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RIDE by MAYSON1230 - CHAPTER ONE
March 23, 6:15 P.M.
The squad room had all but cleared out, the six o’clock hour having snuck by while she’d been locked in Interview Three with a less than cooperative, overbearingly obnoxious, fifteen-year-old Ainslie Bruce.  After getting caught at school in the girls’ locker room with her thirty-four-year-old track coach, Ainslie’s mother had dragged her kicking and screaming into the precinct.  Mrs. Bruce insisted that rape charges be filed; Ainslie insisted that she was in love.  And it had taken just short of four hours for Olivia to get any useful information out of the starry-eyed, no longer virginal teenager.
“Heading home?”
Olivia made a lazy glance over her shoulder, her hands buried in her shoulder bag as Elliot passed by her desk toward his own.  She nodded, her head dropping forward again as she searched through the clutter inside the leather pouch for her car keys.
“Have any plans for the weekend?”  Elliot dropped down in his chair, a groan accompanying his descent.  
“A hot bath,” she returned, the keys jingling as she wrangled them out of the bag.  “Maybe some wine, catch up on some reading.”  She stuffed the keys into the side pocket of her jacket, hoisting the overstuffed bag off of her desk and sliding the strap onto her shoulder.  “What about you?”
He scrubbed a hand over his face, yawning.  “Kathy took the twins and Eli to her sister’s for the weekend.  I’m on my own.”
Olivia nodded.  “Enjoy it.  It doesn’t happen very often these days, does it?”
“Not too often,” Elliot agreed through another yawn.  “Guess we’ll both have a quiet couple of days.”
Olivia stepped away from her desk, coming to a stop at the edge of Elliot’s.  Her weekend would be quiet; Elliot had known the answer even without asking.  It would be uneventful for the most part.  As many hours as she could steal from it spent without makeup on, maybe even without running the flat iron through her hair once, and lounging around in pajama pants or sweats—or anything that was too big and comfortably worn in.  It would be uneventful, and she didn’t mind.  For the first time in a long time she was looking forward to the quiet and solitude instead of letting the prospect of it gnaw away at her.
Even though the week hadn’t proven to be worse than any other, it had left her tired.  And a whining, obstinate, insolent Ainslie Bruce had managed to give her the final shove that sent her freefalling right into exhaustion.  She wanted to lock herself inside of her apartment with a bottle of wine and the television remote and forget that the rest of the world existed.  At least for the next forty-eight hours.
“I hope it’s quiet, yeah,” she said, tapping the corner of Elliot’s desk with her knuckles.  “See you on Monday.”
He lifted his chin, initiating a nod that he never completed.  “Enjoy your weekend.”
She chuckled, heading toward the doorway.  “As long as I don’t hear from anyone around here, I’m sure I will.”
Elliot rolled his chair back, his legs clearing the desk.  He swiveled in Olivia’s direction, nodding toward the doorway that her frame had become silhouetted in.  “How about, uh.  You feel like grabbing a drink?”
Olivia mulled over his invitation, straightening her lips in an ambiguous hint as to whether or not she would accept it.  For the past ten-plus hours she’d been dreaming about a hot bath accentuated by a glass of wine, maybe a few scented candles.  She’d put on some Jason Mraz, shut off the ringer to the phone and pretend like the past week hadn’t happened.
Jason Mraz and a bottle of Chianti would erase Ainslie’s strident voice in her mind, and Elliot would only keep it playing in Surround Sound.  She wanted to go home, damn it.  She wanted to relax and forget and be as morally ignorant for the weekend as the majority of Manhattan tended to be twenty-three out of twenty-four hours each day.
And Elliot wanted to go out for a drink.
“A drink, oh…” She glanced down at her watch.  6:22.  If she hurried, she could have the tub filled and scented with vanilla bath beads in twenty-five minutes tops.  By seven thirty she’d be half-numb from the hot water and wine, and no later than ten she would be out cold in bed sleeping through her first night in… Jesus.  How many nights had it been since she’d gotten a decent night’s sleep?
“Yeah, sure,” she said.  “A drink sounds good.”  She made another conspicuous check of her watch.  “You ready to go now?”
“You’re sure?” Elliot asked, sounding far more excited than suspicious of her acceptance of his offer.  “I mean, if you want to get home—”
“C’mon,” Olivia said, nodding over her shoulder.  “What I really want is just to get out of here.  I don’t care where I’m going, just as long as I’m gone.”
+++
March 23, 8:27 P.M.
She had to admit, two-and-a-half drinks into the evening and the relaxation she’d hoped for had blanketed her from head to toe.  Her mind was swimming in a hazy pool of red wine, her eyelids were heavy but not impossible to keep open, and her thoughts were light, wrapped up in the banter flowing back and forth across the table about colicky babies, overly emotional teenagers and the pluses and minuses of single life versus married life.  
She was glad she’d accepted Elliot’s invitation.  There was too little time anymore to delve into the personal sides of their lives, to update and catch each other up, just to talk.  And she missed it, sharing her life with him and being on the receiving end of him sharing his with her.  She missed him, but the past few years had stolen from them the ease—maybe even the time—to simply talk.
“So, when’re Kathy and the kids coming home?” she asked around the rim of her half-empty glass.  Filling her mouth with the tepid liquid, she swirled it between her cheeks and let the flavor coat her tongue before swallowing.
“Couple of days,” Elliot answered, an indistinct shrug following.  He twirled the beer bottle on the scuffed tabletop, twisting it to the right and then left, a sense of nervousness detectable in his movements.
“Couple of days…” Olivia repeated.  She tilted her face downward, staring into the red puddle in her glass.  Glancing at him with upturned eyes, she found the answer that he couldn’t yet give etched into the tensed muscles of his face and written out in the darkness that had overtaken his eyes.  A couple meant two or more, and the ‘more’ was the vague timeframe Elliot had been left alone in the big house in Queens to deal with.
“I thought things were better for you guys?” she prodded, pinching the thin base of the wineglass between two fingers.  “I mean, since Eli was born, you’ve made it seem like everything’s okay again.”
“Again.”  He repeated the word through a chuckle.  “I can’t even remember the last time things were really okay for us.”
“But Eli—”
“Was a diversion,” Elliot responded.  “He made us stop thinking about our problems for a while.  But diversions are only temporary, right?”
She nodded once, whispering, “I’m sorry, El,” as her stare once again targeted the wine pooled in the rounded bottom of the goblet. 
He lifted a shoulder stiltedly, coercing his tight lips into a smile.  “At least this time I already know the weekend father routine, right?  There won’t be any big surprises, no real adjustment time.  And Eli’s little enough that he’ll get used to it.  He’ll grow up not knowing any other way.”
“But you know another way.  You know the way you want it to be.”
He lifted the bottle and filled his mouth with the bitter liquid, wincing as it layered his throat with a cold burn.  “According to Kathy, I decided a long time ago how I wanted things to be.  Now she said I have to come to terms with that choice and learn how to live with it.”
“You’ve never turned your back on your family, Elliot.”
“That’s not what Kathy thinks.”
She lifted a brow, the largest part of her argument playing out only in her mind.  She could fault Elliot for getting too wrapped up in his job, and she’d pointed out that fault to him more than once.  She could—and had—also pinpointed times when she’d thought he was expecting his family to sacrifice too much, or at least as much as he seemed willing to sacrifice.  But far more than any of that, she saw how much he loved them and how much they meant to him.  Elliot was a family man at heart, even though he’d long ago handed over ownership of his head to the NYPD.  
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, sincerity laced through her voice.  She glanced up as the waitress stopped beside the table, rebuffing the idea of a refill before the question was asked and with a shake of her head.  Digging through her bag, she retrieved a credit card, handing it over the table and instructing, “Put it all on here.”
“I invited you out, remember?” Elliot asked before jamming the rounded mouth of the bottle against his lips and sucking down the remaining alcohol.  Licking at his lower lip, soaking up the liquid that had drizzled onto it, he shrugged a shoulder toward the bar across the room.  “You don’t have to pay.”
Olivia pushed her empty glass toward the outer edge of the table.  “Just say thank you, Elliot.”
He grinned, his lips lifting crookedly.  “Thank you, Elliot.”
She chuckled, shivering her hands through the sides of her hair.  Her gaze bypassed his lingering smile, landing across the room.  It was slow for a Friday night, less than a dozen patrons littering the one-room pub.  There were two guys at the lone pool table, both swigging beers and having fed the table quarters four different times that Olivia had counted.  Three women occupied the semi-circle shaped booth closest to the door, all overly dressed for the unpretentious atmosphere of McMullen’s, but talking and laughing as if a night out was something that came their way far more infrequently than they wished it would.  Another couple sat three tables away from Elliot and her in the darkest corner, holding hands, smiles never wavering, their conversation openly flirtatious.
Another couple.  Olivia wondered if that was anyone’s thought of them?  When a passing glance was given, when a thought drifted away from a private conversation toward them, was that how Elliot and she were viewed?  As a couple, two masquerading as one, maybe not reacting flirtatiously but with interest?  Or were they seen for exactly who they were, just two, more separate than together, not reacting in anyway other than exhausted?
“So, uh.”  She shook her head, pinching the bridge of her nose as she blinked quickly, exaggeratedly, fighting off the drowsiness the wine had clouded her mind with.  “So, what happens now?  With Kathy and you?”
Elliot took in a strong breath, his nostrils flaring.  He pressed his upper back into the bench behind him, locking his hands and stretching out his arms across the table.  “All we have to do is file,” he answered, too simply for it to be believable that the process would be effortless.  “Papers were already signed.  Before.”
“So, you just file and that’s it?”
“What else am I gonna do, fight for custody?”  He chuckled, swiping the pad of his thumb beneath an eyebrow.  His eyelids dipped lazily, a mixture of exhaustion and one too many beers making them heavy.
“Maybe…” Her voice lingered melodically before fading, useless ideas and questions handed over to silence as the waitress made a quick stop at their table and slapped the credit card and receipt down on the rough, water-marked surface.  She peeled back one flap of her bag, staring into the clutter inside and muttering to the vinyl beneath her, “I know there’s a pen in here somewhere.”
“Things’ll work out like before,” Elliot continued, not paying attention to her whispered curses and mumbles as she sank an arm elbow-deep inside the pouch.  Rustles and pings lifted into the air, not loud enough to compete with the noise that already filled the room, merely adding unobtrusively to it.  “I’ll get every other weekend with Eli and the twins, Wednesday evenings if I get off work on time, and we’ll split holidays.”
“The kids know?” Olivia asked, her face tilted downward toward her bag and eyes upturned in Elliot’s direction.  
“They know.”
“How’re they handling it?”
He raised a shoulder slowly, ambiguously.  “Liz said it’s not such a big deal the second time around, Kathleen gave us a heart felt ‘whatever,’ Maureen isn’t returning either of our calls, and Dickie thinks if he pretends it’s not happening, it won’t.”  He grinned, only vaguely, void of humor.  “Guess I should count myself lucky that Eli’s vocabulary is pretty limited right now.  It’s tough for him to tell me what a loser I am when he just learned how to say ‘dada.’”
“El.”  She lifted her head, turning toward him with her arm still half-buried in the disorder that comprised what she tried to pretend was an organized life.  “You’re not a loser.  Sometimes marriages don’t make it—”
“Twice?”  He dropped his elbows onto the tabletop, digging the tip of his chin into his laced fingers.  “I really thought it’d work.  That’s the only reason I really went back, because I thought this time we’d make sure it worked.”
“And it did,” Olivia responded, pulling her hand out of the bag, an ink pen squeezed between two fingers, “for a while.  At least you tried, right?”
“Think that’ll be good enough for Eli, to know I tried?”
“Yeah,” she returned softly, honestly.  “I think it’ll be good enough.”  She reached across the table, sliding the stacked credit card and receipt in front of her.  “You didn’t have to go back, you know.  A lot of people wouldn’t have.  But you did, you tried.  And Eli will understand that as he gets older.”
Elliot smiled, a rumble of coerced laughter accompanying the equally as forced gesture.  “What he’ll understand is the same thing the other kids always have—the one he can count on is his mom.”
Olivia sank back against the taut vinyl, her shoulders rounding.  She snagged the pen off of the table, dropping it without a glance back into her bag.  “Then make it different with him.  You’re older now; you’ve put in your time and proven yourself to this damned job.  Now make time for your kids, prove yourself to them.”
“Is this supposed to be a pep talk?” he asked, spiking an eyebrow.
“No,” she responded simply.  “The truth.  And the truth is…” She took in a breath, a sharp, noticeable ingestion of air.  Picking up the credit card, she twirled it between her fingers, tapping one blunt edge against the table before spinning it and tapping another.  “You’re a good father.  I know how much your kids mean to you, Elliot.  I’m just not so sure they’ve ever known that they mean more to you than your job does.  So make things different this time.  Make them your priority.”
“They’ve always been my priority.”
“Yeah, I know.  But like I said, I’m not so sure they ever have.”
He dropped his forearms onto the table, leaning forward, closer.  He shouldn’t have left an opening for her to give her opinion if he didn’t want to hear it, experience had taught him that much.  And he also knew that whatever she said—whatever she felt was worth saying—was done so with his benefit in mind.  Arguments between them generally got a jumpstart from his words, not hers.  
It was hers that always brought them face-to-face with the truth.
+++
March 23, 9:11 P.M.
Olivia turned toward the plate glass window, her stare peeking through the ‘U’ painted onto the outside of the glass and devouring the nearly uninhabited street outside.  It was a quiet night, inside and outside.  Life seemed to have taken an uncharacteristic respite, the city’s thoughts having fallen into pace with hers and veered toward an uneventful weekend.  And it felt nice, to be in sync for once instead of racing so damned hard to try and gain the edge over each other.
When Elliot had climbed out of the booth five minutes earlier, she’d watched his reflection in the window as he’d crossed the room.  He’d left using the excuse of heading to the restroom, but she’d seen the cell phone nestled against his ear even before he’d turned into the dark hallway.  The reflection had given her a clear view of his profile before he disappeared, and she’d noticed that a smile had eased the tension from his lips.  He was talking to the kids, she knew.  Listening to Lizzie whine about her brothers, listening to Dickie gripe about his sister, and reveling in Eli’s unintelligible babble.  It was who he was, a father.  It was who he was supposed to be, even if he didn’t always see how inherent it was to him as clearly as she did.
But she wanted him to know—to understand—that a child could walk away from less than ideal circumstances with a grown up respect for an honest attempt.  When childhood was lost to the past and rationality matured, trying was what mattered most.  And as long as that could be found in a parent—an honest attempt, a never give up attitude—then forgiveness was possible.  Maybe not effortless, but eventually practicable.
It was what she understood, what she knew to be true.
Because just as being a parent was natural to Elliot, being a forgiving child was natural to her.
She knew Elliot didn’t believe it, though, that forgiveness could be simple.  Maybe because it wasn’t easy for him to give, he’d decided that it was just as difficult for him to receive.
She caught his reflection in the window again, his frame haloed in the glass by the shaded lights that hung in a straight line above the bar.  He was looking at her; she could see the placement of his gaze.  The tension was still absent from his lips, a small smile keeping them curved.  And she wished it was because of her, instead of the conversations she knew he’d just had.  But she knew it wasn’t, not that smile, not one that so obviously came from the inside, that was inbuilt and able to be induced only by his children.
At her, he smiled differently.  Sometimes with marked humor, other times it materialized more as a smirk.  And there was the grin that she loved, the one that always hung crookedly, giving him a boyish appeal.  But usually it was tight, influenced by sarcasm, maybe by disbelief, often times by impatience and anger.  Or there was the sympathetic one that she hated, the one that caused his lips to tremble with words that he didn’t know how—or if he should—say.  
“Did you call the kids?” she asked, turning away from the window as he slid into his side of the booth.  She nodded in response to the one he answered with, adding, “How are they?”
“Better than me,” Elliot answered honestly.  “They’re old pros at this.”
She wanted to tell him that he was, too.  He was a pro at separating himself from others, his wife, his children, her.  But even though his smile remained, she could see in the darkness that had clouded his eyes that he didn’t need her to force a dose of guilt down his throat.  He’d already swallowed more than was a healthy amount.
He pushed the backs of his shoulders into the bench, thinking through a strong exhale.  “Another damn apartment.  It’s not where I expected to be at this point in my life, you know?  Alone.”
“Elliot, you’re not—”
“Yeah, I am.”  His smile broadened, turning to one of embarrassment.  “Sorry.  I didn’t ask you to come out tonight just so you could listen to me whine.” 
“I know,” she responded.  “You needed someone to pick up your tab.”  She chuckled softly, as he did.  “You know, Stabler, this single parent with no money routine might’ve worked the first time, but the second time around…” She shook her head, her smile holding.  “I’m not gonna buy into it.”
“Really?  Because it kind of looks like you already have.”
Olivia settled into the corner, the back of one shoulder resting against vinyl and the other against air chilled glass.  “Whether or not Kathy and you are together, you’ll always have your kids.  Don’t ever make them seem so insignificant that you equate having them with being alone.”  Her stare turned stern as he glanced up, making it clear that she was speaking from an experienced hurtfulness, not one that had been assumed.  “You’re not alone, Elliot.  You never will be.”
She saw it again, the sympathetic smile that was reserved only for her.  It was different than the one he reacted to victims with, different than the one he displayed when recounting a hurt experienced by one of his children.  It was her smile, only hers.  Comprised of as much pity as misunderstanding, as much of a want to know as a fear of knowing too much.
But it was hers.  
And sympathetic or not, she liked that there was at least one tiny piece of himself that he gave only to her.
Oh, Jesus.  She needed to go home, to just call it a night.  She needed to make a fast—and God willing, inconspicuous—escape to the solitude of her apartment, where she could drown her feelings in a final glass of wine and get lost in Jason Mraz’s lyrical words instead of the disjointed ones that had suddenly consumed her mind.  
Elliot.  Second attempt at divorce.  Kathy’s loss, another’s gain.  One needy woman’s trash was another’s treasure.
“All we have to do is file.  Papers were already signed.  Before.”
Fuck.
She had to get a grip on her Chianti-induced emotions.  Besides, what was it they said, the third time was the charm?  And if that was the case, Elliot had one more try to go.  One more with Kathy at least, she was the only one who had two under her belt.  Olivia, on the other sad hand, was a decade into waiting for try number one.  
“We should, uh.”  She snagged her long bangs between her fingers, hooking them messily behind her ear.  “It’s getting late.”
Elliot glanced down at his watch.  His eyes widening and then narrowing as he studied the face, staring as if time was something he’d forgotten still existed.  “Oh.  Yeah.”  He resituated in the seat, the vinyl squealing softly as he repositioned his weight.  “Hey, look.  That stuff earlier about being alone, I didn’t mean—”
“But I did,” she returned quickly, the same firmness filtering back into her voice.  “I meant what I said about your kids.”
He nodded, resembling a reprimanded child instead of the enlightened adult she wanted him to be.
“And stop thinking what you’re thinking,” she added.  “I didn’t say it because I don’t, because…I am…alone.  I said it, it was only because I want you to remember that you’re not.”
He lifted an eyebrow, his lips twisting thoughtfully.  “Maybe you need to remember it, too.  That you’re not as alone as you always think you are.”
She started to laugh, but fought the resonance back down her throat.  There were things Elliot had the upper hand on—marriage, parenting, multiple attempts at divorce, even a thirty-year mortgage.  But she also had her specialties, the knowledge she’d gained from a lifelong experience that Elliot had never known.
Being alone.  And even worse, being lonely.
Lonely.  She was the clear-cut personification of the word, the black-and-white, spelled out unquestioningly, Webster’s definition. 
lone-ly adj. 1. a: being without company.  b:  cut off from others : solitary.  2. desolate.  3. sad from being alone : lonesome.  4. Olivia Benson : see 1 through 3.
It was who she was, although she’d never viewed herself that way in a martyr’s sense, more in a straightforward, it was what it was sort of way.  Loneliness had always seemed to follow her, to barely ever be further than a step behind her.  Maybe it was because of how she had grown up, maybe it was because of who she had grown to be.  She’d never really stopped long enough to analyze the how or why of it, she’d always put more energy into just staying that one-step ahead.
But she couldn’t deny that sometimes it caught up with her.  And she hated it.  Feeling as if there actually was a reason why she should feel sorry for herself.
“So, neither of us are alone,” she said, forcing her tone into the realm of lighthearted.  She pushed a chuckle up her throat, her eyebrows arching as if the topic of conversation had already been forgotten.  
Or at least dismissed temporarily.  Forgotten was too definitive to be realistic.
“You ready?” she asked, giving her bag a shove and scooting it across the bench in front of her.  She swung her legs out from under the table, rising to her feet as Elliot did.  “So,” she continued, Elliot’s hand curved into the small of her back as he directed her through the maze of tables, “what’re you really going to do this weekend?”
She knew a quiet weekend wasn’t what he was looking forward to, even if she’d convinced herself it was what she wanted.  Elliot needed noise, maybe a little chaos thrown in.  He needed to be in the middle of life, not observing it as a spectator as she’d gotten used to doing.
“Sudoku,” he said, reaching around her and pulling open the door.  “I bought a puzzle book at the newsstand this morning.”
She came to a quick stop outside the door, glancing back at him as his hand dropped away.  “You do Sudoku puzzles?” she deadpanned.
“I’ve, um.”  He shrugged a shoulder, glancing past her down the hazily lit, unusually quiet street.  “I’ve thought about, you know, giving them a try.”
Olivia nodded slowly, unconvinced.  “After that, what?  Gonna try to finally finish off that Rubik’s Cube you’ve been working on since 1976?”
Elliot retaliated to her teasing laughter with a dry, overly enunciated, “Ha, ha,” before latching his hand to her back again and giving her a small shove forward.  “For your information, I can be a very analytical thinker.”
Her laughter escalated, slapping softly off of the brick exteriors of the buildings they passed.  And it felt good she had to admit, laughing.  But not just laughing, laughing with Elliot. She was glad she’d accepted his invitation.  She was glad to have, for at least a few hours, cleared the hurdles of busyness and preoccupation to focus on them.
Because she missed him.  But she missed them even more.
+++
March 23, 10:07 P.M.
The side street was dark, only a few lampposts dotting it.  Their low-wattage bulbs casting off a muted glow that didn’t offer any potency to the rays of the quarter moon overhead.  A cool breeze whipped the air, leaving behind a tingle after it passed that was refreshing, chasing away the staleness that generally accompanied the rushed, daytime hours.
Olivia backed up to the car, leaning her hips into the passenger’s side door.  Her bag hung heavily over one shoulder and keys jingled in her right hand with each of her movements.  She held tightly to the pieces of metal, their notched edges digging into her palm.  And she watched Elliot, suddenly seeming nervous, his gaze darting down the length of the street to one side of them before shifting in the opposite direction.  He kept his hands stuffed inside the front pockets of his trousers; his feet shuffling consistently and weight repeatedly dispersed onto his right leg and then left one.
He seemed nervous, or maybe it was just uncertain.  Moving in any direction when you were doing so alone was frightening, she knew.  And even though Elliot had past experience to draw off of, she also knew that, as he’d earlier professed, being alone wasn’t something he had mastered.
“You gonna be okay?” she asked, nodding as if to convince him that he would be.
“Yeah.  I, uh.”  He shrugged a shoulder, his stare bypassing her and swinging to his right.  “Actually, the weekend will be pretty busy.  I promised Kath I’d be out of the house before the kids and she got home.  So, I have a lot to do, a lot to keep me busy.”
“If you need some help…” she offered, the misty glow in the street highlighting her small smile.  Damn it, did that sound contrite?  If he needed help doing, what?  Packing up his life piece-by-piece, trying to fit it into cardboard boxes, labeling each with their contents but not having strong enough words to describe the memories attached to each item?  How was he supposed to pick and choose which he took with him and which he left behind?  It was an impossible task, choosing the portions of your life that held the most importance.
“No, I’ll be good,” he returned.  “I’m just, uh.  I’m wondering why I ever unpacked.”  He grinned crookedly, only faintly.  “Guess I should’ve saved all those boxes from when I moved back in.”
She nodded, her smile having faded.  “Make a decision, Elliot,” she said, only sincerity in her voice, not haranguing.  “This time, don’t drag it on.  Make a decision, not only for the kids’ sakes but also for yours.”
“Make a decision, right.”  He poked at the sidewalk with the toe of his shoe, his chin dropping to his chest.  Motioning with a roll of his shoulder toward the two-door behind her, he asked, “You okay to drive?”
“Yeah,” she answered, jiggling the keys in her hand.  “I’m good.  What about you?”
He turned, studying the deserted intersection over a half-block away.  “Think I’ll grab a cab.  I’ll come back and get my car tomorrow.”
Olivia stuck the body of a silver key into the passenger’s side lock, pulling open the door.  “Come on, I’ll drive you—”
“I’m gonna take a cab,” Elliot said quickly, a nod serving as both his final decision and good-bye.  Starting off down the street, he heard behind him the crunch of leather and clink of items settling as Olivia dropped her bag down on the seat, and his steps began to slow as the echo of the passenger’s side door closing ricocheted off of the unlit buildings that lined the street.  He stumbled to a complete stop as the first of her steps resounded off of the sidewalk, and made a complete turn back toward her before she reached the curb.
“She said I haven’t tried hard enough,” he admitted as Olivia came to a sudden stop, the toes of her boots poised over the rounded edge of the curb.  “She doesn’t think I tried any harder this time than I did before.  And she’s…I think she’s…” He continued to stare, his face lowered and eyes upturned.  “She’s right.  I haven’t.  I, um, I don’t think I wanted to.”
She shoved the tips of her fingers into her front pockets, shaking her head with as much disagreement as misunderstanding.  ”You did try, Elliot.  You went back—”
“Only because I didn’t have anywhere else to be,” he broke in, taking a quick step forward, a step closer.  “I didn’t…damn it, I couldn’t…” He groaned softly, the darkened shade of his eyes suddenly detectable in the diffused lighting.  “I needed something, Olivia, and that’s why I went back.  Because I needed to have something incase you decided to leave again.”
He moved again, close enough that she could smell the beer on his breath and the thick air from the bar that had adhered to his clothes.  She could smell him, but suddenly she couldn’t breathe.
“It was too hard,” he continued, “all those weeks you were gone, feeling like I didn’t really have anything left.  And it was a selfish thing for me to do, I know.  Moving back home, it was selfish to do to Kathy.  But I knew I couldn’t go through that again.  Not alone.  It was just too damn hard.”
Olivia flattened against the car, not feeling the dig of the metal in her skin as she tightened her hand into a fist.  She had to stay realistic, because Elliot sure as hell wasn’t.  It was all too new for him, and he hadn’t even reached the rebound stage yet.  He was at least half-drunk, obviously upset, and definitely scared.  She could see all of it in him, sense it all, but the only thing she could seem to care about was whether or not he was being honest.
“I know you probably think I’m going crazy here,” he said through a nervous chuckle.  “And this may seem like it’s coming out of left field, but it’s not.  It’s been there, Olivia.  I realized it a long time ago, I just didn’t know what to do about it.”
“So you moved back home?” she stammered, the breeze scattering strands of hair across her face.  “That was your solution?”
“You went to Computer Crimes,” he responded simply, “then to Oregon.”
Okay, so running—whether forwards or backwards—was something they had both become adept at doing.  She couldn’t argue Elliot’s point.  She had tried doing it twice, just as Elliot had.  She had put an honest effort into two attempts that she knew, even before they began, would fail.  Because just like Elliot, she hadn’t wanted them to work.  But she had convinced herself to try anyway, because she hadn’t felt like she had anywhere else to be.
“It’s been there, Liv,” he repeated.  “For me.  It’s been there for a while.”  He chuckled nervously, his brows arching.  “I don’t even know why I’m…I mean, you probably don’t even want to hear it.  It’s just, I wanted…I thought I should…maybe…at least say it.”  He blew out a heavy breath, his shoulders deflating.  “Or, I don’t know.  Maybe not.”
It had been there for a while.
And it had been there for what felt like forever for her.  But she didn’t tell him; she didn’t say anything.  She stared, watching him move even closer, the smile that belonged only to her caught on his lips, his eyes radiating the sincerity that she knew without a doubt she could trust.  But as he pressed his lips against hers, his hand cupping the back of her head to keep her close, she told him then.  
Through a subdued eagerness, cautious belief, and a sudden desire to prove an old adage true.
Maybe the third time could be their charm.
+++
March 23, 10:37 P.M.
She didn’t know when the mood had shifted, if it was his that had made the tilt first or hers.  She didn’t feel it happen, and couldn’t pinpoint who had initiated it.  Maybe it had been Elliot, maybe her, or possibly it had just been time letting them know it was damned tired of getting dragged on incessantly.
She needed to break it down rationally, just dissect the hell out of it.  Of course they were both tired, when weren’t they?  Sleep deprivation was at the top of the list of their job description.  And they both had a few drinks in them.  Not enough to completely paralyze their sagacity, but enough to cripple it for a few hours at least.  That combined with Elliot’s whining, her obvious hints that she could start at any second, and confessions that had been given just as unexpectedly as received were enough to cause a tilt.  
She didn’t even know how they’d ended up there, with their guards lowered and prudence banging on the fogged-over windows of her two-door Ford Escort Coupe begging to be let back in.  But for some reason, someone had made the move.  And if the other had followed it with any hesitation, Olivia couldn’t remember it happening.
“Someone’s gonna see us.”  It wasn’t given as a command to stop, not even as a plea to continue.  It was panted, whispered from the base of her throat as an afterthought, as Elliot straddled her lap, his thighs on either side of hers, hands cupped beneath her breasts and tongue giving equal attention to both rigid nipples.  “Elliot.  Someone’s gonna… Jesus.”  She choked on a breath, Elliot’s shrouded cock jamming against the inside of her thigh.
Elliot’s cock.  Exactly where in the official NYPD handbook did it state that the word cock was ever acceptable to use in correlation with your partner, much less have the three-dimensional form of said word stabbing your inner thigh?
“No one’s around…” he whispered, high-pitched squeaks breaking his words as he pulled his lips off of her left breast and turned his attention on her right one.  “Besides, we’re off the main street…it’s dark…we’re…good.”
They were good.  Either Elliot was drunker than she’d originally thought, or… He had to be drunk.  Maybe she was drunk, too, and just hadn’t realized it.  They were two lonely, horny drunks willing to throw away almost thirty years of combined service—not to mention two pensions—for a quick fuck in the backseat of a used Escort Coupe because they were both feeling sorry for themselves.
But Elliot thought they were good.
Olivia shifted her hips, digging her fingers into the tops of Elliot’s thighs.  She pushed harder, the rounded tips of her nails chiseling grooves in his pants as his tongue moistened a patch of skin between her breasts.  He sliced through the sweat that tinged her chest, his hands still cupped over her breasts and dick sliding slowly, methodically, up her thigh as groans began to vibrate in his throat.
She felt him against the stretched crotch of her slacks, poking, rubbing, moaning… Oh, Christ.  She was moaning, not Elliot.  Her voice hit the air hoarse, a fire raging in her throat that was only a degree lower than the one Elliot was fueling between her suddenly trembling legs.
“Oh, God.  Elliot.  Jesus, Christ.”  Her fingers dug beneath the waistband of his pants, tugging, pulling, groans singeing her throat with each failed attempt to lower the trousers beneath his poised hips.  
“Belt,” he mumbled, his voice slurred between sucks on her neck.
She slid her hands to the front of his pants, her fingers fumbling with the metal buckle.  Damn it.  She knew how to work a belt.  She wore them almost daily.  She knew how to fasten a buckle, how to get the damned thing undone.  For God’s sake, she was a college graduate and had slid through the academy like it was pre-school.  She was a fucking detective.  Intelligence and the ability to problem solve were prerequisites just for her to get out of bed each morning.
“I can’t…Jesus, Elliot.  I can’t…get...it…”
He nodded, sending a hot breath across her neck.  The air rolled down her chest, drying the moisture he had left against her skin, chilling her, a layer of goose bumps breaking out in its wake.  Overlapping her hands with his, he guided her fingers across the smooth metal of the buckle, directing them in unhooking it, and holding onto them as Olivia took over the task of unbuttoning his pants.
Her mind had become as hazy as the night that blanketed them, her thoughts whirling, and her body having separated itself from all feelings except the ones Elliot gave life to with his touches.  
She arched into him, bucking, begging through a whimper for him to follow through with what she never would have been strong enough to initiate.
Elliot dragged his leg across her trembling ones, falling onto the seat beside her.  He ran a shaky hand through the top of his hair, his chest heaving, and eyes remaining focused on her as she lifted herself off of the seat and wriggled her pants down her legs.  She threw a leg over his, straddling him as he had her, and guided the waistband of his trousers over his hips, down his thighs, leaving the material bunched at his knees.  
Rising up, she engulfed his head in her arms, drawing him into her breasts.  Chuckling as she felt his lips circle a nipple, once again doused with the suddenness of disbelief, she couldn’t stop her thoughts from formulating into words.  “Someone sees us and we’re screwed.”
He peeked up at her, his bristly chin scraping the smooth skin of her chest and mischievous grin in place.  “Someone doesn’t, and hopefully we still are.”
“We could get arrested, Elliot.”
“We could get arrested,” he agreed, wrapping his hands around her forearms and guiding her back down onto his lap.
“And lose our jobs.”
“That’ll only happen if we get arrested.”
She should care; she knew that she should.  She should care about almost thirty years of combined service, pensions, if nothing else at least about saving their reputations.  But she didn’t.  Not in that moment.  Not with Elliot’s hands roaming over her, touching her, with his kisses not yet dried on her skin, and his confession still consuming her mind.
“It’s been there, Olivia.  I realized it a long time ago; I just didn’t know what to do about it.  But it’s been there for me.  It’s been there for a while.”
She was the decision he’d finally made, the reason why he’d made a second, unwanted attempt.  Not Kathy, not even his children.  Her.  She was the reason why he hadn’t wanted to unpack.  Maybe—hopefully—it was because the items he had taken back to Queens with him no longer fit in the house with a thirty-year mortgage.  Because they were pieces of them, memories that they’d both cherished but didn’t understand well enough to label.
And maybe she should feel guilty, she didn’t know.  She only knew that Elliot felt too damned incredible for any other feelings to matter. 
She rocked forward, her moan mingling with Elliot’s as she pressed her forehead against his shoulder.  Biting at the billowed material of his shirt, she clamped the sweat-tinged fabric between her teeth and pulled it away from his chest.  Smelling him.  Tasting him.  Not yet entirely sure what in the hell she was doing in the backseat of her car with him, but letting hopefulness keep her there.  
She tightened her arms around him as he thrust into her, filling her, chasing away thoughts about arrest records and unemployment lines.  Life was about attempts, the ones that ended in both failures and successes.  And warmed by the hot moisture that clouded the inside of the car, tangled in Elliot’s arms, feeling him inside of her, she decided it was worth it.  The gamble.  She would go all in, let it all ride on one unproven belief.
The third time would be their success.
She unhooked one of his hands from across her hip.  Siding it over her thigh, his fingers streaked the sweat that glistened on her skin.  Panting, her raspy breaths drenching his heaving chest and ruffling the folds of his shirt, she whimpered as he began to massage her clit.
Her head popped up as the driver’s side door creaked open, the dome light igniting.  She stared at Elliot, into his flushed face, both sets of eyes widening, neither daring to inhale or exhale a breath.  His fingers curved around her shoulders, tightening, and he made a vague, half-nod toward the open door behind her.
“Ese, you wanna share that puta?  I could use me a good brain tonight.”
Olivia watched Elliot’s face, the way his jaw clenched and eyes began to constrict.  He was sizing up the voice behind her that rolled with a thick Latino accent and sounded as if it had just barely been touched by puberty, and staring more like an incensed father versus wary detective.  
“Stay put,” Elliot growled, his voice barely reaching her ears.  She almost asked where he expected her to go, with their bodies still connected, both sets of pants down below their knees, and the hem of her shirt barely covering her ass.  Did he really think she’d turn around and offer a formal introduction—complete with sweaty handshake—to their junior Peeping Tom?
“Hi, I’m Olivia.  Can you tell me what your name is?”
“Look, kid, I think it’s past your curfew,” Elliot said, making a stronger nod toward the open door.  “You need to get out of here, go on home.”
“Think you got it wrong, vato.  Tonight, you’re the ghost.  Not me.”
Olivia shifted her gaze away from Elliot’s paling face, squinting as she fought the fog that had coated the inside of the back window.  She saw movement, vague but detectable.  Leaning her head closer to his, she tracked the bodies outside of the car.  They were obscured by the haze and shadowy lighting, but countable.  One, two, three…  Three behind the car, and in her peripheral vision she caught sight of numbers four and five on the passenger’s side.  All dressed in black, all with bright yellow bandanas tied across their foreheads, and each looking exactly as Elliot had said—as if they hadn’t only missed their curfews, but also their bedtimes.
Christ.  Leave it to Elliot and her to get jacked by the Sesame Street Mafia.
“Elliot…”
His fingers locked around her shoulders, causing her to wince.  And she wondered for a distorted second if he had broken through skin and grabbed hold of raw nerves, as a jolt sped down the length of her spine.  The backs of her thighs began to cramp, trembles following, and she inadvertently tightened her grip on him.
“Three in back,” she whispered.  “Two more to my left.”
He nodded once, his chin dipping deliberately.  “Don’t move, Olivia,” he repeated, and she realized that his stranglehold on her was to keep her in place, not to offer any type of comfort.  “Looks like Bobby Brady here brought a toy to play with, and he’s got it aimed at the back of your head.”
Her breath hitched in time with the echo of the slide of a semi-automatic pistol being pulled, and her eyes found Elliot’s again.  He shifted slightly, pulling out of her, holding onto her, continuing to nod at the pint-sized gang-banger who was chuckling over the prospect of having snatched up their lives in his pubescent hands.
“Take it easy, son,” Elliot instructed.  “Why don’t you put the gun down before someone gets hurt?  Then you can tell me what you want.”
“What’s the matter, man?  Afraid I came to steal your ho?”  He continued to laugh, high-pitched, immaturely.  “Relax.  She ain’t what I want.  I can get my own damn bitch, I don’t need your leftovers.”
“Okay,” Elliot said, his voice even, calm.  “Then what is it you do want?”
Olivia startled as the passenger’s side door was ripped open and the seat pushed forward.  Her head swung to the left in a frantic turn as the gangly body dropped down beside them, oversized jeans squeaking against vinyl and the stench of body odor instantly contaminating the inside of the car.  He couldn’t be older than fifteen, Olivia deduced, maybe sixteen at most.  His jet black hair was cut short, gelled, pointy strands sticking up off of his head and the bandana pulled down low across his forehead.  A nice looking kid, Olivia’s second, irrational thought confirmed.  Latino, definitely, too young to have already fallen into a dead-end lifestyle, sadly.  
The boy grinned, white teeth contrasting with his tanned skin.  “Hey, bitch.  What’s your price for a full fuck?”
He drew up his right arm, and before the semi-automatic pistol came into view, Elliot’s hands slapped against Olivia’s hips and tossed her off of his lap.  She toppled into the corner, the side of her head crashing against the undersized window and hands slapping at vinyl to steady herself.  Fighting to find her balance, she kicked her feet against the floorboard, her shoes tangling in the hem of her slacks.  And before she could regain her composure or get turned around, Elliot tugged the waistband of her pants crookedly over her hips.
“Holy shit!” the ringleader laughed, waving the gun in Olivia’s direction before settling it on Elliot.  “You’re loco, vato!  Pull up your fucking pants!  I don’t need to see your business, just need to take care of mine!”
Elliot lifted off of the seat slowly, cautiously, his left hip dragging against Olivia’s right one.  She reached down, her movements obvious, and helped him shimmy the wrinkled, gray material to his waist.  Her gaze darted continuously between the barrels of the guns and the fresh faces behind them, taking in the boys’ amused smiles and letting their laughter ring in her ears.
“Do a ghost, vatos.  Get moving,” the ringleader commanded, jutting his stubble-less chin into the air and causing the three figures behind the Escort to fade as silently back into the night as they had emerged from it.  He dropped down in the driver’s seat, a third teen climbing into the front, passenger’s seat.  
As the doors slammed shut, echoing, immersing the car in darkness, Olivia felt Elliot’s fingers tighten around hers.  He folded their arms onto her lap, his left shoulder overlapping her right one and pressing her further into the corner.
“Why don’t you let us get out?” he said, his voice a growl, void of the intimidation that Olivia knew had consumed each of his heightened nerves.  “You want our money?  You can have it.  Take whatever you want—”
The ringleader glanced back through the seats, an impish grin stretching his lips.  “I already got what I want, man.”  He aimed the pistol into the back, toward them, its target unclear.  “Now what I need for you to do is sit back and keep your fucking mouth shut.  We’re going for a ride.”
CHAPTER TWO
March 23, 11:46 P.M.
She’d thought about slugging him.  When she felt Elliot shove his hand between their pressed-together thighs and his fingers crawl inconspicuously across her hip and then flatten on her ass, her first thought was to slug him.  But then she almost laughed, thinking how true the old axiom actually was, that the time, place or circumstance didn’t matter, men were always ready for sex.  Whether they were deathly ill, completely exhausted, emotionally drained, or had the barrel of a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol pointed at their chest, just one subtle movement, meaningless intimation, or passing thought about nothing in particular sent their brain plummeting into their dick.
Olivia shifted her eyes to the right, taking in Elliot’s stoic profile as she felt his hand tug at the back pocket of her pants.  Christ.  All these years she’d wasted her time hunting down perverts when all she’d had to do was look across her desk to find the biggest one of all.  Even trapped inside the hot car, with their skin prickly from the heat and the stench of pubescent body odor polluting every breath they took in, Elliot wasn’t yet ready to admit defeat.
Catching the swing of his eyes in her direction, her expression hardened in silent reprimand as the waistband of her pants was pulled taut from the consistent tug of his fingers.  With a subtle tilt of his head, he issued a command for her to lean forward, one that became useless as their juvenile delinquent chauffeur slammed on the brakes and she was thrown forward into the back of the driver’s seat.  
Trying to resituate, to settle back in the limited space that was left for her by Elliot and the gangly teen beside him, her head whipped around as she felt the sensation across her left buttock.  Her gaze lowered, prompted by the muted reflection of her shield wedged in Elliot’s fingers.  He nodded once, deliberately, keeping her silent, and shoved the badge into the crack in the seat before outstretching his arm across her stomach and guiding her back into the corner.
She continued to stare at him, to silently question his motive, but didn’t get a glance in return.  He didn’t just have her back this time; he’d gone into full overprotection mode.  And damn it, she’d had the fear when they’d first contorted their bodies in the backseat of the car over an hour earlier.  It had been fleeting, brief enough for her to push it out of her mind as quickly as it had entered into it.  But it had been there, the issue of separation, but even more his belief that it was somehow his responsibility to take care of her.  It was the belief—his belief—that had been gained during the Clifford case, and the truth—his inaccurate truth—that had chased them relentlessly for almost three years.  
And now it had been heightened and all doubt eradicated.  Whether wrong or right, it was the truth Elliot would act on.  But this time it wouldn’t be a victim who would lose priority to her; it would be him.  He’d already decided who would be sacrificed if it was a sacrifice that was demanded of them.
“Hey, bitch, you wanna sit still back there?” the driver said, pulling on the steering wheel for leverage to lift himself up off of the seat and glance in the rearview mirror.  “Damn.  I’m trying to concentrate.”
Olivia met the teen’s stare in the mirror, lifting an eyebrow subtly in both an apology and cast of blame.  If she had to venture a guess, she’d say that Elliot’s and her ages combined were probably at least double that of the three boys’ when added together. Their driver couldn’t be older than fourteen, if even that much, and the downy hair that randomly dotted the passenger’s chin gave her the impression that he might be as old as sixteen.  Age-wise, Elliot and she had the upper hand.  Physically, she didn’t have any doubt that she could handle any of them one-on-one, and Elliot could probably hold his own with at least two at once.  But with the semi-automatic pistols in their unripe hands, they held all of the power.  And the smugness that hung as thickly in the car as the heat made it clear that they understood it as well as Elliot and she did.
“Shoulda let me drive, Derio,” the fresh-faced gun wielder in the backseat chided, a roll of his dark eyes following.  “Fuck, vato.  You drive like an old woman.  We haven’t even broke thirty miles an hour yet.”
“It’s called doing the speed limit,” Derio reproached, still poised above the seat and staring in the mirror.  “What do you want, Raymond?  Want me to get stopped by some fucking marano?”
“Cops are gonna stop you for going too damn slow,” Raymond returned.  “Vedie told us to be back before midnight.  We’re gonna be late and he’ll be pissed.”
“Not when he sees that we done good,” Derio said, dropping down on the seat.  He lifted a shoulder toward the silent teen in the passenger’s side, a broad smile stretching his lips.  “We got the ride and he gets a ho for free.  He ain’t gonna be pissed.”  
“Vedie ain’t down with the ho’s, you know that,” Raymond said.
“Not the ones in El Barrio,” Derio agreed, craning his neck to peek into the rearview mirror again.  “But she ain’t no low budget, looks more uptown.  He’ll like her.  And if he don’t, Dominic sure as hell will.”  He laughed, a wink reflected through the mirror.  “Maybe I’ll take a turn, too.  No need to waste a free puta, right?”
Raymond snorted a laugh, scratching the tip of his chin with the gun barrel.  “The only thing you ever fucked, Derio, is your hand.  You wouldn’t know what to do with a puta like her.”
“Fuck you, Raymond!” Derio hissed.  He made a jumpy, half-turn in the seat, the car swerving to the right.  The occupants were thrown jerkily in one direction and then the other, all three boys reacting with high-pitched, amused howls as the two in front slapped fisted hands together.
“Hey, kid, you wanna watch the road?” Elliot snapped, his hand curving over Olivia’s knee as they regained their balance.
“You wanna shut the fuck up like I told you to?” Derio hissed back.  “Don’t need no backseat driver.  I got it under control.”
“Yeah?” Elliot growled, chuckling lowly, humorlessly.  “Do you even have a license?”
Derio lifted his gun, the barrel aimed at the ceiling.  “This is the only license I need, vato.  As long as I got this, nobody bothers me.”
“I think he’s getting pissed ‘cause we’re talking about his puta,” Raymond said, jabbing his shoulder into Elliot’s.  “Probably didn’t get his full hour outta the bitch, wants some kinda refund.”  He leaned forward, waving the barrel of the pistol in Olivia’s direction.  “You do that, bitch?  Refund your customers if they don’t get the full fuck in?”
Olivia answered with a narrowed stare, shoving Elliot’s hand off of her leg as his fingers began to slowly tighten around her kneecap.  Jesus.  It was Our Gang gone bad, and Elliot and she were the guest stars in a poorly scripted episode.  And to make matters worse, Spanky and Alfalfa had cast her in the role of Darla, the uptown hooker.
“Why don’t you just pull over and let us out?” Elliot suggested.  “You want the car, it’s yours—”
“Damn right it’s ours,” Derio returned.
“So then you’ve got what you want,” Elliot said.  “Why keep us around?”
Derio shrugged a shoulder, directing the car through a rough, right-hand turn.  “Respect, man.  Anyone who thought we weren’t ready to work the business, they’re gonna think different now.  We ain’t just bringing back a fucking ride, we got more to offer.  A nice piece of pussy and a stupid marano we can waste to prove to Dominic we got the courage it takes to be a part of his family.”
+++
March 24, 12:09 A.M.
All she had wanted was a hot bath, just to soak and relax and forget about the past week before having to jump into a new one with both feet.  Jason Mraz, a few glasses of wine, maybe some vanilla bath beads added to the water.  It was all she had wanted out of the weekend, quiet and a reprieve from chaos.
But what she’d gotten instead was Elliot.
Olivia leaned her forehead into the window, staring through the dust-smeared glass at their grimy surroundings.  When the door to the warehouse had been lifted, exposing a grease-stained world that consisted of machinery, an assortment of tools, half dismantled cars, and a multitude of workers who looked more like a middle school shop class versus hardcore thugs, Elliot and she had reached the silent conclusion together that they were in far more trouble than either of them had dared to let themselves think.  While they had been trapped in the Escort with their unexpected carpool party, she’d made herself believe that the odds could still shift.  But she had already counted twenty teens, and the consistent movement behind the shade-drawn windows on the upper floor of the old storehouse made it clear that the odds wouldn’t budge, at least not in Elliot’s and her favor. 
“They think I’m a prostitute,” she whispered, her breath staining the window with a patch of fog.
“They’re not going to touch you.”
She laughed softly, a hint of defeat detectable in her voice.  “You won’t know if they do.  If things go like they have planned, by that time you’ll be floating face down in the Hudson.”  She tore her gaze away from the high-fives and congratulatory pats on the backs that their carpool party was receiving on the far side of the garage and turned toward Elliot.
He looked past her darkened stare, out the window at the group that had continued to multiply.  All boys, none that could be out of their teens, some wearing dirty coveralls, others in t-shirts and jeans.  But all young and, he knew, having been brainwashed by the false sense of security that they were invincible.  “They brought us to Spanish Harlem.  Think they’re part of the Latin Kings?”
Olivia lifted a shoulder, partly with indifference, partly without an answer.  “The Kings run this area.”
“They’re all young.”
“Maybe new recruits,” she returned, her eyes narrowing as a fresh face appeared at the window, hands pressed against the glass on either side of his head.  He looked them over, first Elliot and then her, before pushing away and leaving behind defined handprints.  Prints, evidence… She chuckled, dropping her head forward in mid-shake as Elliot’s questioning stare landed on her.
“Something funny?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she answered.  “All of it.”  She closed her eyes as Elliot swept his fingers through her hair, the strands tacky from sweat.  They’d always had rotten timing, one of them deciding to run just as the other one had finally decided to stand still.  And the one time their paces fell into sync, they were at the end of the race and didn’t even know it.
“Liv, in the car…earlier…”
She pushed his hand away as he began a second pass through her hair, turning back toward the window.  They had stopped thinking, both of them.  Jesus.  They weren’t a couple of teenagers, and neither of them was irresponsible.  Maybe there were a few instances in the past where they could be accused of not using the best judgment, but generally they balanced each other out.  When Elliot fell off the deep end, she made damn sure her footing was solid, and he did the same for her.  Only one crazy partner at a time, that was the philosophy they’d built their partnership around.  And it had saved their asses on more than one occasion.
Christ.  They should have amended their tried and semi-successful credo to include, if it’s not broken don’t fuck with it—and under no circumstance fuck each other.
“Why’d you take my shield?” she asked, her voice ricocheting mellifluously off of the glass.
“Because considering who we’re dealing with, I think it’s safer if they think you’re a pro instead of knowing that you’re a cop.”
“Where’s yours?” she asked quickly, turning toward him.  She studied his face, the muscles in his jaw throbbing and nostrils flaring as his breathing became faster, deeper.  “That kid, uh…” She shook her head, glancing at the unoccupied driver’s seat.  “Derio?  He called you ‘marano,’ Elliot—pig.  How’s he know you’re a cop?  Where’s your badge?”
“Relax,” he commanded lowly, almost under his breath, as his narrowed-eye stare studied the raucous group again.  He nodded toward the front passenger’s seat, gnawing on the corner of his lip.  “When we got in the car, I tossed it and my wallet on the seat.  The kid upfront, he picked them both up when he got in.  He showed them to the driver, the, uh, the one called Derio.”
Olivia sank further in the seat, her eyes once again closing.  “It’ll gain him a lot of respect to kill a cop,” she whispered.  “And that seems to be what he wants.”
“We’ll get out of here.”
Her eyes popped open, incredulity having overtaken them.  “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re a little out numbered.”
“And people are going to start looking for—”
“Who’s going to look for us?” she asked, dragging the palm of her hand across her forehead.  “It’s the weekend, we’re not on rotation, and Kathy’s out of town.”
“Where’s your phone?”
She glared at the vacated passenger’s seat.  “It was in my bag, the same bag the kid took with him when they got out of the car.”  Making another forceful pass across her forehead, she whispered an intuitively defeated, “What about yours?”
“It was, uh…” He slumped as Olivia sent a heavy, frustrated breath in his direction.  “It was…on the seat...with my wallet and shield.”  He watched her, as she turned back toward the window, as the rise and fall of her chest quickened with her breathing, as she began to chew nervously on her lip.  She was scared, weighted down by the facts that had dropped them into uncertainty, but she would never admit it.  When it came to fear, she kept hers a well-guarded secret.
