I apologize it has been so long. To make it up to you all, this chapter is a little longer. In the name of complete transparency, I've been a HUGE E/O shipper since day one and when I started writing this story, I envisioned an E/O endgame. BUT with that said, in the last several months (really since the start of season 17), I've fallen head over heels for Barson. That leaves me where I am now... with genuinely absolutely no idea how this story is going to end. I've certainly got an idea about where it's headed next, but basically what I'm saying is I truly need all of your input to decide how to proceed. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether it be about Barson vs. E/O or completely different topics. As always, thank you all for reading and sticking with me! :)
As Elliot knocked on the door of his ex-wife's house, he took a deep breath and momentarily shut his eyes, making one final effort to collect himself and his thoughts. With the faces of his missing son and his former partner imprinted on the back of his eyelids, Elliot didn't have a chance to formulate what he was going to say before he opened his eyes and Kathy's face was before him.
"Elliot." She looked at him but only for a second, before her eyes scanned the rest of the front porch. "Where's Eli?"
"Can I come in?"
Without waiting for a response, Elliot pushed past Kathy into the house. This was not a conversation he was going to start outside.
Turning to close the door, Kathy repeated. "Elliot, where is Eli? Did you bring him to urgent care? Where is he?"
Making his way to stand in front of the couch, Elliot gestured to the large arm chair across from him. "Kath, can you sit down. I need to talk to you."
Kathy's tone, now full of fear for her youngest child, "Elliot what the hell is going on?! Where is my son? You said you were going to take him to the ER to get checked out. Where is he now!?"
Because he was supposed to return Eli home to Kathy that evening by 8, when Elliot first couldn't find their son, he had taken a moment to call Kathy and let her know they'd be running late. Clearly without thinking it through at all, he'd fabricated a story, telling Kathy that Eli had taken a spill off the monkey bars and got all cut up. He said he was worried he might've hurt his wrist so proceeded to call Kathy under the guise of conferring with her whether he should bring Eli to the hospital to get checked out. In reality, he was just giving himself time, in case he couldn't find Eli right away.
Now, there was no more time to bide. Eli had been missing for going on five hours. Without any signs or clues, Elliot knew he needed to involve Kathy if there was any hope of finding him.
"I'm not sure."
Stomach dropping, Kathy sank into the oversized chair. A silence suddenly washed over the seconds-before enraged woman, as she came to comprehend that her 7-year-old was missing.
As if unsure whether what he'd said had been received, Elliot repeated.
"Kathy, I don't know where he is."
The last time he said it more to allow the reality to sink into his own being even more so than hers.
"I lost Eli."
Surrounded by framed pictures of their five beautiful children on the walls, of photographs of their kids' milestones, of smiling faces, of happier days, Elliot and Kathy sat in silence. With half a room between them, they were miles apart. The only thing drawing them together was the desperation with which they each longed to know where their baby boy was.
Not wanting to speak too soon but afraid to let too much time pass without action toward locating Eli, Elliot pushed off his knees, up off the couch he'd crashed down on sometime in the period of the last 10 minutes.
"There's a detective outside. He wants to talk to you. Get some information. I'm going to go get him to come in."
With that, Elliot moved to open the door to call Dodds inside. He also hoped to catch his breath in the fresh air. Unfortunate for Elliot, there wasn't much time for breathing, because while Elliot had been inside the young detective had made his way onto the front porch. As soon as he spotted the door moving, Dodds started to head in.
Approaching who could only be the missing boy's mother, he didn't miss a beat. Addressing the clearly devastated woman, he introduced himself. In so doing, Dodds spoke three letters that, hard as she tried for the last two decades, Kathy Stabler had never managed to escape. Not in her worst nightmare though could she have dreamt that those three letters would become relevant to her in a capacity as victim's parent.
"I'm with S-V-U."
When it was all over and she'd regained the capacity to think, it occurred to Olivia that this was the first time she ever loved and really felt loved in return. In those moments silent except for breathing- her and that of the man she loved- she realized too that unlike in some previous trysts with other men, she hadn't once thought of Elliot the entire time... until now.
Rafael's arms wrapped loosely around her, Olivia felt a sense of guilt as the otherwise perfectly blissful moment was interrupted by thoughts of Elliot. They weren't necessarily sexual in nature, but the fact that he had wormed his way there in her mind in what was supposed to be among the most intimate moments she'd ever shared with another man was upsetting. Disturbing her peace, the thoughts pulled her off of the couch and out of Barba's embrace.
