you’re thoughtful .  You balance him out.”  She gently smoothed the wrinkles out of her pants.  “That’s good,” she continued, almost to herself. “He needs that.”

“But we don’t—”

“I’m not talking about at work, dear.”

Olivia’s mouth opened to object again, but no words came.  Instead, she just sat there with the wind and the waves, and she thought about their history.  Thought about balance.

“Will you stay for supper?” Bernie asked, pulling herself with some effort to a standing position.

Olivia instinctively moved to help the other woman as she responded, “I don’t think we can.  Sorry.” They had Billie’s baptism the next day, and she had really only intended to stay long enough to make a few more freezer meals—and now she’d be getting a very late jump on those—so committing to even more time in Long Beach felt imprudent.

“Elliot’s making his famous lasagna,” Bernie sing-songed.

The Elliot she knew was such a corner-deli guy that she couldn’t imagine him cooking anything, much less having a specialty dish, so Bernadette’s enticement was almost enough to change her mind.  But then she thought about the two-hour drive back to Manhattan and how awful the bridges and tunnels could be on Saturday evenings and how much of a hassle it would be to return the car to their garage and get back to the apartment and Noah into bed if he had already fallen asleep in the car.  “I really don’t think we can,” she repeated.

Bernadette grunted her disappointment, but it seemed short-lived.  “Want tea?” she asked brightly, and then she turned and headed back to the house without waiting for a response.

Olivia sat there for a moment longer and then followed Bernie in.

She had just finished chopping the vegetables for the beef stew she was prepping when Elliot and Noah came crashing through the front door.  Noah was giggling wildly, and it made her smile to see him so happy. He ran to her in the kitchen as soon as he saw her, and she bent down to scoop him into a hug.

“Sorry I was gone for so long, sweet boy.  Did you have fun… at the store?” she asked into his hair, unable to ask directly about Elliot, still unable to believe that they had met.

“Yeah, but he asks a lot of questions,” Noah responded.

Olivia’s piqued interest manifested itself as a raised eyebrow, but she wasn’t able to get a word out before Elliot was suddenly behind her.  “Thought I was makin’ dinner,” he grumbled, surveying the cutting board, knives, and slab of top round still waiting to be cubed.

“Aren’t you?” she asked, releasing her son who went running into the living room to see what Bernadette was doing.

“Then what’s…?” he trailed off as he looked around.  The freezer bag half full of vegetables finally clued him in.  “Oh.” He drew in a deep breath through his nose and drifted fractionally closer to her.  “Thanks.” She reached for a knife that was right by his hip, but he didn’t move. “Need a hand?” he offered instead.

“I’ve got it,” she told him, keeping her eyes focused on the steak in front of her.

Still he didn’t move.  She could feel his gaze on her.  “How many more of those are you makin’ today?”

“Three.”

He nodded.  “’Cause I’ve gotta get dinner started pretty soon.”

“Then I’ll try to stay out of your way,” she said.

He lingered for a moment more beside her before eventually rolling away to wash his hands.

“Hey Mom, can I go swimming?” Noah chirped from the living room.

“No!” Elliot responded loudly over the water in the sink, and Olivia was a little taken aback by how immediately he had shot her son down—when he wasn’t even the one being asked.

“Please?  If Bernie goes with me, can I go?” Noah persisted.  He didn’t even seem phased that it wasn’t Olivia who had turned him down.

“No way, bud,” Elliot said emphatically, turning off the water and putting one wet fist on his hip as he turned to look at the little boy in the living room.  “The rip current today is way too high.  You’re not going out in that.”

“Oh Elliot, let him have a little fun,” Bernadette chided softly.

“Mama!” Elliot exclaimed in disbelief.

“Yeah, I’m with Elliot on this one,” Olivia added.  “Noah, you’re staying inside.” It honestly unnerved her to realize that she hadn’t even considered such a thing, and she briefly wondered how many times she had unwittingly allowed him to swim in unsafe conditions in the past.

Noah whined in complaint, and Bernadette loudly pooh-poohed them from the couch.