“We’ll figure something out,” he continued, not getting a response from her, not really expecting one.  “They’re a bunch of kids.  Maybe that they know I’m a cop is a good thing.  Maybe I can intimidate them—”
“Dead people aren’t all that intimidating, Elliot,” she deadpanned.  Pressing a fingertip against the window, she smudged a line across the glass.  Dead people weren’t intimidating, and neither were helpless ones.  They didn’t have weapons, a source of communication, or options.  But their so far unidentified hosts had all three.  They had the power; Elliot and she didn’t have anything.
Except each other.
And that was what had gotten them into this mess to begin with.
“I’d rather they know I’m a cop than think I’m a pro,” she whispered, her eyelids fluttering closed as Elliot slid his hand across her thigh.  His fingers cupped around the inside, squeezing lightly, pressing gently.  It was the first touch he had given her after they’d climbed into the backseat of the Escort, embarrassed laughter rattling in both throats and disbelief tainting the air.  As his hand had moved cautiously higher, as he’d slowly risen and then straddled her legs, she’d convinced herself that their days of running were over.  They’d finally stopped and had arrived at the same destination at the same time.  His touches felt natural, as if he had been giving them to her just as long as she’d been waiting to feel them.  His kisses felt familiar, and when he’d finally pushed inside of her it was as if it was the hundredth time, not the first.
He had felt right.
Which should have been her first clue that only something wrong would result from it.
“I can’t…I’d…” She opened her eyes slowly, hesitantly, catching sight of Derio waving a hand toward the seemingly forgotten Escort in the center of the disorderly room.  “I’d rather they kill me.”
“If they know you’re a cop, they might do both,” Elliot said, dropping the cold facts on her through a whisper.  “But they’re not gonna waste a bullet on a prostitute.”
She turned toward him, fortitude having become etched into her tense features.  “I’m not going to be a gang-banger initiation.”
He moved his hand up and down her thigh, his touch light, more tickling than comforting.  It was how he had touched her before, just lightly.  He had caressed and enticed and, Jesus, hadn’t been able to stop watching her as she reacted.  She was beautiful; he wasn’t the first man to reach that conclusion and knew he wouldn’t be the last.  But as her movements had fallen effortlessly into sync with his, as ease had replaced awkwardness, he understood that he was the first man to have ever truly seen her.
He just hadn’t known that his first glimpse might also be his last.
“Just hold off saying anything, okay?” he asked.  “Derio brought you here as some kind of added bonus for this Vedie-guy, right?  And the other kid, the one in the back with us—”
“Raymond.”
“Raymond, yeah.  He said Vedie wouldn’t be interested.  So maybe he’ll just cut you loose, tell you to leave—”
“And that’s what you expect me to do?” she asked, knocking his shoulder as she straightened.  “You expect me to just walk out of here without you, to leave knowing they’re going to kill you?”  She slapped his hand off of her leg.  “Jesus, Elliot.  You think I could do that?”
“I think it’s our only chance,” he returned.  “You get out of here, find a phone—”
“I’m not even sure where we are!” she laughed.  For the first time tears became noticeable, in the shakiness of her voice and shimmer in her eyes.  “Spanish Harlem, that’s all I know, but I’m not sure about anything else.  So, what, I’m supposed to take off on foot, hope to hell I find someone who’ll let me use a phone, and then wait around God knows how long for back-up?”  She laughed again, more abrasively, anger having taken temporary command of her unpredictable emotions.  “By the time I get back here, you’ll be dead.  And I’m not…I won’t…” She shook her head, slapping his hand away as he reached for her again.  “I’m not going to do it.”
“Then there’s a good chance we’ll both end up dead.”
She nodded once, indomitably.  “There’s a chance.”
There was a chance, probably a better one than either Elliot or she was willing to admit.  But she was ready to face it; with him she would face it.  Because she knew that she couldn’t accept the outcome any other way.  
She glanced down at the feel of his fingers brushing against hers, just hesitantly, without grasping.  She remembered when she was a child, five, maybe six.  It had been late in the evening and she’d already been asleep in bed.  Her mother had come into her room, woken her up, and told her to grab her blanket and pillow and follow her to the car.  They’d driven for a while, with Olivia laid out across the backseat, warm, listening to the music play on the radio and her mother’s whispery voice as she sang along.  She’d felt safe, safe enough to let her mother’s singing lull her back to sleep.
When she’d awoken again, she was alone in the car.  It was dark and the air was cool, the vinyl of the seat chilled beneath her.  She could remember a flashing light, blinking red, fading to black, and then alternating to red again.  When she’d sat up to find the source, she’d had to squint, her eyes still bleary from sleep and the light too bright to focus on.
She hadn’t been able to decipher the word spelled out in neon, the letters too fancy for her to figure out, but she hadn’t needed to read it to understand what it represented.  It was her solitude.  Her mother would stay in the bar until closing, and Olivia would stay alone in the car.  
Even though it was a frequent, late night event that continued until she was finally old enough to stay home alone, she’d never once thought about getting out of the car.  She’d never considered finding someone to help her, or going inside any of the bars to find her mother.  Because she always knew that the wait would be worth it.  The solitude, at times, was frightening, but it was worth suffering through when, at the end of the night, her mother got back into the car, turned on the radio and began singing again.  
And so she never left, because she knew that she would be leaving behind more than she was willing to sacrifice.
Olivia laced her fingers, one at a time, through Elliot’s.  They fit comfortably, snuggly, as if the spaces between his fingers had been sized solely to fit hers.  “I won’t tell them I’m a cop,” she whispered, “not unless I have to.  But I won’t leave either, Elliot.  If we’re not going to walk out together, then I don’t want to walk out at all.”
+++
March 24, 12:33 A.M.
“How long do you think they’re going to make us sit here?”  Olivia thumped her finger against the window before raising her hips and attempting to stretch out her legs in the limited space between the back and fronts seats.  She groaned tiredly, uncomfortably, plopping back down.
“Don’t complain,” Elliot said, rolling his stiff neck.  “I have a feeling this could be the best part of the night.”
“Think they have a bathroom in this place?”
“If they do, think you’d really want to use it?”  He grinned crookedly, a chuckle vibrating almost unnoticeably in his throat.  “How many times have I told you, you need to at least try to go before we get in the car—”
“Shut up,” she hissed, jabbing him in the ribs with her elbow.  “It’s not funny.  I really need a bathroom.”
Elliot nodded, making a half-turn as he studied the warehouse from one end to the other.  There were at least fifteen cars inside, some on lifts, others stripped down to the frames, a few with fresh coats of primer, and only a couple that looked street ready.  Different makes and models, some brand new, others obviously older.  “They wanted the car, so why take us with it?  Why steal one that has people in it?”
“Out of all these kids, Derio looks like he could be the youngest.”  She moved her face closer to the window, analyzing the group that had dwindled down to no more than ten.  “I mean, he can’t be older than thirteen or fourteen, right?  So maybe he’s the newest member, feels he has something to prove to the others.”  She distanced herself from the window again, dropping her head forward and scrubbing a path over her cheeks and onto her forehead.  “Damn it, they’re gonna strip my car.”
Elliot nodded, grumbling his agreement.
“It’ll be the second one I’ve lost in, what, six months?” she whined, slapping her hands down on her legs.  “My insurance premium is going to go through the roof.  Of course, that’s if my carrier doesn’t drop me all together.”
“Insurance is what you’re worried about right now?” he asked, spiking an eyebrow.
“Two Stabler’s, two cars, neither of them yours, Elliot.  Both mine, remember?”
“So now this is my fault?” Elliot questioned, more wary of her answer than curious.  He settled back stiffly against the seat as Olivia moaned in response.  It wasn’t a definite yes, but not a clear-cut no either.  So even though she hadn’t out-right blamed him, she sure as hell hadn’t absolved him of any guilt.  But going through the mental checklist of the events that had led them to where they were—stuck inside the stuffy car with their fates undecided—he couldn’t argue that if responsibility was going to be dished out, he definitely deserved the larger portion.
He had been the one who’d asked her out for a drink, even though he could tell that going anywhere other than home was at the very bottom of her priority list—check.
He’d been the one who’d ordered two more beers while she’d tolerantly nursed her last glass of wine, just biding her time until he finally got his fill of liquid courage—check.
He was the one who’d stopped her, as he’d heard her load her things into the car and prepare to leave—check.
He had made the first move, making confessions he wasn’t even sure she wanted to hear and then going in for the kiss that had fired the starting gun—check.
And he had been the one to climb into the backseat of the car first, dragging her in behind him.  Not that she had protested, not exactly.  But he could vaguely remember her saying something about going to her place.  Unfortunately, her suggestion coincided with him shoving her shirt up over her chest like some damned, horny teenager.  And when he’d first seen her breasts, just barely contained by lace and Lycra, she could have told him the trumpets were sounding to warn that Armageddon was upon them and it wouldn’t have registered.
Check.
“We made ourselves targets,” Olivia whispered, a small laugh infecting her voice.  “Oh, God.  What those kids saw…” She hung her head forward, her shoulders rising and falling as her laughter strengthened.  “My ass, your, uh…your…everything else.”  She glanced up at him, an eyebrow arched playfully.  “Jesus, Elliot.  If we get out of this, what in the hell are we going to say in our statements?”
He grumbled lowly, his smile only an intimation.  “Kind of makes you hope they do kill us.”
“Yeah, well.  If they don’t, Cragen will,” she said through a roll of her eyes.
“Hey,” Elliot nudged her shoulder with his, nodding toward the rolled-up driver’s side window.  He directed her gaze to the steel staircase at the end of the room; the door at the top of it opening and exposing a dark-haired man dressed impeccably in a pressed suit and shined shoes.  He stared down emotionlessly at the boys who gathered on the floor beneath him, only responding with a vague nod as Derio pushed his way to the front of the pack and shouted an enthusiastic, “Yo, Vedie!”
“Hello, Vedie,” Elliot mumbled.  “From the way he’s dressed, looks like he’s in charge around here.”
“Looks young, too,” Olivia added, her eyes narrowing as she watched the man descend the staircase.  “Can’t be older than twenty-five.”
“Who in the hell are these guys?  Peter Pan and the Lost Boys?”
“I don’t know, Elliot.  I’ve never heard of the Kings setting up this type of operation.  I mean, something this big, all these stolen cars, why would they leave a bunch of kids in charge?”
He situated his head over her shoulder, watching as Vedie became lost in the crowd of teenagers.  He didn’t know who they were, an extension of the Latin Kings or a gang of their own that hadn’t yet reached any type of popularity, but he did know for sure that they weren’t stupid enough to jeopardize their apparent livelihood by letting a cop leave their warehouse alive.
He was dead for sure, and if he couldn’t break through Olivia’s stubbornness—and soon—she was, too.
+++
March 24, 12:42 A.M.
Oddly, stuck in the middle of chaos and on the receiving end of over thirty stares, she felt lonely.
And staring past the young faces, across the distance of the circle that the bodies had formed, with Elliot on the other side, she didn’t just feel lonely.  She felt alone.
When they’d finally been let out of the car, she’d been pulled in one direction and Elliot had been lead in another.  She’d watched him over her shoulder, just as he had watched her, fighting the lean bodies that surrounded them not to lose sight of each other.  And when they’d been shoved into the center of the circle, Elliot on one side and she on the other, Raymond had had to restrain her just to keep her from flying through the twenty-plus steps it would take her to get back to Elliot.
The concrete and steel that surrounded them was suffocating, each of her breaths weighted with the odor of motor oil and exhaust fumes.  It was drafty in the half-dilapidated warehouse, the night breeze whistling as it shimmied through cracks in the walls, beneath doors and through rotted windowsills.  But even though her skin was chilled, inside it felt as if a fire was raging.  Her stomach had twisted into an indissoluble knot and her lungs had become too tight for the air she managed to drag in to expand them.  But across from her, with his eyes squinted with intimidation and his jaw fixed, Elliot looked like he was ready to start kicking adolescent ass.
Olivia yanked her arm as Raymond’s long fingers tightened, his jagged, dirt-stained fingernails digging through the material of her sweater and reaching skin.  She didn’t like the odds any better than the situation.  The boys had multiplied like rabbits as soon as the unmarked soles of Vedie’s polished shoes landed on the floor.  And even though her count was a guesstimate at best, she figured there were at least thirty-five of them.  And unfortunately for Elliot and her, they were all young, impressionable, dangerously eager, and obviously awestruck by their suave, expensively dressed leader.
“What the fuck is this, Derio?” Vedie snarled, coming to a stop in front of Olivia.  The stench of cologne was as thick on him as the gel was in his black hair, and his eyes were empty.  Their hollowness making it clear that compassion wasn’t something inherent to him.
“Puta,” Derio answered simply, an amused smile flickering on his lips.  He stepped out of the periphery of bodies, coming to a stop beside Vedie.  “And she’s free.”
Vedie dragged a fingertip over one busy eyebrow, a heavy sigh deflating his gaunt chest.  “What the fuck do I care if she’s free?” he snapped.  “Why is she here?”
Derio shrugged, seeming as confused by Vedie’s reaction as his question.  “I know she’s kinda old,” he answered innocently, “but she ain’t bad looking.  And damn, Vedie, you shoulda seen her going at this vato in the backseat.  She’s definitely no amateur.”
Vedie took a step closer to Olivia, his hot breath raining down on her face and dark stare making a quick, disinterested trek over her body.  “I know you’ve never worked in El Barrio.  So where are you from?”
Olivia’s eyes made an instant shift, her stare skimming over his squared shoulder and landing on Elliot.  Even through the distance that separated them, she could see the throb of his jaw and could hear his voice clearly, “Considering who we’re dealing with, I think it’s safer if they think you’re a pro instead of knowing that you’re a cop.”  As far as the physical aspect of life and death went, Elliot had a valid point.  But what she knew to be undeniably defensible was that if her spirit was what was sacrificed then the air that her lungs took in and beats of her heart wouldn’t matter.  It would still be death, just a slower, more torturous form of it.
“Hey.  I’m talking to you, bitch,” Vedie spit, lowering his face in front of Olivia’s.  “Where the fuck you from?”
She licked at her lower lip, blowing back out his stale breath as it invaded her mouth.  “Manhattan.”
Vedie nodded, seemingly satisfied with her answer.  “So, you know this guy?”
“We, uh.”  Olivia glanced across the circle again, Elliot’s dark stare urging her to continue lying.  “I met him earlier tonight, at a bar.”
“Yeah?  So that’s how you ended up with him?”
“That’s how I ended up with him.”
Vedie glanced over his shoulder, studying Elliot for a moment before turning back toward Olivia.  “What’d you give him in that backseat, huh?  Did you blow his fucking cock like it was some kinda damn balloon?  ‘Cause I gotta say, you impressed my boys.”
“Look, why don’t you leave her alone—” Elliot’s command was thwarted by the muzzle of a pistol as a grinning, overly anxious-looking teen jammed it into his ribs.  He winced, grumbling his concession as he shot a glare at the stubble-faced teen beside him.  The boy grinned, wide and toothy and with an overly confident sense of victory, and motioned for Elliot to take a step backwards with a sharp tilt of his head.
“I’m not talking to you, marano,” Vedie hissed, his back to Elliot and focus still trained on a stone-faced Olivia.  “Tell me what you did for him.  Was it just brain, or did he want the full ride?”
“Ask your friends,” Olivia responded coolly.  “I think they saw enough to know what was going on.”
“So, how much did you charge him?  Huh?  What’s a Manhattan puta worth?”
What was a Manhattan puta worth?  She bit into her lower lip, knowing by the tension that completely froze Elliot’s face that she was coming across far more uncertain than believable.  But if the memo containing the current Prostitute’s Price List had crossed her desk recently, she’d missed it.
“One fifty,” she answered, praying that she sounded smooth, or at least semi-confident.
“One fifty?” he asked, the pitch of his voice rising slightly.  “An El Barrio puta only charges seventy-five.”
“Yeah, well.”  She lifted an eyebrow subtly.  “I do a lot of driving.  Gas prices are high these days, you know?”
“You’re funny,” he said, his pale lips cracking into a smile.  “Unfortunately, I don’t like bitches with smart mouths.”  He expelled another pungent breath into her face, straightening.  “It was stupid to bring her here, Derio.  Dominic’s not happy.”
The collective turn of heads toward the closed door at the top of the staircase prompted Elliot and Olivia to follow suit, the group silently studying the metal barrier.  Flaps of a shade were separated, exposing a face.  From the distance, features were unable to be defined but a full head of silvery-gray hair was noticeable before the flaps were popped back into place just as quickly as they had been pulled apart.
Derio bounced nervously from foot to foot, his hands buried in the front pockets of his faded, oversized jeans.  “But I, uh, I brought her for Dominic.  I thought he’d like her.”
Vedie turned his back to Olivia, his movements slow, each deliberate.  He met the teenager with a tense smile, one that barely materialized before hardening into a frown.  “Dominic doesn’t need a child’s help to get a woman.  Don’t insult him.”  
He walked into the center of the circle, the hard soles of his shoes resonating off of the concrete with each heavy step.  “The job you were given was to bring back a ride, that was it.  Nothing was said about bringing some damned puta and a fucking marano with it.  And now…” He released a loud breath, crossing his arms over his chest.  “We have a big mess, a mess that someone’s gonna have to clean up.”
Olivia tore her stare away from the shaded window upstairs, her stomach completing a hard flip as she found Vedie’s cold eyes on her.  Someone’s gonna have to clean up...  Even a street weary puta could successfully translate that.  Elliot and she comprised the mess, and a disappearing act was the cleaning product the so far aloof Dominic expected to be used.  And by the apprehensive reactions of the teens when it was announced that Dominic wasn’t happy, it seemed clear that none of them would be brave enough to defy him.
“I can do it,” Derio said, eagerness consuming his voice.  “Whatever Dominic wants, I’ll take care of it.”
Vedie looked back at Olivia, his eyes constricting.  “You gonna be able to think with the right head this time, vato?  ‘Cause to handle a job like this, you gotta be smart.  Can’t let anything get in your way.”
“Yeah, man,” Derio answered quickly, anxiously.  “Yeah.  I can do it.”
Vedie tilted his chin, motioning toward the door upstairs.  “Dominic told me to send you up.  Go talk to him.  Apologize, Derio, tell him you wanna make this right.  He’ll be reasonable with you.”
Silence fell over the crowd, a deafening stillness that wasn’t only void of sound but all movement.  Olivia studied the suddenly somber faces, finding fear in each set of eyes.  A foreboding that was shared, that even infiltrated the coldness that had been so predominant in Vedie’s.  The chain of command had been made clear, as had whose hands held the power.  And the power was obviously feared.
“I just wanted to show him I can be trusted,” Derio responded, a whine seeping into his voice.  “C’mon, Vedie, you know I wouldn’t do nothing to hurt the family.”  He stepped closer to the older man, his shoulder swinging in the direction of Vedie’s.  But before an accidental touch could be made, Vedie took a quick, jumpy step backwards.
“Go on,” Vedie commanded, his voice absent of the understanding Derio was searching for.  “Dominic’s waiting.”
The teen nodded, his head remaining bowed.  Kicking the toe of his sneaker into the hard floor, he turned toward the staircase as the boys parted and opened a path for him.  With his shoulders slumped and head hung, he tracked the steps with upturned eyes, hesitating at the bottom before taking the first one.
The best laid plans often times started with a rocky foundation, which was what Olivia should have kept in mind before acting off of instincts versus vigilance.  She stepped forward as Derio rose onto the second step, rubber and steel pulsing as they connected.  “The kid made a mistake,” she said.  “But no one’s been hurt, right?  So, uh, so…” With Vedie’s back still facing her, not sure if he was listening, she lightly touched the back of his lanky shoulder.  “So, my friend and I, we’ll just leave—” 
Vedie spun around, his face instantly contorting to reveal both disbelief and disgust, and before he had come to a stop in front of her, he’d shot his right hand into the air and brought the backside down heavily against the side of Olivia’s face.  What she had known was an ineffectual suggestion at best transformed into a blended gasp and throaty moan, as the force behind the slap sent her stumbling backwards.  She cupped a hand over her cheek, blinking away the tears that bit at her eyes, and not fighting Raymond’s strong arms as they wrapped around her and steadied her on her feet.
“No one touches me!” Vedie bellowed, his reddened face lowered in front of Olivia’s and words dampening her skin.  “Ever!  Do you understand?  No one touches me!”
“You son of a bitch!” Elliot shouted, rushing forward.  As he reached the center of the circle, the boys pounced, fists and feet delivering blows until Elliot dropped to his knees.  He threw his elbows back, jabbing a stomach, thigh and crotch, and instantly sending three teens crashing to the floor before the butt of a pistol was slammed down against his shoulder.
“Elliot!” Olivia screamed, kicking at Raymond’s shins and digging at his fingers locked across her abdomen.  “Damn it!  Stop!”
Elliot dropped onto all fours, his chest heaving.  He glanced up, through the bodies, watching as Raymond pulled Olivia backwards.  She fought him, digging her shoes into the slick floor and pounding against his hands with her fists.  And as the sea of bodies swallowed her, stealing her from his sight, his eyes closed.  He brought her to life again in his mind, not seeing the fear on her face that had been so predominant a second earlier, but the way she had looked in the backseat of the car.  
The way she had looked at him.
Trusting.  Contented.  Placid.  
As if life had made a shift in the right direction, in their direction.  For once granting its favor to them.
The image of her that he wanted to cling to was instantly erased as the top of a foot pummeled into his stomach.  He coughed hoarsely, his breath lost as his muscles began to spasm, and lost his balance completely as another foot landed forcefully against his hip.  Sprawled on the hard floor, he watched the polished toes of Vedie’s shoes move closer, his steps slow and taken with intent before coming to a stop in front of Elliot’s flushed face.
“You shouldn’t mess with my family, vato,” the man said.  “I don’t like when someone does that.”
“I’m not messing with anything,” Elliot coughed, sliding his legs beneath him and rising onto his knees.  “In case you forgot, it was your family that interrupted my evening.”
Vedie chuckled coolly, dipping his hands into the front pockets of his slacks.  “Fucking marano doing a common ho in the backseat of a car.  But still, you think you’re better than us.”
“I never said I was better than you,” Elliot responded, swiping the back of his hand across his mouth.  Blood streaked his skin, and as he pulled his hand away, a burn erupted from the corner of his lip.  “I don’t even know who the fuck you are.  So why don’t we just call it a night, huh?  The woman and I’ll leave, end of story.  No one else has to know any of this took place.”
“No one else, right.  You really expect me to believe you’d keep your mouth shut?”
“Hey.  I have a wife and I’m a cop.  You really think I want anyone else knowing what those kids saw going on in the backseat of that car?”  He chuckled lowly, shaking his head.  “They talk, I’ll lose everything.”
“This is an unfortunate situation,” Vedie said, his voice low, complacent.  “Derio is young, he’s eager to prove himself, and these things caused him to make a mistake.  A mistake that, regrettably, you’re going to have to pay for.”
Elliot’s head whipped to the right and then left as arms looped around his and pulled him to his feet.  As soon as he was steadied, he shook out of the tight holds, his narrow-eyed glare locking with Vedie’s dispassionate stare.  “Whatever you think you have to do, leave the woman out of it.  Who in the hell do you think she’d tell anyway?  Think someone like her would actually go to the police?”
Vedie expelled a strong breath, his nostrils flaring with the rush of air.  He shrugged a shoulder, his expression remaining as impassive as his eyes.  “Chances are she’d never say a word to anyone.  But my family is at stake, and I’m not willing to risk their safety by taking a chance on some fucking puta.”  He motioned to the teens with a flit of his head, strong arms instantly locking around Elliot’s again.  “The hard truth is, whores and maranos are as abundant in New York as the cockroaches.  So if two of them suddenly disappear, no one’s even gonna notice.”
“Someone disappears, someone else always notices,” Elliot returned smugly.  “That’s another hard truth.”
“Maybe in your world,” Vedie said, “but you’re in my world now.”  He lifted a hand into the air, snapping his fingers.  “Trust me, vato, around here?  People only see what they’re told to see, nothing more.”
A teen stepped up beside Elliot, a pistol secured in his hand.  He looked Elliot over, sized him up, and ended his analysis with a chuckle.  Lifting his hand, he aimed the barrel of the gun at Elliot’s temple, his boyish face crinkling with a smile.  “What do you want me to do with him, Vedie?  Waste him?”
“This is Derio’s mess, remember?” Vedie responded.  “Take them to the yard, keep them there.”  He jutted his chin toward the staircase across the room.  “Dominic has business to finish here.  When he’s done, we’ll come.  Until then, you’re in charge, Zaniel.”
Zaniel was in charge.  A grinning, overly excited, seemingly trigger-happy Zaniel who looked to be all of seventeen, Elliot estimated.  The kid was built; his arms were twice the size of Elliot’s and his neck looked uncannily like a tree stump.  He was rock solid, and, Elliot begrudgingly admitted, could probably take him down with a couple of punches at most.
So, he’d let Zaniel have the control that had been temporarily placed in his youthful hands, at least until he figured out the least painful way for himself to take it away.
Elliot lifted his hands in concession, his gaze shifting between the two men.  “I’ll go wherever you want,” he said before motioning toward the opposite end of the spacious room and the door in the corner that was ajar.  Outside of the warehouse he could hear the low rumble of voices talking over each other and the occasional burst of laughter.  The crowd sounded enthusiastic, as agitated as excited.  
And somewhere in the middle of the chaos was Olivia.
“C’mon,” he continued, a tight smile shivering across his lips.  “No one else needs to get hurt.  Just let the woman go, let her leave.”
Vedie took a step backwards, locking his arms across his chest.  “Damn.  She must be some good fuck.  Why else would you be trying so hard to save a used piece of ass?”
“Look, you son of a bitch!” Elliot hissed, managing a step forward before Zaniel rammed the muzzle of the gun between his shoulder blades.  “Just let her leave!  You don’t need her—”
“Let go of me!  No!”
Olivia’s scream pierced the air, seeping into the old building and ricocheting off of the walls.  Elliot could have sworn the floor shuddered, sending him staggering to one side and then the other and finally spurring him into action as her voice—filled with as much fear as determination—once again consumed the exhaust-tainted air that his lungs suddenly refused to take in.
“Let go!  No!  No!”
He thrust his elbow backwards, hearing a pop as bone connected with bone and a rock solid Zaniel crumpled to the floor.  The teen’s screams blended with Olivia’s, as he cupped a hand over his face and blood began to trickle between his fingers.  Elliot studied him through a frantic, passing glance only before taking advantage of the split-second opportunity and charging out of the pack as the others were still focused on a bloodied Zaniel.
Before he’d rounded the rear end of a Mustang with strips of its original red paint sporadically showing through a fresh coat of primer, he heard the rush of footsteps behind him.  It sounded like a stampede, soles of sneakers pounding against the floor, heavy breaths mixing into a single, prolonged one, and the occasional, “You’re one dead marano!” pushing him to keep moving forward instead of surrendering.
But through it all, with each of his steps, with each of theirs, he heard only Olivia.
He skidded through loose gravel as soon as he burst through the doorway, his balance becoming a lost luxury as he crashed to the ground.  He felt his skin rip, patches burning away on his arms and knees as he slid over the jagged rocks and asphalt, but it didn’t compare to the white hot pain that bounced through his skull as the butt of a gun was slammed against the back of his neck.
A fog set in, rolling over him in waves until he was completely engulfed.  Through the haziness he saw Olivia, punching at air and legs flailing as two boys lifted her off of the ground and tossed her into the open trunk of a car.  She popped back up as soon as she landed, still punching, still fighting, but no longer begging for herself.  
Begging for him.
“Leave him alone!  Don’t!  No!  Elliot!”
Blackness unobtrusively punctured the fog that had settled over his mind, and as the trunk lid was slammed shut, locking Olivia inside, he conceded the control that unconsciousness was so diligently trying to claim.  
He didn’t resist it, didn’t struggle against it.  Because if the ability to fight had been taken from Olivia, then he would freely give up his.  And as he went limp, the excited voices hovering above him faded and Olivia’s screams became lighter, morphing soothingly into a remembered whisper.
“If we’re not going to walk out together, then I don’t want to walk out at all.”
CHAPTER THREE
March 24, 1:43 A.M.
“…Chilling, real viviendo…Chilling, como soy asi muero…Chilling, sin importar lo que digan…Chilin’, Chillin’, Chillin’…”
The bass from inside the car pulsated through the trunk, causing the compartment to rattle and vibrate.  The music was a continuous drone that contaminated the thick air and throbbed in her head, each heavy beat bouncing inside her skull like the metal ball in a pinball machine.  Thump, crash, thump, crash, thump…  It was deafening and disorienting, and she folded her arms over either side of her head to try and separate herself from it.    
She rolled onto her side, pulling her legs up to her stomach.  Pressing her eyelids closed, her breathing fell into sync with the continuous beats of the music.  Inhale, thump…exhale, thump…inhale, thump… Jesus.  It was hot.  She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t.  The sultry air instantly dried her throat and what little managed to make it into her lungs burned.
But she had to keep forcing it; she had to breathe.
At least until she knew for sure whether or not Elliot still was.
She let out a yell, one that was muffled by the music, as the car rose into the air without warning and then dropped back down jerkily.  Banging the top of her head on the hard side of the trunk for the third time since they’d started driving, she growled an irritated, “Damn it!” and scrubbed the palm of her hand over the tender spot on her scalp.  Christ.  Not only was she trapped and traveling blind with Our Gang, but their Radio Flyer had been pimped out, complete with adjustable air shocks.
She laid her head back down, her arm once again a cushion beneath her.  Through the seat, she could hear them laughing inside the car, talking non-stop, imagining excitedly what was to come.  It was a game to them, Elliot’s and her deaths.  It was something to joke about, something to gain them respect instead of fill them with remorse.  Something that would be recounted enthusiastically, without any hint of the fear it had instilled.
She wasn’t afraid of dying, not really.  After all, it was something she’d always known would happen one day.  But it did scare her to think of dying without there being a purpose for it.  If she were pushing a child out of the way of a speeding bus and got hit instead, she could accept that.  If she took a bullet for Elliot or a victim, she’d be okay with that.  At least she would go out helping someone else.  It wouldn’t be useless, purposeless.  Her death would mean something.
But now it would happen for no reason at all, other than she’d been at the wrong place and at the wrong time.  In the big scheme of things, when it was all said and done, if Elliot’s and her bodies were ever even found and death confirmed, it wouldn’t be chalked up to anything more than ‘a damn shame.’  A waste.  Maybe an injustice, but not purposeful.  Nothing would be gained, even though everything would be lost.
And she was afraid.  Damn it, she didn’t want to die.  Not yet, not when it felt like she’d just taken her first breath three hours earlier.
So she had to keep breathing; she couldn’t stop.  Not until she knew for sure that Elliot had.
+++
March 24, 1:46 A.M.
“You and this job are about the only things I have left.”
He had lied to her, blatantly, to her face and while both of them were trying to dig their way out from beneath suffocating shock.  He should have told her the truth, he knew it was what she was waiting for, what she needed to hear.  But he’d lied instead, not admitting that he could live without the damned job but there was no way in hell he could survive a single day without her.
And now, maybe it was too late.  Maybe it was his lie that she’d taken with her to her grave instead of the truth that she deserved to know.
Elliot opened his eyes just a sliver, not enough to be noticed but to give him at least a partial view of his surroundings.  He was shoved into the corner of the van, his body rocking with the unsteady movements of the vehicle and legs pressing down uncomfortably on grease-stained tools.  There was a pile of screwdrivers wedged beneath his right thigh, a socket wrench poking into the underside of his left one, and a bag stuffed with nuts and bolts directly beneath his ass.  At the front of the van, he counted six teens.  Their faces were shadowed and excited chatter an irritating hum in his pounding head, but the tired fact that he was outnumbered convinced him to continue to feign unconsciousness.  He didn’t need to give the vultures a reason to start swarming, so he’d bide his time.  He’d wait patiently through each mile of their joyride, force himself not to let out the maniac that was trying to scratch its way out of his chest, and hope to hell that when they arrived at their destination, Olivia would be there, too.
Jesus.  Let her be there.  Whole.  Uninjured— No, he wouldn’t put any stipulations on his plea.  Just let her be there, then together they’d handle whatever circumstances had already been forced on them, as well as those that were still to come. 
“Ese, you can be damn sure I’m gonna have a go at that puta!” a gangly teen with a trace of facial hair lining his cheeks and chin laughed.  He grabbed his crotch, tugging, his laughter escalating as he rocked his hips rhythmically.  “She ain’t all that bad looking, and, shit, did you see the tits on her?  More than a fucking mouthful, that’s for damn sure!”
The boy beside him joined in his laughter, his dark eyes constricting beneath the border of yellow material that covered his forehead.  “Raymond said she was a fucking crazy bitch with that vato.  Better watch out, Hector, she might rip your dick right off.”
“Let the bitch try!” Hector laughed, tugging at his crotch again.  “I’m gonna have her begging for fucking mercy.”
“Mercy, lo que…” the driver snorted, directing the van through a slow, left-hand turn.  “Eres lleno de mierda, Hector.”
“Shut the fuck up, Alejo!  I’ll show you who’s full of shit!” Hector hissed, jamming his fist into the back of the driver’s seat.  “Soon as we get to the yard, bitch is gonna be full of me!”  His laughter erupted forcefully, fueled by a harsh slap on the back from the boy beside him.  “Before I even get done with her dirty ass, she’ll be begging for me to put a bullet in her head.”
Elliot pressed the backs of his shoulders against the wall of the van, steadying himself through a jerky, right-hand turn.  He closed his eyes, blocking out the agitated teens crowded at the front of the vehicle, Olivia’s determined voice suddenly overpowering their eager ones in his head.
“I can’t… I’d rather they kill me.  I’m not going to be a gang-banger initiation.”
She couldn’t go through it; he’d known it even before she’d said it.  The undercover assignment at Sealview—that prick Lowell Harris—had stolen enough—too much—of her, and Elliot didn’t know if she could ever recover from anything else.  She’d never given him details, only cryptic clues through off-handed comments about not being able to sleep, canceling dates, and not having an appetite even when he knew she hadn’t eaten in days.  
But he hadn’t needed clues; he hadn’t even needed all-inclusive details.  He’d seen the change in her as soon as she’d come back to work, and even though he didn’t want to, he’d understood it.  A piece of her was still locked away in that basement, still being tortured, still frightened, and even though she was fighting like hell to get it back, she hadn’t been able to yet.  And something else, something more, would only make the seal of the damned locked door airtight.
Then he would lose all of her.  
And he wasn’t willing to let that happen.  Not when he was a mere three hours into having the most of her that she’d ever allowed him.
He opened his eyes, shrouded by the darkness in the back corner.  Slowly, he reached beneath his right leg, shimmying a striped-handled screwdriver out from under him.  Flathead.  He pulled up his leg, lifting his trousers and stuffing the metal end of the tool into his sock before reaching beneath him again and grasping hold of a second, ridged handle.  Cross-Slot.  He bent his left leg, jamming the cooled metal end of the screwdriver into his sock until it scraped his instep.
Maybe in the heat of battle a screwdriver couldn’t stand up to a semi-automatic pistol, but then again, facing down less than perfect odds was something both Olivia and he were used to doing.
And when they faced them together, the fucking odds didn’t matter.  All that mattered was that they were together, because then—at least in their own minds—they were invincible.
+++
March 24, 1:49 A.M.
“You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul…You’ll be my breath should I grow old…You’re my lover, you’re my best friend…You’re in my soul…”
The last time Olivia could remember her mother waking her up for a late night drive to a bar, she had been a few months away from turning twelve-years-old.  When they’d parked, she had been sprawled across the backseat buried under a polka dot-design sleeping bag and stuck somewhere between sleep and cognizance.  Olivia hadn’t opened her eyes or tried to fully wake herself, instead she had concentrated on her mother’s movements in the front seat.  Hearing the clasp of her purse disengage as it was opened, the ‘pop’ of the lid of her lipstick tube as it was pulled off, and her voice as she sang along to You’re In My Heart, You’re In My Soul.
She could remember how similar her mother’s voice sounded to Rod Stewart’s, deep and raspy and whispery.  And as Serena had turned back and draped an arm over the top of the seat, as she’d gently brushed her hand over Olivia’s cheek, Olivia had opened her eyes.  She had smiled, just vaguely, just enough to give consent for her mother to go, and Serena had responded with a small smile of her own, one that expressed her guilt toward the evening’s events as much as a helplessness to stop them.
Serena had left the radio playing when she climbed out of the car, a substitute to offer comfort in her absence.  But when she’d returned four hours later, the music had faded, the car battery having gone dead.  At her mother’s urging, Olivia had scaled the seat and plopped down in the front with her, weathering their hours of being stranded through closeness rather than separation.  She had laid her head in Serena’s lap, the odor of alcohol meshing with the scent of her mother’s perfume and filling the car.  
There hadn’t been any conversation between them; neither had had anything to say.  But as the night dragged on, as her mother continuously stroked Olivia’s eyebrow with a gentle fingertip and her voice kept the silence at bay with a slurred rendition of the last song they’d listened to together, Olivia hadn’t wanted to be anywhere else.  They were together, and even though they were stranded and helpless, their imminence had made her feel safe.
“You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul…You’ll be my breath should I grow old…” 
She had been her mother’s breath, her sole reason for living.  Olivia had always known it, even if Serena made it difficult to remember at times.  But that long night in the car had confirmed it, it had strengthened a bond that alcohol had never been able to break through.  Right or wrong, through the hard times and the ones that seemed as if they couldn’t be survived, there was always something between them that was more powerful.
Even though Serena Benson hadn’t always been the easiest person to love, Olivia had loved her.  And during times of sobriety, they had been best friends.  Olivia missed her, and at that moment, with only the darkness to embrace her, she wished she could hear her mother’s voice in her mind instead of Rod Stewart’s.
“You’re my best friend…You’re in my soul…”
They’d been each other’s heart and soul, at least once.  Before Elliot Stabler unexpectedly stole Serena’s from her.
Effortlessly enough to be frightening, Elliot had become everything in her life that her mother had always been, and all of the things that Serena had never been capable of being.  And now that there was a chance of him becoming even more, their damned procrastination was teaming up with irony to make a sneak attack that would, ultimately, kick their asses.  She hadn’t even had the chance yet to attempt to analyze their spontaneity, or, Jesus, could something that had been simmering precariously for a decade even be considered spontaneous?  Maybe it really was procrastination in its purest form, either that or just blatant stupidity.
Whatever it was, she wanted more.  She didn’t want to lose it, not yet, not so soon after finally getting it.
“You’ll be my breath should I grow old…”
She was afraid of dying without a purpose, and even more afraid of dying last.  It was selfish she knew, to put the burden of surviving on Elliot.  But no matter if it stretched as short as fifteen seconds or as long as fifteen hours, she didn’t want to suffer through it.  Because she knew that the loneliness, no matter how brief, would be unbearable.
It had hurt too much to lose her mother, someone who was almost everything.  So how could she survive even one second if she had absolutely nothing left?
Olivia kicked out at the latched trunk lid, a scream vibrating in the base of her throat when the steel shell refused to budge.  She kicked again, and again, and again, ignoring the throbbing in her cramped leg that coincided with each hard blow.
The terrain beneath the wheels of the car changed, the ride suddenly consumed with bumps and jolts.  Olivia stretched out her arms above her head, flattening her hands against the wall to steady herself.  They weren’t on pavement any longer; it was too rough, too unfinished.  Maybe rocks?  A dirt road dotted with potholes?  
Time had become immeasurable in the confined darkness with the stereo’s bass drumming through her head and the air almost too tacky to ingest.  She didn’t know if they’d been driving for ten minutes, or twenty, maybe it had been an hour.  And without the help of landmarks to orient herself, there wouldn’t be any way to tell where they were.  And even worse, there wasn’t anyway to know where Elliot was.  
But he had to be alive; he had to.  Because it was her plan, when they were finally forced to face off with Death, she would be the first casualty.  It would be her that Elliot had to say good-bye to, because she knew she could never be strong enough to say good-bye to him.
“You’re my lover, you’re my best friend…You’re in my soul…”
+++
March 24, 2:07 A.M.
When they opened the backdoors of the nearly rusted-out van and pulled him outside, he’d used every second of the thirty-plus that it had taken them to drag him through the yard to analyze his surroundings.  
It was a junkyard of sorts, at least that was the conclusion the darkness and he finally agreed on.  Stacks of cars, all crushed and flattened to mere fractions of their full sizes lined the fenced-in yard.  Rows and rows of automobiles, laid out in a maze-like design with no real rhyme or reason as to how they had been situated.  And half-hidden at the far end of the yard were two trailers, one noticeably smaller than the other.  The larger one seemed almost new, customized with the latest amenities, but the smaller was ramshackle at best, looking as if the lightest breeze would splinter it.
Once they stumbled their way through the darkness and up the stacked concrete blocks, Elliot realized that the dented, rusted outside of the tinier trailer was its best feature.  Inside, a battery-operated lantern burned on three stacked milk crates, dimly highlighting the connected living room and kitchen.  A single sofa sat in the center of the room, its cushions worn down to the thickness of handkerchiefs and plaid-design fabric ripped from one end to the other.  Dust and cobwebs hung on the walls as thickly as a second coat of paint, and crumpled fast food wrappers and old newspapers littered the cracked linoleum floor.
At the far end of the room was a black hole, the entrance to a hallway Elliot quickly deduced as a jab from the.45-caliber pistol that was jammed between his shoulder blades convinced him to move toward it.  Barely six steps into the narrow corridor, he was commanded to stop, a door to his left being shoved open and he being shoved inside the room after it.
Bathroom.  He took advantage of the muted light and made a quick study of his surroundings.  There were a sink and toilet to his left, a bathtub directly in front of him.  It was basic at best, and long past working order he guessed.  
“You gonna tell me where we are?” he asked, shooting a glance over his shoulder at the boy who had been identified as Hector.
“Death row, fucker,” the teen laughed, urging Elliot into the middle of the undersized room with a wave of his gun.  “You know, end of the road.”
“End of the road…” Elliot mumbled, a humorless chuckle deepening his voice.  He made another scan of the room, his narrowed gaze settling on the shadow of stains that spotted the sides and bottom of the bathtub.  He turned slowly, meeting Hector’s dark stare.  “So, uh.  So what about the woman?  Is she here, too?”
Hector nudged Elliot backwards with another shake of the gun, glancing down the dark hallway.  “Ese, it ain’t for you to worry about.  She is where she is, that’s all you gotta know.”
Elliot nodded once, scraping his teeth across the corner of his bottom lip.  “But, uh…but…” He smiled crookedly, nonchalantly.  “I mean, she’s just a ho, right, no one important?  So why not let her go, let her leave?  How much respect do you really think it’ll get you to kill someone like her?”
“It ain’t about respect with her,” Hector responded coolly.  “It’s about protecting the family.  Maybe ho’s ain’t worth much, but they got big mouths.  Trust me, vato.  Two things a ho’s always got open is her mouth and her legs.  We let her leave; she starts talking.  The next thing you know, we got the fucking polis all up in our business, and we don’t need that kinda shit.”
“A working ho won’t go to the cops.”
“Neither will a dead one,” Hector said, an iniquitous grin curving his lips.  He stepped back over the threshold, all definition of his boyish features swallowed by the shadows in the hallway.  “I’m gonna be outside this door, vato.  You pull the fucker open; I put a bullet between your eyes.  Entenderme?”
“Enten-fuck me…” Elliot muttered, disgruntled, as the door was slammed shut.  A sliver of light seeped in under the crooked edge of the barrier, strong enough only to highlight a two-inch patch of the dirt-streaked floor.  Feeling his way along the wall, he reached the bathtub and sank down on the edge.  Leaning forward, adrenaline keeping exhaustion at bay, he rocked back and forth, his elbows digging into his thighs and hands rubbing nervously back and forth across the sides of his head.
The door hadn’t been locked, but he could hear the boys’ laughter and immature conversation on the other side of it.  Two screwdrivers versus six pistols.  Crappy odds that he wasn’t prepared to face off with yet.  Not yet.  Not until he knew for sure whether or not Olivia would be dropped into the same hellhole.  But if they didn’t bring her in soon, then he’d charge through the door like he was armed with fucking Uzi’s.
Because if Olivia had gone down, he knew she would have gone fighting.  And he’d be damned if he went any other way than her way.
+++
March 24, 2:14 A.M.
Even though darkness was the first thing to peek down at her when the trunk was opened, it seemed blinding compared to the compete blackness that had filled the compartment.  Olivia squinted at the faces that hovered above her, her arms instantly shooting out in front of her as hands began to reach for her.
“C’mon, bitch, get out,” Raymond instructed, his rough hand trapping her arm and tugging her up.  “This is where we’re staying ‘til we hear from Dominic, so don’t make no more trouble, okay?”
Olivia swung one leg over the edge of the car and then the other, hopping to the ground with Raymond’s forceful assistance.  As soon as she was steadied on her feet, she shook out of his hold, her glare warning the other five anxious-looking teens that surrounded her to keep their hands to themselves.
“Where are we?” she asked, still squinting, trying to focus on the stacks of flattened cars that formed a barricade between freedom and them.  
“None of your fucking business,” Raymond hissed, nodding toward the tiny, nearly dilapidated trailer in front of them.  “Just get inside.”
Inside.  It was a trailer, or at least it had been once.  It was small, compact, and looked like it should be condemned.  As the front door was pulled open, the metal hinges squealing indignantly, she placed her foot shakily on the first of the stacked concrete blocks that doubled as stairs.
There was a halo of light just inside the door, soft, diffused, but potent enough to burn her eyes.  Once she went in, the door would be closed behind her.  She’d be trapped, locked in with the six boys, outnumbered, overpowered, helpless.  Her mind began to race, trying to formulate options, a method of escape, a way—any way—to fight back.
“I won’t tell them I’m a cop, not unless I have to.”
It wouldn’t matter to them if she confessed to being the Queen of England, Olivia knew.  Who Elliot and she truly were didn’t matter; neither did what they might be leaving behind.  All that mattered to the fresh-faced, enthusiastic teens was the moment—that moment—and what they could take from it.
And they would take without regret, no matter who she was.
“Hey, bitch.  You wanna keep moving?”  Raymond nudged the back of her shoulder with his hand, pushing her over the remaining step and inside the trailer.  She’d barely cleared the doorway when a teen pushed his way forward from the back of the eager-looking group that had quickly assembled in the twenty-by-twenty room.  He stood a good four inches taller than her and reeked of cigarette smoke, but his eyes were what drew her breathlessly in.  Coal black and laughing beneath the border of the yellow bandana.  
“I got something for you, puta,” he said, his dark eyebrows rising.  “You and me, let’s go in the back.”
“I can’t…I’d rather they kill me.”
Olivia forced down a swallow, her breath suddenly reduced to short, shallow spurts and her heart thumping in her ears as loudly as the bass in the car had.  She had to think, stay rational, and remain calm.  Jesus.  She just needed to be able to breathe so that her damned head would stop spinning.
“C’mon, perra,” the boy continued, flitting his head toward the dark tunnel on the opposite side of the room.  “Silvio’ll take real good care of you.  Promesa.”
She had to think, stay rational, and remain calm.  
Size-wise, the kid had the edge on her, so throwing a punch would only be a deferment at most.  Running went beyond a ridiculous idea, and she doubted that breaking down into hysterics would do anything other than amuse the sexually frustrated group.  Reasoning with them was a laughable thought, especially considering that—even in the dim lighting—she could see that at least half of them already had hard-ons.  
She was screwed, at least figuratively.  But she’d be damned before she let the circumstances make a shift to the literal.
“I think this perra’s playing hard to get,” Silvio laughed.  “Or maybe she just likes it when a man takes control.”  He took a sudden step forward, the floor vibrating as his foot landed heavily.  Chuckling tauntingly, amused, he grabbed for Olivia’s arms as they shot out in front of her.  Entrapping her wrists in his hands as she slapped at him, he gave her a forceful shove that sent her staggering backwards and into the wall.
“Get off of me!” Olivia snapped, yanking her arms, Silvio’s steel-like fingers burning her flesh with each unsuccessful tug and his hot, pungent breath dousing her face as he continued to laugh.
She had to think, stay rational, and remain calm.
And when all else failed, when power was beginning to tilt away from your direction, a crotch was always within a knee’s reach.
As he stepped up to her, almost against her, on top of her, she brought her leg up and drove her knee between his legs.  Silvio doubled over, Olivia looming above him and hissing a commanding, “Don’t touch me again, you son of a bitch!” as he dropped to the floor. 
“Stupid asshole!” Raymond barked, stepping between Olivia and a crumpled, whimpering Silvio.  “Put your fucking dick back in your pants, vato!  No one’s supposed to touch her ‘til Derio gets here!  He found her, he gets first go at her!”
“I ain’t gonna wait around for Derio!” Silvio argued through gasps.  “Fuck!  She’s here now, Raymond!  Derio ain’t even gonna know what to do with her!”  He groaned, climbing slowly, unsteadily, back to his feet.  “Besides, you saw what the perra did!  I ain’t gonna let her get away with that!  Fucking concha needs to be taught a lesson!”
“You do anything, Silvio, and you’re gonna have to answer to Dominic!” Raymond returned, the barrel of his gun pointed at Silvio’s brawny chest.  “’Cause this is the way he wants it, and I ain’t gonna go down for your shit.  You go against what he says, then you’re standing alone, vato.”  He turned toward Olivia, giving a shove to her shoulder and pushing her ahead of him.  “Conseguir movil, perra.  Soy cansado de mirarte.”
Olivia staggered forward, concentrating on Raymond’s heavy steps behind her.  No one else was following, which she found a little comfort in as they entered the dark hallway.  There was one other boy half-hidden in the darkness, but he only met her with a scowl as she slid past him, not the leer she had quickly gotten used to receiving.  He stood in front of a doorway, his bulky arms folded and a gun grasped in his right hand, and looking as if he were as tired of the night’s events as she was.
“Inside,” Raymond commanded, pushing open a door at the end of the hall.  As Olivia stepped around him, stopping just inside the doorway, he motioned over his shoulder with a nod of his head.  “This is Hector.  He’s gonna be out here, so if you even think about opening this door, his face is gonna be the last thing you ever see.”
Olivia hugged her arms to her chest, nodding faintly.  “How long are we going to be here?” 
Raymond chuckled, holstering his gun in the waistband of his blue jeans.  “Forever, bitch.  This is it.  You ain’t never leaving.”
+++
March 24, 2:30 A.M.
He’d heard her, her voice, her footsteps, her..  She was alive, maybe out of reach still, but close.  And damn it, he would make close count for something other than just a fucking game of horseshoes.
Elliot fell into the wall, pressing his ear against the disintegrating plaster.  Scrunching his eyelids closed, he concentrated on the soft movements in the room next door.  He slid his foot sideways, glancing down quickly as his ankle scraped against something rough, and then lowered onto the floor to inspect the jagged-edged hole at the base of the barrier.  
Peeking through the uneven perimeter, he saw Olivia’s feet.  She was pacing, back and forth, slowly and then quickly, nervously.  He tapped twice on the wall, watching as she came to an instant standstill, and then glanced back at the closed door before whispering, “Liv!”
Olivia turned a full circle in the room, her frantic gaze bypassing the dirty, trash-littered mattress that lay on the floor in one corner and the three-legged chair that was precariously balanced in the opposite corner.  She made another turn, faster, searching through the darkness as she heard a more frantically murmured, “Olivia!”
“Elliot?” she asked, her voice barely audible as it hit the warm air.  She turned toward a carved out section of the wall beside the door, what looked to have once been a closet, and took a hesitant step closer.  Hunching down, squinting, she cocked her head and tried to see through the hole.  Ten inches of space that seemed as if it were as large as the Atlantic, with Elliot stuck on one shoreline and she on the opposite one.  
She hedged closer, staying stooped.  “Elliot, where are—”
“Shh!” he commanded, sliding his hand through the hole.  He wriggled his fingers, watching as she hesitantly approached the divider and dropped down on her knees.  “You okay?”
“Are you?” 
“I asked you first.”
She fell to the side of the gap, her back flush with the wall and legs pulled up in front of her.  “I’ll take that as a yes,” she deadpanned, shivering a hand through her hair and scattering her long bangs.  “How long have you been here?”
“Hard to say,” Elliot answered, stretching out, his legs flattened on the floor and back propped against the side of the tub.  “But I think a better question is, where is here?”
