Picks up at the beginning of Season 17, with the current squad (including Dodds, Fin, Rollins, Carisi).
It was arguably the best time of year – that string of days after the height of summer's heat had passed but before fall's chilliest temps set in. The breeze was perfect. The sky was beautiful. The flowers smelled wonderful. Days like these were what Olivia Benson had dreamed of her entire life. Her nearly-two-year-old son tugged on her hair, and she had never been happier.
"Momma, go swing," Noah pointed over at the playground equipment.
Olivia smiled. "I guess that's my cue, Case."
"Alright Liv, we'll see you two tomorrow... same time, same place?"
"Sure thing. I took a couple days off, left Dodds in charge."
"Oh boy, you better enjoy the weekend then, because who knows if the place'll be in one piece when you go back on Monday."
"Ain't that the truth?" The women laughed.
Noah was squirming, eyeing up the swings. He was kicking his chubby legs as hard as he could, trying his best to get out of his mother's arms and over to the playground. Olivia shifted her attention back to him and also noticed Sophie, Casey's niece quietly holding her aunt's hand, mouth agape, intently watching Noah with a questioning, somewhat confused expression.
Olivia patted Noah's bottom.
"Hey Noah, say 'bye-bye' to Sophie and Casey."
Noah turned back around in Olivia's arms. "Bye-bye Auntie Casey, bye-bye Soapy," he waved.
"See you tomorrow, Noah," Casey chuckled and ran her hand lovingly over Noah's soft chestnut locks.
"Bye Liv." As Casey and the little towheaded girl turned to leave, Olivia turned to Noah.
"Okay, little man. You ready to go swing?"
"Yessss, momma, I telled you dat please," Noah huffed.
"Okay, big guy," Olivia set Noah down but kept hold of his little chubby hand, as he pulled her toward the swings. Noah was such a little boy. Never still. Always into something. But she wouldn't trade it for anything. At a certain point, coincidentally or not - around the time Elliot told her Kathy was pregnant with Eli, she had given up all hope of ever being a mother. But now she had Noah, and she felt so blessed. She loved him in a way she had never known love could exist. They reached the swing set and as she lifted Noah into the baby swing and started pushing gently, Olivia thought about Sophie's reaction to Noah. Now that she had experienced the pure joy that being a mother was, she couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to have a sweet little girl.
Her thoughts were interrupted by "Heartbreaker" by Pat Benatar coming from the back pocket of her jeans.
Smiling, she pulled out her phone and answered with one hand, continuing to push Noah who was laughing, happy as could be, with the other.
Without having to look at the caller ID, she slid to answer, "Hi, Raf. What's up?"
"Hey babe," she heard through the receiver and something in her churned the slightest bit. She was still getting to used to all this, to Barba calling her 'babe.'
"Nothin really. Just wanted to see what you sillies are up to."
"We're at the park!"
"You know it!" For the first time in a long time, Olivia felt really and deeply cared about. Her and Barba hadn't been together long and, if she was honest as much as he was always supportive and cared about Noah, he didn't have much experience with kids and was really uncomfortable around Noah at first. But the fact that he paid attention enough to know and remember the things that were a part of Olivia's routine with Noah made her feel special.
"Where are you?"
"Just leaving the courthouse. I had such a longgggg day. I can't wait to see you."
"Well hey, Casey just left but Noah and I will probably hang around here for a little while yet. Want to join us and then go get some dinner?"
"I'd love that. I can be there in about half an hour?"
"Alright, see you soon babe," she tried the word out herself and was surprised when it didn't sound as strange coming off her lips as she'd expected.
She clicked off her phone and told Noah, "Guess what Noah? Rafael's coming to play with us."
"Raf-raf?" the little boy turned around in the swing to ask his mom and, when she nodded, he shrieked excitedly.
Noah's excitement made Olivia uneasy. She continuously questioned whether dating Barba was what was best for Noah. She knew she enjoyed his company, and she knew he cared very much about both her and Noah. She knew he was a good man, and she knew she should be happy. But she didn't trust herself. She wasn't sure that as things continued to get more serious, she wouldn't pull away. Retreat. Run. Like she always did. Being intimate with men – not so much physically but really emotionally intimate with men was not her strong suit. And, as much as she hated to admit it to herself, Elliot leaving the way he had made it even harder for her to open herself up to being that close to someone again. She didn't want to think that Elliot had ruined her for other men, especially not when she had a guy as good as Barba in her life ready to give her the world, but the reality was that he sort of had.
Olivia's thoughts weighed on her heavily, and she suddenly felt a need to sit down.
She slowed the swing and asked, "Hey Noah, want to go play on the airplane?"