“Hey, bud?  Why don’t you come help your mom and me with dinner, huh?” Elliot offered.

To Olivia’s surprise, this seemed to spark her son’s interest.  She was amazed by how expertly Elliot could circumvent a tantrum, and there was something so casual in his voice that made the simple domesticity of the situation feel painfully alluring to her.  Noah traipsed over to join them in the kitchen, and Elliot immediately got him started washing his hands.

“First thing is the meat sauce,” Elliot said when they were done at the sink.  “Noah, you’re going to be on browning duty,” he continued, hefting the boy up onto the countertop next to the stove.  Elliot brandished a skillet to illustrate as he put it on a burner. “We’re going to put some hamburger in here, and you’re going to hold the pan steady with one hand on the handle—like this—and you’re going to push the meat down and around and apart with this wooden spoon.  Got it?”

Noah, however, had curled his hands into his chest.  Timidly, almost shyly, he said, “Mommy doesn’t let me touch the stove.”

“Well, we’re both right here.  I think it’s okay,” Elliot reasoned, but Noah, whose hands had not moved from their position, only shook his head.

Elliot ducked his head.  “Uh, ‘ Mommy ’?” he called over to Olivia.  “You wanna weigh in on this?”

Heat pooled unexpectedly in her belly when he addressed her, and she had to compose herself before she turned to face them.  “Noah honey, I’m proud of you for being safe. Thank you. Today’s a little different from usual, though, because you’ve got two of us here to help you.  So if that’s something you want to do and you feel safe doing it, you may.”  She glanced up at Elliot, which proved to be a mistake because his gaze was firmly fixed on her, the way it sometimes used to be, and he was smiling faintly, as if he didn’t even realize he was.  It further stirred the old longing. She turned her attention back to Noah as quickly as she could. “Hmm?” she asked him. “What do you think? You want to?”

Noah thought for a moment and then smiled shyly at his mother and nodded.  She laughed and kissed him on the forehead before returning to her cutting board.

Behind her, as she focused on the last slices of steak for the stew, she heard Elliot showing Noah the dials on the stove, how to tell which burner was on, and how to safely hold the skillet from his position.  Elliot explained to Noah that he was going to chop onion while the pan was heating, and she heard the steady and confident repeated landing of his knife against his own cutting board as she added the cubed steak to her bag of vegetables.

She came over to wash her hands afterwards, and he reached over to turn the water on for her.  To her surprise, he also picked up the soap and dispensed a half pump when she hesitantly opened her palm to him.  “You’re a natural with him,” he said right into her ear. “I always knew you would be.”

She drew a sharp breath and turned to face him, but he’d already gone back to his chopping.  Back at her station, Olivia added the tomato soup to the stew prep and sealed the bag. As she walked it to the freezer, she heard the hamburger hit the hot frypan, and Elliot coached Noah in how to work it with the spoon.  Confident that her son was in good hands, Olivia started prepping the second freezer meal.

Not unpredictably, Noah’s patience and attention wavered throughout dinner prep.  After the meat sauce was made, he scampered back to the living room to play Go Fish with Bernadette, and then once the noodles had boiled, he bounced back to the kitchen to help assemble the first layer—and then back to Bernadette when the second and half of the last layer were being put together, and then back to the kitchen to help with finishing touches, and then back to Bernadette once the dish was finally in the oven.  He begged, then, to go outside to play, and Olivia allowed it with the proviso that he not go in the water. He agreed and bounded outside through the back door with Bernadette in tow.

And like that, after almost forty minutes of constant noise and energy, they were alone again in the quiet.

Elliot washed each of his dishes and arranged them in the drainer to dry.  He didn’t say a word, and she didn’t have to look at him to know he was watching her.  She could picture him perfectly: leaning back against the sink, arms folded, eyes slightly narrowed, lips similarly pursed.  She worked on under his scrutiny for a bit as the day’s events ran through her mind. It wasn’t that she needed to fill the silence, but she decided that she probably owed it to him to speak first, since she was the one who had run out on their conversation earlier.