Olivia glanced back across the room, her stomach tightening as her gaze landed on the mattress.  It was pushed up against the wall, situated directly beneath a tiny, rectangular-shaped window.  A sliver of moonlight snuck through the dusty glass, raining down on it and highlighting noticeable stains whose sources the poor lighting made unidentifiable.
They were nowhere; at least that was how it would seem to everyone who would forfeit sleep and food and their personal lives working around the clock to try and find them.
She closed her eyes, breathing out deeply.  “No one’s ever going to find us here.”
“Someone would have to actually be looking for us to find us,” he returned.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” she snapped, popping the back of her head against the wall as she opened her eyes. 
“Sorry,” he mumbled, Olivia’s heavy breaths audible and making it clear that an apology wasn’t what she was looking for.  It was a solution.  
Elliot stuck his hand through the hole again, brushing the tips of his fingers against her leg.  He rubbed gently, spreading soft tickles across her skin until her hand flattened over his.  He’d heard her earlier, in the other room with the delinquent Lost Boys.  He had heard their laughter, their taunting, and knew she’d been on the receiving end of it.  And he’d heard her fight back; projecting the strength that he’d prayed still existed within her.
“You sure you’re okay?” he asked, his fingers fluttering beneath her hand.
She nodded, letting silence answer ambiguously for her.  Staring at the barrier that separated them, she tried to visualize him on the other side.  What his surroundings looked like, how he was sitting, wondering if he was looking at the wall too and envisaging her.
She hoped he was, because just the thought of it made her feel less alone.
“Out there…” Elliot continued.  “What happened?”
“Elliot.”  She tilted her head into the wall.  “It was…nothing.  One of the kids, um, I think Raymond called him Silvio, he was a little too anxious to get the party started.  But I handled it.”
Elliot chuckled lowly.  “Do I wanna know how you did that?” he asked, wincing instinctively.
She laughed with him, just whisperingly.  “Let’s just say if the Vienna Boys’ Choir is looking for a new alto, he’s qualified for the job now.”  She smiled through the remainder of his laughter, her lips beginning to quiver as his voice faded.  Flattening one hand against the wall, she pressed against the rough plaster, pushing, trying to break through.  She felt the first of her tears begin to bite at her eyes and blinked against them, trying to fight them.  She wouldn’t die begging, she wouldn’t.  She’d been taught how useless of a tactic that was and the feelings of humiliation that it instilled in you.  So, she wouldn’t beg, at least not for herself.  
But she would beg for Elliot.  She would sacrifice for him; she would sacrifice anything.
“We’re never leaving here,” she whispered, the tears that were still trapped in her eyes escaping through her frail voice.
“Hey.”  Elliot rolled his hand beneath hers, his fingers curving around her trembling ones.  “We’ll figure something out.”
“We’re on borrowed time, Elliot.  The only reason we’re not dead yet is because they were given orders to wait for Dominic and that kid, Derio, to get here.”  Her narrowed gaze shifted tentatively toward the mattress again, Raymond’s voice coming to life in her mind, “Put your fucking dick back in your pants, vato!  No one’s supposed to touch her ‘til Derio gets here!  He found her, he gets first go at her!”
She cleared her throat, swallowing her tears along with her fear.  “When they get here…” She took in a breath, one of strengthening, of resolve.  “If things go like these kids are planning, then no one’s going to be paying much attention to you.  So, if we could find a way for you to get out—”
“What happened to all that talk about walking out together?” Elliot broke in abruptly, with matched resolve to hers.  
“I know, but…” She pressed her hand against her forehead, rubbing between her eyes.  “Elliot, you have a family.  Your kids need you.  And so I can, I can do this.  Whatever they want and for as long as it’ll take you to get out, I can do it.”
“No you can’t,” he said, retaliating to her suggestion with her own certainty.  
“If it’s my choice—”
“No,” he said forcefully.  “We walk out together, that’s the only option.”
“Then neither of us is going anywhere.”
He grumbled in response, not agreeing or disagreeing.  Maybe in the big scheme of things it was selfish of him.  Olivia was right; he had a family, children to finish raising.  He had responsibilities, but he couldn’t help feeling that his biggest one was to her.  He had a family, but she only had him.  And he wouldn’t let her die alone, not when that was how she had lived her life.  But even more, he didn’t want her to die alone, without him.  Because selfish or not, he knew that his children would go on without him.  They would live their lives and be successful.  They would move forward, managing to co-exist with the pain that haunted their pasts. 
But he wasn’t sure he could move forward without her.  Because he already knew that the pain would be untold, too great of an obstacle to ever hurdle.
“If we’re not going to walk out together, then I don’t want to walk out at all.”
It would be their new tenet, one to live by as well as die by.
He fumbled beneath the hem of his left pant leg, pulling the Cross-Slot screwdriver out of his sock.  Flipping it so that the metal end was in his hand, he slid the ridged handle through the hole.  “Take it,” he commanded, wiggling the utensil up and down until she pulled it out of his hand.  “Hide it somewhere it won’t be noticed.”
Olivia inspected the apparatus, poking a fingertip against its sharp end.  “I know this place is in pretty bad shape,” she deadpanned, “but what’s your plan?  To spend what time we have left doing home repairs?”
“Home repairs, funny,” he returned, his voice flat, absent of humor.  “Hey, at least it’s something, right?  In the long run, it might not stand up to a semi-automatic but stick that thing into some kid’s arm or leg and it might buy us a few minutes.”
“Do you have one?”
“Yeah.  There was stuff all over the inside of the van that we drove here in.  The idiots didn’t even seem to notice.”
“Maybe it’s that they didn’t care.  They have bullets, remember?  Lots of bullets, Elliot, and a couple of screwdrivers aren’t all that intimidating in comparison.”
“But they’re something,” Elliot repeated firmly.  “And right now, something is a helluva lot better than nothing.”
+++
March 24, 3:09 A.M.
It was hot.  Sweat beaded across her chest and between her breasts, adding a shimmer to her skin.  She wriggled on the cushion, her legs bent and separated and bare feet digging into the malleable surface beneath her.  Her body ached, and she relayed her discomfort—her need—through moans and whimpers that she prayed could be deciphered.  Because words had been lost, to the heat, incredulity, surprise, and pure, fucking desire.
She felt his hands curve around her ankles, his touch soft, stimulating, and her hips rocked in retaliation.  His fingers climbed onto her calves, pressing gently, rubbing tantalizingly, before making a bold trek to the undersides of her thighs.  She groaned as they danced in circles just below her ass, feeling the dampness in her center, the throbbing.  Jesus.  The ache.
His hands slid to the insides of her thighs, the light pressure from his fingertips erased by the tickling of his lips against her skin.  He wetted a path up her right, inner thigh, her moan of contention accompanying his neglect of her heated core as he moved to her left leg.  The force of her skin being sucked into his mouth preceded each kiss, and her legs began to tremble from the sensations.  
She grabbed hold of him, her hands tightening on the sides of his head and fingers cutting paths through the short strands of his hair.  Directing him forward, she lifted her hips at the first feel of his tongue against her clit.  He sucked her into his mouth, laughter vibrating in his throat as noticeably as each of her muscles had begun to vibrate beneath her skin, and then he circled her slowly, torturously, as he slid a finger inside of her.
“Oh, Jesus… Jesus, Elliot…”
Her eyelids fluttered, as difficult to control as her erratic breaths.  She pulled her hands away from him, dropping them onto the cushion.  Sliding them upwards, her right arm became blocked and its movement hindered.  She turned her head slowly; her eyes only partially open and sight hazy.  Blinking, squinting, she tried to decipher the form beside her sprawled face down on the dirty mattress, blackened stains visible beneath his unmoving body.  A screwdriver poked out from between his shoulder blades, a mass of crimson staining the pale-colored fabric of his shirt around the half-buried metal.
The digging between her legs became more forceful, painful, and she turned back toward the hovering face as the currents began to race through her body, stealing her breath and coherency.
“I told you, puta, Silvio’ll take care of you.  You don’t need no fucking marano.  Stupid pig can’t do nothing for you.  What you need is a real man.”
“Elliot…” she whispered, nudging the unresponsive body beside her.  “Elliot!”  The currents moved through her again, stronger, harsher, unending, as the rickety door across the room swung open to reveal a sea of eager faces.  She slammed her fist down against Elliot’s cold shoulder, hitting him, shaking him, begging him.
It wasn’t her plan, to die last.  It wasn’t how she’d planned it.
Because it hurt too much to be left behind, more than she had imagined that it could.
Olivia lunged forward, dragging her hand across her damp forehead and fighting the air that had become stuck in her dry throat.  She whimpered through her first deep breath, her wide-eyed gaze making a frantic scan of the room to assure that she was alone.
“Liv?  Hey.  You okay?”
She turned jerkily toward the wall beside her, instantly focusing on the black hole at the base.  Nodding, breathing, she murmured an indecipherable, “Yeah.”  
She was okay.  She was okay.  Because Elliot was still alive.
Brushing her tacky bangs away from her face, her eyes constricted as she examined the hole that had doubled in size.  She could see Elliot’s knee through it, his leg bent beneath him.  Ducking forward, she peeked inside the space as the silver tip of a screwdriver chipped away a shard of plaster.
“What’re you doing?”
“Upping our odds,” he answered.  “When those kids come back in, it’ll be better if we’re together instead of separated.”
She pressed a hand against her chest, her accelerated breaths falling into rhythm with her thunderous heart beats.  It had only been a dream, just a dream.  It wasn’t their reality yet, and as long as Elliot was fighting to stop it from becoming anything more than hypothetical, then she would fight, too.  
Grabbing the screwdriver off of the floor, she jammed the tip into the opposite side of the hole that Elliot was working on.  Each jab they made was carried out softly; plaster raining down on the floor and converting the darkened streaks of dirt to pristine white.  
“You sure you’re okay?” Elliot asked.
She grunted, knocking away an intact, one-inch section.  “Why’d you let me fall asleep?”
“I didn’t let you.  I was in the middle of what I thought was an exciting story about this bar fight I got into when I was in the Marines, then you started snoring.”
She chuckled faintly, not with amusement but relief for the diversion from her dream.  “Tell it again.  I want to hear it.”
“Why?  You still tired?” he asked dryly.  He glanced down as her hand shimmied in and out of the hole, her fingers whitened around the hard plastic handle of the screwdriver.  She had told him that nothing had happened during their separation, or at least nothing that she hadn’t been able to handle.  Just as she had tried to convince him about what had happened at Sealview.  Nothing.  Her security blanket and the lie she relied on to be the most believable.
But she didn’t realize that even though her voice said one thing, her eyes said another.  They spoke the truth, and he heard it clearly, just as clearly as he’d heard her struggle through sleep moments earlier.  
“Liv, when you first got here, out in the other room—”
“Nothing happened, Elliot, other than I tried to use my knee to castrate the kid.”
“So, he put his hands on you?” he asked. 
“He shoved me, and I shoved back.”
She sounded smug; Elliot could hear it clearly in her whispery voice.  Smug and unafraid and… Jesus, just as she had sounded when she’d charged toward the interview room and a restrained Lowell Harris.  But even though she’d sounded the part then, she hadn’t looked it, and he wished to hell he could see her eyes now.  Then he would know the truth, he would know just how deeply the bruises had stained her.  Only skin deep, or down to her core where Harris’s had reached.
“Olivia, if something happened—”
“Jesus.  Can you let it go?”
“Like you wanted me to after…” He took in a breath, exhaling with it what remained of his patience.  “After Sealview?  You’ve never wanted to talk about that, either.”
Olivia dropped her hand to the floor, the white dust coating her skin as Elliot slammed the tip of his screwdriver into the wall.  “That’s because there’s nothing to say,” she returned, her patience in as limited of a supply as his was.  “You know what happened.”
“I know the prick locked you in the basement and the two of you were down there alone for a while before Fin got to you.  What I don’t know is what happened during that in between time.”
She bit into her lower lip, as irritation suddenly K.O.-ed her meager patience.  “He tried to rape me, I think that’s been made pretty clear.  And it’s exactly what every one of those bastards out there wants to do.  And you want to know what Lowell Harris taught me?  That if someone wants to do it badly enough, they will.  There’s not a damn thing I can do to stop it from happening.”  She tossed her screwdriver against the wall, sliding her legs beneath her and rising onto her knees.  “So, when I said I can take it, I wasn’t being noble, just accepting the cold, hard facts.  If they want to do it, they will.  And God willing, you’ll still be alive when it happens.  So give it a purpose, please?  Make it mean something by using the time to find a way out of here.  With or without me, Elliot, just get the hell out.”
He felt the vibration against the wall as she used it for leverage and jumped to her feet, and listened to her heavy steps as she crossed the room.  Just as she’d done with the kid earlier, when Elliot shoved, she shoved back.  
And now there was more than one wall separating them.  Only the one Olivia had rapidly erected would be damn near indestructible.  
+++
March 24, 3:43 A.M.
He had doubled the size of the hole for a second time before she’d discreetly resumed her place on the floor beside it, her apology being offered through silence and closeness and solidarity as she rejoined Elliot’s cause and began chipping away at the plaster.  She didn’t speak, and he didn’t try to coerce her into conversation.  They merely worked, exchanging breaths through their only connection and concentrating on the same goal.
Overcoming the obstacles that, both physically and metaphorically, stood between them.
“Watch your hand,” Elliot said, tapping against a large piece of plaster that had splintered from the wall.  As it dropped to the floor, dust rising up in reprisal of its hard landing, he waved his hand between them to clear the air.
“I can’t believe you lucked out and got the bathroom,” Olivia scoffed, ducking down and peeking around him into the grimy room.  “As soon as this hole’s big enough, you’re coming out and I’m going in.”
“No water,” Elliot returned, his eyes squinted and attention focused on the task at hand.
“I don’t need water, just the toilet.”  She snuck another peek at him, her head tilted and hair partially curtaining her face.  “Why’d tonight happen?” she asked, her gaze lowering as his lifted.  “I just, I want to know, to understand it.  Because I don’t understand the rest of it, what’s happening now, and I need for there to be something I’m sure about.”
His hand stilled, the flattened, silver tip of the screwdriver peeking through her side of the wall.  “It seemed like the right time finally,” he answered simply.  “In hindsight, there obviously would’ve been a better time, but when we left McMullen’s, when we were standing outside your car…” He sighed, the heavy breath dissipating slowly, with a tinge of regret.  “It felt like the right time.”
“When’d you start thinking about it?” she asked, resuming her attack on her side of the expanding gap.  He had told her it had been there for awhile, and she wanted to know the amount of time that constituted for him.  Because for her, ‘awhile’ had somehow meshed with forever.  She couldn’t seem to remember anymore a period in her life when he hadn’t been her foremost thought, her first concern, her greatest source of happiness and biggest pain in her ass.  
He had become everything; she just couldn’t seem to remember when it had happened.
“Oregon,” he answered, a tightness infiltrating his voice.  “It was, uh… No.”  He made a hard stab at the wall.  “That day at the train station with Gitano.  When I thought he’d…when you went down after he cut you.  I…I’d, uh, I’d never felt like that before, like I did when I was trying to get to you to see if you were okay.  That’s, I guess that’s when.”
“It was then?” she asked quickly, her eyes widening as she stared at the cracked, white barrier that hid him from her.  “Jesus, Elliot.  You were a prick after all that went down.”
“Yeah, well.”  He chuckled softly, with a hint of embarrassment.  “In second grade I had a crush on Jennifer Pinkerton, so I’d pull her hair and slug her in the arm.  Guess some habits are hard to break.”
She laughed with him, just as quietly.  “Did you win her over in the end?”
“No.  But she only had a Schwinn, not an Escort.  Christ, it was hard enough trying to work out the demographics in the backseat of a car.  It never would’ve worked on the banana seat of a hot pink Phantom Cruiser.”
She ran her hand across the floor beneath the hole, clearing away the debris that had accumulated.  “I already knew it,” she whispered.  “Before that day at the train station, I already knew.  I was just…I don’t know.  I was afraid of it, I guess.  What to do about it, what it could potentially do to us.  That’s why I went to Oregon.  I was hoping by going, you know.  Out of sight, out of mind.”
“Did it work?”
She smiled, the tip of her screwdriver clanking against his.  “I came back, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” he answered, his voice momentarily lightening.  “You came back.”
“And then you went back to Kathy, you son of a bitch.”  She grumbled teasingly, aiming the screwdriver in his direction and slamming it through the wall.  “It would’ve been easier if you’d just pulled my hair.” 
“At the time I didn’t know where else to go,” he admitted.  “You were different when you came back, or I don’t know.  Maybe I was.  And I needed something familiar.”  His regret was a double-edged sword.  Even if he could change the events of that night, he didn’t know if he would—other than to somehow prevent the senseless deaths of Lindsay Royce and her children.  But the rest of it, the events that followed, how could he wish now that they’d played out any differently?  Because even though they had separated him further from Olivia, they’d also resulted in a gift.  And he couldn’t regret his youngest son, no matter how many other regrets might have accompanied his unexpected existence.
“It all happened the way it was supposed to,” Olivia intuitively answered.  “For all of us.”  She fell back against the wall, twirling the screwdriver between her fingers before tossing it onto the floor.  “They’ll look for us.  Cragen will have people working around the clock, Fin won’t want to give up even after they tell him he needs to, and John will accept that the worst has happened before anyone else does.”  She pressed her finger against the wall, outlining Elliot’s hidden frame.  “Have you ever thought about what your funeral will be like?”
Elliot came to an abrupt stop, a tiny piece of the wall falling away and scraping across the back of his hand.  “Olivia—”
“It’s just a question, Elliot.  Have you ever thought about it?”
“It’s not really something I want to think about.”
“What’s one song you’d want played?”
“Liv…” He groaned softly, with as much disapproval as concession, and tossed the screwdriver onto the floor.  “I don’t know.  I guess, maybe Amazing Grace.  And I want it played on the Irish flute.  No singing, just the music.”
“That’s a good choice for you.  Amazing Grace.  It, um, it fits with who you are, what you believe.”
“What about you?  What’s a song you’d want played?”
She traced the jagged edge of the hole with her fingertip, lightly brushing the soiled bottom of Elliot’s pant leg.  “That’s easy.  Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  And I want it to be their version.  I don’t want some hired soprano from a church choir butchering it.  It has to be Skynyrd.”
“Free Bird…” he repeated thoughtfully.  It fit her, just as if it had been written about her.  But he didn’t tell her, only evasively agreed with her choice through a mumbled, “Mmm.”
“Elliot.”  His name filled the space between them as a softly exhaled breath.  She reached through the hole—their lifeline—and wriggled her fingers until his hand grasped hold of hers.  He felt warm, not cold as he had in her dream.  His touch was gentle, the familiar they had both sought and finally found.  “I want you to know,” she whispered, “if this is it, then I’m okay with it.  I’m okay.  Because it’s ending the right way, exactly the way I want it to.” 
CHAPTER FOUR
March 24, 4:50 A.M.
Moonlight whispered through the lone window, a pale beam of light that barely stretched across the room.  It fell short of reaching the hollowed-out corner, granting privacy to the two occupants inside the disassembled closet.  Elliot sat against the wall, his back and shoulders supported and legs bent.  In front of him, nestled into him, Olivia reclined against his chest, her arms curved around his thighs.
Soft conversation alternated with silence, exploration commanding their dialogue.  During times of stillness, Olivia concentrated on the feel of Elliot’s heartbeats as they vibrated against her back and he played aimlessly with her hair.  His fingers slid continuously through the side, twirling the strands absently between his fingers and then letting them shudder back into place before beginning the routine again.
Together, they had found soothing despite their fear, and peace amidst the chaos.
At least temporarily.
“Biggest regret?” Elliot asked, coiling a tuft of her hair.
Olivia pulled in a strong breath, murmuring a melodious, “Hmm,” as she exhaled.  “I guess…that I never met my father.”  She smiled, her eyes closing as her long bangs shivered through Elliot’s fingers, tickling the side of her face as they fell back into place.  “Not that I wanted…or could’ve had…a relationship with him.  But I would’ve liked…I don’t know.  To see him in person instead of just in Simon’s old snapshots, to know what his voice sounded like…to see for myself if any of my mannerisms were like his.  You know, so I’d know what…if anything…I’d gotten from him.”
“Other than the obvious, what would you have said to him if you had met him?”
She tilted her head into his hand, another soft murmur resonating in her throat as his fingertips danced down her hairline.  “I don’t know,” she answered.  “I guess I would’ve just wanted to talk to him, to find out who he was…how he became who he did.”  She caressed the undersides of his thighs, rubbing gently, in repetitive strokes.  “What about you?  Biggest regret?”
He straightened the messed strands of hair along her part, separating them and smoothing them back into place.  “You’ll say it’s my fault.”
She glanced up at him, warming the bottom of his chin with a breath.  “Tell me anyway.”
He nodded once, his face remaining slanted toward hers, and flashed a small smile that reinforced his awkwardness.  “Okay,” he agreed tentatively.  “My biggest regret is, it’s, uh…” He took in a breath, forcing the air down his throat with a hard swallow.  “I guess, it’s wasted time.”
Olivia turned her face away from his, laying her head back against his shoulder.  She closed her eyes as his arms circled her waist, covering his hands with hers.  “What does that mean?” she whispered.
“A lot of things,” he ambiguously clarified.  “Time I’ve missed out on with the kids, mainly.  There’s been a lot of that.”
“You’re a good dad, Elliot.”
“From afar.  But I always thought I’d be…I wanted to be…more hands on, more involved.”
She shrugged, her shoulder caressing his chest as it moved fluidly upward and then downward.  “You’ve done your best.  And not just for your kids, but a lot of others, too.”
“Think that’s how my kids will remember me, as trying my best?  Because that’s not how I remember my dad.  I remember that he was always gone, and when he was at home, his head never was.”  He chuckled lowly, sadly.  “And I resented him for that.  It made me angry, to not even want to try to get to know him or understand him.”
She cocked her head, peeking up at him.  “Have you ever thought about it?  Both of our fathers were named Joseph.”
Elliot mumbled a throaty, “Mmm,” nodding, his chin brushing against the side of her head with each rise and fall of his head.
“I never knew mine; you’ve never felt like you really knew yours.  But you followed in your dad’s footsteps, and I went running in a completely opposite direction than mine did.”  She slumped further, settling her head in the crook between his arm and chest.  “Your dad was a cop, mine was a rapist.  God.  How weird would it have been if your father had arrested mine?”  She chuckled lowly, absent of amusement, but with the incredulity that generally accompanied what ifs that went beyond comprehension.
“How’d we end up here?” she whispered.  “Why did we?  And I don’t mean, not here, but where we are in life.  I mean, neither of us exactly had perfect childhoods.  Aside from the issues with our fathers, both of us…our moms…”
“Maybe it was always the plan, for us to end up here,” he answered simply.  “It’s that what all the crap in our childhoods was about, preparing us to face even more crap once we finally become adults.”
She laughed again, genuinely.  “Profound, Stabler.”  Stretching out her legs as Elliot did, both sets flattened on the floor, side by side, hers inside of his, touching.  “When’s a time you actually thought you might die?”
Elliot resituated against the wall, grumbling with waning tolerance toward her introspective topics of conversation.  “One time…” He laid his head back, staring up at the water marked ceiling.  “That day in court, the Redding trial when Kyle Ackerman opened fire.  He hit me in the arm and I went down and then…there he was.  He was just standing there, his gun aimed at me, and I, I really thought that was going to be it.  He’d fire again and it’d all be over.”
“It might’ve been if Star hadn’t been there.”
“Might’ve been.  Came pretty damn close for John’s skinny ass, too.”
Olivia responded with a tired laugh, sliding her head sideways to rest on his arm.  “He kept trying to show me his wound.  I finally had to threaten him with a sexual harassment suit if he didn’t leave me alone.”
“I had to do the same thing,” Elliot deadpanned.  He rubbed his hand beneath her chin, stroking her skin.  “Your turn.  One time you thought it might be over.”
She took in a breath, the sharp, resounding intake of air confirming the only answer that had come to both of their minds.  Maybe in life there was a time and place for secrets, but there wasn’t in death.  It demanded honesty.  Because it had no patience for lies, it had no time to lend them. 
Life allowed time to be wasted, but death demanded that every second be accounted for.  Misdeeds had to be atoned for, actions justified and confessions made.
She breathed in again, shallower, shakier.  Elliot had been patient.  He’d tried to be unobtrusive, but she also knew he had been worried.  And not just worried, it wasn’t that simplistic.  He’d been afraid, both of her and for her.
She closed her eyes, finding her strength.  “He, um, he said…you bite me…and, and you’re…dead.”  She could have sworn she heard Elliot’s heart skip a beat and lungs deflate.  Maybe out of relief, maybe shock, or maybe sorrow because his suspicions had been right all along.  She didn’t want to know which, because she didn’t care.  All she cared about was that he finally knew and it wouldn’t be between them any longer, not the hiding or fearing or wondering.
“I screamed but no one heard me, and I fought but he was stronger.  There wasn’t anywhere for me to go, nothing I could do to stop him.”  She scrunched her eyelids, pressing them closed more tightly, trying unsuccessfully to block in her tears.  “Harris didn’t rape me, Elliot.  But I thought…I believed…he was going to.  And I’d made him mad, so I just figured that once he was done…I’d end up like Risa.  Then no one would ever know what really happened.  It would’ve been called a suicide, or self-defense, or…I don’t know.  Something other than what it really was.”
Elliot tightened his hold around her, hugging her closer.  But he didn’t say anything.  He didn’t offer any words of comfort, or understanding, or even anger.  Because it wasn’t what she needed, to be bombarded with his feelings.  What she needed was to release hers.
“I thought about it, too,” she admitted, brushing her hands across her face to erase the tears that she so rarely showed.  “How much time had been wasted.  And I realized after Harris got me cuffed to the door, when there weren’t any options left except his, how much like my mom I really was.  And I don’t, I don’t mean because we’d both ended up…victims.  I mean because instead of learning from her mistakes, I’d repeated them.  I’d let my problems—my fears—become bigger than my efforts, and because of that I’d run away from a lot of things that I shouldn’t have.”
Elliot lowered his face closer to hers, his lips touching her ear.  “Like what?” he whispered.
“Like…” She ran her hand across his forearm, clearing particles of plaster and dust off of his skin.  “Having kids.  I always wanted them, you know, but I was so afraid to have them.  I was afraid of what I might be passing on to them.  But then I met Simon and, even though he’s had his problems, he’s this normal guy who’s living a normal life and in a normal relationship, and Joseph Hollister had been in his life.  He’d been Simon’s father in every sense, and I realized that he didn’t define who we were or what we became.  Neither of us had to pass on any part of him.”
“What else?” Elliot prompted, placing his lips against her ear and kissing softly.
Olivia tilted her head into his, bringing an end to his tickling breaths against her ear with a nudge of her shoulder.  Maybe death demanded honesty, but until the very end fear continued to peek over its shoulder in warning.  Even deathbed confessions could turn around and bite you in the ass, sending an unsettled soul into eternity—not to mention a humiliated one.  And the simple fact was, no matter what was staring you in the face, Self-Preservation ultimately gained control in the end.
“A lot of other things,” she whispered.  She leaned away from his warm breaths and intermittent kisses.  “What’s one thing you’ve always wanted to do but never have?”
Elliot grumbled under his breath, pausing, weighing the options of whether or not to push her to answer his question before responding to hers.  But he knew the confessions she had already made had been difficult enough, and so he would force himself to be satisfied with what she had already given him.  At least for a while.
“Hmm.”  He dropped his head back against the wall again, his narrowed gaze finding the tiny window on the opposite side of the room.  “Go to Ireland.  I always wanted to take the kids, learn about our ancestry together.”
“Hollister is British,” Olivia said, pulling her legs up in front of her, first her arms and then Elliot’s wrapping around them.  “Simon told me that Joe’s great, great grandfather brought his family here from England in the late 1800’s.”  She positioned her fingers inside the crevices between his, still relieved to find that they were a perfect fit.  “It’s strange, to think how one person’s decision can affect lives hundreds of years in the future.  I mean think about it.  If this man hadn’t decided to uproot his family and cross an ocean to start a new life, I might not be here now.”
Elliot answered with an ambiguous, “Mm-hmm,” separating his fingers so that hers fell between them.  “Tell me yours.  What’s one thing you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t?”
She thought over his question, the curiosity she had initiated for the sake of fending off the silence.  Because as time dragged on, as it moved closer to the inevitable, to what they both knew couldn’t be out ran, it became harder to tolerate.  Talking kept regrets at bay, but quiet gave them the freedom needed to run wild.
“Run the Pikes Peak Marathon,” she answered.  “You actually run up the side of the mountain.  I’ve thought about doing it, just haven’t ever had the time to train for it.”
“You want to run up a mountain?” he asked dryly, peeking over her shoulder to glimpse into her face.  “Why?”
She chuckled, shaking her head.  “It’s called challenging yourself, Elliot.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve spent a lot of years living in a house with four women.  Trust me, just trying to survive day in and day out with them has been challenging enough.”
“You have good kids.”
He nodded once, in agreement.  “I have good kids.”  He slid his hand through the side of her hair, scattering the strands and pushing them away from her face.  “You’d be a great mom.”
“The state doesn’t think so.”
“They’re idiots.”
She mumbled in response, not in agreement or disagreement, merely with appreciation of his support.  “What’s one hidden talent you have?” she asked.  “Something most people don’t know about?”
He pecked a kiss against the side of her neck, his heavy brows bobbing.  “I think we already showed each other those in the backseat of your car.”
Chuckling as she slapped him away, Olivia reprimanded his teasing with a shake of her head.  “One thing.  Tell me.”
“A hidden talent…” he muttered thoughtfully, a stilted shrug of his shoulders following.  “I don’t have one.”
She shook her head, disagreeing.  “Everyone has one.”
“Then tell me what yours is.”  As odd as it was to admit—even if only to himself—he was enjoying himself.  Aside from the obvious, the threats, the fears and the uncertainty, he was enjoying himself.  He was enjoying her; a part of her that she’d never allowed him access to before.  And he was enjoying giving her the same, the part of him that he’d tried to keep hidden even though he knew she’d always put so much energy into searching for it.
She bowed her head, laughing again, softer, to herself.  “Okay.  Well… You know the movie The Breakfast Club?”  She felt the nod of his head against the side of hers, nodding in response.  “There’s this scene where they’re all sitting around talking, and, uh, and the one character…Molly Something-or-other played her…she sticks this lipstick container…” She motioned at her chest, shrugging awkwardly.  
“I remember,” Elliot said, sounding as interested as puzzled.  “You can…when it’s…there?”
“Between my…yeah,” she confirmed.  “My college roommate and I went to see the movie.  Afterwards, we snuck a couple bottles of wine into our dorm room, stayed up drinking.  It started out as a dare, you know, after we’d finished off one of the bottles.  And by the time the second bottle was empty, we could both do it.”
“You can…when it’s…” His gaze inadvertently lowered over her shoulder and targeted her breasts, his eyebrows instantly rising.  “Huh.  So you, is that how…how often do you, you know, actually do it?”
 
“I knew I shouldn’t have told you,” she sighed.
“But you did,” he returned.  “And the first chance I get, I’m gonna make you prove that you can do it.”
Olivia slid sideways within the boundaries of his legs, pressing her shoulder into his chest as she wedged her feet beneath his thigh.  She caught his stare, holding it, smiling as he did.  “Pervert,” she whispered, her smile broadening before fading just as quickly.
It felt as strange as natural, their closeness.  They had exchanged touches too many times to count over the past decade.  A hug from one when the other needed extra comforting, a nudge or playful slap during laughter, a brush across the arm to express understanding or sorrow, or an accidental collision of shoulders or arms or hands when their steps fell out of sync.  They had exchanged touches, intentionally and inadvertently, and she’d rarely thought twice about any of them.  But now, each was being given and received purposely, with need as much as want.  And she wondered when exactly they had changed so significantly, and why, after so much time they had finally given themselves permission to do so?  
But maybe it wasn’t for her to analyze, the how or why.  It was time to amend regrets by embracing what time—no matter how much or how little—still belonged to them instead of wasting another second of it.
“All that other stuff,” she continued, “the wasted time…” She swayed her legs slowly, knocking softly against him.  “What I regret most is…” Placing a hand on his cheek, her fingers curving one at a time with individual caresses.  She smiled, just vaguely, and tilted her face, touching her lips to his.  Breathing him in, she parted his lips with the tip of her tongue, the feel of his tongue against hers as she entered his mouth as surprisingly natural as all the other touches they had shared throughout the long night.
“Oh, Jesus… Liv…” As they pulled apart, Elliot dropped his forehead onto her shoulder, his chest heaving with frustrated breaths.  “Damn it.  You really don’t know how much I wish this was the right time and place.”
“I, uh.  Actually, yeah, I think I—” She fell silent, her hand stilling against the side of his face as the sound of car doors slamming seeped through the thin walls, filling the tiny room like cannon blasts.  “They’ve been waiting for Derio to get here.”
“Sounds like he just did,” Elliot groused, locking his hands around Olivia’s waist.  Grumbling a commanding, “Come on,” he guided her to her feet and took off across the room ahead of her.  Dropping down on his knees beneath the window, he propped up one leg so that his thigh was horizontal, and then motioned with an abrupt nod for Olivia to step closer.  “Stand on my leg.  That should raise you high enough to be able to see out.”
With a nod, Olivia stuck one foot on the center of his thigh, grabbing hold of the windowsill and pulling herself up.  She swayed uncoordinatedly, ignoring Elliot’s breathlessly grunted, “Jesus.  Think you can take it easy?” as she leaned in closer to the smudged glass.  Her fingers instantly tightened around the splintering wood as she emitted a heavy breath that sprayed across and fogged the glass.  
She could see the men, three total.  Two she instantly recognized as Vedie and Derio.  The third, with his face shadowed by the lingering darkness, she assumed was the infamous Dominic.  He wasn’t the substantial figure she had built him up to be in her mind, and didn’t appear nearly as intimidating as the boys’ anxious silence had led her to believe that he was.  He was short and stocky with a head full of silvery-gray hair and a face that, still, she could only formulate in her imagination.
“See anyone?”
Even though Elliot’s voice emerged no stronger than a whisper, it startled her.  She lost her grip on the wooden sill, teetering backwards and grabbing at air to try and steady herself before jumping down to the floor.  She wobbled when she landed, her arms sliding out of Elliot’s hands as she tumbled backwards onto the mattress.  Hitting with a thud, her feet flew up off of the floor and hands sank into the soiled cushion, as her sickened gaze settled on the blackened blotches flush against her sweaty palms.
“Jesus…” she choked, jumping off of the mattress onto her knees.  As Elliot reached for her again, his fingers tightening around her forearms, she half-whimpered a breathless, “Let go of me!” before shimmying out of his loose hold.
His hands shot into the air, palms pressed in her direction.  And he saw it, on her face, in her eyes.  The panic.  The fear that she hadn’t expected any more than she could explain.  What Lowell Harris had left simmering inside of her and that the undersexed, overzealous teenagers had coerced to a slow burn again.
She was afraid.  
Her eyes had given away her secret even though her voice still denied it.
+++
March 24, 5:47 A.M.
The conversation droned from the opposite end of the trailer, the closed door only partially muffling the various voices that meshed unidentifiably and ran over each other excitedly.  Each was high-pitched, containing noticeable enthusiasm, and coupled with Elliot’s incessant heavy-footed pacing caused a sudden and nauseating sense of panic to grip Olivia’s already heightened nerves.
“Jesus!  Would you stop!” she hissed, bringing Elliot to an immediate standstill in the center of the room.  “Unless you think you can actually wear a hole in the damned floor that we can crawl out of, the pacing isn’t gonna help!”
The darkness had made a gradual shift, blackness lightening to a hazy gray as the sun began to slowly steal ownership of the sky.  But the addition of light only made the drabness of their surroundings clearer and their outlook on the events to come bleaker.  The stacks of cars that enclosed the dusty, gravel-covered yard seemed to stretch for miles, keeping the outside world hidden from sight.  Rows of squashed metal zigzagged and connected arbitrarily, making it difficult to determine from their limited view outside of the tiny window which direction led out of the yard and which led further into it.
“Okay,” Olivia said, sweeping her hands nervously through the sides of her hair.  “Dominic, Vedie and Derio are here now.  So, uh, so that means—”
“Doesn’t mean squat,” Elliot muttered, his narrowed gaze following Olivia’s widened one to the dirty mattress on the floor.  The darkened, dried bloodstains that dotted the material taunted them with recognition as much as truth, and made it painfully obvious that their captors weren’t inexperienced.  
They knew what they were doing; they had done it before.
And they had gotten away with it.
“I think you should go back in the bathroom,” Olivia said, nodding forcefully as Elliot’s eyes instantly amplified with disagreement.  “Raymond said Derio’s up first, right?  I can hold my own with that kid, Elliot.  There’s no way he’ll get the better of me, but I might be able to get the better of him, and maybe he’ll have a gun on him that I can get a hold of.  But, uh, but if he walks in and you’re here, he’s going to yell at those other guys.  Someone will come in, someone else…will…”
Elliot retaliated with an abrasive laugh, motioning toward the primitive hole in the wall whose size they had more than quadrupled.  “You don’t think he’s gonna notice that?”
She sighed, swiping her hand through her long bangs.  “I’m pretty sure this kid is counting on me to be his first sexual conquest.  Think about your first time, Elliot.  Faced with the possibility of that happening, would you have noticed some damn hole in the wall?”
Elliot chomped on his bottom lip, his gaze darting between the wall and Olivia.  She was right, she could easily hold her own against a kid Derio’s size.  But add even one other punk into the mix and not only would Olivia be overpowered, but he could easily be, too.  He’d make an easy target while shimmying through the hole, leaving himself wide open for an attack that he’d be helpless to defend himself against.  But if he stuck around, Derio would scream for back-up the second he walked in, and as Olivia and he had both figured out hours earlier, two screwdrivers weren’t going to stand up to semi-automatic pistols in the hands of a dozen overly excited, blood thirsty teenagers.
Intuition and experience warned him that, either way, they were screwed.  But the determination in Olivia’s eyes was begging him not to go down without a fight.
And he had already decided that the only way he would go down was her way.
“Okay,” he agreed.  “But I’m gonna be right there.  Anything starts going on, anything you don’t think you can handle alone—”
“Just go,” she said, urgency filling her voice.  “I’ll be fine.  As long as it’s just Derio, I’ll be…I’ll be okay.”
“As long as it’s just Derio,” Elliot grumbled, heading across the room.  “Yeah.  Considering everything else has gone our way tonight, why shouldn’t we think this will, too?”
+++
March 24, 5:55 A.M.
They should have made the damn hole bigger.  
Not only were his ribs still throbbing from the blows a steroid-hyped Zaniel had delivered back at the warehouse, but it also felt like he had scraped every layer of skin off of his sides wedging himself through the jagged-edged aperture.  
Elliot sank down on the floor, drawing his legs up and balancing his shaky arms on his knees.  The night was beginning to catch up with him.  Exhaustion had begun to make his thoughts inseparable, causing them to cycle through his head like a run-on sentence, and it was also attacking his strength.  He needed to stay alert, ready, not fall victim to sluggishness.  But it felt like the whole damned world was moving in slow-motion speed, and still he was staying a step behind.
He heard the bedroom door squeak open, and leaned in closer to the crude opening at the bottom of the wall.  From his limited vantage point he had a glimpse of the heel of Olivia’s right boot.  She had picked a strategic place in the room to face off with a pubescent Derio.  When he came in, his back would be to the hole, and if she needed Elliot, he stood at least somewhat of a chance of making a sneak attack.  That was if he didn’t get stuck midway through the gap and needed both Olivia’s and the teenager’s help to pull him the rest of the way out.
The hard soles of shoes clicked off of the linoleum, each step taken slowly, with intent. Fuck.  It wasn’t a pair of sneakers tied around young feet walking into the room, Elliot quickly deduced.  He knew that walk; he fucking remembered it.
Dipping his face closer to the hole, he peeked around the ragged plaster.  Olivia saw him, he could tell by the way her jaw instantly clenched, and he could also tell that she was silently screaming at him to remain on his side of the wall.  She wasn’t ready for him to make a move yet, and she hadn’t made one either.  She was frozen in front of the far wall, her arms locked across her chest, eyes narrowed with a mixture of intimidation and distrust, and expression hardened in warning.
Damn it.  All they needed was one break, just one.  And after seven hours of not receiving any, he didn’t think one was asking for too much.
But as Vedie came to a stop in the center of the room, his posture rigid and tense, Elliot understood that the only breaks they would get would be the ones they made happen themselves.
Vedie sank his hands into the side pockets of his suit jacket, quickly lifting his left one back into view.  He fluttered a small, thin piece of paper between Olivia and him before slowly, methodically, crumpling it into a ball and dropping it to the floor.  “Registration papers for a Ford Escort.”
Olivia responded with a half-shrug, half-nod, her eyes shifting subtly past Vedie’s left shoulder as Elliot stole another quick glance out of the hole.  Vedie wasn’t a fighter; he’d made that much clear at the warehouse.  But he was definitely second in command, and if he yelled for back up the unpredictable teens would swarm the room in a matter of seconds.  And then neither Elliot nor she would have a chance in hell of making it back through the hole to get to the other one.  They would remain separated, and far more vulnerable than they would be together.
Vedie dug in his pockets again, bringing into view two driver’s licenses.  He raised his right hand a fraction, announcing, “Olivia Benson, Manhattan,” and then his left one as he added, “Elliot Stabler, Queens.”
Olivia lifted a brow, only slightly.  “Our introduction wasn’t exactly what you’d call formal,” she said.  “I didn’t get his last name.”
“Doesn’t look like you got his money, either,” Vedie returned, a small smile cracking his lips.  “Which makes me think you’re either really stupid or really trusting.  The putas in El Barrio always get their money upfront, but when I went through your purse I only found forty dollars.  Not the one fifty you said you charged the marano.”
“I take credit cards,” she responded coolly.  “I’ve found it’s good for business.  You know, it’s not that safe on the streets at night.  You can get mugged…car jacked.  People don’t always like to carry a lot of cash around.”
Vedie chuckled lowly, nodding.  “You’re good,” he said, sliding the licenses back into his pockets.  “But then again, most bitches are good with lies.”  He took a step forward, cautiously leaving two feet of space between them.  “My boys are very thorough in their work.  They’re expertly trained.  Every car we acquire is meticulously checked.  Let’s just say in our line of work, it could be very…detrimental…to leave behind anything that could connect a car to its previous owner.”
“I guess everyone needs a skill,” Olivia deadpanned.
“Everyone does,” Vedie agreed, “and I’m beginning to believe that you haven’t exactly been straightforward about yours.”  He dropped his head forward slightly; his eyes remaining upturned and focused on Olivia.  “Either you’ve been lying, or your friend must be very irresponsible and misplace his belongings easily.”  He dipped his hands into his pockets again, unburying them simultaneously, a gold shield cupped in both palms.  “Why else would the NYPD issue him two police badges?”
Olivia laughed softly, a tremble detectable in her voice.  She caught sight of Elliot in the background, his head and shoulders becoming visible through the hole.  In his right hand was the screwdriver, his knuckles whitened around its striped handle.  He was ready to make a move, all consequences be damned.
You need to think about what you’re doing,” she returned.  “It’s automatically the death penalty for killing a cop.  But if you let us go now, maybe my friend and I will be willing to forget this night ever happened.”
“The death penalty,” Vedie laughed, lifting his hands into the air.  “There has to be bodies to prove a crime was committed, si?  And I think you’ve already seen enough of your surroundings to understand just how easily things can get lost here.  Once they’re gone, they’re never found again.”  
“We’re cops,” Olivia said, her voice deepening, strengthening.  “The NYPD won’t ever stop looking for us.  And sooner or later, they’ll pick up our scent and it’ll lead them straight to you.  What do you think will happen to your family then?”
He hooked his arms, raising a hand and scraping his fingertips over his chin.  “You really should be a whore, ‘cause you’re not smart enough to be a cop.  You don’t have any fucking idea who you’re dealing with.”
“Neither do you,” Olivia hissed.
“Two dead maranos,” Vedie returned matter-of-factly, “and they ain’t so much to worry about.”  
“If you kill us, trust me, you’ll have a lot more than two maranos to worry about,” she said, a smugness detectable in both her tone and eyes.  
Vedie chuckled, pointing a bony finger in Olivia’s direction.  “I’m gonna give you a coupla hours, bitch, and see if you still got such a smart mouth then.  Because my boys, they’ve been very patient.  But they’re getting a little stir crazy now, and I think all that self-control should be rewarded.”  He glanced back, shrugging, his expression having become emotionless by the time he turned back.  “There won’t be any more pretending now.  By the time they’re done with you, you’re gonna know firsthand what a real concha feels like.”
Olivia dropped her arms to her sides, her hands balling into white-knuckled fists.  She heard Elliot move behind the wall, faintly, and in preparation she could only imagine.  With a Craftsman as his not-so-trusty sidekick, he was readying to pounce, and would get them both killed before he could squeeze his six foot, two hundred pound frame through the eighteen-inch hole for a third time.
But then again, the third time was supposed to be their charm.  
Or at least she would convince herself that was what it could still be.  Because even if Vedie was convinced that it was time to stop pretending, she knew that the false sense of power that came with it could mean the difference between winning and losing.  Or more to the point, lying down quietly and giving up, or making the family of misfits regret their injudicious choice of victims by fighting like hell until the very end.
Her stare locked with Vedie’s cold one, neither flinching nor balking nor blinking.  “Go to hell,” she said, her voice low, commanding, each word deliberate.
“You’ve got it wrong, puta.  That’s where you’re headed, not me.”
Olivia spiked an eyebrow, tightening her arms across her chest.  “I might get there first, but the NYPD will make damn sure you’re not far behind.  And from what I’ve seen so far, this Dominic you keep talking about will be more than happy to let you make the trip alone.”
Vedie inched closer by another half of a step, his arm shooting out in front of him and finger aimed at Olivia’s complacent face.  “You don’t have the right to speak Dominic’s name.”
“But he’s convinced you all that he has the right to insist you do his dirty work for him, hasn’t he?” Olivia shot back, lessening the distance between them by another half of a step.  “He has these kids jacking cars for him, and now they’re going to murder for him.  And you know what’s going to happen?  When the NYPD starts getting close, when they start putting the heat on your family, Dominic’s going to disappear.  Because you’ve all given him that right, to be the one to expect sacrifices be made for him instead of by him.”  She laughed softly, knowingly.  “And you’re stupid enough to think I’m the one who’s gonna get screwed.”
Vedie pulled his arm back, his hand stiffened and trembling in the air.  But still, Olivia didn’t flinch or balk or blink.  She remained stoic, prepared to fight, her hands once again clenched.  “Go ahead, you son of a bitch,” she taunted.  “Hit me again.  Just keep in mind, this time it’s only you and me, and you can be damn sure I’ll hit back.”
Silence passed back and forth between them, tense and threatening, intimidation lending its favor to Olivia throughout one second before joining forces with Vedie, and then switching back again.  Slowly, calculatingly, Vedie lowered his arm.  He tugged jerkily on the lapel of his jacket, chuckling as he straightened the garment.  “You,” he said, his voice dragging indignantly, “it will be a pleasure to watch die.  Don’t even waste your time praying that we’ll make it easy for you, because I’m gonna personally make sure you suffer through every second of it.”
Shaking his head, laughter once again rumbling in his throat, he turned his back to her and headed across the room.  As he swung the door open and charged into the crowded hallway, Olivia caught Elliot’s stare from the opposite side of the crude hole.  She shrugged in response to his disapproving glower, whispering an unheard but fully understood, “What in the hell did you want me to do?”
Not push his fucking buttons, Elliot silently reprimanded, sliding out of her view and flopping back against the wall.  Christ.  He’d broken a trigger-happy Zaniel’s nose, Olivia had polished another kid’s family jewels with her kneecap, and now she’d managed to piss off Sergeant Anal Retentive.  And what little hope they still might be able to get their hands on was currently in the possession of a middle school dropout who couldn’t concentrate on anything beyond his last wet dream.
He scrubbed his hands over his face, hearing the soles of Olivia’s shoes hit the floor as she began pacing.  She was gearing up for the next round, he knew.  Rebuilding her strength, trying to calm her nerves, fighting off every ounce of fucking fear.  She was preparing, and that scared him the most.
“When I said I can take it, I wasn’t being noble, just accepting the cold, hard facts.  If they want to do it, they will.  And God willing, you’ll still be alive when it happens.  So give it a purpose, please?  Make it mean something by using the time to find a way out of here.  With or without me, Elliot, just get the hell out.”
Damn it.  She was preparing.  She was fucking preparing.  And she’d been doing it right under his nose while his sleep deprived mind was focused on proximity and touching and secrets finally being shared.  And he had let her, he’d fucking let her.  With his eyes wide open but blinded to what was going on in front of him, he had let her manipulate his view to see only what she wanted him to see.
And now it was too late.  
She had donned the damned rabbit suit and paraded herself in front of the rabid Alpha male, and the rest of the wolf pack was just seconds away from breaking into full runs to bring the hunt to a grisly end.
“I want you to know if this is it, then I’m okay with it.  I’m okay.  Because it’s ending the right way, exactly the way I want it to.”
Jesus.  When had he gotten so stupid?  He had believed she was finally letting him in when all along what she’d really been doing was letting him go.
+++
March 24, 6:22 A.M.
“You’re going in a boy, Derio, but you’ll be coming out a man!”
“Tear the fucking puta up, vato!  Just make sure to leave a little something for the rest of us!”
“Remember, man, she’s the pussy, not you!  Show the ho who’s fucking in charge!”
As Derio slammed the door shut, muffling the cheers and prompts of the group crowded into the narrow hallway, Olivia immediately noticed the difference in him.  In the hours that had passed since she’d last seen him, he’d seemed to age.  His face no longer looked as boyish, as innocent.  He looked older—old—as tired and confused as she felt.
Something had changed.
His eyes had darkened, had released their liveliness.  They’d become coal black, as hollow as Vedie’s.  And she could feel his anger.  It permeated the stale air in the room, was visible in each of his stiff movements, and had become clearly etched into his once boyish face.
He had changed.
He seemed filled with rage, and Olivia knew if it was strong enough than size wouldn’t matter.  Anger would double his strength, his determination, and his drive.  She wasn’t dealing with an impressionable boy, not the one she had counted on walking into the room.
Derio had changed.  In a short amount of time—too short—he had made the transition from a suggestible child into an angry man.
He backed up to the wall, shoving his hands into the front pockets of his oversized blue jeans as his eyes narrowed on his unmoving target across the room.  Slowly, disapprovingly, he shook his head, mumbling a castigating, “Fucking liar,” as his hands balled noticeably into fists within the confines of the denim pouches.
Olivia swallowed a breath, shaking her head in dissent.  “I didn’t lie to anyone,” she retaliated, taking a step back, her shoulders becoming flush with the wall.
“Said you were a fucking puta, but you’re not.  You’re the policia, fucking marano.”
“That’s who you said I was,” Olivia shot back, her tone remaining even, deceivingly calm.  “I just never said anything different.”
Derio shook his head, grunting a humorless laugh.  “Gonna be a whore now.  Ain’t no way around it.”
“Why?” Olivia asked quickly.  “Because it’s the way Dominic told you it has to be?”  She dropped her head forward, sighing, fighting her jumbled thoughts in an attempt to extract at least one that would make sense.  “You do this, Derio, and you’re letting him turn you into a rapist.”  She glanced at him with upturned eyes, lifting an eyebrow questioningly.  “Is that what you want to be?”
“Ain’t gonna be no rapist, just taking what’s owed to me.”  He pushed off of the wall, a wince momentarily tightening his face.  Pointing shakily toward the stained mattress, he jutted his chin into the air.  “This is your own fucking fault, bitch, so let’s just get it over with.”
“It’s my fault you jacked my car?” Olivia asked around a quiet laugh.  “And because you decided to do that, now I owe you sex?”  She laughed again, louder, incredulously.  “C’mon, Derio.  You’re not that stupid.”
“No,” he hissed, “I ain’t stupid.  But I am in charge, so take your fucking clothes off and get down on the bed.  Otherwise, you’re gonna be real sorry.”