Standing up, Olivia grabbed a throw from the nearby loveseat and tenderly covered the man she loved. Looking at Barba now as he rested, she wondered what was going through his mind. Olivia wondered if the unknown of the future scared him as much as it did her. Did he wake up in the middle of the night, unsettled because there was no telling what life had in store for them?
Sitting on the edge of the couch next to where Rafael's head lay, Olivia delicately ran her fingers through his hair. As she did so, he stirred. A small smile broke out across his lips and his arms lazily wrapped around her middle. Barba wasn't as asleep as Olivia had assumed. He'd caught her doting over him.
"Livvie," his pet name for her rolled off his tongue languidly, eyes remaining closed.
"Yes, Barbie." She chuckled, knowing he hated when she called him that. As if assuaging the bruised ego of her own name-calling, she bent over and placed soft kisses first on his temple and then on his eyelid.
He sighed a more contented sigh than she'd perhaps ever heard. She smiled to herself and in her smile, she felt why the future scared her so much. Liv had had more love in the last year of her life than she'd ever known in the 47 previous. That also meant that she had more to lose than ever before.
Allowing her own sigh, Olivia removed her eyes from Barba and spotted his normally wrinkle-free cream dress shirt in a heap among other articles of clothing on the floor. Bending down to pick it up and slip it on her shoulders, she made her way to use the bathroom. Stopping over the sink on her way out, Olivia caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
Flushed complexion looking back at her, she felt emotionally conflicted, some might say tortured even, in a way she hadn't since the last time she'd seen Elliot years before. "Come on, pull yourself out of it, Olivia. Get your head screwed on straight." Her internal monologue tended not to be as self-compassionate as would be helpful.
Then aloud, to the woman now staring back at her, she said the only thing she could say to reassure herself.
"You love him."
The problem was, when she made that statement, it only served to turn into another question. Because tried as she might to be resolute and uncomplicated in her feelings, when she said You love him, not one but rather two "hims" occupied her mind and took space in her heart.
Lucky for Liv, the littlest guy in her life, for whom her love was as undoubted as could be, was still asleep when she checked in on him. She figured that, having missed his afternoon nap, Noah might be knocked out for a while longer still.
Arriving back in the kitchen where they'd started only a while earlier, Olivia found the sauce boiled over, the noodles overcooked, and the dinner Rafael had been preparing all-around unsalvageable. Olivia decided against trying to put something together on the spot and instead dialed the trio's favorite Chinese take-out spot, requesting that the food be delivered in an hour.
Stepping out of the shower, Olivia opts to put Barba's shirt back on instead of choosing from her own shirts. There is a security and a comfort to being enveloped in the smell of him that she would not trade for anything.
As she makes her way back to the main room, she sees that Rafael is up, as he's stretching all four of his limbs in every direction simultaneously how he does every time he wakes, an act Olivia found utterly ridiculous the first time she witnessed it but that she has since come to see as completely endearing.
Walking over to where Barba is on the couch, Olivia sees he's slipped on his underwear and pants, but he seems to be looking around for something else.
"Missing something?" She questions with a flirtatious tone.
With his back still to her, Barba begins, "Yes, I can't find my..."
Then, Olivia appearing in front of him in nothing but his shirt, he trails off. "Oh. Nevermind." Rafael's got a sly look of approval in his eye, confirming that Olivia's choice of wardrobe has achieved its intended outcome.
"Come here, you."
"I don't know, Barba. You seem pretty tired to me." Despite her words, she walks over to him. Their lips are the first of their body parts to collide but soon enough the rest follow, as Olivia straddles Rafael where he is still seated on the couch. Her hands flying through his hair, his hands over her lower half, the two frantically grasp for contact. With a determination and voracity equaled only by that which he brings to the courtroom and she to the aid of the victims, they use their tongues to explore one another's mouths.
Just as Olivia lets out the first whimper, the buzzer goes off.
"Dammit, I'm sorry. It's the food." Olivia explains.
With two more smooches, Barba helps disentangle her from him and moves to pull his wallet out of his pants.
"It's okay, babe."
As she stands, he spanks her playfully on the butt. "Don't worry. We'll pick this up later."