“Your mother told me about Kathy moving Eli to Connecticut,” she said quietly as she packed the last of a cilantro lime chicken prep into a freezer bag.  He cleared his throat and shifted. “I was sorry to hear that. When did they go?”

“Over the summer,” he responded sedately.  “They thought… the transition to middle school would be a good time.”

Olivia huffed in surprise.  “Middle school!” she repeated softly.

“Tell me about it,” he agreed.

She turned to carry the bag to the freezer, and Elliot opened the door for her.  “And she’s remarried now? Rick, was it?” Elliot just nodded in response. “How long have they…?”

“Uh, about three years?”

“Oh!”  It was a much longer period of time than Olivia had expected, and Elliot’s earlier confession—specifically his use of the past tense—rang in her ears.  If what he had said were still true, if it had ever been true, why hadn’t he reached out to her once his marriage had dissolved and his wife had moved on?  She swallowed hard as she returned to the space where she’d been working. “And you?” she asked, unable to look at him.

“‘And me’ what?” he asked.

“Kathy has Rick…” she prompted.

He chuckled.  “Come on, Liv, who could stand me?”

I did.  More than thirteen years.”

“It was your job,” he argued dismissively.  And maybe, she realized then, that’s why he hadn’t called.  If he had never known, like she had never known…

“I don’t get it, El,” she said, putting down the rotisserie chicken she was shredding for the next meal and finally turning to look at him.  “You said you were avoiding me because of Kathy—”

“No, I’m pretty sure I said I was in love with you—”

“If that’s true, why didn’t you reach out when it was over?” she pressed.  “How long’s it been? Four years? Five?”

“Six.”

“Six!”  It hit her harder than she expected.  “And not a word. Don’t even pick up the phone when I call.”  Suddenly whatever affection she’d begun feeling for him again was gone, and the anger was back.

“Liv, I was in a bad place after the shooting.  And when things fell apart with Kathy, you were dealing with your own stuff.  I didn’t want to pile on.”

“How could you possibly know what I was or wasn’t ‘dealing with’?”

“It was all over the goddamn news, Olivia!  Christ, how do you think Kathy figured me out?!”

She flashed back instantly to William Lewis, and it took the wind out of her sails.  On top of everything else he had taken, was it really possible that he had cost her Elliot, too?  “I… I still would’ve made time for you,” she stammered.

“I was a mess, Liv.  And I thought if you were putting your own life back together, you shouldn’t be worried about tryin’ to fix mine, too.  I’da been a burden.”

“You’re wrong.  I nee—I needed you…” she finally confessed.  She looked up and searched his face.  He looked as horrorstruck as she felt.  “I needed you more then than I ever had,” she continued.  “And you weren’t there.”

He took a step closer but retreated when she pulled back.  His hands and arms moved restlessly, obviously wanting to reach for her but doubting that she would permit it.

“And you knew ?  And you didn’t… didn’t…”  The realization hurt. A lot.  Maybe more than his initial disappearance.

“I’m sorry,” he croaked, stepping forward again.  She pulled back a second time, but he advanced. “I’m sorry,” he repeated.  He advanced again, unintentionally backing her into the fridge. “I never meant—I swear to God—I never meant to hurt you.  Please believe me.”

“You left me.”

“Oh, don’t say it like that,” he begged.

“But you did.  That’s what happened.  How could you possibly think that wouldn’t hurt me?”

“I was trying to protect you—”

“And when I was at my lowest point, and the one thing I needed was my partner, where were you?”

“I swear I thought I was doing the right thing.  I loved you!”

There it was, the past tense again.  “You say that, but did you ever once consider how I felt?”

“Always!  That’s why—”

“Were you really that blind?”

“What?”

She swallowed hard and glared at him, willing him to understand so she wouldn’t have to say it.  He squinted and tilted his head almost imperceptibly. She knew the look well—worry that he had pieced it together wrong.  “I didn’t stick it out with you for thirteen years just because it was my job,” she told him. Confirmation given, he took a small step back, and she looked away, through the window above the sink.  “Losing you like that was almost unbearable.”