He was in charge; the pint-sized son of a bitch who wasn’t even old enough to vote yet was in charge.  Under different circumstances, more controlled, more dependable ones, she might have laughed.  But with his shoulders squared, jaw clenched, and glare piercing through her, there wasn’t anything trustworthy about the child who so desperately wanted to be seen as a man.  She couldn’t fight fire with fire, not as she had done with an egotistical Vedie.  She had to approach Derio differently, purposely place herself beneath his level and pray that voluntary submissiveness would be enough to gain at least a portion of his trust.
Her gaze swung toward the closed door as the edgy voice she recognized as belonging to Silvio seeped through the weathered wood, “Damn, vato!  Hurry up already and fuck the bitch!  I’m turning into an old man out here!”   
Olivia shifted her eyes toward the hole less than five feet away, seeing through its ragged periphery Elliot’s reddened face.  He was on his hands and knees, ready, tired of waiting, his eyes filled with as much anger as Derio’s were.  
“Okay,” she said quickly, barely in a whisper, her concession coinciding with the dip of Elliot’s shoulders as he prepared to push into the room.  But her acquiescence brought him to a standstill, just as it did a nervously swaying Derio, all three bodies remaining motionless as two surprised stares engulfed her and hers swallowed the suddenly flush-faced teenager.
“You win,” she continued.  “You’re right, you’re in charge.  And if this is what you want…” She licked at her dry lips, arching an eyebrow to reinforce her capitulation.  “Guess I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”
Derio’s dark brows lowered as he watched Olivia take a hesitant step toward the mattress.  He tracked her slow descent onto the spotted cushion, swallowing, the action loud and echoing in the unpredictable stillness that consumed the room.  “Just like that?” he asked.  “You’re gonna let me?”
Olivia shrugged a shoulder, pulling her legs up against her chest and beginning a slow, rhythmic rock.  “What else can I do?  Like you said, there’s no way around it.”
Derio nodded jerkily, ambiguously agreeing, and made a quick glance back at the closed door.  Through it, laughter filtered into the room, taunting and teasing and excited.  And suddenly, he looked as disgusted as Olivia blatantly did, his shoulders rising tensely as the jeers became louder.  Jamming his hands into his pockets, he began to rock, moving in sync with Olivia, rolling onto the balls of his feet and then the heels.  “They all want some, you know.  Ain’t gonna stop ‘til they get it, neither.”
“Yeah, I kind of got that impression,” Olivia said, a nervous smile flitting across her lips.  From where she sat, she was eye-level with Elliot, but she didn’t look at him.  She let him remain a blur in her peripheral vision, undefined, indistinguishable, separated.  
Safe.  At least temporarily.
“So, uh…” She cleared her throat, just subtly, for the purpose of stalling.  “How old are you?  Fourteen?”
“In two months,” Derio returned proudly, puffing his chest. 
She nodded once, breathlessly.  “Do you live in El Barrio?”
“I live with my family.”
“Your parents?”
“This is my family,” he said, motioning with a nod of his head toward the door.  “They’re the only ones who care about me, the only ones I care about.”
“But, uh, but what about your parents?”
He kicked the toe of his sneaker into the floor, shrugging, the toe of his shoe repeatedly popping up off of the floor and then digging into it.  “Fucking losers.  Ain’t seen my dad since I was just a kid, that’s when he got sent to Attica.  And my mom?”  He shrugged again, brusquely.  “Start looking in the fucking crack houses.  You’ll find her in one of ‘em.”
Olivia laced her fingers across her shins, resting her chest against her thighs.  She continued to rock, forwards, backwards, the weathered cushion beneath her feeling like a bed of nails.  “I’m alone, too.  My parents, um, they’re both dead.  I never met my dad, he was never around, and my mom… She, uh, she was an alcoholic my entire life.”
“I ain’t alone,” he hissed.  “I got family.  We take care of each other, and Dominic takes care of everybody.”
“Then you’re lucky,” Olivia responded, a hint of a smile once again shivering across her lips.  “To have them, I mean.  I’ve never really had anyone.”
“Thought you just said you had your madre?”
“Yeah, I did,” she answered through a slow nod.  “But she was an addict like your mom.  And you know that you can’t depend on someone like that.  They’re never around when you need them, can’t take care of you like you need to be taken care of.  You’re left alone most of the time and it’s tough.”  She saw Elliot ease backwards, just a fraction.  But still, she didn’t look at him.  She remained focused on the hurt-filled eyes across the room, the eyes that had suddenly stopped looking through her and had begun looking at her.  
She cleared her throat again, softly, unobtrusively.  “So, uh, so how’d you end up with Dominic?” 
“He took me off the street,” Derio answered.  “Took all of us off the street, gave us a place to live, work to do.  As long as we take care of him, he takes good care of us.”
“He takes good care of you…” Olivia repeated, her voice dragging, still breathless.  “But, um, but what happened tonight?  He was upset, right, because you brought my friend and me back to the warehouse?”
Derio stiffened noticeably, an edge of agitation creeping across his face.  “It ain’t none of your fucking business.  You don’t know nothing about Dominic.”
Olivia brushed a tousled strand of hair away from her face, hesitantly agreeing through a vague nod of her head.  “I know that he shouldn’t expect you to steal for him.  You shouldn’t be expected to…” She took in a breath, seeing from the corner of her eye that the hole had emptied.  Elliot had disappeared from sight, completely.  “Even if I let you do what you want, it’ll still be rape.  And then what happens after all the other boys are done?  Are you the one who’s supposed to kill us, is that what Dominic expects you to do?”
“He expects me to be a man,” Derio returned.  “I made a mistake, now it’s up to me to fix it.”
“By raping and murdering?” she asked, her voice suddenly forceful.  “If you do this, the police will catch you, Derio.  They’ll arrest you, send you to prison, and then your life will be over, too.”
He laughed abruptly, disbelievingly.  “Ain’t nobody gonna touch me.  Nobody can, don’t you get it?  You’re in Dominic’s world now.  Fucking polis ain’t got no jurisdiction here.”
“And Dominic doesn’t have any authority in my world.”
“Your world don’t exist no more, bitch,” Derio laughed, more anger than amusement present in his voice.  “You’re a ghost there now…just…” He shrugged a shoulder, kicking the heel of his shoe into the wall.  “Gone.  Nobody ain’t never gonna figure out what happened to you.”
“Someone’ll figure it out,” Olivia countered, “and they’ll also figure out that you’re the one responsible.  And when that happens, will Dominic still be around for you then?  Will he help you, Derio, or will you become a ghost in his world?”
Derio flattened his back against the wall, lowering his gaze away from the determination-filled eyes across the room.  He bit down on his lower lip, chewing nervously as the shouts continued to taunt him from the other side of the door.
“I can help you,” Olivia continued, her voice soft but potent enough to cause the dark eyes to instantly rise.  “I’ll take you out of here, take you somewhere safe, somewhere Dominic can’t hurt you.”  She scooted to the edge of the mattress, once again catching a glimpse of Elliot.  He nodded, urging her to keep going, to keep promising, to lie if she had to. “I’ll help you, but you have to help my friend and me first.  Help us get out of here.”
Derio laughed again, louder, with a tinge of anger.  “Damn, bitch.  What do you think, I gotta fucking death wish or something?  Fuck.  Nobody walks away from Dominic.  Nobody.”  He glanced toward the door as it vibrated under the force of a heavy, impatient blow to its center, Silvio’s irritated voice meshing with the wood’s noisy shudder, “Ain’t gotta buy the bitch dinner first, Derio!  Just fuck her!  Damn!”
“Derio,” Olivia said, reeling back the boy’s attention, “if we help each other, we can all get out of here.”
“Stupid bitch…” he groused through a shake of his head.  “It’s all about loyalty, man.  If Dominic don’t think you’re loyal to his family, then he ain’t gonna be loyal to you.  I seen him blow motherfuckers’ brains out for doing less than you want me to do.”
Olivia dropped her head forward, breathing out a whimper.  She could feel her lungs tightening, constricting, refusing to allow in another morsel of the musty air.  The shouts in the background had become indecipherable, even if the excitement in each voice was nauseatingly blatant.  They mixed with her own thoughts, making each one deficient and confusing.  She needed to think, to think, to…  
Elliot made a stifled movement behind the wall, but it was enough to halt her thoughts completely.  She didn’t feel her anger yank the control away from her precarious composure, but she felt the jolt as it surged through her body, sending her off of the mattress and onto her feet.  “Then go ahead!” she hissed, her voice burning her throat, emerging unrecognizable, as a hoarse growl.  “If this is who you want to be—the man these sons of bitches have you convinced you need to be—then let’s get it over with!”
Derio lunged forward, his movements as swift and sudden as Olivia’s had been.  His arms stiffened at his sides, his hands balled.  Slowly, even though relaxation didn’t grace his trembling frame, tears began to fill his darkened eyes.  He blinked exaggeratedly, his eyes scrunching as the puerile man inside of him fought a child’s emotions.  “Don’t you fucking get it?” he barked.  “It’s what I gotta do!”  He tugged on the hem of his t-shirt, lifting the material over his stomach to expose tanned skin that was marred by bloodied cuts and welts.  “This is what Dominic does when you piss him off!  And if I don’t make my mistake right, he’s gonna do worse!  I gotta put a fucking bullet in your head, bitch, or he’s gonna put one in mine!  And I ain’t going down for no fucking maranos!”
Olivia staggered backwards a step, her mouth instantly drying, her tongue becoming tacky, as she studied the boy’s bruised and lacerated skin.  “Oh, God…” she whispered.  “That’s what he…at the warehouse… He did that to you?”
“You get it now?” Derio spit, shuffling nervously, quickly, from foot to foot.  “Dominic only sees it one way!  It’s gotta be me or you, and there ain’t no fucking way it’s gonna end up being me!”
Olivia pushed her fingers across her forehead, creasing her skin, sighing.  “Listen to me,” she said shakily, desperation tingeing her voice.  “I promise, I can help you.  I can protect you, Derio, but I can’t do it here.  If we get out, get back into my world—”
“We ain’t never gonna make it that far!  Dominic’ll make sure we’re dead before we get outta this fucking yard!”  He pointed toward the door, toward the jeers and taunts that had become inseparable burbles in Olivia’s ringing ears.  “He owns them just like he owns me, and ain’t one of ‘em gonna go down for a coupla maranos!  Face it, bitch, you ain’t got no other choice but to die!”
“Yeah?  Well, I don’t like that choice!”
“Don’t matter what you like, ‘cause around here you don’t matter at all!”
“I matter enough that Dominic wants you to kill me!” she seethed, moving forward quickly, her steps heavy, rushed.  She stopped in front of the jittery boy, her hands hovering beside his arms.  Not touching, not knowing what type of touch to give.  Soft and comforting, or a slap upside the head to return the sense of compassion that had been unfairly and prematurely stolen from him.
“Have you ever killed anyone before?” she asked, her voice consumed by the fear that had powered her hurried advance across the room.  “Because I have.  I have, and it doesn’t make you feel empowered or respected.  It doesn’t…” She dropped her arms to her sides, sighing.  “It doesn’t make you feel anything.  It leaves you empty.”
Derio looked Olivia up and down, tears only vaguely noticeable in his dark eyes as they settled on her face.  He stared, unmoving, barely breathing, studying her.  Seeing her.  “He’ll kill me,” he whispered.  “Then he’ll still kill you.  What good is it for both of us to end up dead?”
“We won’t,” Olivia said.  “If you help us, Derio, I promise we won’t leave without you.  All three of us will get out of here, and then we’ll help you.  My friend and I, we’ll keep you safe.”
“Shit…” the boy grumbled, launching a heavy blow against the wall with the heel of his foot.  “You’re gonna get a bullet stuck in my head, that’s what you’re gonna do.”
She reached for him again, brushing her hand as lightly over his arm as she had Vedie’s earlier in the night.  But she didn’t let the expected anger that would follow her unprompted contact deter her.  She remained unfaltering in front of the boy, their heavy breaths in sync, her desperation as palpable as his.  “Please,” she whispered.  “My friend has a family, five kids.  A couple that are around your age, one who’s just a baby.  Think about your own dad, how much you’ve missed him.  Do you really want to do that to them?  Do you want to be the one who takes their father away from them?”
Derio stared at her hand cupped around his arm, Olivia’s fingers only partially hiding a patch of his skin that had become stained by a purplish, fist-shaped bruise.  “My father went to prison when he was only twenty-one, and he’s gonna be there ‘til he dies.  I’ve survived without him, the marano’s kids will, too.  Life fucks you over, ain’t nothing you can do about it.”
“But there’s something you can do about this,” Olivia pressed.  “If you’ll…if you’ll just…” She dropped her arm to her side as Derio shook out of her touch, her gaze lowering to her still curved fingers.  “I’ll make a deal with you.  If you’ll…” She swallowed, hard, resolved, her eyes closing as Elliot’s muffled movements seeped through their rudimentary link again.  “Let him leave, and I’ll stay.  I’ll do whatever you want, okay, just… Please.  Help him get out of here.”
Derio’s eyes widened, both with disbelief and confusion.  “You’d take a bullet for him?  Just like that?  Damn, bitch, you are crazy!  You think that vato would do the same thing for you?”
“She knows I will.”
Both heads whipped around, two sets of surprise-filled eyes focusing on Elliot in the hollowed-out closet, his front side coated with dust and dried plaster and the flathead screwdriver clutched in his right hand.  He nodded once, firmly, his gaze never shifting toward Olivia but remaining steadfast on Derio.
Derio stiffened, digging his hand beneath the loose hem of his t-shirt and twisting his fingers around the butt of the .45-caliber pistol.  “What the fuck you doing in here?” he growled.  “I could blow your fucking head off right now!”
“No one has to get hurt,” Elliot said, nodding again, stronger, his narrowed-eye stare engulfing Olivia.  “And no one’s leaving alone.”
“Jesus, Elliot,” Olivia reproached, “just shut up!  Shut up and let me—”
“We walk out together,” Elliot retaliated.  “That’s your rule, remember, and it’s the one we’re both going to play by.”  He shifted his gaze slowly, cautiously, to Derio.  “So what’s it gonna be?  Are you gonna kill us both, or walk out of here with us?”
“Yeah, right,” Derio snorted, shaking out of Olivia’s loose grasp.  “I get you outta here and then you fuck me over.  The bullet still ends up in my head.”  He waved the barrel of the gun in Elliot’s direction, his laughter momentarily intensifying.  “Damn!  You’re both loco!  Ain’t nobody stupid enough to go down for no one else!”
“It’s not stupid,” Elliot countered.  “It’s that loyalty you’ve been talking about.  And how many of the guys out in that hallway will ever be that loyal to you?”
Olivia grabbed Derio again, squeezing his marred flesh between her fingers.  “You have to learn to trust someone, so let us prove to you that you can trust us.”
Derio glanced toward the door as another heavy blow and Silvio’s irritated voice slithered through the aged wood.  He shook his head, mumbling a throaty, “Jesucristo,” as he yanked his arm out of Olivia’s hold.  “Fucking good as dead if I do what you want.”
“And we all are if you don’t,” Olivia responded.  “It might happen sooner to us than it will to you, but if you stay here, Derio, it will happen to you, too.  So what do any of us really have to lose?”
“Todo,” the boy whispered, still fixated on the rattling door as he glided the palm of his left hand over the semi-automatic’s slide.  “And that’s exactly what Dominic’ll make sure I lose if I go against him.  Fucking everything.”
CHAPTER FIVE
March 24, 7:18 A.M.
If he squinted his left eye, the scuffmark on the bottom corner of the far wall took on an uncanny likeness to Elvis’s profile.  The younger, thinner Elvis, at least.  Elliot could clearly make out the high-topped pompadour, the strong chin, and the tilt of lips in a crooked, flirtatious smile.  
But when both eyes were wide open, the curvilinear mark became a nauseating reminder of what they were facing and whom they were dealing with.  It represented a struggle, the defined imprints of a shoe’s sole visible against the yellowed wall.  Kicks that had been launched during the heat of battle to either fend off an attacker or take down an overly energetic quarry.  Dotted around the smudges were three holes, fractured plaster that served as the obscure introductions to stories still untold.  
His gaze shifted as the bottoms of Olivia’s boots scraped over the debris that littered the floor, a crackling erupting beneath her feet.  She stood beside the soiled mattress, staring down as intently at the blackened bloodstains that marred it as he had the marks on the wall.  Maybe they were appendages to the tales cryptically spelled out on the plaster, maybe they stood alone in their own horror.  
He didn’t know, and didn’t have the energy left to expend on speculating.
“Liv.”  
At the sound of his voice, she bit into her lower lip, her eyes narrowing but not lifting from the dirty cushion.  As he approached her, his steps as noisy as hers had been, she shook her head, stopping him from getting too close.
“Olivia, c’mon.  We need to—”
“How many?” she whispered, a raspy inhale inflating her chest.  “Jesus.  How many people have they brought here?  How many are buried here?”
“We don’t know—”
“This son of a bitch takes in children and trains them to steal and, and…rape…” Her voice hitched, fading into another heavy breath.  “He teaches them to murder, Elliot.  And they’re just…they’re kids.  Just kids.”
He slid his hands over her shoulders, digging the tips of his fingers into her tense muscles.  He felt her flinch, just slightly, unconsciously, before slowly relaxing and leaning back into him.  Lowering his head next to hers, he sifted his fingers through the side of her hair and smoothed the strands behind her ear.  “Never again,” he whispered, his voice a rumbling growl.  “Never try to take a bullet for me again, Olivia.  If you decide to beg, it damn well better be for both of us.”
She took in a breath, the air once again rasping as it rolled down her throat.  On the other side of the wall, outside, she could hear the shouts of the boys.  Congratulatory chants directed at Derio filled the air, cheers that welcomed him into manhood.  A celebration whose source was as misunderstood as its long lasting, residual effects were.
Letting her gaze pass over the stained mattress at her feet, she turned her back to it, to possibilities, maybe probabilities, and faced Elliot.  He looked tired, exhaustion having dulled his eyes.  But still, his anger was detectable.
“I wasn’t begging for either of us,” she returned.  “It was for your kids.”
“We walk out together, that’s what you said.”
“No.  I said I wasn’t leaving without you; I never said you shouldn’t leave without me.”
He shook his head, the intimation of a tight, disagreeing smile catching his lips.  “That’s a convenient way to twist your words.”
“It makes sense.”
“It’s crap, and you know it.”
“Elliot.”  She dipped her right shoulder and then left one, taking a small step backwards in conjunction with his hands falling away.  Shifting her eyes downward, to the side, she studied a ragged-edged spot of blackened blood that marred both the top and side of the flattened mattress.  “We’re on our own here.  We’re unarmed, out of our element, and it’s going to be at least another twenty-four hours before anyone even knows we’re missing.”  She lifted her gaze quickly, her eyes having become as dark as the portentous blemishes at her feet.  “If at least one of us doesn’t get out of here, these kids will keep killing.  God knows how many victims there have already been, how many more there’ll be… And there are five really good reasons why it should be you who walks out.”
“And there’s a reason—what I’d like to think is also a really good one—why you need to walk out, too,” he argued.  
She dropped her head forward, whimpering in both acceptance and expectance of his hardheadedness.  Shaking her head as his hands curved around her arms, whispering a feeble, “Don’t,” that went ignored, she reluctantly submitted to his gentle tugs and let him guide her closer.  Their chests became flush, rising and falling in sync through shallow breaths, as Elliot looped his arms around her waist and hers remained flaccid at her sides.
“Forget all the partner bullshit the NYPD pumped us full of in the academy,” he whispered, his lips gently grazing her ear.  “Forget the crap about your partner being your priority, making sure they’re safe before you are, always having their back.  This is about you and me, just us.  And if I made it out of here without you, I’d still be just as dead as if those kids filled me full of lead.”
Olivia nestled her face into the crook of his neck, pulling in his scent.  He no longer smelled familiar, like the subtle blend of cologne, mint-flavored toothpaste and baby powder that always rubbed off on him from Eli.  Instead, the smells that were so thick in the trailer—aged sweat, mildewed air, and the combined stench of blood and death—had become adhered to his skin and clothes.  But she breathed him in anyway, deeply, fully, because somehow none of it was as frightening on Elliot.  
He almost made her believe that each was escapable.
“If we get out of here,” she began, her voice a soft murmur that warmed his tainted skin, “we’re coming back with an arsenal and back-up and warrants, whatever we need to stop this bastard.  He can’t keep getting away with this.  We can’t let him.”
“Let’s worry about the getting out part first,” Elliot retorted, his gaze shooting toward the far wall as two sharp knocks resonated against it.  Derio’s recognizable voice sifted through after the vibrations, high-pitched and triumphant, “Bitch is a fighter, vatos!  Damn, she makes you work for every second of that fuck!  A coupla times I thought she was gonna rip my dick right off!”  
Elliot’s eyes narrowed as Olivia pulled her head off of his shoulder and latched her stare onto his, both relaying the same unspoken understanding.  It was now or never, time to make a move, jump in with both feet, act first and think later, take the bull by the horns.
Do or fucking die.
“That’s the signal,” he said, brushing a clump of hair away from her face.  “You ready?”
Olivia nodded once, firmly.  “As I’ll ever be.”
A grin hooked crookedly on his lips as he spiked an eyebrow in coerced playfulness.  “You need to crawl into the bathroom first?  Maybe you should at least try to go?  It could be a while before you get another chance, you know.”
“We could be dead in ten minutes, Elliot,” she returned dryly, a sluggish roll of her eyes following.  “You really think this is the time to be an ass?”
“Probably as good a time as any,” he returned, his hand sliding down her arm as she stepped around him.  His fingers reached the exposed skin of her forearm, lingering, soaking in the touch, before her continued movement caused them to slip to her hand.  Ten fingers curved in unison, although no glances were exchanged, and fingertips danced together only briefly before space separated them.
Temporarily, he hastily prayed.  Perpetually, he silently feared.
“Let’s do it,” Olivia commanded, stopping in front of the closed door and burying the scuffed, brass knob inside of her hand.  She tightened her fingers around the air-warmed metal as Elliot stepped up beside her, stuffing himself into the limited space between the wall and door.  Nodding, waiting until he responded with a nod of his own, she gave the knob a turn and instantly dislodged the barrier from its half-rotted frame.
Hooking one hand around the door’s edge, she wedged herself inside the thin opening she’d created.  Cocking her hips, pressing her right one against the weathered frame, her gaze instantly settled on Silvio’s brawny chest before making a slow rise to his face.  A smirk took control of his lips, stretching them tautly and matching the condescension that glowed in his eyes, as he looked her over, up and down, with as much disgust as interest.
“Did my boy, Derio, break you in right?” he taunted, peeking over the top of her head into the desolate room.  “You ready to play nice now?”
Olivia answered with a subtle rise of an eyebrow, her hand tightening around the door’s edge.  She didn’t remember Silvio being so tall, so muscular, so much more a man than a boy.  But she did remember his eagerness, the eagerness that was still so prevalent on his otherwise emotionless face.
“C’mon, bitch,” Silvio said, holstering his pistol in the waistband of his low-riding jeans.  “We ain’t got all fucking day.”  He took a step closer, stopping abruptly as Olivia wedged herself more tightly into the small amount of space between the door’s edge and frame.
She forced a smile, one that trembled fleetingly across her lips, and nodded toward the abandoned corridor behind him.  “Where, uh, where’d your friends go?”
Silvio tilted his head toward the empty space behind him, answering, “Needed a smoke.  I got asthma, man, that shit tears me up.  They gonna do it, hafta do it outside.”
Olivia nodded once, faintly.  “So, you’re, uh…we’re alone?  I mean, no one else is in here?”
“What?” he laughed, his dark brows arching.  “You coming around, puta?  Feel like having a party, is that it?  Think you can handle us all at once?”
“I just, I…” She shivered a hand through her bangs, tossing her head and messily scattering the strands.  “I’m not really into surprises.  Once I get started, you know, I don’t like to be interrupted.”
“Ain’t nothing to worry ‘bout,” he responded coolly.  “Those assholes know if they step too close to my territory, they’re gonna hafta answer to me.  And there ain’t one of ‘em stupid enough to wanna do that.”
“Good,” Olivia whispered through another jerky nod.  “Guess then, uh.  I guess—”
“Damn, bitch, c’mon,” he broke in, impatience heightening the resonance of his voice.  “This ain’t no time to play fucking games.  You want it to be rough; it can be rough.  It don’t make no difference to me.  ‘Cause no matter how it goes down, I’m getting what I want.”
“You’re right,” she conceded, sliding her right hand out of the doorway and hooking it around Silvio’s wrist.  “We should, uh, we should make this as easy as possible for both of us.”  She gave a gentle tug to his arm, her fingers tightening around his flesh as she pulled him forward a step.  Excited laughter began to rumble in his throat as Olivia jerked him faster, harder, her grip unrelenting and his enthusiasm causing him to blindly follow.
As he dropped an Adidas-encased foot over the threshold into the dirty room, Olivia growled a firm, “Now!” and yanked him forward another staggering step as Elliot propelled his full weight into the backside of the door.  The wood slammed into Silvio’s head, instantly splintering the barrier down the center and causing the teen to crumple into a heap on the floor.
“Damn!” he moaned, cupping his bloodied forehead with his hands as he writhed on the dusty floor.  “You’re fucking dead, concha!  Fucking dead!”
Elliot flung open the door, shoving Olivia into the wall as he jumped over Silvio’s outstretched legs and dropped down onto his knees beside him.  He pulled back his arm, swiftly, every muscle tensed, and then cut the thick air with a heavy blow that thrust the boy’s head from left to right.  He pulled back again, and again, the second blow causing a thick stream of blood to gush from Silvio’s nose and the third instantly tarnishing the skin around his left temple a stark red.
“Elliot!” Olivia hissed, hooking both of her arms through his rigid one as he cocked it and began building momentum for a fourth punch.  “He’s out, damn it!  Stop!”  She leaned forward, pushing the hem of Silvio’s t-shirt above his stomach and ripping the holstered .45-semi automatic out of the waistband of his jeans.  Quickly checking the clip, she muttered, “It’s full.  Let’s go,” and nodded toward the quiet living room at the end of the hallway.
“Derio could be setting us up,” Elliot growled, climbing to his feet. He shook out his right hand, scrubbing it against his thigh to clean away the fresh streaks of blood that stained his knuckles.  “Why do I have the feeling we made a deal with the devil?”
“Because we probably did,” Olivia returned, dropping down onto all fours as she cleared the corner of the hallway and entered the empty living room.  “But when the devil’s the only one around, it kind of limits your choices.”
Elliot dropped onto his hands and knees behind her, tapping her hip and issuing a commanding, “Give me the gun.”
“Why?” she responded, glancing back at him.  “I’ve got it—”
“Just give me the fucking gun, Olivia!” he growled, crawling up beside her, shoulder-to-shoulder, stern stares locked.  “I’m going first, so I should have the gun!  Someone comes up on us, I’m gonna face them before you do!”
“Why are you going first?” she spit.  “Jesus, Elliot!  I can handle a gun as well as you can!  What’s with the male chauvinist act all of a sudden?”
He made a pronounced roll of his eyes, wedging the .45-caliber out of her stiff fingers.  “Stay close!” he hissed over her disagreeing grunts, taking off at a fast crawl across the cracked linoleum.  The laughter and amplified conversations from outside ricocheted inside the nearly barren room, echoing loudly, making it seem as if the energized teens were on top of them instead of separated from them by one thin wall.  The debris that covered the floor dug into his knees, the material of his pants an inadequate buffer against the sharp edges of the tiny rocks and hardened clumps of dirt that poked his skin.  Behind him, he could hear Olivia’s soft gasps, and knew the rough terrain was being as relentless to her as it was to him.  But he didn’t slow their pace or look back at her, he kept moving.
He kept Olivia moving.  Forward.  In the opposite direction of the sacrificial retreat that he knew was still the foremost option in her mind.
Stopping quickly at the base of the faded wooden counter that separated the tiny living area from the even smaller kitchen, Elliot glanced to his left and then right before seething, “Where’d that kid say the door is?  I don’t see a fucking backdoor!”
Olivia barreled into him, unprepared for his sudden stop, her shoulder slamming into his ass.  She grumbled an impatient, “Son of a bitch!” her narrow-eyed glare engulfing him.  “If you’re going to insist on going first, it’s a good idea to know where in the hell you’re going!”  She scooted around him, her palms and knees popping off of the hard floor, and took off for the back corner of the dingy room.  Rounding a door-less refrigerator, she came to a stop, rising onto her knees and nodding toward the metal-framed barrier as Elliot came up behind her.  
“There you go, Magellan,” she announced dryly.  “It’s not exactly The Spice Islands, but sometimes you have to start small.”
“Funny,” he groused, climbing to his feet.  He stepped to the side of the door as Olivia rose up behind him, peeking through the frosted glass into the field of gravel and stacked, crushed metal behind the trailer.  
“Where’re we supposed to meet up with Satan’s Spawn?” he grumbled, the barrel of the gun pointed toward the ceiling and his left hand hooked around the doorknob.
“He said stay between the two outside rows of cars,” Olivia answered, peering over his shoulder and through the square-shaped window.  “About halfway down there should be a blue station wagon, all the doors are off of it and the front seat is ripped out.  He’ll meet us there.”
“Yeah,” Elliot laughed.  “And how many of the Lost Boys is he bringing with him?”
“You have a better idea?” she asked quickly.  “Derio is our best chance of getting out of here, and you didn’t…” She shook her head, choking out a heavy breath.  “You didn’t see what that son of a bitch did to him.  He had, there were bruises and cuts…everywhere.  Dominic beat the hell out of him because he brought us here, what do you think he’ll do when he finds out Derio helped us escape?”
Elliot glanced back at her, catching the repulsion—the haunting memory of what she had seen—in her darkened eyes.  He nodded, not in agreement that their unexpected ally could be trusted, but with the understanding that neither of them could turn their backs on the possibility that maybe he could be.  If they left Dario high and dry with only their useless promise of helping to cling to, it would be a death sentence for him.  Either at Dominic’s hands, or from an irreparably broken spirit that would never again allow itself to trust.
+++
March 24, 7:41 A.M.
Thump, slide…thump, slide…thump, slide…
Elliot’s rushed steps had formed a rhythm in her head.  The soles of his shoes hit the ground hard, thudding, and then slid through the loose rocks, leaving behind defined, size eleven ruts.  Since they had started running, hunching and slowing when the stacks of metal required more secretiveness and increasing their speed as much as the unpredictable gravel would allow them to when the towers seemed to stretch to the sky, she had forced the repeated rhythm into a chant.  Trying to compel her racing mind to enter a damned zone that was as far away from reality as she could get by playing stupid games with it.
It was a diversion her mother had created when Olivia was a child.  If she would awake late at night scared from a nightmare, or was sick and couldn’t concentrate beyond the aches and pains her immature mind had convinced her were terminal, or when they were driving in the car and had become bored with the radio, Serena would say a word—any word—and Olivia would have to respond with something that could be connected to it.  If Serena said Tom Sawyer, Olivia answered with Huckleberry Finn.  If the word were lemon, Olivia would retort yellow.  And if Serena said Tangarey, Olivia knew without question to respond with gin.
It was a simple game that had never failed to fulfill its function of preoccupying.
Or at least it hadn’t when she’d been an easily swayable nine-year-old.
Thump, slide…thump, slide…thump, slide…
Sometimes she really missed naivety, when just her mother suggesting that they play a meaningless word association game could instantly ease her fears and worries.  But the words had matured along with her, and the ones that now comprised her vocabulary were no longer simplistic.  Their associations didn’t ease or comfort or preoccupy.  They reminded her that nightmares didn’t only exist in the dead of night, they often times chased you into the light of day.
Puta, thump…whore, slide…marano, thump…pig, slide…child, thump…rapist, slide…bite, thump…dead, slide…
Olivia dragged her hand beneath her nose, clearing away a layer of sweat.  A spray of rocks and dust followed each lift of Elliot’s feet, the sharp-edged pebbles pelting her shins and thighs and stinging her skin beneath the material of her slacks.  She could feel the beginning burn of a blister on the back of her left heel, the miniscule rocks having become lodged inside her shoe between the leather and her foot.  Jesus.  Screw the Pikes Peak Marathon.  If Elliot and she made it out of the steel graveyard alive, she would consider it conquering a monumental challenge that could never be outdone, and then she would—in good conscience—retire all future aspirations.
She rounded the backend of a crunched Volvo Sportswagon at the fullest speed the rocky terrain would allow and less than a few steps behind Elliot.  As he stopped—suddenly, unexpectedly—she dug her feet into the unpredictable topography and slid through a succession of ungainly steps before pummeling chest-first into his back.  Staggering backwards, alternating throaty grunts with shallow, wheezing breaths, she mopped her damp forehead with the palm of her hand and instigated her irritation with a strong shake of her head.
“Think you can, uh, can give me a little warning before you stop next time?” she choked breathlessly.
“Is this it?” Elliot panted, ignoring Olivia’s impatient grumbles and jutting his thumb toward the half-stripped Volvo.  “It’s kind of a station wagon, right?”
“I don’t think ‘kind of’ counts,” she returned, swiping a clump of hair out of her face.  “Besides, it’s gray.  Derio said the one we’re looking for is blue.”
“This one looks kind of blue,” Elliot retorted through a half-shrug as he analyzed the concaved, left side of the vehicle.  “What do they call it, steel blue?”
“Elliot, it’s gray,” she said, leaning back against the rickety structure.  “Not steel blue, or powder blue, or even navy blue.  Just gray.  It’s not the right car.”  She huffed out a breath, bending her left leg at the knee and whispering a throaty, “Damn.”
Her admonishment stopped Elliot in mid-turn, his constricted gaze bypassing the stacks of compressed metal and settling on her.  Watching suspiciously as she pressed her fingers against her left heel and whispered a string of curses beneath her breath, he nodded toward her poised foot.  “Something wrong?”
“Blister,” she said, dropping her foot back onto the ground.
Elliot continued to nod, his lips drooping disapprovingly as she propped her foot on its squared-toe.  “Should’ve worn different shoes.  You can’t run on this kind of crap in shoes like that.”
Olivia’s dark brows creased, her eyes lighting up with disbelief.  “I should’ve…” She shook her head, making another forceful pass across her forehead with her hand.  “If someone would’ve let me know I was going to be spending my weekend with Jason and the crazy counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, I would’ve worn my hiking boots.  But unfortunately, no one bothered to share the fucking itinerary with me.”
He snorted a laugh; his hands digging into his sides as he tried to rub away the consistent stitches and cramps that had knotted his muscles.  “You’re still pissed about the gun, aren’t you?” he scoffed, reaching behind him and pulling the pistol out of his waistband and shoving it in her direction.  “Jesus.  If it’s that big of a deal, take it—”
“I’m not pissed about the damn gun!” she hissed, shaking her left foot in an attempt to shift the gravel from the heel of her boot to the toe.  As she brought her leg back, she popped her heel against the rusted front bumper of the Volvo and snarled an indignant, “Christ!” as a sting instantly burned its way up her calf.  
Hobbling away from the car, cursing, she stumbled through a raised patch of gravel, losing her balance, and staggered into Elliot’s outstretched arms.  Landing hard against him, her hands latched onto his shoulders as his locked around her waist.  They swayed uncoordinatedly, to the left, then right, feet moving out of sync but both managing to keep the other upright.
They maintained their slow rock even after balance was regained, Olivia digging the tip of her chin into his shoulder and staring down the trail marked on either side by the seemingly endless stacks of compacted cars.  An almost imperceptible whine dangled at the end of each of her shallow breaths; the short spurts of air prickling the side of Elliot’s neck.  “I’m not pissed about the gun,” she whispered.  “I’m just, I’m…tired and hungry and…God.  I’d kill for a cup of coffee right now.”  She breathed in a chest full of the dusty air, her eyes closing as Elliot’s head bobbed up and down in agreement.  “I think you’re wrong.  I don’t think Derio’s setting us up.”
“Guess we’ll know for sure when we find the blue station wagon,” Elliot answered, his hands making a slow trek from the small of her back to her shoulders.  “We need to make a decision now, though.  If we find this car and he’s not there, I don’t think we should wait around.  We don’t know how far we have to go to get out of here, and we can’t afford to waste any more time.”
She pulled her head back, his arms breaking their hold on her.  “We promised him, Elliot.  We told him we’d take him with us, that we wouldn’t leave him behind.”
“And for all we know, there are going to be fifty other kids besides Derio waiting for us when we get to that car.  Maybe this is just another part of the game for them, letting us run so they can hunt us down.”
“He got us out of the trailer like he said he would.”
“Which could’ve all been part of the master plan,” Elliot rebuked, his eyes narrowing as he scanned the rows of cars on either side of them.  “These bastards are the only family this kid has, Olivia.  We can’t be stupid enough to think we turned him against them after, what, twenty minutes alone with him?”
“He’s different than the rest of them,” Olivia argued, sliding the soles of her shoes through the thick pile of gravel as she took a step back.  “He really is just a kid, Elliot.  Only thirteen, younger than Liz and Dick, and he—”
“Wants to belong here, with them.”  He filled the space between them with a strong puff of air, shaking his head, hoping to reinstate in her the cautiousness that he feared she’d lost.  The vigilance that he knew they both had to hang onto if surviving were going to remain an option.  “As good as you are with kids, not even you can exorcise all of this kid’s demons in just twenty minutes.  You know that, right?”  
He brushed the pad of his thumb across her chin, rubbing away a speck of dirt before she tossed her head to the side to avert any further touches.  He knew that she knew the truth, and he also knew that she would never admit it.  Saving was inherent to her, maybe even the biggest part of her.  And if push came to sacrifice, she would, without a second thought, sacrifice herself—her safety and integrity and life—to protect Derio just as quickly as she would to protect Elliot.
“Is it wrong to want to save him?” she asked, blinking harshly, exaggeratedly, trying to empty her eyes of tears before the bright rays of the morning sun exposed them.
“It’s not wrong,” he responded, running his finger over the tip of her chin again.  “Not as long as you remember that he has to want to be saved before he can be.”
She pushed her stiffened fingers upwards over her forehead, nodding feebly.  Not in agreement, but with reluctant understanding.  As her lips began to flutter, a rebuttal having rooted itself on her tongue, a shot pierced the stagnant air.  It cut through the silence, jaggedly slicing it with unending echoes that became broken by immature yelps and shouts.  
Olivia spun around, her breath catching as the final gun reverberation made its way down the steel-bordered path toward them.  She whispered an almost in audible, “Damn,” not pulling her attention from the stretch of gravel until Elliot forced her to with a yank on her arm.
“Sounds like the hunt just began,” Elliot grumbled, his gaze dropping swiftly as she limped through a step on her left foot.  “You gonna be able to keep moving?  Want to get on my back?  I can carry you—”
“You can carry me?” she laughed.  “How far do you think we’re going to make it with me on your back?”
“When aren’t you on my back for some reason, Benson?”  His lips lifted crookedly with a strained smile, an eyebrow shooting up tautly.  “We’ve made it ten years so far.  I think we can make it a little longer.”
Even with the boys’ determined shouts contaminating the air, making it even heavier and more difficult to breath than the thick dust did, she managed to return his smile.  They had made it ten years.  Through the confusing times, the rough ones, and the ones they hadn’t been sure they could survive, they had made it.
And each time, every time, either he had carried her, or she had carried him.
+++
March 24, 8:10 A.M.
Thump, thump, slide…thump, thump, slide…thump, thump, slide…
The footsteps surrounded them, pounding to the sides, in front of and behind them.  A few times Olivia had even glanced up half-expecting to see that the cloudless, morning sky had darkened, becoming a flowing avalanche of gravel and dirt and Adidas tennis shoes.  The soles of her feet ached, a slow, relentless burn that radiated through her ankles and cramped the muscles in her calves and thighs.  Just trying to walk through the mounds of loose rock was difficult enough, and running had proven to be almost impossible.  And she could tell, by the raspy breaths and intermittent curses coming from Elliot, that he was struggling as much as she was.  But they kept moving, steadily, with Elliot blindly leading, she just as blindly following, and their attention remaining divided between the footsteps pulsating relentlessly on all sides of them, searching for the damned, half-disassembled blue station wagon, and praying.
Elliot grunted in both warning and helplessness, as his steps began to zigzag and feet became tangled.  He went down, a grumbled, “Fuck!” accompanying his hard landing and uncontrolled slide through the toothed rocks.  Olivia staggered behind him, making a languid leap over his left leg as he bent his knee and shot his foot into the air.  The heel of his shoe connected with her kneecap while she was still air born above him, twisting legs together and sending her forward in a freefall.
“Christ!” Elliot seethed as her knee slammed into his lower back before she dropped, hands-first, beside him.  His breath caught in his dry throat, transforming into a groan that drowned out Olivia’s anxiously whispered, “You okay?”  He nodded stiffly, his teeth gritted as he hoisted his upper body off of the ground, poising above the unstable terrain as if he were about to break out a succession of push-ups.
Olivia rolled over, sitting up slowly with her hands quivering in front of her.  She brushed them against the sides of her legs, dislodging the spiky chunks of gravel that had burrowed into her palms.  She could tell by the harsh sting radiating up and down her leg that the skin on her right knee had been ripped open, but she didn’t bother lifting her pant leg to analyze the damage.  Instead, she offered empathetic winces as Elliot struggled shakily back to his feet, his scraped hands kneading his bruised and throbbing lower back.
“Come on,” he said, holding out his hand to her.  “We’ve gotta keep moving.”
“Keep moving…” she repeated tiredly.  “Exactly what are we moving toward?  Jesus.  I feel like a damned mouse stuck in a maze.  Only the joke’s on us, because there isn’t a piece of cheese anywhere.  Every time we turn a corner, it’s just more cars.”
“They brought us in here, so there has to be a way to get back out,” Elliot said, latching his hand around Olivia’s and tugging her to her feet.  “You remember how long you drove after hitting the gravel road?”
She made a slow roll of her eyes, pushing a disheveled clump of hair out of her face.  “I was in the trunk of a car, Elliot, and the bastards were having a really good time playing with the air shocks.  I was a little preoccupied during the ride getting tossed around like a pinball.”
“I don’t remember, either,” he said, making a full turn and studying their familiarly disparate surroundings.  “Couldn’t have been more than a mile, though.”
“With all the turns we’ve been making, for all we know we’re headed straight back to where we started from.”  She wiped her hands across the seat of her pants, wincing as a prickling erupted across her chafed palms.  “Why couldn’t one of us have been in scouts when we were kids?  Then we would’ve at least thought to, I don’t know.  Mark a trail, or—”
“Yo, vatos!  Over here!  I think I hear the fuckers!”
The voice stopped them, ringing too close for any semblance of comfort to accompany it.  Elliot lunged at Olivia, looping an arm around her waist as he dragged her backwards before diving onto the ground.  A cloud of dust sputtered around them as they landed, and before it settled back on the pebbly floor he had both arms wrapped around her and flung first himself over her and then her over him in bumpy rolls.  They came to a wobbly stop beneath a utility van with Elliot partially on top of Olivia, one hand flattened across her mouth to muffle her indignant moans and the other cupped over her right breast.
Olivia took in the rusted-out undercarriage above them, the dried oil stains and deteriorating metal, before her eyes narrowed and shifted downward to Elliot’s hand that had become melded to her breast.  She shook her head, his hand falling away from her mouth as she muttered breathlessly, “I know there had to be an easier way to do that.”
“Shh!” Elliot hissed, the side of his head hovering above her reddened face as he watched three pairs of feet hurry past the van.  Following each of their heavy steps, dust rolled beneath the corroded vehicle, dousing his face and adhering to the sweat that layered his tacky skin.  He breathed in only dirt, the grainy particles coating and scratching his throat.  Turning his head, burying his face between her breasts, he stifled a cough as the footsteps began to fade, transforming from a stampede into unpredictable silence.
Olivia wedged her hand between his head and her chest, lifting him off of her.  “You really think this is the time and place?” she deadpanned, barely an inch of space separating their faces.  She cocked an eyebrow; her gaze lowering and leading his to his hand still pressed over her breast.
“Sorry,” he stammered, pulling his hand away.  “You okay?”
She rolled her head from side to side before answering with a stilted nod.  “Where in the hell do we go from here?”
“Out.”
She chuckled softly, dryly.  “Great idea.  Wish I’d thought of it.”
Elliot dropped his head down, the tip of his chin grazing the rocky terrain as he studied the deserted pathway to his right.  With a quick nod, he said, “I think we should cross, get out of this area.”
“Cross and go where?” she asked as he jutted a finger toward a lopsided stack three cars high across from them.  
“The sedan on the bottom doesn’t have any doors.  We can slide through the backseat to get to the other side.”
“And go where?” she repeated harshly, rolling onto her stomach as Elliot slid off of her.
“How in the fuck am I supposed to know where, Olivia?” he spit, whipping his face back around toward hers.  “But we have to go somewhere!  We can’t lay around under this van and wait for those pricks to come back!”
“On the other side of those cars are more pricks, Elliot!  Pricks with guns!”
“We’ve got a gun, too,” he grunted.
“Yeah, and they have more!  Majority wins, remember?  It’s a simple rule we all learned in elementary school!”
“This isn’t fucking elementary school,” he growled, yanking the .45-caliber out of the waistband of his pants.  “It’s our lives.  And if you really think the best thing to do is lay here and argue, then okay.  But I’d rather keep moving and at least try to find a way out of this place.”  He scooted his legs toward the edge of the van, gravel shifting and rumbling beneath him in retaliation to his abrupt movements.  “Your call.  You coming with me, or staying here?”
She answered with a roll of her eyes, nodding toward the emptied pathway to get Elliot moving.  They slid to the edge of the van, both heads peaking out from under it as Olivia scanned the area to the left and Elliot checked their right.  Grumbling an indecipherable command, he shimmied the rest of the way into the sunlight and rose onto his haunches before reaching back down and grabbing hold of Olivia’s dirt-stained hand.
“Ow, shit…” she whispered, pieces of gravel and hard chunks of dirt burrowing under the hem of her shirt and waistband of her pants as Elliot tugged her across the ground.  As soon as she was clear of the van, she yanked her hand out of his, dusting the streaked skin of her stomach as she climbed to her feet.  “You know,” she groused, “with all of these stolen cars this bastard has to be making enough money that he could afford to asphalt this place.”
“I’d rather see it bulldozed,” Elliot returned, nodding sideways toward the cream-colored sedan across the passageway.  He took off ahead of her, his shoulders stooped and fingers whitened around the butt of the pistol.  Diving onto the ripped vinyl of the backseat, he scooted across it on his stomach.  As he reached the other side, he dropped his hands down and pulled himself the rest of the way out, instantly turning back toward the car and encouraging Olivia to cross with abrupt waves of his hand.
Olivia nodded, steadying her hands on the edge of the seat before dipping forward and sliding onto it.  Shimmying across the air-chilled vinyl, she bit into her lower lip to stop herself from laughing out loud and blowing their covert mission all to hell.  Jesus.  Any semblance of dignity she’d thought she could walk away with after climbing onto Elliot’s lap in the backseat of the Escort and straddling him like a damned Thoroughbred had been completely eradicated during the past ten-and-a-half hours.  And now, lost somewhere in the obstacle course of junk, she knew there wasn’t any way to gain even a morsel of it back.  She was covered in dust and dirt from head to toe, her slacks were ripped, shirt frayed down the button line by any one—or combination of all—of the clumsy falls she’d taken, and she knew that she couldn’t smell any fresher than she felt.  Elliot and she had been cast as the unwitting stars of the newest—and even worse than the last—installment of Rambo movies.  All they needed to complete the transformation was for Elliot to knot a black scarf around his forehead and be able to keep a straight face while mumbling a simulated, “I’m your worst nightmare,” the next time they came face-to-face with any one of The Dirty Dozen.
“Hang on!” Elliot whispered, bringing Olivia to an instant standstill midway across the seat.  He leaned back, dropping his left hand to the ground to support himself, and searched the pathway in both directions.
“What?” Olivia asked, her fingers curved into a wide tear across the seat.
He shook his head, waving the barrel of the pistol at the carpet-stripped floorboard.  “Get down, stay put.  Someone’s coming.”
“Get in here with me!” she said, sliding her legs over the edge of the seat.  She knelt on the floor, ignoring the sting the oxidized metal intensified in her scraped knees.  “Elliot, come on!  Hurry up!”
He leaned his head and shoulders through the door, scrutinizing the limited space inside.  “Liv, there’s not enough room.  Get down—all the way down.  I’ll find somewhere else and then be back—”
“No!  We’re not separating!”
“Lay down on the floor, damn it!” he hissed.  “Stay as close to the seat as you can!  It’s dark in here, you’ll be hard to see!”
“Elliot—” Her eyes tracked the .45-caliber as he dropped it onto the seat and shoved it toward her, and by the time she looked back at the doorway he had left.  She heard the rustle of gravel outside, but couldn’t tell which direction he had moved.  In front of the sedan, behind it, or maybe across the path toward the nearest stack of cars.  Christ.  She hoped it was near, that he was near, that he could at least still see her even though she couldn’t see him.  
Because as long as one of them still had their sights on the other, neither of them were alone.
+++
March 24, 9:15 A.M.
“You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul…You’ll be my breath should I grow old…”
The night after Olivia and her mother had spent stranded in the car, the battery dead and Serena borrowing Rod Stewart’s lyrics to serenade her daughter, Olivia had been left alone at home for the first time.  She’d heard her mother begin stirring late into the evening, and had slipped out of bed and piled up her sleeping bag and pillow in her arms in preparation for their normal outing.  But by the time she reached the living room, Serena was gone.
The house had been quiet, too quiet.  Every groan and creak came frighteningly to life, seemingly magnified, the wind outside sounding like rough knuckles rapping on the glass windowpane when the wind blew and the normal settling of the old house resembling the Boogeyman’s heavy, taunting footsteps.  She had huddled in her mother’s chair, a worn-in, forest green La-Z-Boy recliner where Serena slept off binges, re-read a classic for the hundredth time, or watched the evening news, and wrapped up in her equally as worn-in polka dot-design sleeping bag.  Covering herself from her toes to the tip of her chin, she kept her face burrowed into the chair’s fabric and prayed that the plush velour wouldn’t suddenly lose her mother’s scent.  Because it was all she had to keep her company, the aroma of Prell shampoo mixed with a tinge of Jovan Musk perfume and highlighted by the unmistakable odor of Svedka vodka.  It all blended into the familiar, and when she’d scrunched her eyes closed and taken in a deep breath, she hadn’t felt so alone anymore.
Olivia resituated on the hard floor of the car, her back butted up to the backseat and knees bent and half-buried beneath the driver’s side of the front seat.  Her fingers had begun to tingle from squeezing the pistol, the tips already numb and the sensation creeping toward her folded knuckles.  She expelled a strong breath out of her nose, trying to clear her nostrils of the smells in the old car.  Rust.  Mold.  Rot.  Breathing back in, steadily, strongly, she searched for Elliot in the mix.  Just a hint of his cologne, or mint-flavored toothpaste, or the baby powder that—even though she had never admitted it to him—she found sexy when its scent rolled off of his skin.  But the sedan didn’t prove itself to be as reliable as the old La-Z-Boy had been.  Because no matter how many breaths she took in, she couldn’t find any part of Elliot lingering in the pungent air.  
“You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul…You’ll be my breath should I grow old…You’re my lover, you’re my best friend…You’re in my soul…”
On that first night alone, Olivia had whispered the song to into the scented velour of the chair as her mother had to her the night before.  She’d stared at the reflections of the moon’s rays on the windowpane, the wind rattling the glass and causing the iridescent streaks of light to dance in time with her words.  When finally, mercifully, she’d fallen asleep, her dreams came to her in flashing neon, spelling words that she had matured enough to read as well as understand their meanings in her life.  
Duncan’s Pub.  Harry’s Uptown Bar.  The Velvet Room.  Margaritas.
It was after four o’clock in the morning when her mother had awoken her with a gentle touch to her cheek.  Serena had laughed at her for being silly and sleeping in the chair.  But when Olivia climbed out of the La-Z-Boy, dragging her sleeping bag behind her as she trudged back down the dark hallway toward her bedroom, she’d heard her mother refill her spot in the worn recliner.  And that long night had marked the beginning of a new tradition for them.  When Serena left late at night, instead of climbing into the backseat of the car Olivia would huddle in her mother’s chair.  She would bundle up, sing into the velour, and wait.
And even though fear and loneliness accompanied Serena’s time away, Olivia always knew they were only temporary housemates.  Because no matter what, no matter how late her absences dragged into the night, her mother always came back.  
Just as she always promised that she would.