Noah nodded up and down almost more quickly than his little neck allowed.
Olivia scooped Noah up and then set him down. The second his little feet hit the ground, Noah two-year-old-ran over to the lower, toddler-friendly equipment. Olivia took the opportunity to sit on one of the park benches nearby, attempting to turn her mind off. Over the past four years, in moments like these when she found herself thinking of Elliot she had learned turning her mind off was really all that worked. Dr. Lindstrom had helped her learn to reset her brain by being purposefully mindful of her surroundings. By focusing only on what was in the present, she at least had a chance of moving her thoughts away from Elliot, away from what was and what could have been.
So, while keeping an eye on Noah, she looked out over the park and tried to be here... nowhere else. The park was busier than usual, she observed, for it being so early on a Friday afternoon. Families were probably trying to get time in together before the kids started school again in a few short weeks. Families – moms, children, and dads. As she saw all the smiles and heard all the laughter and excited chatter, she struggled to not think of Elliot. To think of all the times they had walked through different parks headed to crime scenes and she had imagined being one of those families with him. She knew his children were too old to want to go to the park, but she couldn't help back then to dream they might someday have a couple kids together, maybe a little boy and that little girl.
Who was she kidding? She was almost 47 years old and had spent all of her thirties and the better part of her forties not only pining over but literally putting her life on hold for a man who would never be hers and who she would never share that future with. Then she thought about Barba, and the idea that maybe she could have that life with him instead? The prospect of it gave her some hope but at the same time her hope didn't feel genuine. Noah deserved a father, and a life with Barba offered that. But when she tried to convince herself that nothing in the world would make her happier, she failed. And when she thought about that, she struggled with bigger things – like the finiteness of life and her own mortality. She seriously doubted she would ever be as happy as she had foolishly allowed herself increasingly, over the course of 12 years, to believe was possible. Approaching 50, Olivia continuously tried to convince herself that, just because the crystal clear vision of her dream life had yet to dim, does not mean that saying yes to a great, comfortable life would be settling.
Fortunately, she was pulled away from the pain of those thoughts as a baseball flew from behind her, past her ear, and landed just in front of the bench she was sitting on.
No one was in her immediate vicinity, so checking quickly to make sure Noah was still where she had last spotted him, she got off the bench and took a couple quick, light paces to where the ball had stopped rolling.
Almost as soon as she bent over to pick it up, a young boy in a navy ball cap with a baseball mitt on his left hand approached, reaching out his right hand for the ball.
Kneeling, she heard the little boy standing just above her, "Hey do I know you? I think you're in a picture at my daddy's house."
Olivia put her hands on her knees, balancing herself to stand, and laughed softly. "Oh, I don't think so hon- " she stopped mid-word.
As she rose, she came face to face with the little boy. His blonde curly locks could have belonged to anyone, but his eyes. Those could only belong to one man's son.
"Yeah, I think you are!" he was excited, almost jumping but not quite leaving his feet. Looking up at Olivia who was standing now, he recognized her as the lady from his daddy's picture.
Olivia tried not to panic. She tried to calm herself, assure herself that even if this was the little boy she had delivered almost eight years before, the chances of his father being with him at the park were slim. She looked back to check on Noah and, without being obvious, used turning her head as an excuse to scan the park for any sign of Elliot.
What she failed to register was that Eli had come from behind the bench and so as she scanned the playground, Eli had skipped over the bike path that ran behind the park benches and back over to the grassy area where he had been playing catch with his dad.
In those moments when she realized Elliot Stabler could be there in the same air space as her, it was as if the rest of the park was on mute. Olivia didn't hear a thing, until she did.
"Hey dad... Daddd! It's the lady in your picture!"
Olivia couldn't make out what the boy's father was saying, but he must have been confused and must have said something, because Eli replied then.
"You know dad! The one who was there when I was born!"
Olivia could feel him then. She could feel him looking at her. She could feel his eyes burning holes into her back, and she tried to convince herself that if she didn't look he would disappear, and she could pretend this one-in-a-million chance encounter with Eli had never happened.
She knew it was a losing battle though, because scared as she was, she wanted to see him. God she wanted just to see his face more than anything. She turned so slowly she had enough time to replay the entire past four years in her head. They had been the hardest years of her life. Not a day passed that she didn't think about Elliot. She constantly wondered where he was, what he was doing. She thought about what she would say if she ever saw him again. The problem was she had never really figured it out. And that was a problem, because when she finally stopped turning and what seemed like eons later finally gained the courage to lift her eyes from the pavement and look straight ahead across the park, Elliot Stabler was looking right back at her.
Next chapter: conversation with Elliot, voicemail from Barba, debating whether to tell Barba she saw Elliot