“I didn’t know,” he said quietly.  “If I had, I never… Things coulda been so different.”

“Yeah,” she agreed bitterly, moving back to the chicken she’d been shredding.

“If I could do it over—”

“But you can’t.  It’s done.”

There was a small silence until Elliot asked, “Are we ?”

Olivia’s hands stilled.  She wasn’t sure what he meant; from her perspective, there was no ‘we,’ and he was solely to blame for it.  Their partnership had ended the moment he left, and his avoidance of her was the very reason they hadn’t had any kind of relationship, as friends or otherwise, since then.

“I still love you, Olivia,” he said softly.  “I don’t think I ever won’t.”

Her hands, still clutching her two forks, came to rest on the countertop on either side of the cutting board she’d been using.  She held herself there, unable to move, unable to speak, trying to process everything. She’d heard words like that before from other men, but this was different.  This was Elliot. This was the one person from whom she had always hoped but never expected to hear something like that. And it was the present tense. And the future tense.

He must have misinterpreted her reaction, because he exhaled roughly and changed tack.  “Sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have—”

“I don’t visit your mother because it’s my job, either,” she blurted out before he had a chance to say anything else that could break them again.

She heard him shift behind her.  “Y—?" The question got caught in his throat by his own disbelief.

In truth, she didn’t still visit Bernadette because she loved Elliot, but that was how it had started, back when he needed help with Kathleen.  She would have done anything for him back then. And she did still love him, even if she couldn’t say it. Without a word, she deliberately returned to shredding the last of the chicken.

Elliot drew up beside her.  Again, she could feel him watching her, but it wasn’t unsettling.  It felt familiar and comfortable. Domestic. Safe. She scooped handfuls of chicken into a mixing bowl and started to add seasonings.  When she was done, she pointed to a jar of marinara on the counter near him, so he turned and retrieved it for her. “Noah says you’re the captain now,” he said as he handed it to her.

She was a little surprised at the change in conversation, but she laughed anyway.  “He said you asked a lot of questions…”

“There was a lot to catch up on.”

“So you interrogated my six-year-old?” she teased.  The jar’s seal broke with a satisfying pop.

“Wasn’t sure you’d talk to me.”

She gave him a small sheepish smile because he wasn’t wrong, and she couldn’t blame him for pressing Noah for information, especially after Bernadette had thrown them together.

“So is it true?” he asked.  “You’re the captain , not just C.O.?”

She winced a little at the distinction because she was still getting used to the title, and she hated that her good fortune had come at Dodds’s expense.  “Um, yeah, actually. It’s very new, just a few weeks now, but yes, Noah had it right.”

“Wow.  Well, congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m proud of you, Liv.  Really. It’s amazing what you’ve achieved since…”  He shifted again and nodded in the direction of the ocean.  “And Noah!” he gushed. “Noah’s a great kid. And for you to have him and still…  I’m… I’m so happy for you. Happy that you… finally…”

“You know he’s adopted, right?”

“What does that matter?”

“It doesn’t,” she quickly agreed, immediately feeling like an idiot for even mentioning it.  And she was embarrassed by the reason she had said it, but she told him anyway: “I just… I… wanted you to know… um, there’s no one else… in the picture.  And there wouldn’t be, if… um, if you…” She glanced up at him and totally lost her words.

He was smiling faintly at her, eyes alight, perhaps amused by her babbling or gladdened by its content.  He drifted closer, and she didn’t pull away. “If I…?” he prompted, slowly closing the distance between them.

“Yeah,” she breathed just before he reached her.

Her fingers instinctively reached for his t-shirt as he pressed his lips to hers for the second time that day.  She twisted her fingers into the material and pulled down as she pushed up into him. He responded to the motion with his mouth, dropping his jaw to give himself greater range and force.

A soft, unchecked sigh of appreciation escaped her throat, and the sound elicited a primal reaction from him.  He threaded one hand into her hair, fingertips kneading her scalp and thumb strumming her cheek as he held her in place to redouble his efforts.  His firm lips tugged at hers, and she kissed him back, powerless to deny him anything. Her mouth opened under his as her hand slid from the lower corner of his t-shirt up and around his torso.  Tongues met cautiously, pressing earnestly against one another for the very first time, and Olivia tilted her head to get a better angle. Nothing in her life had ever felt like this. Nothing ever would.