As she goes to push the button to let the delivery guy in, Barba pulls on his white V-neck undershirt. Running his hand through his chestnut hair, he opens the front door and looks down the hall.
The elevator doors open, and Barba exchanges the money for the bags of food, trying to get back inside to his hot lady love as expeditiously as possible.
Closing the door behind him, Rafael finds that Olivia hasn't wasted any time either. She's already set them each a place at the breakfast bar, complete with two glasses of her favorite red wine, and a lit candle in between.
"Well, somebody sure knows how to set the mood."
A huge, brilliant smile fills Olivia's face in response. With the deepest hues of the setting sun pouring into the apartment through the numerous windows, Barba watches as light of the candle dances through Olivia's eyes. Despite knowing himself as man who has spent his life going from job to job, woman to woman, for fear of settling down or getting too comfortable or complacent, Rafael Barba knows he could watch Olivia Benson forever this way.
Rafael returns the smile with a grin of his own. As she reaches to take the bags from him, she holds his hands and places a soft kiss ever so lightly on his lips. The perfect appetizer, he thinks.
Rafael sits down next to her, and Olivia serves them both. As she does so, Barba places his hand on her shoulder and runs it down her arms affectionately. She can't help but blush.
"I was really worried about you today, Liv."
"What do you mean, why?" Answering her own question, she carries on, "Oh, because of the park? I told you, Raf, Noah got sick. It was no big deal."
She hates lying, especially to Barba, so tries to get the words in a manner akin to pulling off a band-aid, as fast and painlessly as she can, so that hopefully he doesn't notice her uneasiness.
"Well, yeah but, I don't remember if I told you, but when I got there, I saw a bunch of patrol cars."
She started to open her mouth to say something about how she had heard the request for SVU at Clinton Dewitt Park over the radio but called Dodds in to cover for her. But then she quickly thought about how she'd have to explain why she hadn't gone. Considering the call was 1) a call and 2) a call for a missing child, it was uncharacteristic for Benson to not be among the first to respond, let alone not respond at all.
With no explanation to provide her boyfriend other than her having been drowning in the emotion, agony, and anguish of landing her eyes on Elliot Stabler that afternoon, Olivia decided against divulging SVU's involvement in the call to Barba.
She knew that a missing kid in a park was about as routine a call as they got. It was highly unlikely she'd get called in, and even less likely Barba would ever get involved in his role as ADA. After all, nine times out of ten, the kid had either gone to play with friends without the parent noticing or the kid thought he was being funny by hiding from the parent in the dugout or behind a food truck. Besides, Olivia hadn't heard from Dodds after making initial contact with him or from anybody else on the squad for that matter, so she optimistically figured everything must be under control.
Taking a first bite of fried rice, Olivia chewed while she mustered what she figured to be an appropriate amount of surprise for the situation.
"Patrol cars? Really? What were they there for?"
Now expected to give a response, it was Barba's turn to mull over what degree of honesty he considered to be optimal. The secure, self-assured ADA Barba would tell her everything. He would describe the way he came upon the scene and gathered from the officers that a child was missing. He would have said as he learned more, he discovered that it was unfortunately her former partner's child. He would have said he left without knowing what would come of the case, for no other reason than saying as much would have been the truth. Then, ADA Barba would have been able to handle any response Olivia had with poise and with strength. He would have even been able to comfort her, if that's what she needed.
But the unsure, self-doubting boyfriend Rafael thought about the man he'd seen in the park. He thought about the man he'd seen in the picture frame. He thought about the man who he knew deep down still claimed a not insignificant piece of the heart of the woman he loved with all of his own. And he let the streak of jealousy get the best of him, as he settled for only part of the truth.
The part about the missing boy. In the spirit of not mentioning anything that would invoke Olivia's personal feelings, Rafael gave as few details as he could.
"I guess they were having trouble finding a kid. Parents got worried and called the cops."
The fewer details the better, as far as he was concerned, especially considering Rafael was fairly sure that Liv had seen Elliot and did know he was at the park with his kid.
It was Benson's instinct to ask more questions. It was in her nature to want to know and to want to protect, but this particular park on that particular afternoon was one topic wanted to steer clear of. So, she stayed quiet.