As Elliot had promised that he would.
She lifted her head off of the floor, listening, tensing as the familiar clomp of footsteps pounded into the unsteady ground.  It was the third time a group had run past the sedan, the third time she had steadied her left hand over the slide of the pistol in preparation, the third time that she prayed to hear only one set of feet instead of uncountable ones.
It was the third time that silence followed the rush instead of Elliot’s voice.
And it was the last time she would be naïve enough to place her faith in an unproven adage that promised success the third time around if you were strong enough to survive the first two.
She remained frozen as the sound of gravel crunching and scattering erupted outside of the door.  It wasn’t the noise that she had become used to, that went along with the fast-moving feet.  It was different, indicative of idleness.
She didn’t want to look.  She didn’t want to look.  She didn’t want to look.  
Because she already knew that it wouldn’t be Elliot she found staring back at her.
She fought down a breath, just a morsel of air that wasn’t potent enough to reach her lungs, and flipped onto her stomach with the pistol squeezed between both hands.  Her left shoulder banged against the rotted front seat, unbalancing her for only a second before she steadied herself enough to lock her aim outside of the doorway. 
“Damn, bitch, what the fuck you doing here?  Jesucristo!  Don’t you know what a fucking station wagon looks like?”
Olivia’s arms began to shake, the barrel of the pistol swiveling uncontrollably from Derio’s left thigh to his right one.  Her training told her to shoot, not to take any chances, but her instincts screamed in reminder that the fidgeting thirteen-year-old was the only chance she had left.  Slowly, cautiously, she lowered the gun to the floorboard, pulling her legs up beneath her and then rising onto the seat.  She let the .45-caliber dangle between her legs, knowing that it was useless to point it at the teen anyway.  She wouldn’t be able to shoot him anymore than she believed he would shoot her.
“You been here the whole time?” Derio asked, glancing down the length of the lane in both directions.  
“For a while,” she whispered.  “We, uh.  My friend and I, we got separated.”
Derio whistled, rising onto his tiptoes and staring down at her.  “You got Silvio’s gun?  Damn.  You shouldn’t of taken his gun.  Fucker loves that thing more than he does his own mother.”
“We needed to make things a little fairer for our team,” Olivia responded tiredly, waving the pistol sluggishly between her legs.  “And we didn’t think he’d let us borrow it, even if we asked nicely.”
“Shit, puta, Silvio looks like you used his face to stop a garbage truck!” Derio squealed softly, jumping nervously from foot to foot.  “What the fuck did you do to him?”
Olivia dropped her head forward, pushing the palm of her still-trembling hand in the boy’s direction.  “Do me a favor, okay?  My name’s Olivia, not puta or bitch or… Just Olivia.  So, if we’re going to spend any amount of time together, think you could start calling me that?”
Derio shrugged a shoulder, snorting his misunderstanding of her abruptness.  “Olivia, lo que.  Damn.  Ain’t nothing to get pissed about.”
She nodded listlessly, sighing as she scooted across the seat.  As Derio took a step back, she dropped her feet to the ground, glancing down the deserted path to the left and then right before climbing the rest of the way out of the car.  “We have to find my friend,” she announced, straightening the wrinkled hem of her shirt over the waistband of her slacks.  “I’m not sure which way he went—”
“Ain’t no time,” Derio countered.  “Fuckers are thick around here.  We gotta head for the gate.”
She shook her head sternly, adamantly.  “I’m not leaving without him.”
“Then you ain’t leaving!” Derio argued.  “There’re eleven other guys out here, and that don’t include Vedie and Dominic.  And once everyone found out you were gone, Dominic called the warehouse and told more to come.  We need to be gone before they show up.”
“Not without Elliot,” Olivia returned forcefully, through gritted teeth.  “We were trying to get through the car and we heard some kids coming.  He had to find another place to hide, but I know he didn’t go far.  He wouldn’t have—”
“Don’t matter how far he went, all that matters is he ain’t here now.”
“No, what matters is that we find him.  Then we can all leave together.”
“Listen, bit—” He took another step back, distancing himself from Olivia’s narrow-eyed glare and shrugging a halfhearted apology.  “I ain’t gonna get my head blown off for no stinking marano—”
“He has a name, too!” Olivia hissed.  “Elliot.  His name is Elliot.”
Derio furrowed his dark brows, his eyes rolling.  “Elliot.  Olivia.  What’s it matter?  I ain’t gonna be calling you nothing if we’re all dead.”
“I told you, we’re not going to let you get hurt.”
“Yeah?” Derio laughed abrasively.  “You shoulda told it to Dominic too, ‘cause I don’t think he got that same message.”
Olivia released a heavy breath into the polluted air, shaking her head.  “C’mon.  Let’s, uh, let’s…” She turned her head from side to side before waving the pistol toward her right.  “Let’s go this way.”
“Gate’s the other way,” Derio said, pointing the barrel of his gun in the opposite direction that Olivia’s was aimed.  “The way you wanna go, ain’t nothing good down there.”
Olivia nodded, understanding but not conceding.  “Then you go ahead,” she said.  “Get yourself out of here.  As soon as I find Elliot—”
“You ain’t gonna find him!” Derio said.  “Not if he went the way you think he did!  Like I said, ain’t nothing good down there!  He’d be walking straight back to the trailers, back to Dominic!  And if that’s where he ended up, we ain’t gonna be able to help him ‘cause he’s already dead!”
Olivia turned to her right, her arm hanging limply at her side and the butt of the pistol stuffed inside of her still-tingling fingers.  She nodded once, reinforcing her understanding of Derio’s proclamation but still not willing to concede to it.  In her mind, overriding the distant shouts of the other boys and the echoing thumping of determined steps, she heard Elliot’s voice.  Strong.  Convicted.  Making the same promise—maybe the only one—that her mother had never failed to follow through on.
Not to leave her, at least for no longer than she could survive.
“Forget all the partner bullshit the NYPD pumped us full of in the academy.  Forget the crap about your partner being your priority, making sure they’re safe before you are, always having their back.  This is about you and me, just us.  And if I made it out of here without you, I’d still be just as dead as if those kids filled me full of lead.”
“Go to the gate, Derio,” she said, her stare still focused on the pathway in front of her.  “Get out of here.”  She glanced back over her shoulder at him, nodding, trying to ease his perceptible confusion.  “When you get out, go to the police.  Tell them…” She turned, facing him.  “Tell them we’re here, that Detectives Stabler and Benson from Manhattan need help.  Can you remember that?”
“Yeah, I can remember,” Derio returned, shrugging.  “But it ain’t gonna do no good.  You’re in El Barrio now, and the polis around here ain’t stupid enough to get into Dominic’s business.  So it don’t matter what I tell them, they ain’t gonna come help you.”
Olivia’s shoulders drooped, her eyes fluttering closed through a heavy breath.  “Then remember another name for me, can you do that?  Go to the police station and ask them to call Captain Donald Cragen in Manhattan.”  She hurried up to him, grabbing hold of his arm and pulling him closer as he tried to back away.  “Captain Cragen, you got that?  When they call him, talk to him, Derio.  Tell him you’ve seen us, that you know where we are and we need help.  He’ll come.  Okay?  I know he’ll—” Her fingers clamped into Derio’s skin as a blast erupted in the air, a single shot that echoed with matched force to one thousand firing concurrently.  Olivia spun around, her wide-eyed gaze darting from one side of the empty path to the other, down its length, and through the cracked windows and door-less frames of the cars that surrounded them.
“If I made it out of here without you, I’d still be just as dead as if those kids filled me full of lead.”
She turned back quickly, unsteadily, finding in Derio’s darkened eyes the truth that the gun blast had heartlessly declared.  Her body began to shake, starting subtly before becoming stronger, noticeable.  The sudden stillness enclosed her like a tomb.  Closing in around her, stealing the air from her lungs.  She couldn’t breathe, not in, not out.  The air had become too thick, too weighted with dust and probabilities and fear.  She could hear the beats of her heart ringing in her ears, thumping wildly, consistently, and she begged them to stop.  
She couldn’t survive it, a broken promise, the only promise that had ever really mattered.  And she didn’t want to attempt to.  Screw first attempts and seconds and thirds, if life had been taken from Elliot then she would freely give up hers.  
There would be no more struggling, no pleading for one more breath.  
No begging for either of them.
“Yo, Olivia,” Derio said softly, taking a hesitant step closer.  “This ain’t no time to go all crazy and shit.  We still gotta get outta here.”
“If we’re not going to walk out together, then I don’t want to walk out at all.”
She shook her head, just faintly, pouring what little energy she still possessed into fighting her tears.  “Not until I…I have to know…” She nodded over Derio’s shoulder, in the direction he had promised would deliver freedom.  “Go to the police, tell them to call Captain Cragen.  He’ll take care of you.  I promise, he’ll keep you safe.”
“Thought you said that’s what you’re gonna do?”
She slid the topside of the gun across her forehead, laughing softly, as tearfully as apologetically.  “I have to go back there.  He’s my partner, my family.  And I can’t leave unless I know for sure…that…that he’s…”
“Only one reason they shoot around here,” Derio said.  “You go back there, same thing’s gonna happen to you.”
She nodded, understanding, accepting the risk as well as the likelihood.  But her acceptance wasn’t fueled by nobility, but in knowing that she didn’t have any other choice.
“Damn…” Derio sighed, ripping the bright yellow bandana off of his head and stuffing it into his back pocket.  “You guys, definitely loco, man.  Ain’t nobody I know crazy enough to be this loyal to nobody else.”  He shook his head, kicking the toe of his shoe into the ground before stepping around Olivia and starting off down the path in the opposite direction that he had said they should go.  
After a few steps, he stopped, spinning back around.  “Well?” he barked, his hands raised, the barrel of the gun aimed at the deceivingly peaceful sky.  “Ain’t no way you’re gonna find your way back there by yourself.  So if this is what you think you need to do, guess we gotta do it together.”  
Olivia hurried to catch up to him, grabbing his arm and tugging him to a stop.  “No.  You need to get out of here.”
He shrugged off her touch; a hint of the compassion that Olivia had believed existed in him becoming discernible on his young face.  “My mistake, right?”  He shrugged again, stiltedly, with a sense of remorse.  “Like Dominic said, that means I gotta fix it.  That’s what a real man does.”
CHAPTER SIX
March 24, 9:58 A.M.
“Never again.  Never try to take a bullet for me again, Olivia.  If you decide to beg, it damn well better be for both of us.”
The son of a bitch had screwed her over.  He’d gotten in her face, lectured her about sacrificing and options—he had told her there was only one option.  
They walk out together.
And then he had screwed her over by doing what he’d said was unacceptable for her to do.  Pushing her out of the way of a bullet and taking it instead.
Son of a bitch.
Olivia came to a sudden stop, wedged between a Ford Bronco and rotted El Camino, barely an inch of space existing between either rusted bumper and her.  She slid a hand through her tousled hair, scraping a layer of dust off of her forehead with the forceful pass.  Jesus.  She was tired.  Sick and tired of being tired, of her empty stomach having given up on grumbling and resorting to aching instead, of feeling dirty, of being afraid of what might be lurking around each random turn that Derio directed her through.
Of wondering.
Damn it.  She was tired of wondering whether or not Elliot was dead or alive, and of fearing that the resolution to her frantic thoughts would be the one that she couldn’t survive.
“Forget all the partner bullshit the NYPD pumped us full of in the academy.  Forget the crap about your partner being your priority, making sure they’re safe before you are, always having their back.  This is about you and me, just us.  And if I made it out of here without you, I’d still be just as dead as if those kids filled me full of lead.”
When in the hell had what he could live with become more important than what she could live with?  Christ.  She knew when, exactly when.  Almost twenty-four hours earlier when they had climbed into the backseat of her car, shoving seatbelts out of the way the only foreplay they’d engaged in while both stripped off clothes and ignored the civilized protocol of exploring, and instead gave into pure, unadulterated urges.
They hadn’t stopped to consider consequences or aftermaths.  Trying to sort through her hazy memory, Olivia wasn’t sure either of them had even taken the time to breathe, let alone think.  She sure as hell hadn’t.  Elliot had unexpectedly flipped the light to green after a decade of it being stuck on red and she had accelerated without an inkling of hesitation or a single qualm.  She had rushed forward, not taking the time to check in any direction first, and her recklessness had made her an easy mark for the Mack Truck that barreled headfirst into her.
She had fucked Elliot Stabler.
There wasn’t any way to romanticize it, or make it into something other than what it was.  There was no way to try and fool herself into believing that they had made love, because they hadn’t taken the time to consider or acquaint or savor.  It had been fucking.  Every hurried movement, every rushed demand, every eager compliance.
But maybe that’s what happened when knowing and feelings were pushed to the side for too long.  When the first time was finally allowed to happen, it ended up being as raw as your emotions.
“Hey!  You listening?  Fuck!  I can’t keep you alive all by myself, you gotta help out!”
Olivia blinked quickly, clearing her vision of the not so distant past and focusing on the child who held her uncertain future in his hands.  She nodded once, mechanically, and swept another clump of hair away from her face.  She had to stay attentive and alert, at least until.  Until she knew for sure whether or not her instincts were lying to her.  Until she knew, without a doubt, without a hope, without a fucking prayer to fall back on, that Elliot was dead.  
She couldn’t risk getting careless and dying if he hadn’t.  Because if Elliot was still alive, she intended to make damn sure she lived long enough to kick his ass.
“Someone’s coming!” Derio continued, making a jerky wave toward the SUV behind her.  “Get in there!  You gotta hide!”
Olivia turned toward the Bronco, obediently latching her fingers around the edge of the windowless tailgate.  She peeked inside the glass-strewn backend, studying the black carpeting that was tattered and soiled, one corner curved upward to expose the metal flooring.  It was dirty, debris and shards of glass mixed across the floor, dirt adhered to the side windows, and cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and catching the sunlight like silk chandeliers.  
Stiffly, with Derio’s hands pressed against her back, she hoisted a foot onto the bumper and pulled herself up.  Sliding one leg through the back window frame and then the other, she laid out across floor, flattening as much as possible against the latched rear door.  She could feel the slivers of glass biting into her skin, tearing at her clothes, but she remained still.  Unmoving.  Frozen.  Listening to the hurried footsteps grow closer, louder, until they stopped amidst the familiar crunch of gravel.
“Ese, where the fuck you been?”
Olivia swallowed the dust that had filled her mouth, feeling it scratch its way down her throat.  Raymond.  She remembered his voice, recognized it.  And she knew that his arrival shifted the status of her continued survival from precarious to hanging by a thread.  He was the first face-to-face contact they’d had since Derio and she had started zigzagging through the junkyard together, and he could be the prompt that would coax the misguided thirteen-year-old to reach for the respect that he so desperately wanted.
“Where the fuck you think I been?” Derio spit back.  “Didn’t take no trip to fucking Disneyland.  Damn.  Been running my ass off around this place same as you.”
“This is fucking bullshit, man!  Dominic’s pissed, Derio!  Fucking pissed!”
“Que la cogida!  He’s gonna be pissed, needs to be pissed at Silvio!  He’s the dumb fuck that let ‘em get outta the trailer!  Wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be running around here like a bunch of fools!”
“You sure it’s Silvio’s fault?” Raymond asked, his voice softening just slightly, consumed by uncertainty.
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“Means… I know you, Derio, know you better than anyone, and I seen the way you looked when you came outta the trailer earlier.  You was feeling bad for that puta, and you gotta stay away from them kinda feelings.  A bitch like that, she’s only gonna get you in more trouble.”
“Shut the fuck up, Raymond!” Derio barked, an almost undetectable tremble filtering into his voice.  “I don’t feel sorry for the bitch!”
“Gotta remember, she’s the policia.  It’s her or us, primo, and we gotta take her out before she gets the chance to take us out.  ‘Cause she will, she’ll fuck us all over if she gets outta here.  You know that, vato, right?”
Olivia pressed her eyelids closed, still not breathing, not moving.  The barrel of the .45-caliber was wedged beneath the side of her face, her fingers tightened numbingly around the butt.  The clip was full, but it was all she had.  Every shot had to count.  And if Raymond stuck his face over the tailgate, whether intuitively or just as a result of lucky curiosity, she had to be ready.  It would be close range, an easy hit that would take her one step nearer to evening the odds.
She turned slowly, each movement deliberate and calculated, hearing the screams of crushing glass and crumbling of rock-hard chunks of dirt as her back pushed down on them.  Stopping her breath halfway up her throat, she stared at the portion of the window frame that was visible from her vantage point.  Waiting for Raymond’s face to appear, expecting to see the barrel of his gun slither over the ledge.
She felt a shard of glass dig into her back beneath her right shoulder blade, and bit into her lower lip to stifle a scream.  A burn washed across her skin, followed by a damp tickling that she knew was blood.  But she didn’t press her luck by attempting to resituate.  She remained still, motionless, enduring the pain and letting it keep her focused on living, on fighting, instead of allowing it to make her give into exhaustion and fear and become a submissive target for death.
“Tell me, Derio,” Raymond said, bursting forcefully through Olivia’s thoughts.  “You know that, right?  Ain’t no bitch worth getting yourself killed for.”
“I ain’t stupid,” Derio returned.  “This is my family now, I know that.  And there ain’t nobody that can make me turn my back on ‘em, ‘specially no fucking puta.”
Olivia sucked her lip into her mouth, continuing to battle the scream that she knew—if she allowed it even the promise of life—would be never ending.  She brought the gun up in front of her, steadying it against her chest, the barrel aimed fixedly at the opening of the tailgate.  If Raymond gave her a reason to shoot, then she would scream.  She would raise the sky with her anger just to make damn sure that neither Elliot’s nor her deaths remained secretive.  
Someone would hear.  She would make damn sure of it before the bastards forced her last breath out of her.
“I heard a shot, vato,” Derio said, his question—the truth that would follow it—causing Olivia’s grip around the gun to tighten even more.  “Somebody waste the marano?”
“Zaniel saw him, got off a shot,” Raymond answered.  “Pretty sure he hit the motherfucker ‘cause we found some blood.  But if the bullet dropped him, we ain’t found his body nowhere.”
They hadn’t found a body.  Raymond’s announcement instantly eased the throbbing in Olivia’s back, replacing it with a clenching in her gut that confirmed the intuitive nagging that had been eating at her.  Elliot had left her on purpose.  Maybe it had been his plan all along, to let her get worn down to the point that she couldn’t fight him anymore, that she couldn’t think straight, that she could no longer interpret his thoughts or predict his objective.
And then he had left her.  
She knew that he saw his sacrifice as an act of nobility.  But if he had taken the time to view it through her eyes, he would have seen how selfish it truly was.  Their strength was only unshakable when combined.  Sometimes—often times—one had to carry the other, but they never deliberately walked away.  They never left, especially when the other’s need was so obvious.
Closeness.  Togetherness.  The strength that was only felt when they were side-by-side, but that was lost when either stood alone.
Jesus Christ.  What a selfish son of a bitch.
“The marano was alone, Derio,” Raymond continued, the noticeable suspicion that had deepened his voice once again gaining Olivia’s attention.  “Zaniel didn’t see the bitch nowhere.”
“Don’t mean nothing.  Maybe they got split up, that’s all.”
“Yeah,” Raymond returned, his voice still relaying his distrust.  “Maybe they did.”
“If the vato’s out here, better keep looking.”
“We ain’t just looking for him, you needa remember that.  He ain’t the only one Dominic wants buried.”
“I know what Dominic wants!” Derio hissed.  “So why don’t you shut the fuck up and let me start looking again?”
“Yeah,” Raymond retorted.  “Just make sure you keep looking in the right direction, eh, vato?  ‘Cause at the end of the day, I don’t wanna hafta bury three bodies.  And you don’t keep your head on straight, that’s what’s gonna happen.  Dominic don’t play around, primo.  Not with nobody.”
Footsteps echoed on the other side of the tailgate, each taken slowly, digging into the loose terrain and pulsating in Olivia’s ears.  She turned her head, glimpsing what little of the sky was visible through the glassless opening above her.  Lifting the gun off of her chest, her right index finger primed over the trigger and left hand curved over the slide, she tried to interpret the deafening rustling outside.
Thump, slide…thump, slide…thump, slide…
She couldn’t remember when she had actually stopped breathing, although her hazy-minded guess made her believe that her lungs were last refreshed somewhere around ten thirty the night before.  The ache in her chest had become familiar, as unnoticed as the involuntary act of breathing had once been.  Her body hurt from head to toe, a headache pounding behind her eyes, the palms of her hands numbed from having too many layers of skin scraped away, her knees throbbing from taking the brunt of one too many spills, and the burn beneath her right shoulder blade having returned in inferno proportions.
But still, she remained ready.  The gun aimed, compassion an eradicated emotion, survival an instinct only.
Thump, slide…thump, slide…thump, slide…
The patch of blue sky darkened ominously, congealed strands of gelled, black hair becoming visible over the edge of the tailgate.  Even before the face came fully into view, Olivia thrust the .45-caliber upward and jammed the muzzle squarely between the thick, raised brows.  Her finger trembled over the trigger, pressing and then lightening, as the pains that wracked her body combined in forceful domination.  Each ache blended with the others, demanding that she shoot, consequences be damned.  Maybe it would buy her sixty more seconds, five more minutes, just enough time to find Elliot.
And then she could give up, if he was with her.  Because letting go would be possible as long as she had something to hang onto during the process.
“Perra loca!  What the fuck you doing?”
Olivia’s arms went limp, the gun crashing against her chest.  She breathed out the dust that Raymond’s arrival had lodged in her throat, her eyelids fluttering as Derio rose onto his tiptoes and stuck his head and shoulders through the rectangular-shaped opening.
“Damn, bitch!  Needa be careful with that thing before you blow somebody’s fucking head off!”
“Sorry,” she whispered, pressing her hand into the floorboard to push herself up.  She folded her legs in front of her, the gun discarded in her lap.  “I didn’t, uh.  I couldn’t tell…” She shook her head, another heavy breath deflating her shoulders.  “I didn’t know if it was Raymond or you.”
Derio slapped his palms against the tailgate, thrusting himself backwards a step.  “C’mon, get outta there.  We gotta keep moving.”
Olivia nodded, complying as much as agreeing.  She climbed onto her knees, sliding one leg over the ledge of the tailgate and then the other.  The thought flashed in her mind as she balanced both feet on the bumper, her back to the nervous boy.  It was the devil she had made a deal with, just as Elliot had warned.  Maybe this was another appendage to Derio’s master plan, to gain at least a portion of her trust, to wear her down to the point that exhaustion would actually feel vitalizing, to backtrack and turn so often through the stretches of steel that she lost all sense of direction, all reasonability.  And then the deceivingly fresh-faced progeny would strike as the serpents had trained him to do.  Taking advantage of her naivety, her misplaced trust, her sheer hopelessness, he would conform her into an easy mark that would gain him the respect he wanted—maybe even needed—to be viewed as a vital member of his immoral family.
She jumped to the ground, an inkling of relief washing over her as she turned to find Derio still backed up to the El Camino with his gun at his side and pointed at the ground.  Looking him up and down, studying him, she backed up to the Bronco, putting as much space between them as possible.  
“You know, uh…” She shrugged stiffly, wincing through the sting her freshly injured back retaliated with.  “I was thinking, I mean… Maybe it’s a good idea if we split up.”
“Split up?” he asked, his dark brows creasing.  “You loco, man?  It’s a better idea if we just head for the fucking gate.  We can make it outta here in ten minutes easy as long as we keep moving—”
“No,” Olivia disagreed, wedging the barrel of the gun inside the waistband of her slacks.  “I told you, I can’t.”
“Damn…” Derio whispered, digging the heel of his sneaker into the rocks.  “You hadda hear what Raymond said.  They got the ese, okay?  Ain’t nothing to look for now.”
“They haven’t found a body.”
“What the fuck does that matter?  Vato crawled into some car to bleed to death.  And you stick around here to try and find him, same thing’ll happen to you.”
“Okay,” Olivia said, the resolve as thick in her voice as it became in her eyes.  “But there’s no reason to take a chance on them connecting the two of us, Derio.  I think you should head for the gate.  Get out of here and go to the police like I told you to.  Hopefully, my captain will make it here in time.”
“Fucking captain, lo que,” Derio admonished with a pronounced roll of his eyes.  Leaning back against the El Camino, the rickety frame squealing indignantly beneath his weight, he kicked at the ground again.  “Damn.  And you maranos think we’re the crazy ones.”  With a shake of his head, he pushed off of the car, nodding abruptly to his left.  “Let’s go.  If the fucker’s bleeding, he shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
+++
March 24, 10:36 A.M.
He had the eyes of an old man, eyes that gave away the secrets of a less than perfect life.  In just thirteen years, he had already seen too much, been forced to survive too much, and the circumstances that had cumulated to form each hardship and heartbreak had unfairly aged him.
But they hadn’t broken Derio’s spirit; that was just as evident.
Olivia stayed a step behind him, cautiously trusting him, as he weaved in and out of the maze of cars like the Alpha mouse that had picked up the scent of the strategically placed cheese.  Or maybe—more accurately—it was the malevolent spawn that had followed the path one too many times that led straight into the pit of hell.
She dipped her head forward, studying his profile through a sideways glance.  He was a cute kid, a ‘pretty boy’ some might categorize him.  With his pitch-colored hair and eyes, tanned skin, and frame that hadn’t yet completely outgrown its childlike qualities or rid itself of baby fat.  His stomach bulged slightly beneath the excess material of his outsized, New York Yankees t-shirt, and his thighs were noticeably round beneath the wide legs of his faded blue jeans.
He was a cute kid.  A child who deserved the chance to become something more—something other—than what life had unfairly predestined him to become.
“So, uh.  Derio.”  She smiled faintly, tremblingly, as the dark eyes shifted in her direction; the same cautiousness detectable in them as she intuitively knew was visible in her own.  “How’d you end up here, with Dominic?”
Derio shrugged a shoulder, his eyes squinted as the morning sun beat down against his face.  “Raymond,” he answered.  “He brought me in.”
“Raymond…” Olivia repeated, a hint of questioning raising the cadence of her voice.
“He’s my cousin.”
“Where’s his family?”
“El Barrio,” Derio answered simply, resituating the semi automatic pistol between his sweaty fingers.  “A coupla years ago when my mom got into the drugs real bad, Raymond’s mom took me in.  Things were pretty good for a while, too.  We did okay.”
Olivia nodded once, without understanding, only with curiosity.  “If things were good, why’d you leave?”
Derio heaved out a breath, his shoulders slumping.  “Novio loco del asno,” he grumbled too lowly to be heard.  With a shake of his head, dragging the soles of his shoes noisily through the rocks, he added, “My aunt got this new boyfriend.  Vato seemed cool at first, you know, but then…” He shrugged, licking the dirt away from the corners of his pudgy lips.  “Started to drink a lot, and he was one mean motherfucker when he did that.  So, Raymond took off, joined Dominic’s family.  A coupla months ago he came back and got me.  Raymond and me, we always stick together.  Always take care of each other, you know?”
Olivia came to a stop, her cessation immediate and prompted as much by questioning as insecurity.  She glanced down the seemingly endless path to her right and then left, her mixed-up mind expecting to see Raymond peeking back at her.  But instead, Elliot’s voice crashed down on her, tauntingly, truthfully, “These bastards are the only family this kid has, Olivia.  We can’t be stupid enough to think we turned him against them after, what, twenty minutes alone with him?”
She squatted in front of the empty, rear wheel well of a lopsided Chevy Cavalier, pulling the gun from the waistband of her pants and dangling it between her legs.  Pressing her index finger against the trigger, she squeezed lightly, repeatedly, nervously.  She had good instincts, generally.  Reliable instincts.  But now she couldn’t stop herself from wondering if she had coerced them into following her hopes versus her gut.  She had wanted to believe Derio when he’d promised Elliot and her his help, and so she had.  Without suspicion or questioning or taking into account Elliot’s misgivings.
And maybe it had been a mistake, one that neither Elliot nor she would live to regret.
“What’re you doing?” Derio asked, digging at the side of his thigh with the black muzzle of the gun.  “You keep stopping like this, we ain’t gonna get nowhere.”
She glanced up, her eyes narrowing in retaliation to the sun’s harsh, morning rays.  “Where are we going, Derio?  Where are you taking me?”
He shrugged, rising onto his tiptoes to peek over the roof of the Cavalier at the vacant lane on the other side.  “Trying to find the marano, right?”
“Is that what we’re doing?” Olivia pressed, pushing against the trigger, lessening her touch, the movement fluid and recurring.  “Are we trying to find Elliot, or are we heading back to Dominic?  I mean, what?  Is this just a part of the game, a way to have a little more fun with us before you kill us?”
Derio’s gaze dropped to her whitened fingers wrapped around the pistol.  He raised his gun slightly, steadying it in front of his stomach, his finger curved across the trigger as Olivia’s was.  Pressing lightly.  Releasing.  Repeating.  “What’re you gonna do?  Shoot me?”
Olivia shrugged, the barrel of the gun rising and then lowering through the sluggish act.  “Is that what you’re gonna do?  And then what happens after I’m dead, huh?  What happens?”  She rose up, the gun aimed at the ground between them.  “You go out and find someone new, is that it?  Because I know we’re not the first.  I saw the mattress, the blood on it.”  She inched toward him, deliberately erasing the space between them.  Staring down at him, dousing his expressionless face with steady, heavy breaths.  “How many women have you raped here?  How many have you murdered?”
Derio brought his arms up between them, shoving against her chest and sending both stumbling backwards.  Olivia popped against the Cavalier, the unbalanced frame rocking back and forth from the force.  “I should let Dominic have you!” he hissed.  “You’re fucking loca, bitch!”
“Olivia!” she seethed, pushing off of the car and charging across the pathway.  She barreled up to him, slamming her stiffened body into his.  “My name is Olivia!  And that ‘fucking marano’ who might be bleeding to death right now is Elliot, you son of a bitch!  We have names, just like all the other people you’ve brought here!”
“You’re talking fucking crazy!”  He took a step back, his eyes narrowing as he surveyed Olivia’s rigid stance from head-to-toe before settling on her tensed index finger pressed against the .45-caliber’s trigger.  “I don’t know about no other people,” he finally said, the confusion in his voice comparable to that which had darkened Olivia’s eyes.  
“Why’s there blood in the trailer?” 
“I don’t know!”
“That’s crap, Derio!  Come on!”  She rushed up to him again, guns lowered to both of their sides but fingers remaining braced over the triggers.  “Is this really the life you want?  Hurting people, murdering them?  Being Dominic’s punching bag every time you mess up?  Is that how you want to live?”
“I never hurt no one!” Derio returned, a whine—a plea to be believed—seeping into his voice.  “How many times I gotta tell you that?”
“It doesn’t matter how many times, because I don’t believe you!  There’s blood, a lot of it—”
“Dominic done it!” he hissed, a high-pitched, anxious sob catching in his throat.  He kicked at the loose terrain between them, once, twice, sending sprays of gravel and dirt into the air that pelted both sets of legs.  “Every time!  And it wasn’t no people we dragged in here off the streets!  Damn, this ain’t some kinda game!  It’s our lives, bitch!  That’s where the blood comes from!  You fuck up bad enough, Dominic makes damn sure you don’t ever do it again!”
Olivia backed up to the car again, deflating against it.  She breathed in, dust coating the insides of her cheeks, and pushed the tainted air back out quickly, fully.  And again, without suspicion or questioning or misgivings, she believed the child who so desperately wanted to be seen as a man.  He wasn’t the devil; it was what her gut told her.  He was just another one of the devil’s hopeless victims.
“How many?” she asked, Derio having turned his back to her and escaped to the other side of the narrow passageway.  “How many boys has Dominic killed?”
He dropped his head forward, swiping the back of his hand across his face.  Drying the tears that real men never showed.  “Only one since I been here,” he answered, his voice low, ricocheting off of the hard, uneven ground.  “A vato named Kique.  Dominic made us all watch when he took him out.  Ripped the back of the motherfucker’s head off with a bullet.”
“And there’ve been more?”
“I don’t know their names, don’t even know for sure how many there’ve been.  Raymond only told me about three of ‘em.”  He turned slowly, hesitantly, the gravel rumbling beneath his feet.  “Dominic said it’s gonna happen to me, too.  If I don’t take the marano and you out, he’s gonna take me out.”  He attempted a shrug, his shoulders only rolling forward, slumping.  Weighted.  “I don’t wanna die yet, you know?”
“Yeah,” Olivia whispered, the sun highlighting the sudden glimmer of tears in her eyes.  “I know.”
“Funny thing is, I kinda don’t want you to die no more, neither.”  He brushed a hand across his cheek, dust adhering to the dampness that still streaked his skin.  His dark brows lowered thoughtfully, relaying confusion, as he attempted to grab hold of—to understand—a maturity that life affirmed he was still too young to possess. 
He wasn’t the devil, Olivia’s instincts and gut finally agreed.  He was a child, impressionable and naïve and eager to please, and he was still so far away from being the man that he’d been expected to be.
She stepped away from the car, holstering the gun inside the waistband of her slacks.  “Then I guess we need to make sure that neither of us do,” she responded, tilting her head, motioning toward the empty path bordered by inauspicious steel.  “Come on.  A moving target is harder to hit than one that’s standing still, so let’s keep moving.”
+++
March 24, 11:23 A.M.
“You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul…You’ll be my breath should I grow old…”
When she had been fourteen, she’d awoken one morning huddled in the La-Z-Boy recliner, swathed in her threadbare, polka dot-design sleeping bag, and with Rod Stewart’s gravelly voice serenading her through the tiny speaker of her transistor radio.  After the chorus had been sung the first time, she noticed it.  The air was absent of the odor of percolating coffee, the normal vibrations that accompanied movement weren’t present in the house, and the television in her mother’s room that hummed religiously every morning with newscasts and weather reports was silent. 
“My love for you is immeasurable…My respect for you immense…You’re ageless, timeless, lace and fineness…You’re beauty and elegance…”
Her mother hadn’t come home.
Olivia hadn’t crawled out of the old chair to investigate.  She hadn’t needed to.  Not only had the unfamiliar soundlessness in the house confirmed her fears, but so had her intuition.  She would know if her mother were close, she would feel her, sense her, know.
“You’re a rhapsody, a comedy…You’re a symphony and a play…You’re every love song ever written…But, honey, what do you see in me?”
The Grandfather clock in the corner of the room had chimed seven times, verifying the start of a new day.  Or maybe, Olivia had wondered, its bells signified the end of too many years’ worth of haunted ones.  Outside, at the end of the drive, the garbage truck startled her as its lift squealed a taunting, “She’s never coming back!”  The heater popped on, hissing maliciously, “She finally did it, ran her car into a telephone pole!”  And down the hallway, overpowering all other sounds, her mother’s alarm clock began to scream agonizingly, “She’s dead!  She’s dead!”
She had buried herself beneath the sleeping bag, covering herself from head to toe and breathing in the darkness.  It was cold, shrouded from the heat, and so she had burrowed further into her mother’s comfortable chair.  The smells that time had adhered to the worn velour accosted her, gently at first, powerfully as the seconds dragged on.  The aroma of Prell shampoo mixed with a tinge of Jovan Musk perfume and highlighted by the unmistakable odor of Svedka vodka, and by the time they had blended and brought her mother’s face to life within the cool confines of darkness, she had begun to understand what would be expected of her. 
“And there have been many affairs…Many times I’ve thought to leave…But I bite my lip and turn around…’Cause you’re the warmest thing I’ve ever found…”
Climbing out of the chair, dragging her sleeping bag behind her down the length of the hallway, she went into her bedroom.  She had gotten dressed, fixed her hair, brushed her teeth, and reloaded her backpack with the textbooks she’d left scattered across her desk the night before.  Ignoring the continuous, grating buzz of her mother’s alarm clock, she made her way into the kitchen, not glancing at the empty coffee pot as she dug an onion bagel out of the breadbox.  And then she had locked up the front door and sprinted the half-block to the bus stop.
“You’re in my heart, you’re in my soul…You’ll be my breath should I grow old…”
She carried on. 
As if nothing was different, nothing had changed, and there was nothing to fear.
As she knew would be expected of her to do.
“Yo.  You hear me?”
Olivia answered with a wobbly tilt of her head, her response as ambiguous to Derio as her knowledge of the content of his endless chattering was in her mind.  Her instincts told her that they had made a complete circle around the junkyard at least twice.  Peeking inside half-demolished cars, lifting trunk lids, crawling on the ground to glimpse beneath rotted undercarriages, and hiding from the seemingly never ending footsteps that echoed on all sides of them with each useless pass.
They had searched, but they hadn’t found blood, or signs of a struggle, or Elliot.  They had only found steel and gravel and dirt.
But still, she carried on.  Just as she knew was expected of her to do.
Derio jiggled the butt of the pistol in his hand, loosening his fingers, stretching them.  “So, uh.  We get outta here, what’s gonna happen to me?  They gonna send me to jail?”
Olivia pushed a clump of hair away from her face, sprinkles of dirt falling out of the tousled strands and tickling her skin as they slid down her face.  “I’ll help you, okay?” she said, shooting a strained, absent smile in the boy’s direction.  “It’s what I promised, and I won’t go back on it.”
Derio shrugged a shoulder, his tentative belief in her evident.  “Wherever I go, think there’ll be a school there?  I ain’t gone in a while.  Kinda been thinking maybe I should give it another try, you know?”
“I think… Yeah.”  Olivia nodded, the tension in her smile easing.  “We’ll get you back in school.”
“I think my mom would like that.  No one in my family ever graduated before.”
“Then we’ll make sure you’re the first,” Olivia responded, brushing her hand across his shoulder.  He tensed noticeably, pulling away.  She could understand his hesitance and knew a little something about his fear. It was a fear that instilled itself in every one of your muscles and deep into your bones, the mistrust of something as simple as a touch.  The wondering through every split second before one was given whether it would be soft or harsh, and the resolve that finally imbedded itself inside of you that convinced you to avoid all instead of foolishly trusting any.
“You know, we shoulda found the vato by now,” Derio said, his face turned away from her, scanning the stacks of cars on their right.  “Maybe he ain’t here no more.  Coulda taken a way out if he found one.”
“He’s here,” Olivia returned sternly, convicted.
“Apenas diciendo…” He shrugged, juggling the pistol from his right hand into his left one.  “Maybe he figured it was better if at least one of you got outta here.  I mean, we keep going in circles and maybe there ain’t even nothing for us to be looking for.”
“He’s here,” Olivia repeated, her pace quickening, taking her a step ahead of Derio.  “He wouldn’t leave me.”
“And there have been many affairs…Many times I’ve thought to leave…But I bite my lip and turn around…’Cause you’re the warmest thing I’ve ever found…”
On the day her mother hadn’t come home for the first time following a late night binge, Olivia had walked into the house after school to find Serena nestled in the La-Z-Boy recliner with a worn copy of Wuthering Heights spread open across her lap and a cup of coffee steaming on the windowsill beside the silenced transistor radio.  
Her mother had smiled, with a hangover clouding her eyes and the stench of alcohol still seeping out of her pores, and had initiated a simplistic conversation even before Olivia unloaded her sagging shoulder of the overstuffed backpack.  How had school been?  Had she finished reading The Red Badge of Courage yet for English class?  Wasn’t the weather unusually cool for it to be so close to spring?  What would Olivia prefer for dinner, Chinese take-out or for Serena to pop some frozen fish sticks into the oven?
Olivia had answered each question, adding to them when there had been something significant to add and deliberately shying away from her own questions that nipped incessantly—albeit cautiously—at the tip of her tongue.  She hadn’t demanded a single explanation, and hadn’t once expected her mother to offer one of her own free will.  Instead, she accepted that there had been another modification to their routine, a new tradition born.
The next day she tossed her polka dot-design sleeping bag into the trash dumpster at the end of the drive, and she never again slept in the weathered recliner.  She didn’t need to, because it wouldn’t affect the morning’s outcome even if she spent the long hours of the night standing guard.  Whatever was to be rested solely in her mother’s hands, and Olivia believed—just as fully as she did that the late night binges would be unending—that her mother would always return.  Because just as there wasn’t anything powerful enough to squelch alcohol’s necessity in Serena’s life, there wasn’t anything strong enough to conquer her mother’s and her bond, either.
They were connected, perpetually.  And even if it had happened by chance, it had grown into a need that was far stronger than either of them.
“Your back’s bleeding,” Derio announced, causing Olivia’s pace to once again fall into step with his.  “You hurt?”
Olivia shook her head, rolling her right shoulder and wincing as the familiar sting erupted below her shoulder blade.  “It’s just a cut.”
Derio kicked at and toppled a lopsided pile of rocks, nodding.  “How come you don’t think the vato took off?” he asked, his face down-turned.  “I mean, it’d be the smart thing for him to do, right?  Maybe the only way to save his own ass.”
Olivia chuckled lowly, lifting a brow.  “I guess you could say that most of the time he’s not all that interested in doing the smart thing.  He, uh…” She shrugged, glancing up, her eyes tracing the fluffy contour of a cloud.  “It’s more important to him to do what he thinks is right, even if no one else agrees with him.”  She tapped her elbow against his arm, just lightly, raising his gaze.  “That makes the two of you alike, I guess—”
“Derio!  Hijo-de-a-perra!”
Olivia heard the scream behind her only a second before a high-pitched howl rose into the air in front of her.  She spun around, tripping and staggering through a full circle, the pistol clenched in her hands.  Jerking to her left as a blur encompassed her peripheral vision, instincts and panic meshed causing her finger to slam down on the pistol’s trigger.  A shot rang out, whistling, echoing, before ripping through the tail end of a half-flattened SUV.  Spinning back to her right, approaching footsteps making the ground beneath her shake, she fired another aimless shot that pinged boomingly in the distance.  
She connected with Derio’s wide-eyed stare for only a second, his indecipherable yelp filling her ears as an unprepared for force crashed into her from behind.  Her head popped back, every muscle in her body clenching and straining, as she became air born.  She watched the ground rush closer, the jagged edges of the tiny rocks standing at attention, ready to impale and slice, and she impulsively thrust her arms out in front of her.  As she hit, she felt the skin peel away from her palms and a scream sear her throat, Elliot’s name piercing the air as deafeningly as the wasted bullets had.
Her pistol spun across the ground, the black tunnel of its muzzle taunting her as it stared ominously into her flushed face and then redirected its aim elsewhere.  Over and over, turning and turning, flying further away from her bloodied hands.  It came to a stop between Adidas-clad feet, half-buried in the gravel, marred by scratches and dirt, useless.  She pushed her forearms into the terrain, her hands shaking above the rocks, and slowly lifted her gaze until Silvio’s bruised and swollen face came hazily into view.
“This’s gonna be fucking fun, bitch.”
A spray of rocks assailed her face, filling her mouth, digging inside her nose, muffling her scream as the hard toe of the sneaker landed against the side of her head.  Rolling onto her side, coughing, dirt biting her lungs with each breath she gasped through, she tensed.  Waiting.  For another blow, the fatal bullet, with her body twisted protectively, her eyes pressed closed, and Elliot’s hesitant expression replacing Silvio’s emotionless one in her mind.
“It was too hard.  All those weeks you were gone, feeling like I didn’t really have anything left.  And I knew I couldn’t go through that again.  Not alone.  It was just too damn hard.”
She was dying first.  She knew it.  She could feel it, sense it, she knew.  Because she didn’t feel alone, she didn’t even feel scared.  She only felt Elliot.
“Silvio, man, lay off!  There ain’t no reason to do that kinda shit to her!  Jesucristo!”
Olivia’s eyes popped open at the sound of Derio’s voice.  It was high-pitched, reflective of the ignorant child that he was, and sent a shiver down her spine that overrode the pain that consumed her body with the protectiveness the past decade had instilled in her.  She flopped onto her back, finding Derio staring down at her, his innocence replaced by disgust and looking out of place wedged between the visibly more mature, openly angrier Silvio and Hector.
“No!” she growled.  She led his gaze to the pistol cradled in his hand before drawing it back to her darkened eyes, and responded to his silent questioning with a distinct, calculated nod.
She wasn’t afraid to die, not if there was a purpose for it.  If she went out helping someone else, saving someone else, maybe even changing the direction of someone else’s life, then it wouldn’t be useless.  Her death would mean something.  And it was what she wanted; it was what she needed even more.
To know there had been a purpose all along.
“What’s going on, Derio?” Silvio hissed, taking a step closer to Olivia, looming above her, his gun aimed at her dirt-streaked face.  “You gone all soft for the bitch, is that it?”
Derio raised a shoulder stiltedly, licking at his plump, lower lip.  “There just ain’t no reason to do that kinda shit to her, that’s all.  I mean, what’s gonna happen is bad enough, right?”
“Vedie’s gonna make damn sure it is,” Silvio responded.  “Bitch ain’t gonna get an easy way out.”
“Then leave her alone!” Derio spit.  “Let Vedie take care of it!”
“Ain’t gonna be Vedie taking care of it,” Silvio said, a taunting chuckle rumbling in his throat.  “Gonna be you, fucker.  Guess we’re all gonna see now if you really are a man.”
+++
March 24, 11:52 A.M.
They said your life flashed before your eyes, directly before death you relived every second, every minute, both good and bad.  But so far, her vision hadn’t cleared enough to see beyond the starbursts that Silvio’s kick had detonated in her head.  It was like the 4th of July in her fuzzy mind, Roman Candles shooting off in succession, their burning fuses whistling in her ears and explosive contents enacting a private show behind her corneas.  
Jesus.  Her head hurt.  Even death row inmates had their last requests granted, and she wondered if the gun toting, Rambo-wannabe’s would be humane enough to oblige hers.  She didn’t need an elaborate dinner, twenty minutes alone with a priest, nothing extravagant.  Just a bottle of ibuprofen to help ease the aches and pains that the last twenty-four hours had embedded in her muscles and bones.
But as Silvio’s taunting laughter once again began to swirl around her and the muzzle of his gun was jammed for the countless time into the center of her back, Olivia’s doubts were confirmed as to whether or not even a morsel of humanity existed within any of the misdirected teens.  They had been viciously brainwashed, and their compassion had been beaten out of them.  And she felt sorry for them far more than she blamed them.  Because she understood, at least in part, how easy it was to convince yourself to conform to wrong ideals when the only alternative you’d been left with was being alone.
“You didn’t even fuck the bitch, did you, Derio?” Hector teased, poking an elbow into Derio’s pudgy arm.  “Perdedor de mierda.”
Derio moved out of Hector’s range, digging the toes of his sneakers into the rocks with each heavily taken step.  But he didn’t say anything; he didn’t fight back.  He had stopped defending himself against the older boys’ barbs midway through their retreat toward the trailers, and Olivia instinctively knew that his thoughts had become wrapped around survival.  
His.  Not hers any longer.  
He didn’t want to die, he’d admitted it, and she didn’t want him to.  Thirteen was far too young to have gained any knowledge about living yet, and death shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with the learning process.  Not yet.  Not when you were still so vulnerable and optimistic.
But she already knew what living involved.  She knew the ups, the downs, the good, the unimaginable, and Elliot.  For a few minutes, ones that had ticked away all too quickly, she had understood what it felt like to be wanted purely for who you were and not because someone else saw it as their obligation.  She had understood what it felt like to be complete, and not have a single unattained wish lingering in your mind. 
For a few minutes.  
A few that now seemed as if they were someone else’s memories instead of hers.
“Damn, Derio.  You’re an embarrassment to this family,” Silvio sneered.  “Got free pussy in front of you and you don’t even do nothing with it.”
“Probably don’t know what to do with it!” Hector laughed, cutting in front of Olivia, causing her steps to momentarily become staggers, and pummeling his shoulder into Derio.  “You ain’t no man, ese.  Still just a baby.”
“Shut the fuck up!” Derio growled, his face down-turned and eyes tracking the unchanging topography.  “Damn.  You always gotta be assholes?”
“Problem is, vato, you gone all soft on the bitch,” Silvio continued.  “Vedie ain’t gonna like that.  He’s gonna make you prove to him that you can do a real man’s work.”
“I can do it!” Derio hissed, digging his foot into the ground and sending a thick spray of rocks into the air.  “Fuck!  You don’t think I can do it?  Just wait, Silvio!  I’ll take out the bitch, ain’t no big deal!”
Oddly, the idea of dying by Derio’s hands seemed more comforting than dying by any of the other, heartless boys’.  Olivia knew, as Elliot had told her, that she hadn’t exorcised all of his demons, but she also knew that there weren’t as many lurking inside of him as there were in the others.  He wanted to go to school, to make his mother proud, and become an admirable man.  He wanted to believe that hope existed, even though he’d never been given any reason to think that it did.
He wanted to live, and she wanted him to.
“It’s okay,” Olivia whispered, her voice almost lost to the continuous rustle of rocks.  She caught Derio’s stare, his hesitant, hers resolved, and nodded to reinforce her words.  It was okay.  Not that she believed it was, that in two minutes, maybe five, her place in the world would be erased.  But she could die feeling settled at least, at peace knowing that her last breath assured that Derio would have countless others.  
It was how she wanted to be remembered, as someone who had given more than she’d taken.  Someone who had sacrificed far more than demanded, and who, in the end, had become worthy of the life that had been marked by questioning as to why it had ever been allowed to begin at all.
Even if the rest of the world might not remember her that way, one child would.  And that would be enough.  It would have to be.
As they emerged from between the steel peripheries, Olivia’s steps stumbles more than assured, she saw Vedie.  Looking pompous, overly dressed for a gratuitous execution in his pinstriped suit and hot pink, silk shirt with his hair swept back off of his prematurely aged face.  Behind him stood the grotesquely dissimilar trailers, one broken down by the secrets it housed, the other as opulent and corrupt as the man who inhabited it.  
She saw the blinds separate in the center-most window of the larger trailer, a shadowed face peeking out.  She almost laughed, and would have if she hadn’t known it would garner a painful reprimand from a grudge-holding Silvio.  So instead, she stared, her eyes narrowed, willing every ounce of fearlessness that she still possessed to fill them.  She wanted Dominic to see her, to know that she wasn’t afraid even though, with death an unassailable barrier between them, he still wasn’t brave enough to show her his face.  It was something she had over him, her courage, and something that she would make damn sure she died with.
The son of a bitch could take her life, but not her dignity.  It was hers alone to own.
“Hector, Silvio.  Go back with the others,” Vedie commanded, lifting a pistol into the air and waving it toward the sea of steel in the distance.  “Dominic wants the marano.  Dead or alive, doesn’t matter just get him back here.  This shit needs to get cleaned up, it’s been a long fucking morning already.”
“Ah, c’mon, Vedie!” Silvio whined, giving a final shove to Olivia’s throbbing right shoulder that sent her stumbling through the short gap that separated her from Vedie.  “You know what the bitch done to me!  Just let me waste one bullet on her dirty ass!  That’d be fucking fair—”
“You wanna take it up with Dominic?” Vedie huffed impatiently, spiking a thick eyebrow.  “’Cause the way he sees it, this shit’s on Derio.  He’s gotta be the one to take care of it.”
Silvio turned toward a sullen Derio, stepping up to him, slamming his larger chest into Derio’s smaller one.  “Better do it right, fucker!  You owe this family, don’t let us down!”
Derio pushed his shoulder into the bigger boy’s chest, his eyes constricting with a glare.  “I know what I gotta do!  So, shut the fuck up, Silvio!”
“Do it right,” Silvio repeated, kicking into the gravel and coating Olivia’s dusty shoes with rocks and dirt.  He laughed abrasively, with the same sickening sense of victory that Vedie had displayed, grumbling a parting, “Going down now, bitch,” as he motioned for Hector to follow him back into the field of cars.
Silvio’s prediction scratched its way down Olivia’s throat alongside a dust-laden breath.  She was going down.  She would die.  Today.  March twenty-fourth, a day that, twenty-four hours earlier, she had thought would be as uneventful as March twenty-third had been.  But then again, that was death’s specialty.  Sneak attacks.  When you were taken by surprise, you didn’t have time to formulate a fight plan.  You submitted far easier, and with shock as its strongest ally, death wasn’t forced to work nearly as hard.
As the two teens’ footsteps and condemning laughter fading into the distance, Vedie began to pace.  Circling Olivia, glowering hungrily, eyeing her like a vulture waiting for just the right moment to swoop down and attack.  She didn’t track his movements, but made sure each time he passed in front of her that eye contact was made, that it was held, that her stare didn’t falter.  
“You look like shit,” he scoffed.  “Don’t look like nothing nobody would want to fuck now.”