His dry lips still tasted like sea salt.

Eventually they slowed, and he lowered his head to break the kiss and press his forehead to hers.  She was content just to stand there, gently nuzzling him, breathing with him. The aroma of his baking lasagna had started to fill the kitchen, and the entire sensation made her think of home.  She recognized the inherent faults in that comparison: that this was not her home, nor had it ever been Elliot’s, and that her childhood home had been an uncomfortable one, as had his, and that all of this was too impossibly new to be remotely familiar.  And yet, somehow, it was. This, here, with Elliot at last, was home.

She inhaled deeply, and he wrapped his arms around her, embracing her tightly.  “Can you promise you won’t hurt me again?” she mumbled into his shoulder.

“No,” he answered softly, pulling her closer.  “And you can’t, either.”

She knew he was right, just as she knew it was unfair of her to ask him that, especially given their history.  But despite however they’d hurt each other in the past, she knew they were always better together than they were apart.  And this, surely, whatever it was going to be, would be no exception. “Then promise you won’t leave like that again?”

“Yeah,” he agreed, kissing her temple.  “That I can do. I’m not goin’ anywhere.”

She smiled and ran her fingers through the hair at the base of his skull, and they stayed like that for a peaceful moment.  Eventually, she reluctantly leaned back to pull out of his embrace. “I have to get these last two meals done,” she told him, and he released her.

“I know you don’t need a hand, but can I help anyway?” he asked.

She flashed him a grin and gestured to the ingredients for the stuffed peppers she was planning to make last.  He pulled everything over and she gave him basic starting directions while she finished up the chicken parmesan wraps she’d been working on.  Once those were finished and stored in the freezer, she joined him, and the two of them worked side by side to finish the peppers.

In time, Bernadette and Noah returned from their beach adventure, and Noah came cruising into the kitchen to check on the lasagna.  Elliot had already taken the foil off for the last part of the bake, and they were less than thirty minutes away from eating. Elliot told Noah to wash up and come back to set the table for them.

“Oh, I’m not sure we can stay,” Olivia said as Noah ran off to the hall bathroom to wash his hands.  Elliot had taken over labeling, packing, and stowing the finished peppers, and she was busy writing out heating instructions for each of the meals.

“Of course you can,” Elliot said.

“I’ve got to get him home.”

“Liv, it’s two hours back to the city.  Even if you leave right now, it’s gonna be awful late to eat by the time you get home.  So what are you gonna do: Get him fast food on the way, or stay and maybe get home a little later?”

Noah came running back into the kitchen.  “Hands are clean!” he announced. Elliot didn’t break eye contact with Olivia but greeted Noah by wordlessly passing him two plates from one of the cabinets.  Noah took them and ran them to the table. Elliot reached into the cabinet for the other two, pausing and tacitly asking for Olivia’s decision with a raised eyebrow.

“Fine!” she said, and Elliot grinned as he grabbed the other two for Noah, who had returned with his hands already out.

Just then, the kitchen timer went off, and Elliot cut the heat to the oven and removed the dish of lasagna.  Elliot set it on the stove to cool as he called out to Noah, “Come get the silverware, and after that, you’re on salad detail!”

“What’s that?” Noah asked.

“It means you’re makin’ the salads,” Elliot said, pulling open the silverware drawer for the boy.

“But I don’t like salad.”

“So?”

“I don’t want salad,” Noah said.

Olivia braced herself for a meltdown, but Elliot just said, “I didn’t ask if you liked it or wanted it—I said you’re making it.  There’s a big difference.”

Noah eyed him skeptically as he placed a fork on the table.  “You’re not going to make me eat it?”

“Well no, I wouldn’t make you,” Elliot said.  “I think you should eat it, because it’s good for you—and it’s polite to eat whatever you’re served when you’re a guest in someone’s home,” he reasoned, “but I really just need you to make the salad tonight, not eat it.”