The silence persisted for a minute
Interpreting her silence as worry, Barba decided he couldn't let his own desire for self-preservation get in the way of Liv's ease of mind. He tried to convince her that he was sure everything had turned out okay.
"Liv, I saw the dad. He was..."
Just then, there was all of a sudden commotion over the baby monitor. Olivia took the opportunity to divert the conversation
"Well, it sounds like someone wants to join the party."
Getting up to go to Noah's room, she left Barba sitting at the counter, mouth still partially open and frustrated with himself for not having come clean with Olivia.
Walking into her son's room, Olivia flipped off the nightlight and turned on the overhead light.
"Hello, sweet boy."
Noah's two tiny teeth poked out as he spread his mouth into a grin and cooed, as he often still did when he was tired or just waking up.
Reaching over the side of the crib, Olivia picked him up and snuggled him into her, fitting his head under her chin. The toddler allowed the gesture for a bit. He liked to snuggle but the sound of Barba's voice from the other room spoiled snuggle time with mom.
"Is everything okay, Liv?"
With that, the squirming commenced.
"Mami, let down. Let down. Let down." Noah repeated, as he kicked and thrashed his arms.
Olivia had, quite simply, been astonished at the way her son had taken to the other new man in their lives. At first, Barba didn't know the difference between a onesie and a bib, but he caught on quickly and was fast becoming an integral part of Olivia and Noah's life together.
Before Olivia even bothered answering Barba, the two- going on twenty-year-old was shuffling into the other room.
"There's mi guapo."
Olivia could hear Noah's feet move even more quickly if that was possible, when he caught sight of Barba, she assumed.
As she walked into the room, Olivia watched Barba scoop Noah up lovingly. In this moment, she watched Rafael transform from a man afraid he was going to break her son with any one misstep into the man she envisioned would be there for her son when he learned to ride his bike, scored his first goal, aced his first spelling test, went on his first date, whatever it was Noah wanted to do, Olivia knew she could trust Barba to be a man who would love and support him.
"Hola, Papi." Liv heard Noah squeak. She wasn't sure if Noah had referred to Rafael as dad before. Though it was the first time she heard it, she couldn't say it sounded wrong.
After Noah was fed and bathed, the three of them played with Duplo's for a while, before settling in to read a book. First pulling out one of the Dr. Seuss books written in Spanish that Barba had gotten for Noah's first Christmas, Barba dynamically read the book to the pair as Noah sat on his lap. Next selecting one of the Curious George collection, pacifier in mouth, Noah delivered the book to Olivia's hands, as if asking her to read it.
As she opened the book, Noah once again assumed his position, this time cuddled on the couch in Rafael's arms. As Olivia began the story, both of her boys' eyelids got heavier. She kept reading about the adventures of the monkey named George, wondering how she got so lucky to go herself from a woman pining for twelve years over a man she'd never be with to a woman whose whole world were sitting all snuggled up on her couch. Once she could tell both of them were fast asleep, Olivia closed the book and covered her whole world with a blanket. She would do absolutely anything to keep them feeling warm and safe inside, just as they had helped her to feel.
As night began to fall, the sun was shedding the last of its daily light over the pine trees and the mostly desolate road ahead. When the car he was in stopped suddenly, the abrupt motion pulled Eli out of his sleep.
Groggily opening his eyes, he rubbed them to help wake himself up. Ahead, he could see the headlights of the car blazing a path down the asphalt. Turning to look out the backseat window, what he saw outside reminded him of the brochure for the camp he was hoping to go to next summer, if his mom agreed. But, he didn't remember ever being here before.
He couldn't see the digital clock in the front seat, but yawning and stomach growling, Eli was tired and hungry. It had felt like a long time since they had left the park.
Eli thought about Elliot. He worried his daddy was going to be upset when he found out he hadn't listened and stayed close by where he left him. He knew boys were supposed to be tough, but Eli had never disobeyed his parents without being able to say he was sorry right away, and the seven-year-old didn't know when he was going to be able to say sorry. His vulnerable state combined with the fear of disappointing his dad and the unfamiliarity of his foreign surroundings caused tears to begin streaming down Eli's cheeks.
"Cheer up. We're almost there."
Lifting his head to look at the face in the rearview mirror, Eli saw that as she spoke, she smiled. The only thing Eli Stabler knew for certain was that his tummy had never hurt so bad and he'd never wanted his mommy so bad in his entire life.