She brushed a tangled clump of hair away from her face, her eyelids fluttering tiredly.  “Yeah, well.  Like you said, it’s been a long fucking morning.”
She felt the blow to the back of her thigh, the hard sole of Vedie’s shoe landing in the center of her leg and causing her knees to buckle.  She lunged forward, her footing lost, and landed on all fours.  A scream coincided with her raw palms slamming against the ground, the pain singeing her nerves and traveling up the lengths of her arms.  Panting, silently cursing each whimper that began to claw at her dry throat, she pressed her eyes closed, internalizing the pain as much as her tears.
“On your knees!” Vedie growled, a harsh snap of his fingers following. 
Olivia curved her fingers into the ground, her head dropping forward limply.  Oh, Christ.  She was tired.  Sick and tired of feeling tired, of the aches and pains that had rooted themselves in her bones, of every swallow scratching her throat, every breath burning her lungs, of not knowing where Elliot was.  Had he crawled into a car, wounded, bleeding, maybe in shock, possibly losing consciousness?  Or was he still looking for her, unable—unwilling—to accept the defeat that was so conspicuously staring her in the face through the blinds in the trailer one hundred yards away?  
“You listening, bitch?  I said get on your fucking knees!”
She blinked the dust out of her eyes, rising up unsteadily.  The son of a bitch wasn’t even brave enough to stare her in the face when she died.  What a coward, as much of a coward as the man whom he seemed to idolize, to follow without question.  And yet, they had the fucking nerve to convince Derio that he wasn’t a real man.
“Put a bullet in both her legs,” Vedie instructed, his voice an emotionless drone in Olivia’s ringing ears.  “Then in both her arms.  When I think the bitch has begged for mercy long enough, then you can put one in her head.”
Olivia breathed out shakily as the smooth metal of the pistol’s muzzle butted up to the back of her head, digging through her hair, pressing into her skull.  Her first tear slithered out from between her scrunched eyelids, followed by a second, a third, a fourth… Jesus.  What was she supposed to do?  She’d had forty-one years to prepare, to figure out the protocol for dying, but she’d kept putting it off, procrastinating like an oblivious idiot.  Damn it.  She’d always known she would die.  One day, some day, on a day that she probably wasn’t expecting to be her last.  
March twenty-fourth.
Even if she had never known the exact date, she’d always known it would happen.  So why in the hell hadn’t she ever taken the time to learn how to do it?
Pray.
She was supposed to pray, wasn’t she?  For eternal peace and forgiveness and an all-exclusive pass inside the Pearly Gates?  But, Jesus.  With the metal pressed up against her skull, she couldn’t seem to remember anything she’d done wrong any more than she could remember what she’d done right.  The Ten Commandments.  Damn it, if she could remember them, she’d at least have a clue as to just how badly she really had screwed up.
There was something about not stealing or lying, wasn’t there?  Stealing she could skim past with a clear conscience, and lying was generally done out of necessity when facing off with some pervert in interrogation who had sinned far worse than she ever had.  Then there was the one about respecting your mother and father, but surely even God could overlook that particular rule in her case.  But what would hang her up was the one about not coveting your neighbor’s spouse.  That’d be a hard one to sweep under the rug, especially since she’d spent the better portion of the past ten years coveting Kathy Stabler’s husband.  Which took her to the next one, the little rule that had to do with adultery.  Maybe what had happened with Elliot in the backseat of the car had been wrong, at least technically.  He was still married, but did it still constitute adultery if the marriage was dead and both parties had agreed to move on?  Was there some kind of appendage that gave you an out if the other two parties had already started looking for one before you came into the picture?  Besides, how could she be expected to ask for forgiveness for doing it when she didn’t feel sorry that she had?  That would be a double sin—doubly worse—wouldn’t it?  Because if she apologized for it, she’d be lying.
She needed Elliot with her; she needed him.  He would tell her what to do, the right way to do it.  After all, he had spent the last ten years teaching her how to finally live, so who other than he could show her how to die?
“Fuck, Derio!” Vedie hissed.  “I gave you an order!  Do it!”
Behind her, Olivia heard Derio’s hesitant steps begin to blend with Vedie’s heavier ones.  They danced together, shuffled in sync, both continually shifting their weight as defiance entered into a battle against intimidation.  
No!  No, no, no, no!  
Derio couldn’t be the hero now, not now.  
She didn’t need a hero, damn it.  She needed him to stay alive, at least long enough for her to find that hypothesized sense of peace that she’d always heard accompanied death.
“Shoot her!” Vedie bellowed.  “Now!”
“Vedie, man…” Derio stammered, reluctance thick in his voice.  “C’mon.  We ain’t gotta… I mean, she don’t hafta, you know, suffer or nothing.  I’ll just do her, okay?  Just put a bullet in her head—”
“Jesucristo!  Don’t question me, you stupid motherfucker!”
Olivia heard the ‘click’ of the slide, felt the soft vibration as it was pulled.  A moan slid harmoniously between her lips, signifying her acceptance.  She felt it, finally.  Not a readiness to let go, but the ability to.  There would be a purpose, a life saved even if it wasn’t her own.  Derio wouldn’t die on her watch, and so she wouldn’t die in vain.
But she would die with one regret.  That she hadn’t told Elliot that the time she regretted wasting had been time lost with him.
“Derio, I’m losing my fucking patience!  Take the bitch out—”
“She’s gotta name!”  Derio seethed, his voice deepened by tenacity.  “It’s Olivia!  And she ain’t done nothing to deserve this!”
Olivia opened her eyes, slowly, cautiously.  She shook her head, whimpering, tears sprinkling her cheeks.  “No…” she whispered.  “Oh, God.  Derio…”
“You stupid fuck!” Vedie screamed.  “Stupid!  I told Dominic you wouldn’t be no good to this family!  I told him from the start you ain’t nothing but trouble!”
Olivia felt the ground shake as Derio crashed to his knees beside her, his body rigid, chest puffed, and eyes absent of the tears that still filled hers.  The black barrel of the pistol blended with his hair as it was steadied against his skull, but he didn’t flinch, didn’t blink, didn’t seem to be at war with any of the fears and doubts that she was battling inside of herself.
“Why?” she whispered, sobs pounding at her chest, begging to finally be set free.
The intimation of a smile graced his pudgy lips, and he nodded with the acceptance that Olivia had tried to convince herself she could achieve.  “It’s time to be a man,” he answered simply.  “And a real man does what he thinks is right, even if nobody else agrees with him.”
CHAPTER SEVEN
March 24, 12:17 P.M.
She had stopped praying.
Not out of anger, or a questioning of what had always been a cautious faith, or even because of an arrogant belief that her transgressions weren’t numerous or significant enough to warrant begging for forgiveness.  She had stopped out of acceptance, an unquestioning acceptance that sometimes, selfish free will won out over spiritual predestination.  Too many times fate was determined by something as simple as man versus man, with no superior interference.  And when that was the case, when autonomy took the control that it was never meant to have possession of, praying became useless.
She wondered when the pieces that comprised the past twenty-four-plus hours had officially fallen into place?  When had Elliot’s and her fates been ripped out of God’s hands?  Had it happened the moment that she accepted Elliot’s invitation?  Or had it happened when Derio left the warehouse in El Barrio, with his conscience blinded by the desperate need to prove himself worthy in the minds of his pseudo family and thoughts still too immature to understand the finality of consequences?  Or maybe it had occurred even later, at the exact second that Derio turned onto the dark side street where she had parked her car.
She didn’t know when exactly it had happened, only that one, simple modification to the night’s events could have changed everything.  And then the control would have been given back to its rightful owner, it would have been returned to fate. 
If she had gone home like she had planned, soaked in a hot bath, had just enough wine that sleep would have been effortless.  If Elliot and Kathy had waited one more day to decide that their second attempt had failed.  If Elliot and she had gone to a different bar, if she’d parked her car on the main street instead of the side street, if they hadn’t ordered those last drinks, or if they had left just ten minutes sooner.  If Elliot hadn’t had one too many and finally opened his damned mouth, if she hadn’t believed him so quickly, if they’d had just one ounce of self-control between them and hadn’t climbed into the backseat of the car.  If Derio had turned onto a different street, seen a different car first, if the need to prove himself hadn’t been so damn powerful.
If.  
If only one instance had played out differently—happening sooner, later, maybe not at all—then life would still have its crucial gain over death.  
But it didn’t.  It never would again.
She was going to die.
And the world that she knew—that she had struggled her entire life to find her place in—would continue to move forward without her, her absence from the daily grind not even a stumbling block that would bring things to a momentary standstill.  She would be missed temporarily, remembered occasionally, and replaced easily.  Someone else would move into her apartment, erasing the personal touches that had made it hers with ones that changed it into theirs.  Someone new would be assigned her desk at work, her pictures and personal mementos discarded to make room for theirs.  Someone other than she would interview victims, coerce the truth out of perps, and bitch about injustices in the world.  Life would go on without her.  It would keep moving until, eventually, those left behind had more trouble remembering what it had been like when she was a part of it than they did adjusting to what it had become without her.
Beside her, Olivia heard Derio whimper, the sound emerging as a squeak.  She turned her head just slightly, shifting her eyes, her own tears attenuating as she saw the first of his sprinkle his cheeks.  Understanding had stolen the strength that he had fought so hard to find within himself, and in its wake he had been left only with the brutal comprehension of the consequences of his defiance and the finality of his sacrifice.
He finally understood both, and knew that his revelation had come too late.
Because unlike God, Vedie was unforgiving.  
“It’s okay,” Olivia said, her voice a whisper that the heavy air swallowed.  “It’ll be…okay…” Her attempt at comforting garnered a harsh slap across the back of her head from Vedie, and she scrunched her eyes closed in retaliation, biting into her tongue to hold back the curses that had formed on it.
“Shut your fucking mouth, bitch!” Vedie hissed.  “You keep talking, and what good is it doing anybody?  Didn’t do Derio no good, did it, to listen to your shit?”  He chuckled lowly, ominously, delivering a second slap to the back of Derio’s head.  “You decided to listen to a fucking puta instead of your familia, vato?  Fuck, look where that got you!  Now you can’t turn back, Derio, can’t stop being a man once you decide that’s what you’re gonna be.  And no man gets respect when he goes out holding his mama’s fucking hand.  Dying’s the same as living, vato.  Only one person takes care of you through any of it, and that’s you.”
A groan scratched Olivia’s throat as Vedie’s hurried, uncoordinated movements whistled behind her.  The barrel of the gun knocked against the side of her head, unbalancing her for only a second, before it was redirected at Derio’s.  She bit off her breath in preparation as the crass resonance of the slide overrode the boy’s choked sobs, and grabbed for his fleshy wrist.  Squeezing.  Holding on.
One week to the day after she had turned sixteen, Olivia had awoken in the morning following one of her mother’s all night binges to find their car backed across the front lawn with the right, rear tire balanced between the second and third steps leading up to the porch.  The driver’s side door had been left open, the keys still dangled in the ignition, and the car smelled as if a vodka bomb had been detonated inside of it.
She had climbed inside the four-door Buick, started it up, and under the watchful, curious stares of the neighbors had driven out of the yard and then pulled into the drive.  When she’d gone back into the house, she had found her mother staring out of the window just as vigilantly as the neighbors had been staring from their yards.  Serena mumbled something about being overly tired when she’d returned home and not paying as close of attention as she should have, and Olivia had responded with conversant silence.
Understanding silence.
If there was one thing that childhood had taught her, it was that traditions didn’t exist.  Life was too unpredictable to ever follow a set routine; it was always changing, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse.  But the only tradition that it ever held true to was that it would change.
And it didn’t give a rat’s ass whether or not you liked the changes it made.
Three nights later, when the need for another binge had grown to proportions that Serena could no longer resist, she’d awoken Olivia at half-past eleven and shoved the car keys into her hand.  Groggily, Olivia had questioned her, and repentantly Serena had whispered, “I’m sorry.”
From that night on, Olivia drove her mother to the bar of her choice and then returned home to get what sleep she could until Serena called and said she was ready to be picked up.  No ‘thank you’ was ever offered as compensation for the late night interruptions, no apology ever given again.  But nothing else ever had to be said, it had all been elucidated in Serena’s one and only, “I’m sorry.”  
She wasn’t as strong as her daughter needed her to be, and wasn’t capable of being the example that Olivia needed in her life to emulate.  She was intentionally flawed, and the moment she had pressed the car keys into Olivia’s hand was the moment she stopped trying to pretend that she would ever—or wanted to—change.  From then on, her problems co-existed openly with them, unspoken of but acknowledged by both.  Their conspicuous emergence forcing Olivia to finally let go of her dream of her mother ever becoming the nurturer—the protector—that she needed her to be, and Serena to let go of her dream of becoming anything more—anything better—than she purposely was.  Life changed yet again, and they both accepted it.  Olivia became the nurturer, her mother’s protector, and Serena assumed the role of wayward child. 
It was the last change they made together, and the one that Olivia had never been able to fully forgive her mother for allowing to transpire.  Her unfair push into adulthood, her forced upon acceptance that she had only herself to rely on, to depend on, to trust in.
That her youth had become another casualty of her mother’s selfishness.
Olivia’s eyes fluttered open as Derio whimpered again, his tears strengthening.  And seeing his tears, she knew that she couldn’t cry any more of her own, not outwardly, not visibly.  She had to find within herself at least a little of the strength that Derio had displayed.  She had to help him, to guide him through the transition into death.  It was up to her to be an example, a momentary nurturer, his temporary protector.  She couldn’t make him continue to shoulder the responsibilities alone.  Because he was the child, and that status gave him the inherent right to be taken care of.  
Even if it was only for the final few minutes of his life.
“Vedie, que la cogida tu que hace?”
Olivia hadn’t noticed how deafening the stillness had become until Raymond’s scream crashed through it.  The suddenness of his voice—higher-pitched than normal, an edge of franticness to it—caused her to startle, tearing through her as harshly as she anticipated that Vedie’s maliciously aimed bullets would. 
“Get the fuck outta here, Raymond!” Vedie commanded, jamming the muzzle of the pistol harder, more forcefully, against Derio’s skull.  “This ain’t your concern, vato!”
“Ese, c’mon!” Raymond yelled.  “What the fuck you doing?”
Vedie turned quickly, the muzzle of the pistol scraping down the back of Derio’s head and steadying again at the base of his neck.  Derio choked on a sob, his shoulders bobbing unevenly as he fought the tears that he knew would bring only criticism instead of sympathy.
“Vedie!” Raymond continued, taking another step closer to the trio, his pistol readied and jutted in front of him.  “Can’t let you do this, man!”
“You can’t let me do it?” Vedie laughed, the pistol slipping again, resting at the back of Derio’s right shoulder.  “What the fuck?  You think you’re man enough to stop me?  You man enough to stop Dominic?”
“It’s Derio, vato!”
“Don’t be stupid, Raymond!” Vedie hissed.  “This little fucker’s a traitor, he turned his back on your family!  So you got two choices, vato!  Either you get the fuck back out there and keep looking for the marano, or you get on your knees, too!”
Olivia could feel Derio trembling, his skin damp with sweat beneath a multitude of goose bumps.  It reminded her of how her mother’s skin had felt on those late nights—early mornings—when Olivia would drag her out of the car and guide her up the stairs to the front door.  Some nights were worse than others, with Serena nothing more than a limp rag doll in Olivia’s experienced arms.  But on the good nights, nights when the alcohol mercifully allowed Serena to still be recognizable, she would recite Tennessee Williams’ poetry, or sing along with the car radio, or allow Olivia a glimpse of the nurturer that she’d once had the capability to become.
There had been no tradition to rely on; each end to a night was different than the one that had gone before it.  And over time, Olivia learned to appreciate the variance.  It meant opportunity was never completely lost; every night represented a new beginning.  Maybe none had the power to eradicate the past, but each had the ability to change the future.
And it brought out of her her own uncontrollable craving and entrenched in her her own addiction.  Just as her mother was dependent on alcohol, she became dependent on optimism. 
Change had proven itself probable, which meant nothing was ever beyond possible.
“Derio is part of this family, Vedie!” Raymond yelled.  “Gotta give him another chance, man!  He’ll do right this time!”
“Hijo-de-a-perra!”  Vedie’s voice hit the air as an echo, rolling, thundering, repeating as it bounced down the rows of cars.  “Little fucker chose her—a fucking concha—over us!  He don’t deserve no second chance!  He don’t deserve nothing from this family no more!”
Olivia tilted her head closer to Derio’s down-turned one, tugging on his arm, forcing his attention on her as Vedie continued to scream and rant behind them.  “Tell him you’ll do it,” she whispered.  “It’s okay, Derio.  Just do it, finish what you started.”
Derio sniffed loudly, a squeaky moan rattling in his throat.  He shook his head, twisting his arm within the confines of Olivia’s locked fingers.  “Can’t do that.  Not after I already decided.  A real man—”
“Oh, Jesus!” Olivia hissed, her head dropping forward.  “This doesn’t have anything to do with being a man!  It has to do with staying alive!  And I want you…I need for you… Damn it!  Just do what the son of a bitch wants—”
“Thought I told you to shut the fuck up!” Vedie reprimanded, delivering another harsh slap to the back of Olivia’s head.  “Damn!  Gonna have to put a bullet in you just to shut your fucking mouth!”
Vedie’s movements behind them became magnified in Olivia’s ears, noisier, quicker, sickeningly predictable.  She breathed out a whimper, her grip around Derio’s arm tightening in preparation, constricting comfortingly even though uselessly.  
“Nobody’s gotta choice here, Raymond!” Vedie continued, the cadence of his voice lowering, becoming an ominous rumble.  “So, go on!  Do what I told you and get the fuck outta here!  You know how Dominic works!  They don’t die, me and you do!  And I ain’t gonna die today, motherfucker!”
“You sure about that, asswipe?  Because from where I’m standing, it looks like a real good possibility.”
Olivia felt her stomach clench, her breath becoming stuck in her throat.  She swayed forward shakily, fighting the urge to collapse as her tensed muscles instantly went limp.  Turning her head slowly, cautiously, she fought her tears to steal a hazy glimpse out of the corner of her eye of Elliot’s torn, dirt-stained pant leg.  A streak of blood stained the gray material from the knee to the hem, light in color, more of a faded pink than glaring crimson.
Maybe death was the probability that change threatened, but survival was the possibility—albeit a shaky one—that optimism had delivered back to her through Elliot.
“You take me out, Raymond’s gonna take you out before you can even blink, motherfucker,” Vedie growled, the muzzle of his pistol digging into Derio’s shoulder.  “And what happens to your fucking ho then?  Maybe Dominic’ll decide to keep her around for a while, use her up before he kills her.”
“I don’t think so,” Elliot responded, his voice smooth, absent of the shakiness that had overtaken Vedie’s.  “We’re cops, you stupid son of a bitch.  The entire NYPD is looking for us right now, and you can bet they’re not gonna stop until they find us.”
“Then I guess we gotta make sure they don’t find you,” Vedie laughed nervously, his finger tightening over the curved, black trigger.  “You ain’t dealing with amateurs, fucker.  So why don’t you make this easier for all of us and just get down on your knees beside your bitch?”
Olivia turned further, Elliot’s narrowed-eye stare not wavering to meet her tear-filled one.  He stood behind Vedie, shielded from Raymond fifty feet away, and with the blunt handle of the Craftsman flathead screwdriver pressed firmly between Vedie’s gaunt shoulder blades.  His fingers were whitened in a death grip around the metal, dirt and scratches marring his raised knuckles and determination hardening his face.  She laughed softly, with a mixture of incredulity and relief and anger.  Jesus. Back-up had finally shown up, but he had arrived masquerading as Tim the Tool Man Taylor and erroneously believing in his capabilities to fix anything.
“Get up, Olivia,” Elliot snarled. 
“You better think about who you’re gonna listen to, bitch,” Vedie said, pushing against the back of Derio’s shoulder with the gun.  “’Cause you make one move and the little fucker’s dead.”
“You take the shot, bitch, and you’d better make damn sure it’s a good one,” Elliot returned.  “Because it’s the last one you’re ever gonna get.”
“You take me out, then Raymond takes you out,” Vedie responded coolly.  “And that leaves the puta for Dominic.  That the way you want it to go down?”
Olivia blinked quickly, feeling Derio tremble within the confines of her clenched fingers.  “Elliot…” she whispered, her grip on the boy tightening even more.  She felt him try to pull away, maybe out of reflex, maybe fear, maybe the instinctive urge to run, but she held onto him.  Attempting to comfort as well as protect.
“Shut up, Olivia.”  A smile spread slowly, maliciously, across Elliot’s lips, materializing crookedly.  “What’s it gonna be, Vedie, huh?” he growled.  “What’s gonna happen when the NYPD swarms that warehouse of yours?  How long do you think it’s gonna take one of your boys to break, to tell them where we are?  They might be a part of your family, but they’re still just kids.  And when kids get scared enough, they start talking.”  He chuckled lowly, tauntingly, moving his mouth closer to Vedie’s reddened ear.  “Right now you’re looking at kidnapping, twenty-five years to life.  But you kill us; it’ll be the death penalty.  And you know what?  Pricks like you end up rotting on death row for years, locked away from civilization, learning what it really means to be someone’s bitch.”
Vedie swayed to the left, then right, his dark eyes shifting slowly toward a tensed, flush-faced Raymond in the distance.  He nodded once, deliberately, as his cocked index finger made a slow descent on the semi-automatic’s trigger.  “You know what you gotta do, Raymond,” he said, his face draining of emotion.  “Don’t let your familia down.”
Slow motion took over both time and sound, the bite of the gravel beneath Olivia’s knees turning into slices by razor blades as she pushed down into it reflexively in conjunction with the gun blast piercing the air.  It pinged off of and rolled through her uncomprehending brain, ricocheting and echoing and drowning out her scream.  Derio’s arm jerked inside of her fingers, the pull hard, sharp, breaking free from her grasp.  She swung her face toward his, seeing the glaze sweep over his widened eyes as the last reverberation of the blast lifted into the heavy air.  Seemingly effortlessly, his body folded.  He crashed to the ground, a thick cloud of dust rising around him as he landed, face first, sprawling limply, unmoving.  She watched the blood seep onto his shirt, stark red soaking and staining the mesh material below his shoulder.  Behind her, she heard Elliot, but his voice—his command—wasn’t decipherable with the shot still ringing deafeningly in her head.  
Her scream blended with Elliot’s as he lunged against her, knocking her forward, flattening her across the uneven earth, his body laid out over hers.  As a second blast detonated, even more strident than the first had been, she dug her arm out from beneath Elliot’s bulky frame, hissing and sobbing as the jagged-edged rocks continued to rip her skin.  She grabbed hold of Derio’s wrist, the warmth of sweat and noticeable goose bumps fading into clamminess, and began to sob hoarsely—disbelievingly—as she tried to tug him toward her.
“Get off of me!” she howled, kicking her legs against the ground and trying to roll over beneath Elliot’s crushing weight.  “Let me up!  He’s— Derio!  No!  No, let me—”
“We’ve gotta move!” Elliot shouted into her ear, his voice booming as forcefully through her dazed mind as the gunshots had.  “Now, Olivia!”  He jumped to his feet, dust and gravel coating Olivia’s back and legs with his rushed movements.  Grabbing hold of her arm, he yanked her away from Derio’s bloodied body, dragging her, kicking and fighting, across the ground until her shaky footing was finally forced on her.
“You son of a bitch!” she shouted, leaping toward him, her fists popping off of his chest repeatedly, delivering blow after stinging blow.  “We could’ve gotten out of here!  We just had to trust him, you bastard!  All you had to fucking do was trust me!”  As she raised her fists for the countless time, she froze; her gaze settling at Elliot’s feet and the twisted frame in a pinstriped suit sprawled lifelessly across the ground behind him.
Thump, slide…thump, slide…thump, slide…
The footsteps behind her registered, only vaguely, confusingly, and she whipped her head around with her fists still tensed against Elliot’s chest.  A blended groan and sob caught in her throat as she watched Raymond approach, smoke trickling out of the pistol’s muzzle still clutched in his hand and a startling hollowness having filled his eyes.
“Is he dead?”
Olivia spun around, stumbling backwards into Elliot’s arms.  Raymond’s darkened eyes rose to meet her widened ones, and she saw for the first time that they were as old as Derio’s.  He eased his grip on the gun, letting it dangle in his right hand as the color drained from his youthful face.  And in the rushed few seconds that it had taken two bullets to inflict change in all of their lives, he had become stooped, his lanky frame no longer capable of supporting the debilitating weight it had been unfairly burdened with.
He raised a shoulder tiredly, the barrel of the pistol scraping along the side of his thigh.  “I told Vedie it wasn’t right.  Derio’s just a kid, you know?  And kids, they make stupid mistakes sometimes.  But it ain’t no reason for shit like this to happen.  You just gotta teach ‘em what’s right.”
Olivia glanced back as Elliot moved behind her, and watched as he dropped down onto his knees.  He pressed his fingers into the side of Vedie’s neck, holding the touch until enough silence elapsed that he didn’t have to voice his finding for it to be understood.  Turning toward Derio, she hurried back to him, falling down beside him and slapping one hand across his bloodied back as she dug the other into his neck.  She closed her eyes, concentrating, her breathing and mind stilling as she once again placed her precarious hope in prayer.
“Oh, God.  He’s alive…” she whispered, her lips trembling and breath returning in rushed, shallow spurts as she spun around toward Elliot.  “We have to get him out of here!  Now, Elliot, we have to get him out now!”
Elliot snagged Vedie’s gun off of the ground, holstering it in his waistband as he climbed back to his feet.  In the distance, he could hear the fallaciously triumphant howls of the other boys as they prematurely celebrated a victory that they had been misled to believe would be theirs, and in front of him, in the center-most window of the larger trailer, he saw the blinds snap shut.
“That prick’s getting ready to call back the troops,” he announced, nodding toward the trailer.  “There’s no way we’re going to make it out of here if we’re trying to carry that kid.  We need to go, then we’ll find help—”
“I’m the reason this happened to him!” Olivia seethed, jumping to her feet, her arms tensed at her sides and palms smeared red with a mixture of both Derio’s and her blood.  “I promised him I wouldn’t leave without him!  And even if promises don’t mean anything to you, Elliot, they mean something to me!”  She turned a full circle, whimpers scratching at her throat as she frantically searched their desolate surroundings.  “Jesus Christ, all there are around here are cars!  They drove us in here, so there has to be at least one that runs, right?”
“You gonna get Derio help?” Raymond asked, his stare bypassing Elliot and latching onto Olivia with the same hopefulness that she had seen in Derio.  He nodded toward the child on the ground, emotion making its first sickened appearance on his face as he examined the expanding patch of blood that stained the mesh jersey.  “You’ll take him to a doctor or something, make sure he don’t die?”
“I have to get him out of here first,” Olivia responded.  “Tell me how to do that, Raymond.  He’s losing a lot of blood, and if you don’t help us he is going to die.”
“C’mon, son,” Elliot urged, stepping over Vedie’s motionless, outstretched legs.  “You have to get out of here, too.  Dominic saw everything go down.  Vedie’s dead, and he knows that’s your fault.  So, how long do you think he’s gonna let you live?”
“Derio was trying to help us,” Olivia pleaded through a whisper.  “He wanted to help us, Raymond, so that he could get out of here, too.  So, help him do that, okay?  You brought him into this family, now help him get out of it.”
+++
March 24, 1:15 P.M.
The van’s engine sputtered with a caveat of rebirth, belching out a puff of steam beneath its rusted hood as Elliot grinded the key in the ignition.  Olivia glanced through the opening between the two front seats, steadied on her folded legs on the floorboard of the backend with her hands locked together and pressed firmly against the fresh wound beneath Derio’s shoulder.  Blood seeped through the crevices of her tightened fingers, rolling over her skin and concealing the ominous scratches and cuts and darkening bruises that the long morning had inflicted.  Her gaze jerked to the right as the passenger’s side door flew open and Raymond jumped inside, and she hurriedly refocused on Elliot as the engine roared to life in conjunction with the teen shouting a commanding, “C’mon!  Get this fucker moving!”
Elliot pulled the gearshift into ‘drive,’ his left hand gripping the steering wheel as he thrust his right one in Raymond’s direction.  “Why don’t you go ahead and hand over your gun,” he said, turning his hand palm up and wriggling his fingers.  
“Fuck you!” Raymond hissed, tightening his hold on the butt of his pistol.  “The only way another fucker gets your piece is if they take you out first!”
Elliot chuckled lowly, the sound lost to the rumbling vibrations of the old van.  “Yeah, well.  Considering how our first ride together turned out, I’d rather not take any chances this time.  Give me the gun.”
“I give you my piece, that’s as good as putting a fucking bullet in my own head!” Raymond argued.  “You think these fuckers are playing?  Ese, they ain’t gonna care if it’s me or you they waste!”
“Elliot!” Olivia snapped, rising onto her knees, pressing harder against the oozing wound in Derio’s back.  “Just drive, damn it!  He’s right, you’re going to need his help if they start shooting!”  She lowered back onto her bent legs, her head drooping forward.  “I don’t…the other gun, the one I had… Silvio took it.”
“Silvio took it… Great,” Elliot grumbled before shooting a glare in Raymond’s direction.  “Looks like we get to make one more fucking deal with the devil.”
“Diablo de mierda, lo que,” Raymond hissed under his breath, jutting his chin toward the windshield.  “Just drive, fucker.”
“Feel like telling me which direction we’re going?” Elliot barked, his right foot quivering impatiently above the accelerator.  As Raymond’s glare engulfed him, he spiked a heavy brow.  “If I knew where the gate was, I would’ve gone through it a long time ago.”
“Straight,” Raymond snarled, settling stiffly into the seat.  “Think you can handle that?”
Elliot snorted humorlessly, slamming his foot down on the accelerator.  The van lurched forward, the rear tires spinning and screaming, emitting a rain shower of gravel and dirt that pinged and bounced off of the damaged steel frames behind them.  Olivia wobbled from side-to-side, her locked hands sliding across Derio’s upper back and leaving behind a thick streak of blood.  She cursed under her breath, slapping her left hand down on the floorboard to steady herself, branding the harsh metal with a defined, scarlet-colored print.  Reapplying the inconsistent pressure, she pushed harder when the van plunged into potholes and lightened her touch as it grabbed hold of air and dug out of them. 
“Madre santa…damn…”
A smile spread tremblingly, cautiously, across Olivia’s lips as Derio’s eyelids began to flutter.  Leaning closer, settling her mouth beside his ear, she whispered through the deafening shrieks of the van, “That’s it, baby, that’s it.  Open your eyes.  C’mon, Derio.  I need you to wake up for me.”
“Fucker hurts…” Derio croaked, his face tensing and contorting.  
“I know.  I know, and we’re going to get you help, okay?” Olivia responded, her voice rushed, breathless.  “But you have to stay awake.  Stay awake, Derio.  Just, uh, just…talk to me, keep talking to me.”
The teen groaned hoarsely, disagreeably, as he forced one eyelid open a sliver.  “What the fuck you wanna talk about?” he mumbled, his pudgy lips constricting into a frown. 
She chuckled tearfully, her soft breath washing across the side of his face.  “Whatever you want,” she answered, wobbling above him.  “Just stay awake for me.”
Derio’s eyes opened a fraction wider, his dark brows connecting above the bridge of his nose.  “Tu aceptable?  Vedie… He didn’t do nothing to you?”
Olivia nodded slowly, uncertainly.  “I’m okay.” 
“Yo,” Raymond said, knocking against the rolled up, passenger’s side window with the barrel of his gun, “dar vuelta para arriba aqui.  En el carro de estacion azul.”
“Hey,” Elliot spit back, his eyes narrowed and stare locked onto the thin passageway in front of them.  “Whatever you have to say, wanna say it in English so that we both understand it?”
Raymond rolled his dark eyes, snorting a laugh.  “Maldicion.  Un que fucker mudo.”  He banged against the window again, harder, impatiently.  “Turn up here, at the blue station wagon.  You do know what a station wagon looks like, right?”
“Yeah.  Kind of like a Volvo,” Elliot grumbled, not easing on the accelerator as he veered the van through a right-hand turn.
Olivia lost her balance through the jerky turn, catching herself with her stiffened arms and applying her full weight against Derio’s back.  He screamed out, his body tensing as he pressed his face into the hard floor.  “Jesus, Elliot!” she hissed.  “Take it easy!”
“It’s like trying to get through a fucking obstacle course!” Elliot groused, tapping harshly on the breaks and then gunning the engine in search of traction on the rocky terrain.  “There’s at least one of every kind of car out here.  Why in the hell didn’t we take something with four-wheel drive?”
“Just be careful!” Olivia barked.  “And hurry!  He’s losing a lot of blood!”
“Be careful…hurry…” Elliot pressed on the breaks again, guiding the van through a slow roll in and out of a deep rut.  “You’re gonna have to pick one or the other.  I don’t think it’s going to be possible to do both until we make it off of this damned gravel.”
“Better not let Derio die, fucker!” Raymond growled in warning, spinning around in the ripped vinyl seat to face Elliot.  He waved the pistol in the air between them, his dark eyes narrowing to slits.  “Derio don’t make it, you ain’t gonna, either.”
Elliot chuckled lowly, through a shake of his head.  Raising an eyebrow, he shot a sideways glance in the teenager’s direction.  “You really think right now is the best time to start threatening me again?  What’re you gonna do, shoot me?  Because that’s the best way to assure that everyone—including the kid—will die.”
“Can the two of you shut up!” Olivia seethed, her shrill voice bouncing through the hollow, backend of the van.  “Fight it out later, okay?  After we’re back in civilization!”
Raymond squared his shoulders, settling stiffly against the seatback.  He passed a glare to Elliot, his expression hardening.  “Up ahead there’s a red Camaro.  Turn left after it, then it’s a straight shot to the gate.”  He pointed at the cracked windshield with the gun.  “Fucker’s all locked up, though.  You’re gonna have to gun it, just go for it.”
Elliot glanced back over his shoulder, seeing Olivia huddled over Derio.  Her hands dyed red, blood seeping between her fingers, and her lips fluttering consistently as she begged Derio to stay awake, to stay with her, to keep fighting.  “Get ready,” he instructed as her gaze rose only fleetingly to meet his.  “Find something to hang onto.”
She sniffed back tears, lowering her face closer to Derio’s again.  “I thought I had,” she whispered, not offering Elliot another glance before he turned back around. 
“Tener cuidado, vato!” Raymond yelled, grabbing hold of the dashboard with his left hand and aiming the barrel of the pistol at an existing, two-inch hole in the windshield.  
Elliot stomped on the brake in mid-turn as three boys leaped into the pathway, guns drawn and aimed, each howling indecipherably.  The squeal of worn-down rubber fighting to grasp hold of gravel filled the van, followed by the deafening avalanche of rocks as they crashed down on the hoods and roofs of idle cars.  A shot rang out, crashing through the windshield, spraying glass throughout the vehicle and coating its occupants.  Skin and hair and dirty clothing began to shimmer, the bright afternoon sunlight pouring through the newly created opening and attaching its glow to the randomly dispersed shards.  
Elliot jerked the steering wheel to the right, bellowing through a mantra of curses as the front end of the van disobediently slid to the left.  The tail end was dragged behind, the rear tires locking and skating across the unsteady terrain as the passenger’s side was propelled into the back corner of a tire-less, four-door truck.
Olivia flattened across Derio with the impact, his garbled, retaliatory scream blending with the scream of the tires and crushing of metal.  She could feel the dampness of his blood as it soaked through the front of her shirt and onto her skin, and felt his forceful, involuntary twitches as his damaged body fought to adjust to the addition of her weight.  Grabbing at the slick floorboard, trying to push herself up, she instinctively dropped down again as a second, and then third, bullet tore through the side of the van.
Raymond fired off a succession of hastily aimed shots through the emptied space where the windshield had been.  He leaned into the gap, poking his head and shoulders through as he searched out the reddened faces in front of them.  “Outta the way, fuckers!  We’ll fucking run you down!”
“You’re a fucking traitor, Raymond!” Silvio shouted back, peeking over the accordion-shaped hood of a Mustang.  “You’re the one who’s going down!”  He lifted his pistol, his hand turned palm-down and finger pressed against the trigger.  “Ain’t no way outta here, vato, you know that!  Take the fuckers back to Dominic and maybe he’ll take some mercy on your dirty ass!”
“Damn it!” Elliot growled, ducking quickly to his left as another bullet whistled through the van’s half-rotted interior.  He rose up out of his seat, stomping down on the accelerator, pushing steadily as the back wheels shrieked through unproductive spins that catapulted rocks and dirt behind them.
Raymond took aim again, directing his bullet in a partially hidden Silvio’s direction.  “Hijo-de-a perra!  Get moving!” he bellowed in conjunction with pressing the trigger.  “Fuckers ain’t playing, vato!  We don’t move, we’re dead!”
“Thanks for the fucking heads up!” Elliot shouted in response, pulling the steering wheel to the left and then right, swiveling it through each stomp on the accelerator.  
Olivia tensed as bullets began to rip consistently through both sides of the van, leaving behind jagged-edged holes in the steel and whistling as they passed from one side of the backend to the other.  Beneath her, Derio had stopped squirming, and she frantically dug her hand into the crook of his neck, a tacky mixture of blood and sweat coating her fingers.   She pushed harder against his clammy skin, scrunching her eyes closed, trying to block out the shouts from outside and deafening screech of ripping metal.  “No, no, no…” she whined.  “Don’t do this to me, damn it!”
She crawled onto her knees, each shallow breath twisted with a desperate whimper, and slid her arms beneath Derio’s stomach.  Straining, crying out, she rolled him onto his back, his limbs limp and unconsciousness having stolen the reflection of pain from his young face.  “Go, Elliot!” she shrieked, locking her blood-soaked hands and thrusting against the center of Derio’s chest.  “I’m losing him!  I’m fucking…he’s not… Go!”
Elliot stomped on the accelerator again, and again, the stench of smoldering rubber filling the dust-laden air.  He glanced back at Olivia, bent over an unresponsive Derio with one hand cupped under his chin and her lips separated over his, and whipped back around as the passenger’s side door screamed out in retaliation to being shoved open.
“I’m gonna push!” Raymond said, jumping outside.  “Stay on the gas, motherfucker!  You start moving, keep going!  You fucking stop for me and I’ll blow your head off!”
“Don’t get out—” The remainder of Elliot’s command was overpowered by the echo of the door slamming shut.  He settled rigidly in the seat, beginning to rock rhythmically with Raymond’s jerky thrusts against the van.  Backwards, forward, slamming his back and shoulders into the coarse vinyl of the seatback and then his chest into the thin, inflexible steering wheel.  The engine emitted a deep groan as the back wheels broke free from the grooves they had dug themselves into, and the van lurched forward through three hard jumps before traction was gained.  In the rearview mirror, Elliot watched as Raymond frantically waved him on, jumping from foot to foot, screaming incomprehensibly, before the cloud of dust swallowed him whole.
“Don’t leave him!” Olivia yelled, rising up above Derio, consistently pumping his chest.  “They’ll kill him, Elliot!”
“What the—” The screech of tires once again stole all other sounds as Elliot slammed his foot against the brake pedal.  “You wanna tell me what in the fuck I’m supposed to do?” he shouted into the rearview mirror, Olivia’s flushed face only partly visible in the dirty glass.  “Am I supposed to save Raymond or Derio?  Or, I don’t know—here’s an idea!  How about I fucking try to save us, Olivia?”
“How about you go to hell!” Olivia barked back, blowing out a puff of air that temporarily lifted her fallen bangs off of her face.  
“Fuck you!”
“You already did that, you son of a bitch, and look where it got me!”
Elliot jammed his shoulder against the door, forcing it open as the cloud of dust washed over the van.  He coughed and sputtered, spitting out the heavy air as he leaned further out of the door.  “Raymond!  Jesus Christ!  C’mon!”
As the backdoors flew open and Raymond slid stomach-first onto the slick floorboard, Elliot gunned the rickety motor.  The van swerved down the narrow passageway, taking off the front bumper of a VW Bug and ripping a hole into the door of a rusted-out sedan before straightening.  Ahead, one hundred yards in the distance, he saw the gate, oxidized chain link with thick chains weaved unsystematically through it and padlocks connecting the ends.
“Take it, fucker!” Raymond commanded, rising up onto his knees.  He flew around, both hands pressing against the back window—the .45 caliber still clutched in his right one—as he watched a handful of teens converge on the path.  They maintained full sprints, firing off random shots, their high-pitched voices blending in indistinct chants and threats and curses.
Elliot tightened his hands around the steering wheel, his eyes narrowing as he aimed the front of the van at the center of the gate.  “Hang on!” he yelled, accelerating, pushing his back into the seat.  As they hit, the chain link folded in the center before breaking free from the fence and popping into the air.  It slammed down on the roof of the van, squealing as it slid across the metal before becoming air born.  As the front tires rolled onto asphalt, digging in, propelling the unstable vehicle forward with a powerful thrust, the backend began to swerve.  
A ‘pop’ coincided with the left-end dropping noticeably lower than the right side as a rear tire burst, the deflated rubber thumping consistently against the blacktop.  The steering wheel began to jerk inside Elliot’s hands, spinning to the left and then right, the van teetering from one side to the other before sliding into a fast spin.  They completed a full rotation, finally coming to a hard stop with the engine idling through hoarse sputters and the front end of the van pointed toward the ripped chain link fence they had just broken through.
The sudden stop threw Olivia backwards, and she slapped her raw palms down behind her on the floorboard to catch herself.  Panting, her arms quivering, she let her eyes close as the roar of souped-up engines rolled out of the notched fence just a second before a dense fog of dust.  She laughed softly, with a hint of surrendering.  Jesus.  It would have been easier if Vedie had put a bullet in her head.  At least then it would be over, the fighting, the hurting, the damned wondering whether or not each minute was her last or if there would be another to suffer through.  
What in the hell was she fighting for anyway?  A job that she rarely had the energy to do anymore, a one-bedroom apartment that she didn’t spend enough time in to justify the astronomical rent she had to pay just to keep her name taped on a mailbox in the lobby?  Or was it for Elliot?  Was she fighting to keep him alive, or to keep herself alive because of him?  Twenty-four hours earlier the answer would have been easy to figure out.  It would have been automatic, no thinking or weighing of options involved. 
She would have continued to fight because of him.  But that was before he had purposely blown gaping holes in every one of her emotions, each of her thoughts, all of her beliefs.  
It was before he had done what she’d never imagined he would ever do.
He left her.  
And his reasons for doing it were as selfish as her mother’s had always been, because his wants had been more important than her needs.  And the end result had been the same, the only one she’d ever known. 
She had been left alone.  To take care of herself, with no one else to rely on, depend on, or trust in.
She shook her head, exorcising her unanswerable thoughts.  On the floor beside her, Derio began to tense involuntarily, his neck arching and a wetness gurgling in his throat as a bloody bubble inflated between his pale lips.  She scrambled back onto her knees, ignoring the spasms of her muscles that sent trembles through her arms and legs, as Elliot shoved the gear shift into ‘reverse’ and directed the van backwards in a fast turn.
“Where in the hell are we?” Elliot shouted, straightening out the van and speeding down the desolate street.  “What’s closer, a hospital or police station?”
“Policia?” Raymond yelled from the backend, catching Elliot’s stare in the rearview mirror.  “Why the fuck you want the policia?  Derio needs a hospital, man!  Ain’t nothing the fucking maranos can do for him!”
“Which is fucking closer?” Elliot growled.
“Raymond…” Olivia added breathlessly, hovering above Derio.  “We need help, and we need it now.  Tell us the fastest way to get it.”
“Gonna lock my ass up, ain’t you?” Raymond said accusingly.  
“We’re trying to keep your ass alive!” Elliot bellowed.  “And it’s starting to look really doubtful that we’re gonna be able to keep Derio alive if we don’t get some help!  So, tell me where in the hell to go!”
Raymond turned back around.  “Policia,” he mumbled into the hazy window.  “Take a right at the next corner.  It’s about twenty blocks, maybe a little more.  That’s where you’ll find the fuckers.”
+++
March 24, 1:58 P.M.
The roar of engines had become deafening, reverberating on both sides of the van, screaming out behind it.  The gunshots had stopped, but their cessation was a catch twenty-two, having been replaced by the continuous bumps and rams of the other cars.  The van jerked and swerved non-stop, Elliot’s curses ricocheted throughout the metal interior, and Raymond’s commands had become drones that Olivia no longer comprehended.
She continued to pump Derio’s chest, her heavy breaths and repeated thrusts falling into rhythm with the thuds of the flattened back tire.  Up, thud, down, thud, breathe…Up, thud, down, thud, breathe… She blinked quickly, exaggeratedly, the muscles in her upper arms cramping and chest beginning to burn.  The barren interior began to swirl nauseatingly around her, and for the first time since they had crawled into the old van, she noticed how much blood there was.  It rolled through the grooves in the floor, thick, foreboding, energizing her while at the same time suffocating her with hopelessness. 
“Liv?  Olivia, are you okay?”
Elliot’s question garnered only a lazy flutter of Olivia’s eyelids, and she slurred an unheard, “Fine, El…” as his frantic voice boomed to the back of the van, “Raymond!  Help her out!  Was she hit?  Check her!  Did those motherfuckers—”
She felt hands tighten as roughly as unsurely around her arms, and her neck instantly went limp, her head falling backwards weightlessly.  If she could just sleep, just for a minute, a few seconds.  Just close her eyes and dream away the past twenty-four hours then she would be okay.  
And in her mind, as exhaustion entered into an unbreakable alliance with shock and disbelief, she assured Elliot of that.
Raymond flattened her limp body on the floor beside Derio, his hands hovering shakily above her.  “She’s gotta lot blood all over, vato, but I… Fuck!  How am I supposed to know where it’s coming from?  I ain’t no fucking doctor!”
“Look for a wound!  Is there a fucking gunshot wound?”
Olivia groaned whisperingly as she felt the soaked fabric of her shirt rip away from her chest and stomach.  She slapped flaccidly at the air, at the hands that tentatively patted her skin, and mumbled a garbled, “Don’t…”
“There’re a lot scratches, shit like that, and a lot of fucking blood!  But I don’t know where it’s all coming from!”
“It’s from you!” Elliot bellowed.  “Take a good look at her, you son of a bitch!  That’s what your family did—the family that you’re so fucking loyal to!”
“Fuck you, man!  I didn’t do nothing to her!”
“You didn’t—” Abrasive laughter stole Elliot’s voice, and as another hit from the left side sent the van veering to the right, he slammed his fist down against the steering wheel, once, twice, screaming out with the third powerful blow, “Leave us the fuck alone!”
“Jesucristo!” Raymond squealed.  “You’re losing it, vato!”
Olivia scrunched her eyelids in response to the harsh voices, dragging a hand slowly across her forehead.  A thick smudge of red stained her skin from the middle of her forehead to the outer edge of her right eye, a blending of blood, both Derio’s and hers.  
Derio.  Damn it.
She grabbed hold of Raymond’s hand as he made a hesitant pass across the center of her marred stomach, growling a commanding, “Stop!”  Tightening her hold on him, she pulled herself up, wobbling back and forth unsteadily as she slowly regained her balance.  “I’m okay…I’m…”
“Jesus, Olivia!” Elliot barked.  “Were you hit?”
She shook her head, scrubbing her hands lightly over her face.  “No,” she whispered hoarsely.  “No, I just, I…” She exhaled shakily, brushing a tacky clump of hair away from her eyes.   “Raymond, come on.  You’re going to have to help me with Derio.  Chest compressions…you’re gonna have to—”
“I told you, I ain’t no fucking doctor!” Raymond returned, wide-eyed.  “I can’t do nothing for him!  You gotta keep doing it, bitch!  You’re the one who knows how to help him!”
“I’m not a doctor, either,” Olivia said, crawling slowly onto her knees.  “But if we don’t do this together, he’s not gonna make it.”
Elliot slammed his fist into the steering wheel for a fourth time in a premature announcement of victory.  He began to chuckle, the resonance dragging, as the unassuming front of the police precinct came into view a half-block away.  He controlled the van through a sharp ram to the left side, and jutted his middle finger into the air as Silvio’s anger-contorted face came into view beside him.  Pulling on the steering wheel, he jammed the crunched front bumper of the van into the chrome on the front of the dented Cadillac, his laughter escalating as the car immediately began to pull back.
“Looks like you just officially got kicked out of the family,” he said, glancing at Raymond through the rearview mirror as the squeal of tires erupted on either side of the van and the howl of engines began to instantly fade.  “All of your loyal brothers are leaving you behind.”
“Only one brother I care about,” Raymond groused, rising onto his knees beside Olivia and bending over the sprawled form in the center of the soaked floorboard.  “As long as me and Derio got each other, ain’t nothing else that matters.”
“Christ!  Hang on!” Elliot warned, slamming his foot down on the brake pedal as he cranked the steering wheel to the right.  The van rocked through a sharp turn before the front end bounced into the air, the tires hurdling the curb as Elliot laid on the horn.  On the sidewalk, wide-eyed pedestrians came to standstills for a disbelieving second before scattering as the van rolled over the sidewalk and then jolted to a stop as the front bumper crashed into the brick building.
As the van stilled, its engine grumbling through a slow death, Olivia dropped her head forward, incredulity clouding her vision with tears.  Outside of the steel trap she could hear the honking of car horns, the wail of the subway, and the pounding of footsteps against concrete.  Not gravel, the damned rustling wasn’t detectable anywhere.  There weren’t any more shouts, no aches in her body, there was only the cautious relief that disbelief was allowing her mind to gradually grab hold of.
“Stay here,” Elliot commanded, twirling around in the seat, his stare shifting between Olivia and Raymond.  “I’ll get help—”
“Don’t get out of the vehicle!  Put your hands on the steering wheel!”
Elliot spun back around in the seat, the rusted springs squealing in retaliation to the harsh shift of his weight.  The glass doors at the front of the building had been shoved open, uniformed officers filing through one after the other, surrounding the van, all with guns drawn and aimed.  Lifting his hands into the air, his gaze darted from one wary face to the next.  “We’re cops!” he yelled.  “Detectives Benson and Stabler, Manhattan SVU!”
“Don’t move!” a gray-haired man commanded, a Glock steadied in his hands as he took a slow step closer to the smoking front end of the van.  “Keep your hands where we can see ‘em!”
“We’ve got a kid in here who’s been shot!” Elliot bellowed, his face reddening.  “We need an ambulance, damn it!”
Olivia placed her frantic attention on the rear doors as Raymond pushed them open and dropped one leg outside.  “No!” she hissed as the teen glanced back at her.  “You start running and they’ll shoot!  Just stay inside, everything will be okay!”
“I ain’t going to jail, bitch!” Raymond spit back.  “And those maranos catch me, that’s where they’re gonna send me!”
“You helped Elliot and me, and we’ll help you!” Olivia said.  “But if you run, there won’t be anything we can do for you!”
“Fuck that shit!” Raymond scoffed, holstering his gun in the deep, front pocket of his jeans.  “You’ll help me get a one-way bus ticket to Sing Sing!”  He laughed lowly, harshly, and dropped his other leg outside of the van.  “Take care of my primo.  He’s a good kid.”
Olivia’s hands froze in mid-compression against Derio’s chest as Raymond barreled out of the back, breaking into a full sprint as soon as his feet hit the asphalt.  “Raymond, stop!” she screamed over the warning shouts of the officers, as the side doors were ripped open.  Slowly, she dragged her attention toward the stunned men that crowded around the opening, their faces paling in unison, mouths gaping and eyes widening.
“We’ve got a runner!”  
She heard the shout and the crash of hurried footsteps that followed it, but a baldhead immediately captivated her attention as the sun reflected off of it, the officer rising onto his toes to glimpse over another man’s brawny shoulder.  
“Jesus Christ,” he croaked, his face instantly contorting with as much awe as disgust.  “What the hell happened in here?”
Her eyes shifted downward, attempting to soak in the grisly scene that the men were so obviously trying to comprehend.  The child sprawled in front of her, blood dripping from the corners of his mouth, from his back, pooling on the floor.  Her hands tinted crimson from the tips of her fingers to the outer edges of her skinned palms, and her face streaked with blood and blemished by dirt.  Her clothes were as tattered as they were soiled, the knees of her slacks nothing but threads with her scraped skin glaring through, and her shirt ripped open and exposing a multitude of scratches and bruises on her stomach, with Derio’s blood having saturated the skin of her chest and partially painting her bra red.  And at the front of the van, Elliot was just as dirty, just as bloodied, and had become submerged just as deeply in shock.