Noah still seemed suspicious.  “What do I have to do?”

Elliot grabbed a bag of salad mix from the fridge and held it up for Noah to see from across the room.  “I promise it’s easy,” he said.

Dinner was a surreal experience for Olivia, largely because of Elliot’s presence.  Everything was so effortless and comfortable at the table that it didn’t seem possible that he had been completely absent from her life for almost nine years, or that he’d ever had a strained relationship with his mother.  He and Noah were so chummy that it didn’t seem possible that they had only just met. The food itself was so exceptionally good that if she hadn’t seen him preparing it with her own eyes, she might not have believed he had made it.  And then there were moments when she caught him looking at her like he wanted to devour her instead of his meal, and she couldn’t believe his brazenness, even if Noah and Bernadette seemed oblivious.

Olivia and Noah hit the road as soon as dinner was over.  Bernadette said her goodbyes in the doorway, but Elliot grabbed Noah’s booster seat from where he had dropped it when they returned from the store and followed them out to the car.

He closed in on her as soon as she had gotten Noah situated and shut his door.  “Come on, my kid’s right there ,” she protested weakly as he pressed her against the car and buried his face in her hair.

“Good, I want him to get used to it,” he rumbled just before he kissed her neck.

She rolled her eyes but smiled at the implication as she ran her fingers through his hair again.  “Don’t worry, he will,” she promised. He reared back and grinned at her. “But for now, we have to go.”

“Yeah,” he agreed gruffly, stepping back to give her room.  He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck as he watched her make her way around the car.  “You know, at first I was kind of annoyed with my mother for making me drive all the way out here today, but…  Turned out okay, I guess.” His smile over the car to her was somehow both cheeky and bashful.

“And it feels good to do your sonly duty, right?  Storm clean-up?” she suggested as she opened the driver’s door.

He shook his head, stepping closer to the car to brace a fist against the upper part of the passenger door.  “That’s just it! There was barely anything to do! But she called me up last night, like it was an emergency, and begged me to come down!  I mean, now I’m glad I did, but…”

Olivia pursed her lips and looked over at the beach house through narrowed eyes.  “Last night, huh?”

“Yeah, why?”

She ran it through her head a few times before she said it aloud, but finally did: “ I called her yesterday and said I was coming down.”

She saw the moment his annoyance returned.  “So she…?” he said, gesturing with one finger between the two of them.

She exhaled sharply.  “So it seems.”

He screwed his eyes shut and shook his head.  “I swear to God, that woman’s gonna be the death of me.”

“She’s your mother—be nice.”

“When she’s right, she’s insufferable —”

“Hey.”

“And she had no business—”

“C’mere.”

He growled in frustration but relented, trudging around the car to where Olivia was standing at her open door, grumbling all the while.

His blustery indignation was kind of funny, especially when he was getting riled up by something so innocuous, so she had an amused twinkle in her eye when she reached up to pull his face down to hers.  She kissed all the mutterings right out of him. “It’s gonna be fine,” she whispered when she released him.

He stared at her in wonder for a moment before stealing another quick kiss.  “I know,” he conceded.

He hovered there, just sharing space with her, until she finally reminded him, “We do have to go.”

“Yep!”  He pulled her in for a short farewell hug.  “Drive safe. Call me when you get home, okay?”

She laughed as he released her.  “Will you answer?”

He grinned and then sobered.  “From now on, always.”

It sort of took her breath away.  She didn’t trust herself to speak, so she just pointed at him to indicate that she was holding him to his word.  He beamed back at her then bent to address Noah through the window.

“Noah, be good to your mom.  I’ll see you soon, okay?”

“Okay!” Noah called.

Olivia closed her door, but her window was down.  “Bye,” she said softly.

Elliot kissed two of his fingers and tapped them to her window sweep.  “See ya.”

She pulled off and watched him as long as she could in the mirrors.  He stood there for a while, watching them drive away, and when they were nearly out of sight, he finally turned and grudgingly went back into his mother’s house.

- fin -