"I'll put Eddie over here just in case," Olivia said, placing Noah's stuffed elephant, Eddie, on the chest of drawers across from his bed.
"I'm too old for stuffed animals," he said with the heart-melting smile that had become her saving grace, a solace in a world that was otherwise dark and dreary of late. In these moments, in her home, she could drop the battle-hardened armor she wore to get her through the work day and just be. She liked this part of herself, the nurturing and warm part of her that Noah brought out from the moment the social worker placed him in her arms.
"Well, if you change your mind he'll be right here." She slowly crept over to the side of his bed. "I won't tell anyone if he finds his way over here with you," she said, patting the space beside him on the bed before reaching out to lightly tickle his neck.
"Mommy!" he exclaimed through fits of laughter.
She pulled her hands back before reaching out to ruffle his curly hair. "You're not too old for a kiss from your mom, right?"
He feigned a contemplative expression, another sign to her that he was growing up and developing his own sense of humor. "I guess not," he said before allowing a smirk to break through his façade.
"Good," she said with a chuckle. She leaned over and placed a kiss on his forehead. "Sleep tight, sweet boy."
She made her way to the door and took one last glance back at him. He was staring over at Eddie, and she could practically see the wheels turning in his head. No doubt she'd hear his tiny footsteps padding across the room to retrieve his sleeping companion as soon as the door clicked shut behind her. With a private smile, she pushed the door open and closed it on her way out.
The richness Noah had brought to her life was immeasurable. It was one of the many things she'd been reflecting on over the past few weeks when the amount of change she'd experienced in the last decade was brought into focus. Elliot's sudden reappearance seemed to have that effect on her.
She'd found herself dragging out memories and feelings that had been gathering dust in the deepest corners of her brain since she heard him call her name amongst the sirens and the swarm of first responders. She had moved on. At least she thought she had moved on. How was the pull so strong after all these years, after the betrayal of his leaving that she still felt acutely every time she saw him. Ten years without a word and she still couldn't help but jump when he needed rescuing. Well… until last week.
She'd been dodging his calls for a few days now for reasons she hadn't exactly figured out. It was all too much for her. He was too much for her. His problems were too much for her, and she felt angry with him for pulling her in, for making her care about him even after he'd cut her so deeply. A few days of dodged calls was nothing compared to ten years of them, but she still felt guilty knowing he was struggling without her. Damn her moral compass. It made her a good cop but it meant she often exceeded the boundaries of what she had to give, forcing her to sacrifice the time and energy she needed for herself or, God forbid, Noah.
It was a thought that had made her slide her finger across her screen and decline his calls. She couldn't be everything to him now. She had Noah to think about. She had her own growth to maintain. If Elliot was going to be a part of her life he needed to meet her where she was. He needed to see professional who knew how to bring him out of the pit he was living in after Kathy died. He needed so much and she couldn't give it to him. It simultaneously pained her to admit it and made her realize how much progress she'd made in caring for herself.
Despite all of that progress, she could feel some old familiar rhythms emerging. Not all of them were bad but she hesitated to let them be comfortable again. She couldn't hand that over to him without some assurance that he understood the gravity of the situation. She had everything she'd wanted now. She was in a good place. Nobody could disrupt the stability she'd craved her whole life.
Even if he did love her… She'd thought of little else since he'd said those three words that made her hear the blood rushing through her veins, feel her heart pounding out of her chest. What had he meant? Why then, after all the time that had passed? There was a time in her life when that's what she wanted to hear more than anything else, but now? She'd never had any luck with timing.
She walked gingerly into the kitchen to put away the rest of the dishes from dinner. It was another part of her that had changed. She used to live on takeout, but now cooking with Noah was a sacred ritual when work allowed her to make it home for dinner. She smiled thinking about the way they sang Taylor Swift at the top of their lungs while mixing a salad earlier that evening. Gosh, he made her laugh.
Just as she picked up the first dish from the drying rack, her phone vibrated on the counter next to her. She let out a groan, expecting to find a text about a new case. Being on call was harder now than it had ever been.
But it wasn't a case. The word Stabler popped up on her screen and the frustration with work morphed into an unsettled feeling in her gut.
"Can we talk?" she read, letting herself rest against the counter. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back slightly before her phone buzzed again. "I'm in the neighborhood."