She met the unblinking stares tentatively, sobs hitching in her throat as she slowly raised her hands into the air.  “Please.  Call an ambulance,” she whispered, tears cutting paths through the dirt that stained her cheeks.  “He’s not breathing.”
CHAPTER EIGHT
March 24, 2:42 P.M.
It had always mystified her, people’s fascination with someone else’s bad luck.  Strangers would converge on a scene, fight to get to the front of the crowd, strain to catch a glimpse of every gory detail, and then act surprised when what they insisted on viewing disgusted them.  But they never stopped looking, not until the scene was abandoned, the body rolled away, and the pavement washed clean of blood.  It was as if they had to watch to give themselves a sense of comfort.  One more time, one more day, one more minute, they had slid under misfortune’s radar, their lives would go on as normal.  Untouched by devastation and shock and the unbelievable.
Olivia let her gaze drift away from the unfamiliar faces, their open display of pitiless inquisitiveness causing her stomach to do a painful flip.  A coldness swept over her, suddenly, scraping at her bones and rigid muscles that relief hadn’t yet touched fully enough to relax.  She scrunched her shoulders, her eyes shifting again through a lazy blink and latching to the lights of the ambulance less than fifty feet away.  The flashes burned her eyes.  Red.  Blue.  Bright beacons that cut through the dense fog that had settled over her mind and drew her to them.  They were hypnotizing, something to focus on that didn’t require any concentration, no effort at all.  Something simple that allowed her to forget that she had become anything but that in the multitude of eyes that were so intently studying her. 
“Here you go, ma’am.  Why don’t you put this on?”
Olivia’s tired stare rose to meet the baldheaded officer’s sympathetic one, and she nodded her thanks as he opened up the heavy, black jacket behind her.  She slid her right arm and then left one into the too-big sleeves, tightening her shoulders again as the bulky material draped over them.  Pulling the flaps together across her chest and stomach, she hid the telltale bloodstains and scratches and bruises from the gawking officers as well as civilians whose emotions were far more loyal to morbid curiosity than compassion.
“My, uh, my captain…Captain Garcia…” The baldheaded officer redistributed his weight nervously from foot to foot; his smile fading as Olivia’s weary gaze once again met his.  “He got in touch with your captain.  I was told to pass on that it’s a direct order that both Detective Stabler and you go to the hospital to get checked out.  Captain Cragen’s gonna meet you there.  So, if you want to come with me, I’ll drive you—”
“Where’d they take Derio?  The, uh, the…” She dropped her head forward, digging at her forehead with dirt-stained fingernails.  “The boy…the GSW, where’d they take him?”
“Oh, uh…” He lifted his chin, his eyes squinting as he stared down the street in the direction that the squealing ambulance had sped off in minutes earlier.  “The GSW, yeah.  He’s going to Mount Sinai, same hospital we’re taking Detective Stabler and you to.”
“What about the other boy?” Olivia asked, her voice hitting the air hoarsely, barely overpowering the commotion that surrounded them.  “Did you find him?”
“No, ma’am,” the officer answered, skimming the top of Olivia’s head with still squinted eyes as he scanned the crowd that had huddled in front of the stationhouse.  “But the kids around here, they know these streets like the backs of their hands.  For most of ‘em, the streets are the only home they’ve ever had.  If they take off, we usually don’t catch up with ‘em again.”
“His name’s Raymond,” Olivia said.  “I don’t know a last name, but I do know that his mother lives in El Barrio.”
“Yeah, well…” He chuckled softly, with a callous truthfulness.  “There’re at least a couple thousand ‘Raymond’s’ in this neighborhood alone, and most of ‘em come from broken homes.  We’ll keep an eye out for him, but chances are pretty slim we’ll find him.”
“You have to,” Olivia said forcefully, her head popping up.  “If Dominic finds him first, he’ll kill him.”
“I wish there was more we could do, ma’am.  Honestly.”  He shoved his hands into the front pockets of his black slacks, lifting a shoulder in a sign of concession that both time and experience had forced on him.  “But this isn’t Manhattan.  We aren’t dealing with rich kids who have too much of their parents’ money to waste and too much free time on their hands.  Around here, it’s dog eat dog, you know?  Survival of the fittest.”  
“But he won’t survive,” Olivia responded.  “Not on his own.”
“We’ll put out an APB,” the officer said, shrugging again, his sense of hopelessness reconfirmed.  “But the description you gave us matches just about every kid in this neighborhood, and without a last name or any personal information to work with…” He arched an auburn-tinted eyebrow.  “It’ll be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
Olivia kept watch of his eyes, hazel in color with the slightest invasion of green around the outer edges of the irises.  His head was egg-shaped, the surface smooth without a stray hair noticeable across it, and his nose was crooked, as if he had been the recipient of one too many right hooks.  He had stopped making eye contact with her, instead continuing to glance from the crowd of spectators to the officers mingling in front of the stationhouse with heads bent and whispers being passed back and forth between them.  He didn’t want to look at her—to see her.  Not the scratches or bruises or blood, not her.  Because to see any of it would mean that he’d finally have to accept what the combination of it represented.  
His failure, but also the possibility of his future.
Just as Elliot and she had done, he had vowed that he would pay any price to protect.  And that included the children that he had so effortlessly—so sanctimoniously—dismissed.  Out of fear.  The fear that his future could duplicate their not so distant past, and he too would become a victim without their being a purpose.
“Go to the gate, Derio.  Get out of here.  When you get out, go to the police.  Tell them we’re here, that Detectives Stabler and Benson from Manhattan need help.  Can you remember that?”
“Yeah, I can remember.  But it ain’t gonna do no good.  You’re in El Barrio now, and the polis around here ain’t stupid enough to get into Dominic’s business.  So it don’t matter what I tell them, they ain’t gonna come help you.”
She laughed softly, garnering only a flicker of the officer’s eyes in her direction.  “You’re not even going to look, are you?  Not for Raymond, not even for Dominic.”
The officer took a quick step backwards, the hard soles of his shoes scraping across the concrete.  “We’re going to check into your story, ma’am—”
“Let’s get something straight,” Olivia hissed, the exhaustion ebbing in her voice as impatience rolled through it, “it’s Detective, not ma’am.  And this isn’t some story, it’s the last sixteen hours of my partner’s and my lives.”  She balled her hands into fists, slamming them inside of the roomy, side pockets of the jacket as she turned partially so that she was facing both the ambulance that Elliot had been dragged into and the steadily tensing officer.  “We told you…there’s a body at the junkyard.  But the longer you stand around here thinking about checking out our story, the more time Dominic has to make sure that body disappears.  Just like he’s been making children—these needles in haystacks that you like to call them—disappear for God knows how long.”
“And all of this information is coming from some runaway, a street kid who survives by stealing from the honest people around here—”
“That kid risked his life to save mine!” Olivia spit.  “And without Raymond’s help, my partner and I never would’ve made it out of that junkyard!”
“Well, uh…” He chuckled lowly, sarcasm thick in the resonance.  “Based on what you’ve told us, your partner and you never would’ve ended up in that junkyard if it hadn’t been for these two boys.”
Olivia shook her head, laughing softly, as tearfully as disbelievingly.  Derio had been right, all along he had told her only the truth.  The community—the damned cops who were trusted to protect it—were as intimidated by Dominic as the boys under his control were.  And that meant everyone—including Derio and Raymond and Elliot and she—were on their own to fight their battles against the faceless bastard who didn’t seem capable of losing.  “There are children buried there,” she whispered, fatigue once again weighting her voice.  “There are… I don’t even know how many.”
“Right now that’s just hearsay from a kid who knew he was in big trouble and, my guess is, was trying to think of a way to save his own ass by getting the heat off of himself.  We’ll check into it, but… Around here, Detective, there’s only so much we can do.”  He shrugged casually, understanding—but not caring—that his efforts were being viewed as far less than adequate.  “You got a real big taste of what life here is like.  Like I said, it’s not Manhattan.  Here, it’s a war zone, and I guess after a while you learn to stop fighting and let nature take its course.”
Olivia let her head fall forward again, scrubbing her hands gently over her face.  As her palms brushed against her cheeks, she could feel the tiny rocks that had become embedded beneath her skin.  Raised patches that surrounded the jagged-edged tears and scratches in her flesh and had left her fingers tingling.  
Reminders of what she had survived, of what she would never be able to forget.
She glanced up, her eyes darkening as much with reproach as disillusionment, as she took in the officer’s impassive expression.  She had spent the past sixteen hours mistrusting the people she was using every ounce of her energy to run away from, when in reality the people who deserved her doubt were the ones she was trying to run to.  At least Dominic gave the boys a chance to prove themselves before condemning them, but it was obvious by the officers’ insensitive attitudes that they didn’t think the boys deserved even that much.  
But it wasn’t their own mistakes the boys were being held accountable for, it was life’s.  Mistakes they’d had no control over, yet were expected to continually pay for.
She knew that, she understood it.  
Just as she understood that everyone deserved to be saved, or at least to have an honest attempt made in their favor.  It was an inherent right that belonged to every child.  And there was no excuse for taking it away, just as there was no absolution when it was.
“Maybe you can forget these kids,” she said, a small shake of her head subtly reinforcing her feelings, “but I can’t.  And not just because of what they did to my partner and me, but because of what you’ve done to them.”
The officer’s tight lips cracked in a smile, his defined Adam’s apple jiggling as laughter vibrated in his throat.  “They’re not kids, they’re the enemy.  And that’s not the way I decided it’d be, it’s the way they want it.  So, you feel like getting yourself killed for one of ‘em, that’s your business.  But before you decide that’s what you’re gonna do, you need to remember that there isn’t a single one of them that wants to be saved.  I accepted that a long time ago, and I suggest you try to do the same.  Just be damn grateful you’re alive, Detective, and forget about the rest of it.”
Olivia turned her back to him, to his nauseating honesty, and focused on the ambulance parked at the curb.  The flash of the lights on top of it had faded, the commotion inside of it had stilled.  Elliot was inside, more attention than he needed being placed on superficial wounds that time would heal.  He would survive, just as she would.  And that was all that was supposed to matter.  The continuance of two significant lives, no matter how many insignificant ones were lost.
“Ma’am.”  The officer cinched his hand around Olivia’s arm, dragging her out of her thoughts.  “I think we should probably get you to the hospital.  My car’s right around the corner, if you want to come with me—”
“No,” Olivia rebuked, pulling out of his light hold.  “I don’t want to.  I’ll ride in the bus with my partner.”  She stepped down from the curb, turning back slowly, confronting the disconcerting belief that riddled his face with unmistakable disgust of her own.  “That’ll free up some time for you to check out our story, maybe even look for Raymond.  Or, I don’t know.  Maybe you could do something that remotely resembles the job the people around here trust you to actually do.”
+++
March 24, 2:53 P.M.
She hesitated at the back of the ambulance, fighting to absorb the scene that her eyes were taking in versus the one her mind was continuing to replay.  Elliot propped up in the gurney; Derio sprawled across the bloodstained floor of the van.  Folded squares of sterile gauze collecting the blood from Elliot’s wounds, her dirty hands trying to soak up the unending blood from Derio’s.  EMT’s conversing casually with Elliot about the weather and sports playoffs, her hoarse voice echoing off of the metal interior of the van as she begged Derio to stay awake, to hang on, to breathe…
“Liv?  Olivia…”
She blinked slowly, clearing her mind and focusing on Elliot.  The material of his gray slacks had been ripped open at the side seam to expose his left thigh.  A heavy piece of gauze was tapped over his skin, just a sprinkling of blood having seeped through it.  He nodded toward the downy patch as her gaze lowered to it, grumbling, “Just a flesh wound, nothing serious.”
She nodded, his announcement processing gradually.  “I heard the shot,” she whispered.  “Derio and I, we were…” Lifting a shoulder only slightly, sluggishly, she exhaled a shallow breath.  “I thought they had...”
Elliot put his hand up as the EMT knelt beside the gurney, a fresh roll of gauze cupped in her hand.  He shook his head, muttering a stern, “Give us a minute,” that sent the thirty-something redhead scrambling out of the propped-open doors.  As she jumped down onto the pavement beside Olivia, her eyes instantly lowered and lips curved shakily into a sympathetic smile.
“Liv.  It’s just a flesh wound,” Elliot reiterated, his voice harsher, convincing.  “The bullet just grazed me, barely even broke the skin.”
Olivia’s eyes widened a fraction, with a fear that belonged in the past but that the present hadn’t yet been able to break its hold on.  “But I didn’t know that.  I didn’t know, Elliot.  I didn’t know if you were…or where you were, or…” She leaned into the steel bumper, resting the fronts of her thighs against it.  “I didn’t…know.”
“Olivia, I—”
She stopped him with a shake of her head, bunching her shoulders, shivering as a chill swept through her.  “He wanted to leave,” she continued, staring down at the grooved bumper in front of her.  “Derio wanted to… But I told him that I couldn’t.  Not without…until…” A breath hitched in her throat and she swallowed hard, fighting it back down, burying it along with the tears that she no longer had the energy to shed.  “If I’d listened to him, he wouldn’t have gotten shot.”
“Liv, listen to me.”
Olivia glanced up quickly, confusion discoloring her eyes.  “He told me what would happen to him if they caught him.  He was scared, I could tell. I knew it.  But I still…I didn’t... Why didn’t I listen to him?  Jesus.”  She laughed softly, tearfully.  “Was it because of fifteen minutes in the backseat of a damned car?  Did I let that cloud my judgment?”
Elliot lunged forward, his movements stiff, winces tightening his face and groans scraping the backside of his throat as he scooted to the end of the makeshift bed.  He draped his legs over both sides, his left thigh bulging out of the tattered material of his pant leg, and leaned forward, toward her, reaching for her. 
“No.”  She shook her head, quickly, jerkily, a whimper twisting her voice.  “Don’t…”
Pulling her hands out of the deep pockets of the jacket, she turned them palms up.  Her eyes narrowing and then widening as she traced the slices in her skin and studied the ragged bumps beneath it.  The blood had dried, adhering to her, becoming caked in the lines across her palms and knuckles.  Her hands felt cold; not warm as they had when the blood had been wet, but chilled from the inside out.  As clammy as Derio’s skin had felt.
“Oh, Jesus…Liv...” Elliot latched his hands around her wrists, pulling her hands closer.  He lifted them gently, lowering his face to study her ripped flesh, cringing as if each slice was cutting into his own skin at that second.  Sliding his hands beneath hers, cupping the backsides in his palms, anger and shock lowered his voice to a whisper.  “What in the hell did those sons of bitches do?”
Olivia raised her eyes slowly, tears pooling at their reddened rims.  “They tried to do exactly what they said they were going to do,” she whispered, sliding her hands out of his, leaving them poised between them, shaking.  “But you didn’t.  You left.  After we’d…damn it, Elliot, we agreed.  We both said that we’d walk out together, and then you... I couldn’t find you.  I kept looking, and I, I told Derio that we couldn’t…that I couldn’t leave, because that’s…it’s what we’d said.”
“Damn it, Olivia,” Elliot growled, clutching the sides of her face in his hands.  He teetered forward on the slender bed, pulling her closer, tightening his hold and not allowing her the escape that her tears warned she was searching for.  “I didn’t leave.  I wouldn’t— I was running around that damned place looking for you.  But I couldn’t find you anywhere.  It was like… Christ.  It was like you’d just vanished into thin air.”
“I felt like I had,” she said through sniffles, raising her arms and knocking his hands away with the backsides of hers.  “I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t think about anything except…” She closed her eyes, tears slithering out from between her lids.  “And because I lost my focus, Derio might lose everything.”
“Olivia, that kid has a fighting chance right now because of you,” Elliot said, his hands still hovering in front of her, wanting to touch again but not attempting to.  “You kept him alive.”
“He kept me alive,” she disagreed.  “He never wanted to hurt anyone.  He just wanted someone to help him.”
“And that’s what you did.  You helped him the best that you could given the situation.  But we… Jesus.”  He laughed softly, incredulously.  “We got thrown into the fucking Twilight Zone.  We’re damn lucky that we walked out at all, because none of them intended for us to.  And that includes Derio.”
“He’s not like them.  He’s different, Elliot.  He wants to be different.”
“Look at your fucking hands,” he snapped, making a stern nod toward her scraped palms.  “Look at ‘em, Olivia, and then try to tell me again how different from the rest of those bastards that kid really is.  Because he targeted your car for one reason.  Us.  He saw us inside and decided we were his way to get the fucking respect he wanted.  He knew what would happen to us, but he didn’t care.  And then when we didn’t go down as easily as they thought we would, he decided to try and save himself.”
“Jesus Christ, who are you?” she returned, her brows lowering, flattening above her narrowed eyes.  “You sound like all these other sons of bitches around here!”
“And they know what they’re talking about!  They live with this crap every day!  They try to fight it, some of them even lose their lives because of it—because of kids just like Derio!”
She laughed hoarsely, with disbelief.  “I thought we were supposed to fight for the victims?  When in the hell did that change?”
“Last night around eleven o’clock,” he returned.  “That’s when we became the victims.  And I’m not gonna feel guilty because that kid’s fighting for his life right now.  Not when we spent the last sixteen hours fighting like hell for ours.”
She took a step backwards, a chill penetrating the fronts of her legs and stealing the warmth that the bumper had rubbed into them.  Bunching her shoulders, she once again buried her hands.  Hiding them.  As much from Elliot’s truthfulness as from her puzzling fears.
“I never hurt no one!”
Derio’s childish whine echoed in Olivia’s ears, causing her to jolt backwards another step.  She glanced to her left, the grating rumble of a tow truck lifting into the air as it shimmied the incapacitated van off of the sidewalk.  She followed the noise with her eyes, finding above the blue sky that seemed as if it had been—at some point throughout the past sixteen hours—severed.  The largest and clearest portion hanging above the city that she was familiar with, that she trusted at least cautiously.  But a smaller piece, one that people refused to see or acknowledge existed, loomed over the junkyard.  It connected with the barbed top of the seemingly endless chain link fence, touching down on the tops of the stacked cars, fitting like a sealed lid that entrapped everything within the impermeable container beneath it.
“Dominic done it!  Every time!  And it wasn’t no people we dragged in here off the streets!  Damn, this ain’t some kinda game!  It’s our lives, bitch!  That’s where the blood comes from!  You fuck up bad enough, Dominic makes damn sure you don’t ever do it again!”
Her gaze instantly lowered, and she half expected to find Derio standing in front of her.  But she saw only Elliot.  Still staring.  With his hands having fallen onto the squared end of the gurney, limp, his fingers curved into his palms and no longer reaching for her.  With misunderstanding having edged into his eyes and divergence still rooted harshly on his face.  He was on the outside of the fence, with the clearest section of the sky above him, his sight unhindered by the partial truth that he believed to be the whole of it.  But she was still behind the fence, the thick clouds having fallen to the ground around her, encompassing her, obscuring her vision, her thoughts, her emotions.  Making her wonder if the truth she’d accepted while the gravel had dug into her knees and the muzzle of Derio’s gun had been steadied against the back of her head was the truth at all.  Or was it a myriad of lies that her mind had concocted for the sake of preservation, to make dying easier, not as useless as purposeful?
“He made a mistake,” she said, her words emerging slowly, almost slurred.  “He realized that, and he was trying to make it right.  He’s not some hardened criminal, Elliot.  He’s a child.”
“He made a mistake,” Elliot agreed sternly, through a slow nod.  “But you’re not to blame for the results of that mistake.  Neither am I.  We put our focus where it needed to be, and that was on ourselves.  And you know as well as I do that’s the same thing we’d tell any victim who fought back—and won—against their attacker.”
“But Derio wasn’t the attacker.  He told me about Dominic, that he’s…that there are kids buried in that junkyard.”
“We were almost buried there, too,” Elliot argued.  “Is that something you really think either of us will be able to forget?”
She shook her head, slowly, almost unnoticeably, and once again pulled her hands out of the roomy pouches on the sides of the jacket.  Staring down at them, she turned them, studying the bottoms and then tops.  “No,” she answered, “we’re not going to forget.  But I’m also not going to forget that if it wasn’t for Derio…” She took in a breath, shallowly, rushed.  “He tried to help us.  And even when I told him to leave, he didn’t.  He never left.  He never—”
A blast stole her voice, transforming it into a tangled mixture of raspy inhales and a muted scream as the discharge shook the congested block.  It bounced off of the buildings’ fronts, rolling back down into the street and blanketing the crowd in aftershocks and buzzing vibrations.  Olivia spun around, her balance lost as she stumbled back against the bumper of the ambulance, panting, searching the unrecognizable faces that surrounded them.  Each set of eyes seemed to be looking at her, to be laughing, intentions detectable in the darkness that marked them.  As hands locked around her shoulders from behind, she attempted to lunge forward, a whispered, “Don’t!” her useless defense against the unbreakable grasp.
“Hey, hey…” Elliot hopped off of the gurney, a growl gurgling in his throat as his left leg took the brunt of his landing.  He lowered onto his knees, pulling Olivia back against the bumper until one hip was propped crookedly on top of it.  “The tow truck backfired, that’s all,” he whispered, settling his face next to hers, his lips caressing her ear through his assurance.  “It was just the truck.  Everything’s okay.”
“I…know…” she wheezed, nodding inelegantly, each rise and fall of her head jerky and rushed.  Damn it.  She wasn’t a fucking rookie.  She didn’t get spooked, and she sure as hell didn’t get rattled easily.  She was steel on the outside, and had fought throughout her entire career to convince everyone else that she was on the inside, too.  And for the most part, she’d done one helluva job of it.  
She had duped everyone.  
Except two.
Damn it.  Sometimes she wished that both Elliot and she were easier to fool.
“Let go, Elliot,” she gasped, wriggling inside his taut arms, a shoulder bumping against his right arm and then left one.  “I’m fine.  I’m… Damn it.  I’m…okay.”
“You’re okay,” he repeated slowly, with conviction, and through a slow nod.  He flattened one hand in the center of her chest and melded the other to the back of her neck, rubbing her tensed muscles with short, hard strokes.  “We’re okay, Olivia.”
“I just, I need to get out of here,” she said.  “Jesus.  I…I have to get out of here now.”
Elliot nodded, sliding his hand from the back of her neck to her arm, pulling her inside.  He watched as she climbed shakily onto the side bench, wedging herself into the corner, her eyes closing to block out him as much as their unreliable surroundings.  “This is what that kid did for you,” he said as she dropped her head forward, tired whimpers her only retaliation to his indignant accuracy.  “Don’t fool yourself into believing he’s the hero in all of this, because he’s not.  He’s the reason why it happened.”
+++
March 24, 3:37 P.M.
“What in the hell happened to you two?”
Captain Cragen’s harsh voice was Olivia’s reminder that just because their location had changed didn’t mean the stares had diverted or curiosity had diminished.  She hadn’t looked in a mirror in almost twenty-four hours, and she was more than happy to let another twenty-four pass before she dared a peek.  Because based on the way Elliot looked, with his clothes ripped and dirty, his skin marked by so many scratches that it was impossible to tell where one ended and another began, stubble shadowing his jaw and chin, and his eyes heavy and accentuated by dark circles, she knew that the reflection that would meet her wouldn’t be one that she was at all familiar with.  And she didn’t want to see it.  The effect that a child, one who she was putting what little energy she had left into believing in, had caused.
“Christ.  Do I even want to know?” Cragen continued, making his way to the front of a small crowd of uniformed officers.
“Car jacking,” Elliot grumbled, swiping the tip of his thumb across his bristly chin.  He cocked a brow harshly, his lips sinking into a frown.  “It’s been a swell weekend so far.”
“Get checked out,” Cragen commanded, jutting a thumb over his shoulder toward the receptionist’s desk in the corner of the chaotic emergency room.  “Both of you.”
“Don, we’re okay,” Olivia responded, dragging a hand through her tangled hair.  Her fingers became stuck in a sticky clump at the back of her head, and she winced through a hard pull that left a hand full of strands twisted around her fingers.  “We’re just a little banged up.  But other than that—”
“Your hands are getting infected,” Elliot broke in, his eyebrow still arched, daring her to fight with him in front of a humorless Cragen.  “You need to get them washed out.”
“What I need is a shower and a pot of hot coffee,” Olivia disagreed, knotting her arms across her chest and wedging her hands into the folds to hide them.  She shot a glare in Elliot’s direction that matched his hard stare, spiking an eyebrow.  “And I want to check on Derio.  One of the cops at the two-three said he was brought here, too.”
“I’ll check on Derio,” Elliot grumbled, nodding toward her folded arms.  “You get your hands looked at.”
Olivia growled impatiently under her breath, making a quick turn to face him.  “When were you appointed my babysitter, Elliot?  Contrary to what I know you believe, I’m more than capable of taking care of myself.  I think I proved that today, don’t you?”
Elliot chuckled, anger thick in the low resonance.  “Right, we’re back to this.”  He locked his arms across his chest, jutting out his stubbly chin.  “Just what in the hell do you think I was doing?  What, you think I ran out and grabbed a quick lunch and then came back to look for you?”  He shook his head, his eyes narrowing.  “Why didn’t you just stay in the car like I told you to?”
“How long did you want me to lay there?” she spit back, both having become oblivious to the wide-eyed captain and the hand full of gawking cops behind him.  “Those kids were everywhere!  I’m damn lucky it was Derio who found me instead of one of the others!”
“Derio, right!  Our fucking guardian angel!”
“He’s the reason I’m standing here right now!”
“We finally agree about something!” Elliot hissed, the muscles in his arms flexing and relaxing, as he pressed harder against his chest.  “He’s the reason we’re both here right now!  If it wasn’t for Al Capone, Junior none of this would’ve happened and we’d both be at home having a normal weekend—”
“Normal?” Olivia broke in, leaning forward, ebbing away the small amount of space that separated them.  “This weekend stopped being normal a long time before Derio showed up, and we’re the only ones to blame for that—” Her voice changed from a low rasp to a groan as the large hand slid between Elliot’s flushed face and hers, delivering to them both a theoretical slap that sent a small portion of their common sense hurling back over the thick barriers of fatigue and shock.  She bit into her lower lip, pulling her head and shoulders back as her stare shot in one direction and Elliot’s sought out the opposite one.
Cragen took a step closer, his shoulders squared and hindering the targets of the inquisitive stares behind him from being fully seen.  “Someone want to take a breath here so that you can calm down just enough to explain who this ‘Derio’ is and exactly what in the hell he has to do with what happened to the two of you?”
Olivia took another step back, her gaze finding the floor as she felt Elliot’s once again latch onto her.  “I’ll let my partner explain,” she responded stiffly, brushing another tacky clump of hair away from her face.  “I’m going to find out where Derio is—”
“You’re going to see a doctor,” Cragen interrupted, the sternness in his voice causing Olivia’s eyes to instantly lift.  “To put it the nicest way I can think of, Detective, you look like hell.  So you’re going to get your ass into an examination room, now.  After that, I want details about what happened.  I don’t plan to sit around waiting until the boys at the two-three decide to take this seriously and do something about it.  So, I want any names you have and descriptions of everyone you remember.  We’ll find these sons of bitches ourselves if we have to.” His eyes shifted abruptly, landing on Elliot for only a second before swinging back in Olivia’s direction.  As she dropped her arms to her sides and he caught sight of her hands, his expression contorted with a sympathetic cringe.
“Elliot’s right,” he continued through a slow nod, “you need your hands checked out.  While that’s being done, find out how long the doctor thinks it’ll be before you can handle a gun again.  And you might as well get it through your head right now that whatever amount of time he gives you is how long you’ll be riding your desk.”
+++
March 24, 5:45 P.M.
The sun had dropped behind the buildings, kaleidoscopes of colors born from its sleepy rays bouncing off of windows and drizzling to the ground.  Elliot stared out at the quieting world from behind the pane of glass, the sounds of the hospital buzzing incomprehensibly outside of the propped open door, the silence inside the tiny room making the whispers in his tired mind seem deafening.
“Elliot!”
Darkness hovered outside, and inside a fragile shaft of light consumed the far corner of the room.  It reflected off of the tinted window, bringing into view his image in the forefront on the glass and Olivia’s in the background.  Her face had been wiped clean of the smudges of dirt and stains of blood, leaving her skin flushed.  She was twisted in the slender bed, her legs stacked, hips cocked to the side and face partially buried in the doubled-over pillow.  Her right hand rested on her thigh and left one was laid out to her side, white bandages encompassing her raw palms.
“I gave her a mild sedative to help her relax while we cleaned out her hands.  There were a lot of rocks embedded under her skin, and even with a local anesthetic to numb things a little it was still painful.  She’ll sleep for an hour or so, and during that time I’d like to keep her on an IV drip to replenish her fluids.  But once she wakes up, I think she’ll be fine to go home.  There’s no need to keep her overnight.”
Elliot turned away from the window, the doctor’s voice fading from his mind.  He leaned the backs of his shoulders into the thick glass, dispersing his weight unevenly, forcing his right leg to take the brunt as the stitches and tight bandages pulled at the skin of his left thigh.  And he watched.  Her.  Sleeping.  Breathing.  Still breathing.  By some damned miracle, or a stroke of fucking luck, or just some stupid oversight. 
But the cause didn’t matter to him, only the effect.
She was still breathing.
He bunched his stiff shoulders, tightening his arms across his chest.  Dropping his head back against the glass, he let his eyes fall closed as the whispers that continued to rattle in his head turned into unending shrieks.
“Elliot!”
The steel had closed in around him when he’d heard her scream.  Her voice had echoed; it had been shriller than he’d ever heard it sound.  There had been a desperation tangled in it, more fear than he’d ever imagined could exist inside of her.
But the damned steel had just kept moving in around him, on his left, his right, in front of him, behind him.  It grabbed hold of the reverberations, tossing them in different directions, taunting him, confusing him even more.  Making it impossible—fucking impossible—to know where she was.  So he had started running, praying with every unsure step that he was heading in the right direction.  
In her direction.  
“You listening, bitch?  I said get on your fucking knees!”
He had only been able to see the side of her face.  As she’d risen up onto her knees, squaring her shoulders, biting into her lower lip so that the trembling wouldn’t be noticeable, looking—Jesus—so unlike herself.  She had stopped fighting.  Even from his limited view beneath the rear end of the Mustang, with the rusted bumper half-ripped off of the frame and dangling in front of him, hiding him, she couldn’t hide from him.  He saw it in her, clearly, frighteningly.
The resignation.  
She hadn’t been ready to die, but she had been prepared to.
“Derio, I’m losing my fucking patience!  Take the bitch out—”
“She’s gotta name!  It’s Olivia!  And she ain’t done nothing to deserve this!”
He’d seen the look on her face when the stunted son of a bitch landed on the ground beside her.  For a second, just a fleeting one before the misunderstanding set in, she’d looked relieved.  Almost grateful that she had something—someone—to hold onto.  Someone to trust in, someone just to be with her.
It just hadn’t been the someone she had expected it to be.
But, damn it; he’d had to walk away.  Because he knew her, how she thought and reasoned and prioritized.  So, he’d walked away, just for a minute, just long enough to make sure that if those bastards caught sight of anyone, it’d be him.  Not her.  He hadn’t wanted them to get their filthy hands on her.  Because she would have let them, she would have laid down for them.  And it would have been for him. 
So he’d walked away.  
Because he’d known it was the only way to keep her fighting.  By making her believe that she was fighting for him.
But then it had backfired on him.  His damned foolproof plan had done a one-eighty and knocked him on his ass.  He’d seen the kid at the car.  When he was heading back to her, he had seen Derio.  And so he’d thought— Jesus Christ.  It was Olivia.  He thought she would make sure the kid got out of there, that she would take him out.  Derio would be her priority, and that meant—by default—Elliot’s priority would be taken care of, too.  
It had been his plan, and it was supposed to be foolproof.
But then there’d been the gunshot.  He hadn’t even known where it had come from; he’d just felt the jolt of his muscles as the metal skimmed across his thigh and the burn it left on his skin.  And by the time he’d gotten his bearings back, by the time he’d assured himself that he wasn’t going to bleed to death on the floorboard of the old Monaco, Olivia had disappeared.  Vanished.  Looking for him, he knew, and so he’d heightened his search for her.
It had been a fucking race against time, one that he had realized he’d lost as soon as he heard her scream.  Then the pictures started flashing in his overactive brain.  Of her.  Of the damned kids.  Of them touching her, torturing her, forcing her.  He’d almost felt relieved when he’d shimmied under the belly of the car and saw Derio pointing the gun at her head.  Maybe they would kill her, but they wouldn’t torture her first.  And it was almost a relief.  
Almost.
He popped the back of his head against the glass, not noticing the sting that burrowed into his skull.  Nineteen hours ago he’d felt like he was living out a dream, now he couldn’t seem to find his way out of the damned nightmare.  He didn’t know what was real anymore; he didn’t know if any of it was.  Had any of it happened, or was his mind playing some kind of twisted game with him?
“I know you probably think I’m going crazy here.  And this may seem like it’s coming out of left field, but it’s not.  It’s been there, Olivia.  I realized it a long time ago, I just didn’t know what to do about it.”
He’d finally figured it out, what to do, and he’d finally grown the balls to do it.  Okay, so maybe it’d taken a few beers to build his courage, but he’d done it.  He had told her how he felt, what he wanted, that he wanted her.  After a decade of choking on his damned words, he’d finally spit them out.  Maybe not eloquently, but without mincing a single one of them.
And then she had surprised him more than he’d ever thought was possible.  
She wanted exactly what he did.
“I already knew it.  I was just…I don’t know.  I was afraid of it, I guess.  What to do about it, what it could potentially do to us.  That’s why I went to Oregon.  I was hoping by going, you know.  Out of sight, out of mind.”
“Did it work?”
“I came back, didn’t I?”
He could still feel her skin beneath his hands.  Not scratched and cut, but smooth.  Soft.  Just as he had tried for so long not to imagine that it felt.  He could taste her, a mixture of sweet wine and peppermint, and smell the mustiness of the bar on her.  He could hear her moans as she was on top of him, as he was inside of her, as she tightened around him.
But looking at her across the room—asleep, deceivingly relaxed—he could feel her slipping away.  The unpredictable world had tilted beneath him again, without warning, before he could regain his balance.  And after only just getting his grip, he was already losing it.
He was losing her.  Before ever getting the chance to know what it felt like to really have her.
His gaze lifted abruptly as Olivia stirred in the bed.  Her lips separated with an intake of air, and she dug her face further into the pillow before a groan ricocheted out of the deep fold.  Turning her head slightly, exposing only one partially opened eye, she murmured a soft, “Hey,” as Elliot took a hesitant step in her direction.  
He nodded, just once, his chin remaining angled toward his chest.  Christ.  She looked incredible.  With her face scrubbed bare of makeup, her hair tousled and tangled, looking as if she’d gone one too many rounds with a brick wall, scraped and bruised and bandaged, he couldn’t remember a time when she’d looked more beautiful.
“What time is it?”
He lifted his left shoulder sluggishly, flipping his wrist to glance at his watch.  8:11.  The face of the watch was cracked down the middle, the glass splintered and hands frozen.  He hadn’t noticed before that it’d been broken.  But then again, why would he?  There wasn’t a need to chronicle time when it suddenly came to a standstill.
He shrugged again, latching his hand around the back of his head and digging his nails into his scalp.  “Around six, I think.”  He took another step forward, another toward her.  “How’re you feeling?”
She lifted her hands, turning them slowly, studying the bandages through squinted eyes.  “Hands hurt like hell, but other than that…” She rolled onto her back, stretching her neck.  “Think I’m okay.”
“Twenty-three,” he said with a nod toward her poised hands.  “That’s how many rocks they dug out.  I could…I was…” He motioned toward the half-open door.  “My room was across the hall.  I could hear the rocks.  The doctor dropped them in a metal bowl or something after he took ‘em out of your hands, and I could hear them vibrate when they hit.”
“You actually counted?” she deadpanned, spiking an eyebrow.  
“It gave me something to do while they were stitching up my leg.”
Her dark brows creased, lowering harshly.  “You’re okay, right?”
“Got a few stitches, a tetanus shot…” He took another step closer, his arms once again locked across his chest.  “I’ll live.  The doctor said we can leave as soon as your IV’s done.  You were dehydrated, he wanted you to get some fluids.”
She nodded, tacky strands of hair bunching against the pillow.  Glancing down at the opaque tube that threaded out of the back of her hand, she flicked it with a finger, resituating stiffly, cautiously.  Her stare avoiding his.
“While you were asleep, I, uh, I was able to find out about Derio.”  He nodded as her gaze swung toward him; connecting with his darkened eyes, fear seeping into hers.  “He’s doing okay, Liv, as well as can be expected.  They have him up in ICU right now, but he’s, uh.  They think he’s gonna be okay.”
She pushed her shoulders back into the pillow, her hands laid out across her abdomen.  Nodding, licking at her lips, she watched as he took another step closer before dropping her gaze.  “Thanks,” she whispered.  “For checking on him.”
“You saved his life.”
She raised a shoulder, only slightly, not with agreement or disagreement.  It was merely an inconsequential action to fill a moment in time that words were still too confusing to occupy.  
Elliot cleared his throat, remaining stuck in the center of the room, trapped in her stare, unsure of whether or not he should—if he could—continue to move forward.  “Cragen’s already talked to the D.A.  As soon as Derio can be released from the hospital, he’ll be taken into custody.  They’re charging him with kidnapping, assault, attempted murder—”
“We have to get him an attorney,” Olivia broke in, determination replacing sleepiness in her voice.  “We should talk to Simone Bryce or Sophie Devere or, I don’t know… Someone who’ll be able to get him a deal.”
“He doesn’t deserve a deal.  He deserves to go to jail.”
“He deserves a chance.”
“He got one, the same one everyone else gets.  And he blew it.”
“He’s thirteen-years-old!” she whined, her eyes widening with incredulity.  “We’re going to chalk him up as a lost cause already?  My God, Elliot!  Is getting some sort of fucking retribution really that important to you?  Important enough to throw away a kid’s life?”
Elliot pulled in a strong breath, the air whistling as it rolled through his flared nostrils.  He spun around, turning his back to her, to the bruises and scratches and her confusion.  The sun had completely abandoned the sky outside, darkness having tucked itself around the city.  The lights of the skyline shone through the window, overpowering Olivia’s reflection, erasing her image but not the echoing memory of her scream.
Was getting retribution that important to him?  Yes.  Because it would be the only way to empty himself of the fear he’d seen in her eyes as she’d risen up onto her knees and first felt the muzzle of the gun press against her head.  The only way to diminish the shrillness of her voice and stop it from ringing in his ears, and the only way for his overloaded conscience to let go of just a morsel of guilt.
He had offered himself in her place as a sacrificial lamb, and his offer had been refused.  And God help him, he had to find somewhere to place the blame for his foolproof plan turning into nothing more than a foolishly thought-out one.
“Don’t do this, Elliot,” Olivia whispered, tears hovering above the rims of her darkened eyes.  “I know he’s one that we can save.  We just have to give him a chance.  He made a mistake, okay—”
“Elliot!”
The remainder of her words morphed into a high-pitched scream in his mind, reverberating, slicing through his brain, his nerves, his self-control.  He whipped around, anger and helplessness and guilt propelling him into motion as he charged across the room.  Skidding up to the bed, he saw only the tears she had shed in the junkyard not the ones that belonged to him in that moment, as he grabbed hold of her wrists.  Yanking up her arms, steadying her bandaged hands between them, he leaned over her and shoved his face in front of hers.
“A fucking mistake, Olivia?” he hissed, tears filling his eyes as Olivia’s began to topple onto her flushed cheeks.  “I heard you scream!  I heard you, but I couldn’t find you!  And all I could—in my head, damn it, all I could see were those sons of bitches dragging you back to that trailer and what they were going to do to you once they got you there!  I saw it in my head, over and over and fucking over again!  But I—I couldn’t find you!  And then when I…when I…finally…”
He loosened his hold, her hands sliding out of his and arms dropping limply to the bed.  His chest heaved, his breaths raspy and intermixed with the tears that his eyes refused to give freedom.  He had seen her, finally.  He’d watched the bastard knock her to the ground, had watched as she’d fought to pull out of the dust just one more breath, and as the gun had become lost in the tangles of her hair, he had watched her let go.  There had been no further resistance, no begging.  There had just been a few tears whose origin only she understood.
Then his overexcited imagination had stolen every ounce of power from his rationality.  His ears had siphoned out of the air one specter gun blast after another, his unseeing eyes had watched her body crumple, saw the blood mat her hair and the life drain from her eyes.  And he had wished to God that he were somewhere else, exactly where he was supposed to be, the only place it ever felt right to be.
By her side.
But the damned gravel had been so loud.  Every time he moved beneath the rotted out Mustang it sounded like an avalanche was falling around him.  They would hear him; he’d known it.  They would hear the fucking rocks, and they would kill her.  Then they would come after him; none of them understanding that one bullet had been potent enough to do the work of two.
“Elliot…”
He shook his head as Olivia’s whispery voice filled the space that separated them.  He wanted retribution, fucking payment in full.  He just couldn’t figure out who owed whom.
He took in a breath, and another, his shoulders slumping.  “You should’ve left when you had the chance,” he said, shuffling his feet, his right one moving to the front, then his left one.  Seeming as if he were preparing to run, but looking as if he didn’t know which direction to go if he started to.
“I couldn’t,” she answered, her voice still only a whisper.
“You were supposed to.”
“You knew I wouldn’t.”
He shook his head, sternly, the abrupt gesture relaying what they both had known all along.  She was right; he had known that she wouldn’t leave.  But it hadn’t stopped him from hoping that she would.  “If you had…” he continued, the sudden weakness of his voice making it clear he understood that the core of their argument was his pointless wish, the crux of his failed plan.  But it wasn’t her.  She had acted and reacted exactly how he had expected her to, he was the one who had stepped away from what was normal and had forced her to fight alone.  And misunderstanding, he knew, had been her most persistent opponent.
“If I had and you hadn’t,” she returned, her voice finding the strength that had been lost from his.  “But I didn’t and you did, and we can’t change it now.”
He chuckled lowly; his lips trembling into a smile whose crooked configuration reflected only remorse.  “It was the plan, Olivia—”
“Whose plan?” she shot back harshly.  “Because the only one I remember us agreeing on was the one about us walking out together.  Neither of us was going to take a bullet for the other one, remember?  That’s what you said, Elliot.  It’s what you wanted me to promise, and I lived up to my end of the deal.  So, why in the hell didn’t you?”
He laughed again, lower.  Why hadn’t he lived up to his end of the deal?  Because he had finally figured out what he wanted, and it was his own fault that he had figured it out too late.  Maybe Olivia had climbed into the backseat of the car with him willingly, but if he had just kept his damned mouth shut like she was used to him doing instead of blindsiding her with the unexpected, if he’d used an ounce of discretion, a morsel of self-control, the night would have ended in the usual disappointment.  Not with either of them—with her—trapped at the lethal end of a .45-caliber semi automatic pistol.
If.
Damn it.  He’d managed to ignore her advice for the past decade, that he should be more open, talk about his feelings, be honest and unafraid and forthright with his emotions.  He had ignored her every time she’d said it was what he should do, so why in the hell hadn’t he shrugged off her repetitive opinion one more time?  Just one more, just long enough for the shadows of night to break and the clarity of daylight to make the commonsensical once again visible? 
So he had replaced their plan with his, the one that he’d formulated alone, and he’d left her out of the planning stage for one reason only.  Because she deserved retribution.  But not against Derio, or Vedie, or any of the other opportunistic kids who had been smart enough to take advantage of his stupidity.  She deserved it against him, only him.  And he should be expected to pay the highest price in order to tilt the world again and right it beneath her.  
“Elliot?”
His eyes lifted at the sound of her voice, his heavy brows creasing.  He could see in her eyes, behind their darker than normal shading, the exhaustion that had dyed their whites a faint hue of pink and the trace of fear that her mind hadn’t yet released, that she had interpreted his guilt, understood his reasoning, and disagreed with both.
Olivia dug her elbows into the pillow, pushing herself up until the backs of her shoulders cleared the folded cushion.  She breathed out heavily, thoughtfully; releasing his unspoken regrets into the air with the weighty exhale.  “A couple of years ago you said something that I’ll never forget.”  She lifted an eyebrow as his stare remained on her, his jaw throbbing.  “You said I was always waiting for you to come to my rescue.  But…this morning…I didn’t need you to rescue me, Elliot.  I just needed you.”
Elliot made a slow turn toward the doorway, his eyes constricting as he watched the hectic activity in the hallway.  Organized chaos, the polar opposite of what they had survived.  He had been in the backend of a Dodge Ram when he’d seen Derio approach the door-less sedan, and he could tell by the way Olivia stood, the expression on her face, that she hadn’t felt threatened.  The gun had been at her side, her stance as relaxed as possible given the situation.  But he had also been able to see that she was looking for him.  With her eyes squinted and bottom lip tucked into her mouth, she had searched all sides of the passageway.  At one point he’d believed their eyes had locked, she’d seemed to be staring straight at him.  But it turned out she had been staring through him, and a second later she followed after the boy that Elliot had foolishly trusted to do a man’s job.
They were walking out, escaping.  It was what he’d told himself, over and over again, trying like hell to believe it but never fully able to.  But still, he’d stayed hidden.  Not from the unending footsteps that shook the ground and overtook the air, but from her.  Because he’d wanted—needed—to rescue her.  Even if he had known all along it wasn’t the form of retribution that she needed.
“Elliot.”  Sliding her legs to the edge of the mattress, Olivia straightened slowly, stiffly, dropping her feet to the floor.  She rested her upturned hands in her lap, tilting her head as her gaze darted from left to right, up and then down, trying to connect with Elliot’s roving eyes.  “You’re angry,” she continued.  “I get that, I understand it.  But do me a favor, okay?  Forgive Derio for his mistake, and then forgive yourself for yours.”
He dropped his head forward, chewing on his lip as tears began to bite at his eyes.  Forgiving meant forgetting, and he knew that he could never forget.  Not the sounds or sights that had blended and forcibly embodied her.  And God help him, he couldn’t forget how soft her skin had felt beneath his hands when flesh hadn’t yet been ripped or marred.  He couldn’t forget any of it, so how in the hell could he begin to forgive?  How could he forgive a single one of the sons of bitches for what they had done, for what they had tried to do? 
But most of all, how was he supposed to forgive himself?
“It’s over,” she continued, exhaling a shaky breath.  “I want it to be over, because I… I’ve spent the last few months stuck in that basement at Sealview.  I’ve been trying to find my way out, I have, but I haven’t made it yet.  Not all the way.  And I don’t have the energy left to be in two places at one time.  So if you’re going to stay in that junkyard, you’re going have to stay alone.  Because I won’t do it.  I won’t let anyone else take something from me, and that includes you.”
She climbed down from the bed, her bare feet thudding against the hard floor.  Grabbing hold of the IV bag, she pulled it closer to her face, studying it for a moment before sliding two fingers down the length of the tubing to where it burrowed into her skin.  “Go find a nurse, okay?” she said, her back to him, his silence once again separating them.  “The IV’s done.  I want to get out of here, go home.”  
As he started for the door, toward the continuous commotion outside, she glanced back at him.  His head was still bent, hands lost inside the pockets of his half-shredded trousers, and muscles in his jaw tightened.  “Don’t take too long to decide what you’re going to do,” she said, the determination in her voice stopping him.  “Because I already know what I have to do.  And this time I am walking out, with or without you.”
CHAPTER NINE
March 24, 7:54 P.M.
It had been the night after Thanksgiving, 1984, when her mother had called at half-past two in the morning and slurred into the telephone that she was ready to be picked up from Harry’s Uptown Bar.  Olivia had obediently climbed out of bed, staggered sleepily out to the car, and began to retrace the route that she had driven four hours earlier.
It had rained at some point between the times when Olivia had reluctantly driven her mother to the bar and when she had been summoned to pick her up.  The streets looked as if they had been layered with glass, shimmering beneath the glow of low-wattage lamps and the beams of the car’s headlights.  The air smelled fresh, new again, all traces of exhaust fumes and the heaviness of the city washed away.  Even though Olivia hated the late night interruptions, she had gotten to a point of looking forward to the drive itself.  Having the streets—the city, almost—to herself, being able to pretend for twenty minutes, maybe thirty, that she was Manhattan’s only occupant.  During those times, she was alone, free to be whoever she wanted to be.
…Motoring…What’s your price for flight…You’ve got him in your sight…And driving thru the night…In finding mister right…You’ll be alright tonight…
She had cranked the radio, singing along to Night Ranger’s Sister Christian through the final few minutes of her trip.  When she’d pulled up to the curb in front of the bar—the lights inside of the old building extinguished and sidewalk deserted—she’d left the music blaring, her voice morphing into a hum that kept pitch with the remainder of the song.  And she had waited.  Through Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun, before climbing out of the car to get a better view of her uninhabited surroundings.
She pounded on the bolted door of the darkened bar, walked the length of the block three different times, peeked around corners and into parked cars, and then she waited some more.  Feeling nervous when a full hour had past, dozing restlessly through the next one.
The rumble had awoken her just before five A.M.  She had blinked her way out of the haziness of sleep, focusing on the pickup truck idling roughly beside the stilled, dew-moistened Buick.  From her vantage point she could only see the side of the driver’s face, partially hidden beneath a thick beard, heavy bags beneath his eyes, and deep set wrinkles in his facing mapping out too many years of living hard.  She never saw his mouth move, never saw a touch exchanged, never saw him offer any type of ‘good-bye’ to her mother as Serena climbed down from the passenger’s side, and she never saw her mother offer him even a parting glance.  They were strangers; it was obvious, and even more obvious that that was what they wanted to remain.
“My God, Olivia.  Stop pretending like you’re Mother Theresa.”
Serena had met her daughter’s accusation about sleeping with the bearded stranger impassively, without so much as a blink to indicate surprise, a hint of a blush to reveal embarrassment, or a flinch to relay that she felt any type of remorse.  Instead, she had lectured about primal needs, commercialized fabrications about romance, and the unreality of true love.
“Sex is purely physical, Olivia, not emotional.  When you allow your emotions to get involved, you get hurt.  People engage in sex for one reason, to satisfy an urge, and that urge doesn’t have anything to do with love.  So if that’s what you’re looking for—true love, fireworks, some type of soul mate—then you’re going to spend your life getting disappointed.  Because none of that exists.”
She wanted it to be more, Olivia had silently argued, her unspoken feelings being interpreted by and retaliated to with condescending laughter by Serena.  She had been raised to be more realistic, Serena had said, to understand that fantasies were a waste of time.  True love was a sham, created by some overzealous marketing executive in a high-rise office to bilk ignorant people out of their hard-earned money.  After all, weren’t they taught from the get-go that love equated with expense?  You were supposed to spend money to acquire love; the courtship process was expensive and suffered through for only one reason.  Sex.  The world had allowed itself to be duped, half of the population willingly becoming johns who footed the bill for nice dinners, useless bouquets of flowers and overpriced diamond rings, and the other half allowing themselves to be turned into nothing less than deceptively moral hookers who accepted each gift knowing that something was expected from them in return.
Love was a sham.  Urges were real.
And even though Olivia had never completely bought into her mother’s belief, she’d spent the majority of her life acting as if she had.
She couldn’t remember a time when sex had been anything more than casual.  Her reasons for sleeping with men had always been simple, black and white.  At the time sex had been initiated, she’d wanted it.  To fulfill an urge, satisfy a primal need, to exorcise loneliness from her life for a little while at least.  But she had never once instigated or accepted an offer with the idea that love would be the end result.  
Satisfaction was what she had always sought.  But by not hoping for more, disappointment was the most she had ever received.
“Liv?  Everything okay?”
Olivia’s eyes made a lazy swing from the fog-coated vanity mirror to the closed door.  Behind her, steam rose above the top of the shower curtain, overpowering the air, weighting it, tingeing it a soft gray.  It was no longer crisp, easy to breathe in, but thick like the dusty air in the junkyard had been.
Only it wasn’t dirt that was strangling her this time, it was confusion.
She cleared her throat, nodding as if Elliot could somehow see her through the wooden barrier that separated them.  She had known he would follow her inside the apartment.  Even before the police cruiser had pulled up to the curb in front of her building, while they were both still hugging their respective doors in the backseat, she had known he wouldn’t leave her alone.
Not again.
And she hadn’t wanted him to.
So when he slid out of the car behind her, grumbling an agreement for both of them when the uniforms said they would make a quick sweep of the block to look for anyone suspicious, she hadn’t waited around for a good-bye that she’d known wouldn’t be given.  Instead, she’d led the way to the front door, not looking back, not staying behind, just as she had told him that she couldn’t do.
The super had come to the door after she’d buzzed his apartment for the third time, and she’d let Elliot stutter his way through a sketchy excuse about her losing her purse and how a locksmith would need to be called first thing in the morning so that the locks on her door could be changed.  She thought she had mumbled, “Thank you,” after the super let them into her apartment, or maybe it had been Elliot who’d said it.  She couldn’t remember; the voices in her head had begun to morph into one, sounding alike.  Indecipherable.  Deafening.  Inseparable.
“Olivia?”
She watched the doorknob turn, the rotation beginning slowly and then quickening.  As Elliot’s face came into view through the slender opening, she coerced a small smile out of her pale lips.  The glow from the lights above the vanity attached itself to the stubble that lined his chin, each tiny hair becoming individualized.  The exhaustion was discernible in his eyes, darkening them a shade, and the lines in his face seemed to have become more deeply etched.  His skin looked paler than normal against the mint green-colored scrubs, but the scratches and bruises that lined his forearms were darker, visible reminders that couldn’t be ignored.
“You haven’t gotten in the shower yet?” Elliot asked, his eyebrows lowering, a little with questioning, mostly with concern.
“I, uh.  I…” She led his gaze with her own to the waistband of her donated linen pants, a tiny breath tumbling out of her as both sets of eyes rested on the double-knotted drawstring.  “I can’t get the knot undone.  My fingers, I can’t feel anything, can’t seem to make them work right.”
“It’s just temporary,” Elliot assured, pushing the door the rest of the way open and meeting her in the center of the room.  He pulled the ends of the string out of her hands, digging the blunt tip of a fingernail into the middle of the knot.  “The doctor said the antibiotic cream he gave you has something in it that’ll numb your hands.  It’s to help with the pain.”
She nodded, just once, without concern or interest.  Instead, she concentrated on the consistent tug against her waist, the feel of the linen as it rubbed her skin.  It was the first thing she remembered breaking through the shock as they had sat squished in the backseat of the car, the first thing that had erased the feeling of Elliot inside of her.  The tug on her pants, Elliot’s fingers digging against her, the feel of her shield as he slid it out of her back pocket.  It was the first moment when the disappointment had set in.  But it had felt different that time, different than any time before.  She hadn’t been disappointed over what hadn’t been found, but because of what had been taken away too soon.
“I know you probably think I’m going crazy here.  And this may seem like it’s coming out of left field, but it’s not.  It’s been there, Olivia.  For me.  It’s been there for a while.”
She wondered what Elliot believed in, if he felt the same as her mother had or hoped for more as she did?  Neither of them ever used the word ‘love,’ at least not with any significance.  They both loved that first cup of coffee in the morning, loved bringing down the lowlifes and finding justice for victims, loved the pastrami on rye at the deli down the block from the precinct, would love to see the Jets make it to the Super Bowl, but neither of them ever referenced the word beyond the inconsequential.  Elliot loved his children, that was obvious and didn’t need to be spoken, and he had once—maybe even still—loved his wife.  Difficult as it may have been to actually do, they had both loved their parents—with the exception of the inexplicable Joseph Hollister, and they had always loved each other within the realm—and safety—of friendship.
But she had never been in love, and she wondered if Elliot had ever been either?  Or had he, at some point between losing his aspirations for the future because of an unexpected pregnancy and the second breakup of his marriage, bought into the same conviction that her mother had, that being in love was a feeling that was manufactured but not innate?
Love was easy, if not indifferent most of the time.  But being in love was difficult and proved to be more work than most people seemed willing to put into it.
“There you go,” Elliot said, the ends of the string falling out of his hands.  
“Thanks.”
He nodded, twisting his arms across his chest, his bristly chin lowering.  “I thought the doctor said not to get your hands wet?”
“I’m not going to wait another forty-eight hours before I take a shower.  I need to…there’s still…” She lifted her hands, spreading her fingers.  Traces of blood were still caked in the lines around her knuckles, and dirt and dried blood still darkened the undersides of her fingernails.  Reminders that needed to be scrubbed away before she could truly escape from the junkyard as she’d told Elliot that she intended to do.
As she knew that they both had to do.
“You, uh.  Do you…” He tilted his head toward the shower, a curtain of steam gliding soundlessly between them.  “Need me to…can you get undressed by yourself?”
A gentle stream of laughter bubbled in her chest, falling out of her as a whisper.  “I can handle it from here,” she said, her fingers curving beneath the hem of the green smock.  “There should be some coffee in the cabinet above the stove.  Would you mind starting a pot?”
“You think that’s a good idea?” he asked, his voice fluctuating, still giving away the secret of his uneasiness.  “You need some sleep, and the coffee will just keep you awake.”
She disagreed through a slow shake of her head, lifting a brow languidly.  “It’s not the coffee that keeps me awake, Elliot.  It’s what calms me down enough that I can at least sit still during the night.”
His mouth fell open, as if a rebuttal had rooted itself on his tongue.  But he remained silent, nodding without any pretense of understanding.
“If you want something stronger, look in the cabinet beside the refrigerator.  I think there’s some vodka down there, might be some gin.  I’m pretty sure I’m out of beer, though.”
“Coffee’s good,” he said, shuffling backwards a step.  
“You know, um…” She stopped him as he stepped through the doorway, the shadows that filled the bedroom swallowing him.  “You don’t have to stay.  I mean, if you want to go home—”
“Can’t,” he said, making a quick glance back over his shoulder.  “Leave, I mean.  Those pricks took my wallet, remember?  I don’t have any money for a cab.”
“You could call the precinct, they’ll send a car to get you.  Some bored uniform whose beat is slow tonight would probably be happy to drive you to Queens.”
“Wouldn’t do any good.  I don’t have a house key, either.”  He shook his head, his mind made up, before motioning toward the bathtub behind her.  “I’m staying.  So, get in the shower, huh?  I’ll go start the coffee, that way it’ll be ready when you’re done.”
+++
March 24, 8:49 P.M.
The water sliced her skin like a double-edged sword.  She’d watched it wash away the dirt and blood, had felt a tinge of freedom as sixteen hours worth of grime and disgust rolled down the drain.  But she had also felt an overwhelming regret, a loneliness that she hadn’t expected.  Because as the residual sights and smells from the junkyard had dripped off of her battered flesh, so had Elliot.  The water burned away the memory of his touches, the feel of his hands, his lips, his body against hers, inside of hers.  It had washed her clean of his scent, of him, and had left her alone to drown in the realization of just how stupid they had really been.
“Someone sees us and we’re screwed.”
 “Someone doesn’t, and hopefully we still are.”
She had been stupid with sex before.  In college she’d played Russian Roulette more times than she liked to remember, forgoing protection in favor of sensation.  She had slept with men who she hardly knew, men who she didn’t want to know on any deeper level than she already did, a few whose names she couldn’t remember when morning broke through the haze of alcohol, and had done a full leap over the line of professionalism by sleeping with co-workers.  But she had never been as stupid as she had been with Elliot, allowing herself to hope that it could actually be more than the sham—the urge—that her mother had tried to convince her that it was.
After forty-one years of keeping her feet planted firmly in reality, she had fucked up—literally—and fell headfirst into propaganda bullshit.
She didn’t know when her legs had given out and she had ended up on the floor of the tub, knees bent, arms wrapped protectively around scratched and bruised skin.  But she felt safe there, almost relaxed.  With the water scorching her skin, its burn masking the ache of her injuries, the throb in her bones, and the tightness that had constricted her muscles.  She had been there before, for too many hours at a time, in the same spot, the same position, trying to cleanse herself of thoughts, what ifs and fear.
But this time was different; the fear was different.  It hadn’t been born from what could have happened, but because of what had happened.  What could have happened would have been devastating, what had happened was even more so.  She knew that both Elliot and she would be able to walk away from the junkyard in time, with healing, but history had proven that they could never seem to walk away from each other.  No matter how hard or how many times either of them tried.  The paths they chose always ended up curving in mid-journey, sometimes with their knowledge, other times to their surprise, and they always ended up back at the same place.
Side-by-side.
And she had always thought that would be enough, that she could be satisfied knowing that she had his friendship.  She had convinced herself that she could be.
But now, she didn’t know if having such a limited portion of him would ever feel like enough again.
“Sex is purely physical, Olivia, not emotional.  When you allow your emotions to get involved, you get hurt.
She wasn’t a dreamer; she wasn’t naïve or impressionable.  She didn’t believe in love at first sight, that there was a mate for every soul, or that love conquered all.  
But she did believe in Elliot.
She just wished to hell that she knew what he believed in.
Her chin popped up off her scraped knees as the door hinges squealed, announcing that her solitude was being invaded.  A draft of cool air slithered behind the shower curtain, cutting through the steaming beads of water, chilling her, and Elliot’s hesitant movements on the other side of the cream-colored curtain bounced off of the porcelain periphery of the tub as noticeably as the invasive cold air did.  She blinked quickly, trying to clear her eyes as the downfall from the spigot continued to drench her, wrapping her body in an iridescent cloak of droplets that rolled over her skin and left in their wake a rosy gleam.
“It’s just me.”
She responded with a small laugh, not attempting to stand, not daring to move, only barely breathing.
“You’ve been in here for a while.  Thought I should check, make sure you’re okay.”
She nodded, streams of water rolling down her forehead, drops sliding through her eyelashes and splattering onto her flushed cheeks with each bob of her head.
“Olivia?  Hey, are you—”
“I’m fine,” she said quickly, huddling tighter as his fingers curved around the edge of the curtain, pulling it back a fraction.  Jesus.  Was she for real?  Almost twenty-four hours earlier she had mounted him in the backseat of her car like he was a fucking stallion, not giving in to a single inhibition or an inkling of modesty, and now she was huddled in the corner of the bathtub like a nervous virgin on her wedding night.
So much for consistency.  But then again, they had pretty much blown that out of the proverbial water even before they had raced each other into the car like a couple of horny teenagers who were oblivious to consequences.
“Okay, I’ll, uh…” Elliot’s voice trailed off, becoming lost in the slap of the water as it landed against her skin and then bounced onto the porcelain.  “The coffee’s ready.”
She buried her face in her knees, biting into a patch of skin that had somehow been left unmarred.  She wanted to know what he believed in.  She wanted to know him, damn it, beyond the security of their badges and the boundaries enforced by superiors and the restrictive rules of friendship.  She wanted to know more, the part of him that she had only just begun to get a glimpse of in the backseat of the car, the portion of him that was stolen from her before she could claim it as her own, the tiny piece that he had cautiously given her access to under the threat of death and in the refuge of darkness.
She needed more, because less had stopped being an option.
Elliot cleared his throat, the resonance sending Olivia’s head up off of her knees again.  “If you, um, if you don’t care… I could use a shower, too.”
She gulped down a wet swallow, breathing in, breathing out.  “What’s that, Stabler?” she asked, her voice echoing timidly.  “Your attempt at another come-on line?”
He cleared his throat again, the gravelly sound seeming to drag on, to consume the thick air.  His fingers slipped away from the curtain, causing it to shudder, causing Olivia to tremble even more noticeably.  “I didn’t mean… No.  I just, I meant when you’re done I’ll get in.  It wasn’t a come-on line.”
Fuck.  Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.  Fuck.  What in the hell was she doing?  She knew how these things worked.  People got caught up too easily in the aftermath of hysteria; she had watched it happen more times than she could remember.  The fear and what ifs clouded their judgment, stole their common sense, and then abandoned them and left behind only regret for them to sort through.  And all of the signs were there to warn Elliot and her that giving into the panic was dangerous and a guaranteed train wreck.  Exhaustion, loneliness, fear, shock, threat of mortality, they all added up to one thing and one thing only.  Stupidity.  And just because that was how they had plunged themselves into their ordeal didn’t mean that was the method they had to use to pull themselves back out of it.
“It was a joke, Elliot,” she said, wedging the tip of her chin into the crevice between her knees.  “I know you didn’t mean it as…that you weren’t…”
“You sure you’re okay?” he asked, worry pushing its way forcefully into his voice. 
She shook her head, settling on the only answer that she knew either of them would believe.  “I don’t know.”  
Her gaze rose as his silhouette became imprinted on the curtain, his head down-turned as if he were staring through the vinyl at her crumpled form.  She saw him nod, his head rising and falling tentatively, and she knew that he wasn’t any surer than she was.  About them, about the theory of love, or about whether or not a single second during the past twenty-two hours had been lived or merely dreamed.
“Olivia, we need to talk.”
She slammed her eyes closed, blocking out the water that cocooned her, entrapping her hot tears.  It was humiliating enough admitting her idiocy to her mother’s condemnatory memory, the last thing she wanted to do was embarrass herself further by admitting it to Elliot.  
“Liv—”
“I know,” she said, pulling her eyes open slowly, her gaze once again latching onto Elliot’s blackened outline.  “Just, uh.  Give me a minute, okay?”
She watched him nod and his shoulders droop, as if defeated.  He was no longer staring at the curtain as if trying to see her, but had turned toward the doorway in preparation for his next escape.  He wanted to talk, and she wanted him to.  She wanted him to tell her what he believed in, even if it wasn’t love.  That wasn’t what she needed anyway, not yet.  
All she needed was for it to still be them.
+++
March 24, 9:00 P.M.
Condensation coated the mirror, adhering to it like a second layer of glass.  She stared at her distorted reflection trapped behind the haziness that overpowered all definition and had replicated the fog still consuming her mind.
It had happened.
All of it.  Every second of it.
Hadn’t it?
Twenty-four hours earlier she had been sitting in a bar with Elliot, feeling surprisingly relaxed, enjoying herself, actually glad that she had accepted his unexpected invitation.  And twelve hours earlier she had been fighting her way through a confusing maze of steel and suffocating dirt, trying to prepare herself to die, refusing to let go of the hope that neither Elliot nor she would.
It had happened.
All of it.  Every second of it.
Even if her mind still hadn’t been able to accept yet that it had.
She slid the towel around her torso, overlapping the ends and cinching them above her breasts.  Even through the thick steam that clung to the mirror, she could see the pink tinge of her skin.  The blood and dirt had been scrubbed away, but the feelings still stained her.  Elliot’s touches, ones against her body that had only ever existed in her imagination, and the disgust that each set of immature eyes had burrowed deep inside of her.  Each stare of intent had marked her and blemished her skin just as authentically as the vicious gravel had.  
Bruising her, slicing into her, scarring her.
Scaring her.
When had she let being stupid become a habit, at least in her personal life?  Admittedly, her professional life was full of less than well thought-out moments, but she’d always had a reason to back each one.  She had been able to validate her actions, to attach to each a defined purpose.  Or at least a purpose that seemed reasonable to her.
Saving someone.
It was what she did, consequences be damned.  Not because she was some kind of martyr or a saint, but because she understood what it felt like when devastation controlled your life.  Or at least she had always thought she understood it, the ins and outs of it, the long-standing confusion and pain that accompanied it.  But Lowell Harris had blindsided her with the realization that she’d only ever really understood it secondhand. 
She had lived her life as a victim of circumstance, and had convinced herself that gave her some type of indisputable insight into devastation and disbelief.  
But she had been wrong.  
Twice.
“Liv?  You doing—”
“Don’t ask again if I’m okay, Elliot,” Olivia groaned, making a sluggish turn toward the door as the resonance of Elliot’s knock faded.  She grabbed hold of the doorknob, yanking open the barrier, not noticing the subtle widening of his eyes as they came face-to-face.  He was still dressed sloppily in the one-size-fits-all, mint green-colored scrubs and she was only barely covered by the plush, white towel.  Her hair fell in waves, moisture still darkening it by a shade, and her skin was an unnatural rosy hue.  Scratches dotted both sets of arms, bruises randomly marred skin, and exhaustion had become the most defining characteristic of both faces.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, his gaze lowering for an instant before popping back up.  Conspicuously, he followed the hem of the towel where it wrapped around her chest, the top edge dipping loosely above the crevice between her breasts.  The overlapped fold widened as it stretched down her torso, laying flat across her chest, separating just slightly over her stomach, gapping by a half-inch at the tops of her thighs and exposing a patch of unstained skin on her inner right leg.
“I just, uh.  I wanted to…check…”
Olivia responded with a roll of her eyes, leaning a bare shoulder into the doorframe.  “I’m fine,” she said, drawing out her words.  “For the hundredth time.”
He nodded, just once, looking more as if he needed to lick his wounds after being reprimanded rather than feeling any type of relief.
“I’m fine,” she repeated, her voice softening.  “Not anywhere close to falling apart, I promise.  So stop acting like you have to take care of me, okay?  Because I don’t need you to.”
“I’m not trying to—”
“Yes, you are,” she broke in, “and you need to stop.  To be honest with you, Stabler, you’re driving me crazy.”
“Sorry,” he muttered for a second time, remaining half-hidden in the dimness of the bedroom as Olivia stepped back into the spotlight of the vanity’s track lighting.  The soft glow bounced off of her skin, shimmering across her shoulders, latching onto strands of damp hair.  Bringing definition to a myriad of colors that he had never before noticed, a blend of the normal brown with blonde and just a trace of auburn, each piece softly kinked by the water.  
“I’ll be out of here in a second,” she said, shaking out her toothbrush and then tossing it inside the top vanity drawer.  As the compartment slid shut, a sharp echo of wood connecting filling the tiny space, she motioned toward it with a nod of her head.  “There’s toothpaste in there, a couple of extra toothbrushes.  Use whatever you need.”
“Liv, we need to talk.”
She dropped her head forward, sighing, her exhaustion only becoming heavier with the exhalation instead of lessening.  “What we need is some sleep.  It can wait until morning—”
“We’re supposed to meet with Cragen in the morning,” he persisted, “fill him in on the details.  Don’t you think we should to get our story straight first?”
She answered first with a small shake of her head, her eyes closing as she whispered, “We don’t have a story.”
He shuffled his weight, wincing as his left leg took the brunt before leaning onto his right one.  “Which is why we need to come up with one that’ll explain why we were in the backseat of your car when those kids found us.”
“They forced us back there,” she said.  “You had too much to drink, couldn’t drive, so I was giving you a ride home.  When the kids came up, they had guns and made us get into the back.”
“And that’ll work until Derio wakes up and starts talking.”
“Who’s going to believe him?” Olivia asked, her head rising to reveal opened, widened eyes.  “You never did, right, so why do you think anyone else will?  He’s just a street kid, a runaway.  No matter what he says everyone’s going to think he’s lying just to try and get himself out of trouble.  But we’re the cops, we’re the believable ones.”
Elliot lifted his chin, his chest inflating before he expelled a heavy breath into the steam-tinged air.  “I don’t want to fight about this kid anymore.  He helped you out, okay.  I’m glad he was around to do that, that he kept his promise—”
“He did more than that.”
“And I didn’t, right?” 
Olivia raised a shoulder sluggishly, uncommitted.  “I guess we all did what we had to do.  I just, I wish I…knew…” Why? she wanted to ask.  Why had it happened, from the very first second it began until the one that ended it all?  But she didn’t ask, she couldn’t.  Because she was afraid of Elliot’s answer now that the possibility of death no longer existed, honesty and fear were once again separate and no longer tangled, and it was only them.  Out from behind the security of their badges, having stepped over the boundaries enforced by superiors and amended the restrictive rules of friendship. 
She wasn’t sure she wanted to know his reasons anymore, not when she hadn’t yet figured out what her own were.
“What?” Elliot asked.  “What do you want to know?”
She shook her head, grabbing a roll of gauze and tube of ointment off of the far corner of the vanity.  “Nothing.  Tell Cragen whatever story you want about the car.  Whatever you say, I’ll corroborate it.”
“Even if I tell him the truth?”
Olivia straightened, dropping the gauze and hard plastic tube back onto the countertop.  She flattened her hands on top of the smooth laminate, not feeling the sting wash over her palms as she pushed down on them.  She only felt the sudden explosion in her chest as her heart detonated, each thump a sharp aftershock.  The truth.  What in the hell was Elliot’s version of the truth?  If her damned throat hadn’t closed up, pushing her voice into the pit of her clenched stomach, she would demand that he tell her.  But instead she remained quiet, frozen, waiting, fighting just to keep breathing.
Elliot shrugged a shoulder before pressing it against the doorframe, dipping his head forward to catch a glimpse of her face.  “Maybe that’s the best way to handle this.  We should just tell the truth.”
“Why?”  
Christ.  Had that been her voice?  So soft, so fucking unsure?  And if it had been, why in the hell had she used it?  She’d already decided that she didn’t want to know his reasons, hadn’t she?  She didn’t want to be on the receiving end of an easy let down, or a full-blown dump job, or even worse, an awkward attempt to spare her feelings that would only end up embarrassing them both further.  It was easier to take the overused road and blame their stupidity on too much alcohol, too little sleep, an unexplainable lapse in judgment… There were a million different reasons they could use; they sure as hell didn’t need to resort to the humiliating truth.
“Why?” he asked, sounding as hesitant as she had.  “I don’t know.  I guess, because… Anything could’ve happened.  In that junkyard, anything could’ve happened to us, and I…when I heard you…if those bastards had…” He knotted his arms across his chest, chewing on his bottom lip, shaking off the fear of ‘what ifs’ through a strong shake of his head.  “I didn’t know what I’d do, I just knew that I couldn’t do it without you.”
Olivia caught their reflections in the mirror, the condensation having cleared from the glass.  The side of Elliot’s face was duplicated clearly.  His jaw was clenched and muscles throbbed rhythmically as his eyes made a conspicuous dip toward her bare feet before traveling upward slowly, methodically, over her legs, hips, torso, partially exposed chest, and then settling on the reflection of her face.  She dropped her gaze as his eyes met hers, begging for a glance in his direction.  And under the scrutiny of his stare, the aches and pains in her body suddenly manifested themselves into one.  
Maybe it was just a damned urge she was feeling.  She hoped it was, because she wasn’t ready yet to let herself believe that it could be anything more.
Not when she still didn’t know what Elliot believed in.
“So, what?” she asked, fighting her tears as they began to make an emergence in her voice.  “Because you got scared you think that’s enough of a reason to ruin our careers?” 
“No, it’s not enough of a reason.  I don’t even know if it is the reason.”
He didn’t know.  Fucking great.  It was the blind leading the blind.  She had never allowed herself to give love a chance, and it was too soon for Elliot to even think about giving it another one.  But he wanted to risk everything—their jobs, their reputations, their friendship—for something as unreliable as the truth.  Even though neither of them were anywhere close to figuring out what it was.
“Elliot. I don’t think we should try and fix one mistake by making another one.”
“When’d we make the first mistake?”
She laughed softly, abruptly, lifting her hands off of the countertop and shaking them out.  Attempting to shake away the consistent sting of the past twenty-four hours.  The son of a bitch was going to make her say it, to admit that she had been stupid and gullible and had let herself get confused by urges—both his and hers.
“When’d we make it, Olivia?” he pressed, dipping his head even lower, trying to peek into her down-turned eyes.
She took in a breath, the cinched flaps of the towel pulling against each other and tightening around her breasts as her chest inflated.  “We weren’t thinking last night, that’s pretty obvious.  This thing with Kathy is new and you’re on the rebound, and… I don’t know.  Maybe we both took advantage of that.  And by doing that, we set ourselves up.”  She turned just a fraction more in his direction, but didn’t lift her eyes to meet his.  “We were stupid, and I really don’t want to have to admit to Cragen just how stupid we were.”
“Who’s to say we were stupid?”
“Elliot—” Laughter became knotted in her voice, critical and incredulous.  “You’d walked away from your marriage twelve hours before you climbed into the backseat of my car with me.  For God’s sake, that’s not us—to do something like that on a public street, with each other.”  She laughed again, more abrasively, tearfully.  “How do you think the night would’ve ended if Derio hadn’t shown up?  Other than…Jesus.  Awkward as hell.”
He grunted, pulling his head back as her eyes shot up accusingly.  “Hey, look, I know you’re upset, that you’re pissed—”
“You’re damn right I’m pissed!” 
“Yeah?” Elliot barked back, straightening, tensing, preparing for the unexpected battle that she was pushing him into.  “Well, so am I.  I don’t know how last night would’ve ended.  I didn’t expect to end up in the backseat of the car anymore than you did, but it’s what happened—it’s what we let happen—”
“And we shouldn’t have!” she hissed, turning fully, facing him down.  “When you’re stupid, Elliot, things like last night happen, and we’ve both been trained to know better than to be that fucking stupid!”
He took a step back, cocooning himself in the darkness of the bedroom again.  The shadows stole the definition from his face, hiding from her his first perception of understanding.  “It’s kind of the same as knowing better than to let some prick with a hard-on drag you off by yourself, right?  To isolate you so that no one knows where you are, no one can hear you call out for help—”
“Jesus, Elliot, shut up,” she warned through clenched teeth, spinning away from him.  She grabbed the gauze and tube of ointment again, wrapping her hand around them too tightly, whispering an admonishing, “Son of a bitch!” as the hard plastic dug into her damaged skin.  Dropping her hold, she let them fall back onto the counter, cradling her throbbing right hand in her left one.
“C’mere,” Elliot said, reaching for her.  “Let’s get your hands wrapped.”
“I can do it—”
“I’ll do it.”  
Only her eyes moved as Elliot stepped up behind her, her gaze rising to the mirror.  His chest grazed the exposed portion of her back, his arms circling her as he reached toward the vanity.  His hand brushed over her right breast, quickly, gently, the inadvertent touch causing just a hint of a gasp to push its way out of her nearly paralyzed lungs.  Goose bumps attacked her right arm as he slid his hand under hers, cradling it, lifting it in front of them.  Dropping his chin over her shoulder, his warm breaths glided across her chest, slithering inside of the towel, rolling between her breasts, both heating her and chilling her.
“Let me know if I hurt you,” he said, as he squeezed the tube of antibiotic cream and deposited a droplet of medicine in the center of her palm.  Lightly, he began to spread the ointment across her hand, his fingers floating in circular motions, his skin only barely touching hers.  
“You’re not,” she whispered through flinches that exposed the truth she was trying to hide.
Elliot nodded, understanding there wasn’t a way to completely erase the pain, that the only choice they had was to work through it.  “How’d they do it, tear up your hands like this?”
She tilted her head away from his, sending a soft exhale into the air as he directed another across the tops of her breasts.  “Knocked me down,” she said.  “When Hector and Silvio found Derio and me, Hector…he, uh…he ran at me.  I didn’t see him in time.”
“Was that when you screamed?” Elliot asked, his voice low and invasive breaths even.  He slid his hand out from beneath her right one, lifting her left one and supporting it in his palm.
She flinched again, unconsciously, as he began to caress her broken flesh, the cream cool, his touch hot.  “I don’t know.  It all happened so fast, I don’t remember screaming.”
“You screamed my name,” he said, turning his face toward hers, his breaths ricocheting off the side of her neck. 
“I don’t remember.”
“I’ll never forget.”
She blinked quickly, heavily, tears becoming detectable in her eyes.  She didn’t want to remember, damn it, and Elliot didn’t want to forget.  He wanted to stay there—to let himself become stuck—just as she had warned him that she couldn’t do.  Because she understood what he didn’t yet.  That when you refused to let go of the memories, they became a part of you, defining you, until you no longer knew how to separate yourself from them.  Instead, you relived them over and over again, losing more of yourself to them until all that was left to claim as your own was the devastation.
“I heard gunshots, too,” Elliot continued.  “Two of ‘em.”  
She sniffled, her eyes constricting as the tears that had built in them became more powerful, too powerful to keep fighting.  “I got off two shots,” she answered.  “When I saw Hector and Silvio coming at us, I fired.  But everything was so crazy, I couldn’t hit anything.”  She pressed her eyes closed, the first of her tears sprinkling onto her cheeks.  “I wanted to, though.  I wanted to hit them.  A couple of kids, and I wanted to shoot them.”  
“It was them or you,” he said, his chin dipping lower, the bristly underside scraping across the front of her shoulder.  “They forced you into the position of having to defend yourself.”
She dropped her head forward, a whimper squeaking in her throat.  “I wanted to kill them, Elliot, and I would have.  If they hadn’t been so damned fast, I would’ve killed them, and I wouldn’t have cared.”
“And you think you need to feel bad about that?” he growled, turning his face toward hers, his breath assaulting her senses and causing her eyes to instantly open.  “I wanted to kill them, too.  Every last son of a bitch in that junkyard.”
She moved her head away from his, stretching her neck, trying to erase the tickles that each of his exhales burrowed beneath her skin.  She felt trapped, inside of his arms, with his chest flush against her back, with skin touching and misunderstanding still separating them.  She felt trapped, and she didn’t want to anymore.  Not by Elliot, or Lowell Harris, or the damned chain link fence, or a single one of the children that she knew—Jesus, she knew—she would have shot just as quickly and unremorsefully as Elliot would have.
“We never should’ve separated,” she whispered, hiding from the piercing stare in the mirror that was trying to connect with hers.  “We always have each other’s backs, that’s the way it works.  It’s the way we’ve always worked.  So, why’d you leave?”
Elliot drew a small circle with the ointment in the center of her palm, his touch lightening, becoming hesitant. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice suddenly as faint as his touch.
“Yes, you do, and I need to know, too.  I just, I need to understand…why?”
Elliot pulled his hands away from hers, a coolness replacing them that caused Olivia to shudder and goose bumps to once again blemish her skin.  Her stare rose to meet his in the glass, and his gaze instantly dropped as he pressed his chest more firmly against her shoulder, leaning around her and fumbling with the roll of gauze on the countertop.
“Elliot.  You said we need to talk,” she continued, “so talk to me.”
“Give me your hand,” he mumbled, nodding over her shoulder, his narrowed-eye stare locked onto her right hand.  As she submitted to his command, he stretched the strip of cotton across her palm, his arms tightening around her as he held the fabric in place with his left hand and began circling it around her hand with his right one.  Once, twice, each pass marked by another of his heavy breaths, exhales that washed consistently down the front of the loosely cinched towel.
He tied off the makeshift bandage, whispering, “Is that too tight?” before instructing with a nod for her to raise her left hand.  “They would’ve caught us when that bullet grazed me.  I jumped inside a car, but there wasn’t enough room for both of us.  They would’ve caught us if we’d been together.”
“They did catch me,” she responded, Elliot’s hands freezing in mid-pass around hers.  “They were laughing about what was going to happen, it was all a game to them.  And then they took me back to those damned trailers so that Vedie and Dominic could watch Derio kill me.”
“I know.”
Olivia’s eyes widened, misunderstanding darkening them.  “Where were you?” she asked.
“When I heard you scream,” he began, his voice tightening, “I figured they’d take you back to the trailer, so that’s where I headed.  I just, I kept…” He made a final, slow loop around her hand, both his and hers beginning to shake.  “I kept getting turned around, couldn’t figure out which way to go.  Every way felt like the wrong way.”
“If you were there, then you know,” she whispered, her eyelids fluttering in retaliation to the fresh burn of tears behind her eyes.  “You know that Derio wouldn’t do what Vedie told him to.”
Elliot’s gaze rose, his stare hardening as it latched onto the tear-filled reflection of hers.  “Don’t expect me to feel grateful to him, Olivia.  I saw him put that gun to your head.  I watched the bastard hold it there, and I could tell he was thinking about pulling the trigger.  I could see it in his face, he fucking thought about it.”
She turned partially within the tight confines of his arms, her shoulder pressing into his chest, her hip skimming across his crotch.  She could feel the jerk of his muscles as they trembled beneath his skin, tensing, fighting to find the control that they had both been uselessly searching to reclaim.  “And you and I both thought about it, too.”
“Don’t compare us to them.”
“Derio was trying to survive just like we were.”  She knocked his chest with her shoulder, sending him back a step.  “He’s watched Dominic kill before, and he’d been told he would be next if he didn’t get rid of us!  But he still didn’t do it!”
“So, I’m supposed to forget sixteen hours of hell because the kid’s conscience kicked in for five seconds?” Elliot snapped, backing up to the propped-open door, the wood vibrating indignantly as his heels slapped against it.  
“They were a pretty important five seconds, don’t you think?”
Elliot jumped away from the door, the movement sudden, quick, sending Olivia backwards.  She flattened against the cabinet; her arms stiffened and bandaged hands poised between them.  But he didn’t slow his advance; he didn’t let her slow him.  Not the anger in her eyes, the tears staining her face, or the possibility of causing her more pain.  He moved forward, toward her, only stopping when they were once again flush against each other.
“Get the fuck off of me!” Olivia growled, slamming her hands against his chest.  She bit into her lip with the flash of pain, fresh tears spilling onto her cheeks.  “What, do you think because of last night you have some kind of all access pass now?  Why’s that, because you managed to catch me off guard, to—”
“You said you were fine!” he hissed, lowering his face in front of hers.  “Remember?  You’re the one who said you hadn’t had too much to drink, that you wanted—”
“I know what in the hell I said, you son of a bitch!” she seethed, slapping his chest again, her breath hitching as a white-hot wave of pain rolled up the lengths of her arms.  Her muscles jerked involuntarily with spasms as corollary sobs worked their way up her throat.  But she hit him again, and again, her cries deepening as blood began to seep through the gauze secured around her palms, branding Elliot’s chest with faint, crimson-colored prints.
Elliot grabbed her wrists, trapping her arms between them, fighting to hold them still through the residual twitches that had become too powerful for her to control.  “You know what your problem is, Olivia?” he said, shoving his face in front of hers, dousing her with accusations and anger.  “You’ve been putting so much energy into pretending you’ve made it out of that damned junkyard that you’ve gotten lost in it!  You don’t know how to get out any more than I do!  You’re stuck, and you’re scared to death that you’ll never get out—just like you’ve never gotten out of Sealview!  And before long those kids are gonna become Lowell Harris, aren’t they?  In your mind, they’ll be just like him!  And you’re afraid of that, you’re afraid you won’t be able to stay ahead of that many fucking demons!”
“Shut the fuck up!” she screamed, yanking her arms, pulling and twisting against his unrelenting hold.
“Admit it!” Elliot bellowed.  “Jesus Christ, for once just admit that you’re human—that you’re fucking scared!  Because you know what?  It’s okay!  It’s even expected!”
“Let go of me!” 
“Admit it!  You’re not out of there yet, Olivia!  You’re not even close to getting out!”
She pulled in a sharp breath, a sob gurgling in her throat.  She wasn’t afraid.  She wouldn’t be afraid of them.  She wouldn’t let them take anything from her, and she wouldn’t let them force anything on her, either.  Because Elliot was right.  Damn it, he was right.  She couldn’t outrun that many demons.  As it was, she could only find her footing half of the time and the rest of the time she was on her knees.  With Derio’s gun pressed against her head, or trapped between Lowell Harris and a locked door.  Or, Jesus.  On top of Elliot in the backseat of her car, ignoring everything that she knew—that she fucking believed in—because of some damned primal urge that didn’t have any more to do with love than the boys’ or Harris’s twisted urges had.
Elliot eased his grip on her, just slightly, cautiously.  He pulled her closer, her bare feet dragging on the floor, pushing into it, fighting him as a whine scorched her throat.  Wrapping a hand around the back of her neck, he pulled her face toward his, guiding her head down onto his shoulder, holding onto her.  “It’s okay to be afraid,” he said, “to admit that they scared you.  Because they… Damn it.  They scared the hell out of me.”
Olivia pressed her forehead into his shoulder, shaking her head, the wispy ends of her hair catching on his stubbly cheek.  “I wanted to kill them,” she whispered.  “When I saw Hector and Silvio, I wanted to kill them.  Because I was…because I knew what they’d do to me, and I was so angry because of what I thought they’d already done to you.”  She hiccupped through a breath, tears darkening a patch of fabric across Elliot’s shoulder.  “We were only ten minutes away from the gate, that’s what Derio said.  So, why’d you leave, Elliot?  Why in the hell did you leave?”
“I screwed up,” he said, burying his hand in her hair, holding her head steady against his shoulder.  “I screwed up, Olivia, and I’m sorry.  Jesus, I’m sorry.”
She turned into him, dragging her lips along his neck, tasting the dirt that still stained his skin, smelling the mustiness of the trailer, hearing their voices in her head.  During a time when honesty had been demanded, when they had been forced out from behind the security of their badges, no longer had to uphold the boundaries enforced by superiors and had amended the restrictive rules of friendship to include more.
The truth.
“Why’d tonight happen, Elliot?  I just, I want to know, to understand it.  Because I don’t understand the rest of it, what’s happening now, and I need for there to be something I’m sure about.”
“It seemed like the right time finally.  In hindsight, there obviously would’ve been a better time, but when we left McMullen’s, when we were standing outside your car… It felt like the right time.”
It had been the right time, for Elliot, for her, for entirely different reasons.  Maybe devastation had been at the core for both, maybe the same outcome had been hoped for, but if she were going to be honest—and God knew it was time that she needed to be—her reason for climbing into the backseat with Elliot had been selfish.  It hadn’t had anything to do with her mother’s believed-in urges; it hadn’t even had anything to do with love.  
It had been about saving, again.
Another victim, another lost soul, another person who was barely keeping her head above the unpredictable waters of fear.
Herself.
But in order to do that she had needed to find something that she believed in—that she still trusted—and grab hold of it.
And she believed in Elliot.
Her steps fell into sync with Elliot’s as he pushed her backwards, his feet moving, then hers, hips swaying in a spontaneously choreographed dance.  She landed against the vanity, the hem of the towel bunching around her ass.  She knew it was dangerous.  Hysterical sex.  Urges born from fear that were satisfied for the sole purpose of trying to elude devastation.  It was dangerous and stupid and both Elliot and she knew better.  But she didn’t care.  She couldn’t seem to make herself care.
She bit into his neck, groaning as his hand slid between her legs, the pad of his thumb gliding over her clit.  Her knees gave out and she swayed forward, her hips bucking into him before he shoved her back against the counter again.  Elliot ripped open the towel, fully exposing their inanity as the light glared down on the wounds that dotted her stomach.  But hysterical sex could be damned, Olivia hazily decided.  As long as Elliot kept touching her the way that he was she’d take her chances.  It couldn’t be worse than all of the non-committal crap she’d spent her life suffering through.  A fuck here to combat loneliness, one there to try and forget a particularly horrible case, another because the vodka had lied to her and told her it was a good idea, and still another just to hang onto the temporary thrill of feeling special to someone else—even if she hadn’t always known that someone else’s name.
But this was Elliot.  It was Elliot.  He was safe, dependable, and would let her hold onto him as long as she needed to.  Even after the hysteria was gone, he would be there. 
Fuck love.  She didn’t need to believe in it, she just needed to be able to believe in Elliot.  
Elliot dropped his hand to the back of her thigh, the tips of his fingers digging into her.  He pulled her leg up off of the floor, steadying her knee over his hip.  Releasing his hold on her, he shoved the waistband of his pants below his hips and grabbed hold of his cock, rubbing the wet tip over her center before thrusting inside of her.  He pushed into her harder, with desperation fueling his forceful movements, as their voices tangled together.  Moans and whimpers and gasps ricocheting off of the other’s skin as they found life, swirling confusingly, making it impossible to separate her voice from his.
Olivia slid her arms beneath his, latching her hands around the backs of his shoulders.  She wanted to come.  She needed to come.  For him, because of him, so that for fifteen seconds—maybe more if Elliot really was as good as he was so far promising to be—she could feel something other than what he had accused her of feeling.  Because she didn’t want to feel afraid, she didn’t want to be afraid.  
Not anymore, not with Elliot.
The chime cut through the apartment, screaming out a quick succession of shrill rings.  They froze; Olivia flattened against him, Elliot still inside of her.
“What the hell is that?” Olivia panted, licking away the sweat that had coated the skin above her upper lip.
“Fuck,” Elliot growled, pulling out of her as quickly—as unexpectedly—as he had pushed inside of her.  “Disposable cell phone.  Cragen gave it to me at the hospital.”
“He told us to get some sleep,” she whined through two more rings, plopping her forehead down on his shoulder.  “Why in the hell is he calling?”
“I don’t know,” he grumbled.  “But I’d better find out.”
“You’d better find out,” Olivia halfheartedly agreed through a heavy breath.  She slumped against the cabinet as the sixth ring coerced Elliot out of the room, her eyes instantly lowering to the crumpled towel on the floor.  Scooping it up, she looped it around her torso, her shoulders bunching as a chill rolled through her.  Was someone trying to tell them something?  They’d had two spontaneous starts and two frustrating as hell, anti-climactic finishes—pardon the unfunny pun.  So, maybe it was time for them to wise up and catch a fucking clue.
But then again, they’d already proven that being smart—especially when it came to each other—wasn’t either of their strong points.
She glanced through the doorway as she heard the low, indecipherable rumble of Elliot’s voice in the living room.  Shit.  What was she supposed to do when he came back?  Initiate another round and pray that the third time really would be the charm?  Maybe start the shower, kill two birds with one proverbial stone by getting the stench of the past twenty-four hours washed off of Elliot while dousing herself with his scent again.  She wanted to smell him on her skin, not the fear or grime or moldiness of the dilapidated trailer that still clung to his.  But what if he’d lost the mood, or had come to his senses finally, or had been unexpectedly stricken impotent by the sound of Cragen’s voice?  
A sudden uneasiness grabbed hold of her as Elliot’s steps thudded in the bedroom, heavy, slow, each echoing with hesitance.  Damn it.  What was she supposed to say when he came back in?  How in the hell was she supposed to act?  Pretending like nothing had happened would be a little impossible to do considering her naked ass was propped up on the countertop, her center was so drenched she was surprised it wasn’t dripping, and she was only scantily—and even more embarrassingly—hidden behind a less than effective scrap of cotton.
She needed to calm down, to relax and remember who she was.  She could play it cool.  Casual.  The same way she always did when standing nose-to-nose with humiliation after a meaningless round of sex.  It wasn’t anything new, and sure as hell not a situation that she didn’t know how to deal with.  Except this time it was Elliot, and she wasn’t at all sure how to deal with him, or at least the consequences that their combined—and repeated—stupidity had left them to wade aimlessly through.
She gulped down a breath as Elliot filled the doorway, her insecurities instantly morphing into nervousness.  He was tensed, stone-faced, his eyes having darkened to a point of being unreadable.  The mood had been killed, she could tell, but her instincts warned her that it didn’t have anything to do with him coming to his senses and everything to do with whatever information the captain had called to deliver.
“What?” she asked, her voice only a whisper, breathless.  She tightened her hold on the towel, pulling the plush fabric taut.  “Was that Don?”
Elliot slumped against the doorframe, pressing a shoulder into it.  He knotted his arms across his chest, clenching his hands into fists.  “Yeah.  Looks like they found your car.”
Olivia’s eyes narrowed, confusion filtering into them.  “So, they found the warehouse in El Barrio?  Did they find Dominic—”
“Liv.”  He stepped over the threshold, coming to a stop in front of her.  “One of my neighbors called the Queens P.D. about an hour ago.  Those bastards ran your car up into my front yard.  And when the cops got there to check it out, they found a body inside.”
“Oh, God…” she whimpered.  “Kathy and the kids—”
“They’re still out of town,” Elliot responded.  “I’m gonna call her, tell her to stay put for now.”
Olivia’s eyes widened, her breath catching.  “Elliot. The body… Is it Raymond?”
“It’s a male, late teens, looks to be Latino.  They found two pieces of I.D. on him, but neither were his.”  He cleared his throat, reaching for her, dragging his hand down the length of her arm.  “You need to get dressed, I’m gonna hop in the shower.  Fin and Munch are on their way over here to pick us up—”
“Pick us up?” Olivia asked quickly.  “Why?”
“Because the two pieces of I.D. they found on the body were our driver’s licenses.  They’ve already been to my house, it only make sense that they’ll come here, too.”  He pulled his hand away from her arm, making a quick, gentle pass across her cheek.  “As much as we want this to be over, it doesn’t look like it is yet.  Those sons of bitches aren’t ready for it to be.”
CHAPTER TEN
March 25, 12:01 A.M.
There was a full moon.
Olivia leaned her forehead into the pane of glass, pulling her gaze away from the quiet street below and settling it on the blackness that topped the city.  The moon was big and pale, with a diffused glow fringing its periphery and adding a touch of ruddiness to the starless sky.  She closed her eyes; breathing in the cool, damp air in the crib, her mind becoming submerged in a hazy mix of memories and exhaustion.
Her ears hummed with the sounds of the past, car tires rolling rhythmically over asphalt, emitting a soft, unobtrusive drone that complimented the stillness of the early morning hours instead of disrupting it.  It had been 1985, barely a week into July.  The scent of fireworks still clung to the air, just faintly but noticeably, replacing the odors that were recognizable to the city.  It was as if everything had been cleansed, revitalized, given a second chance to start fresh.  Burdens that belonged to the past had been returned to it, sins had been pardoned, and excitement and possibility had become transposable.
Everything had become new, singularly characterized by opportunity.  
Or maybe it had just been her outlook that had changed, and the rest of the world had really stayed the same.  
Olivia forced her heavy eyelids to open, her eyes narrowing in retaliation to the soft shimmer of light outside.  She sought out the distinctness of the Man in the Moon’s features, characteristics that had become casualties of her maturity.  He was offering soothing through a trouble-free smile that her memory instantly recognized, and his eyes were focused only on her.  As if he could hear her thoughts, as if he were actually interested in understanding them.  
“You don’t have to go away to college, you know.  You could stay here, go to school in the city.”
Olivia had disagreed with her mother through a shake of her head only, her mind humming along to the upbeat melody of Patti LaBelle’s New Attitude versus concentrating on Serena’s slurred suggestions for a future that Olivia had only just become excited about being a part of.
“Be honest, Olivia.  Is the reason you’re leaving because you can’t forgive me?”
A disagreeing grumble had vibrated in Olivia’s throat, as she reached for the dash and flipped up the radio’s volume enough that Patti LaBelle’s harmonious voice became a competent competitor against her mother’s drunken one.
Serena had sighed, breathing out a cloud of gin that temporarily overpowered the freshness that cycled through the car with the staleness of the past.  “Forgiveness does not change the past but it does enlarge the future.  Never forget that.”
Olivia had cocked an eyebrow with expectance, directing the car through a right-hand turn as she’d asked, “Tennessee Williams?”
“Les Brown.  Maybe he isn’t comparable to Mr. Williams in literary standards, but he’s still a genius in his own right.  And very insightful, quite insightful.”
“Mom, c’mon.  Not tonight, okay?  I’m going to Siena because we both decided it’s the best school—”
“You used to talk to the Man in the Moon.  Do you remember that?”
Another shake of her head was the only answer Olivia had offered before she returned the majority of her attention to the upbeat music and left her melancholy mother with only a cautious, minuscule portion of it.
“You used to talk to him all the time,” Serena had continued with a condescending snort, patting at her sprayed up-do as a gush of wind snuck in through Olivia’s rolled down window and made a hasty exit out of hers.  “It started when you were around six or seven.  At first—quite honestly—I thought maybe you were possessed.  You know, one of those people who talked to the dead?  I’d go into your room at night and there you’d be, up on your knees at the head of the bed, your face pressed up to the window, and this conversation going on between you and…only God knew who.”  She had breathed out again, more potently.  “And then one night we had gone…out.  I’d, uh, I’d had to run inside of…well, I’d had some things to take care of, and I had you wait in the car.  When I looked out of the window to check on you, there you were in the backseat of this very car, talking up a storm.  Your mouth never stopped moving, your hands fluttered like butterflies, you frowned and laughed and… That’s when I figured it out.  You weren’t possessed, you were certifiably insane.”  She tapped Olivia’s thigh with a fingertip, making a wobbly tilt across the seat.  “I’ve never told you this, but there is a rather significant history of mental imbalance in my family.  My grandmother’s sister, Dorthea?”  With a slow roll of her bloodshot eyes, she slid along the seat until she was upright again.  “The woman used to name the doorknobs in her house, insisted that everyone call them by their proper names when they visited, too.”
Olivia had chuckled through the beginning stanza of Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days, still only lending her mother a fraction of her attention.  She hadn’t wanted to give her all of it, to be that naïve.  Not when trust existed only precariously between them.
“One day I’d finally had enough of those secretive conversations of yours, so I covered your bedroom window with tinfoil.  I thought if you couldn’t see whatever it was outside that you were so fascinated with, you would lose your interest in it.”  She hooked her elbow on the edge of the door, burying her flushed cheek in the palm of her hand.  “But you were far too obstinate to let yourself become dissuaded that easily.”
Olivia had passed a glance down the length of the seat, waiting for her mother to continue, knowing that the alcohol would encourage Serena to without any prompts from her.
“The next night you ripped the foil down, every inch of it.  When I asked why you’d done it, you said you’d had to because you couldn’t hear him well enough.”  Her eyes closed, her painted lashes fluttering against the tops of her cheeks.  “That’s when you told me that you talked to the Man in the Moon.”  She chuckled sleepily, with a tinge of sadness.  “When I asked what you talked about, you said he told you things that no one else could.  He could see everything, you said, from the biggest mountains to the tiniest ants, and… He could see your daddy.”
Olivia had eased the old Buick to a stop at a red light, turning down the radio as Animotion’s synthesized Obsession began to vibrate through the speakers.
“Every night the Man in the Moon would tell you about all of the things your daddy had done during the day, and he would tell your daddy all about you.  He was going to help your daddy find you, that’s what you believed.  It’s what you said he had promised.”
“I don’t remember.”
“I’ve never forgotten,” Serena had whispered groggily.  “The next day I put a board over your window, nailed it right into the wall so that you couldn’t pull it down.”  
Serena’s eyes had opened as Olivia pulled the old Buick into the driveway, the radio silenced, the light of the full moon raining down on them, hurt and regret blending and suddenly weighting the air.  “You got so angry with me for doing that.  You screamed and cried, if you had known any curse words at the time I’m quite sure you would have applied each and every one to me.  You said that no matter what I did the Man in the Moon would keep talking to you and wouldn’t break the promise he’d made.  You believed in him, or at least in the damned delusion of him that you’d created.  And I couldn’t let you do that; I couldn’t let you get lost in such a potentially hurtful fantasy.”
“Did I keep talking to him?”
Serena had frowned, wrinkles assailing the corners of her mouth.  “At first.  You were so sure of him, of that damned Man in the Moon.  You trusted in him, and that no matter what the circumstances were he would keep his promise to you.  But then…”  She breathed in, loudly, thoughtfully.  “He broke his promise, and you couldn’t forgive either of us for that happening.  When I tried to take down that board, you wouldn’t let me.  It was close to a full year, I think, after you had finally stopped believing, before you’d let me do it.”  She tugged on the door handle, the dome light tangling with the moon’s soft glow inside of the car.  “That board made it easy for you to remember, I suppose, and it gave you a reason not to forgive.  But it’s time for it to come down now, Olivia.  People will always disappoint you and break their promises; they’ll hurt you.  It’s just what we do to each other.  And if you can’t learn to forgive—if you can’t hold onto your belief in them in spite of the hurtfulness—you’ll never be able to move forward.”  She reached across the seat, caressing Olivia’s face with nimble fingertips.  “Maybe I haven’t given you a lot of reasons to trust me, but I hope you’ll try to this time.  Because I’m talking from experience, one that’s become my life and that I don’t want to become yours.”
Olivia’s eyes popped open as footsteps resounded outside of the partially open door, a lanky shadow stretching across a lit patch of floor and bending into the corner.  Thin fingers curved around the edge of the barrier, giving it a small push as John craned his neck and peeked inside the crib.  
“I’m awake.”
“I highly suggest that neither of us let the captain know that,” he said, his voice low, gliding gently across the room.  “He’s given everyone strict orders to keep it quiet so that you can get some rest.  Even yelled at Fin because he was remiss enough to let his telephone ring.”  He shoved the door further, his hand coming into view as he raised a Styrofoam cup into the air, before stepping inside.
Olivia chuckled tiredly, brushing a veil of hair away from her face.  She turned away from the window, from her old confidant visible outside of it.  “I got in a few minutes of sack time,” she said, nodding her thanks as John passed the cup to her.  Steadying the rim against her lips, she sniffed the pungent liquid inside before pulling it into her mouth.  
John spiked a brow as Olivia muffled a cough, a small smile cocking his lips.  “Although my partner says my coffee is strong enough to burn holes in his stomach, I thought you might be appreciative of something even stronger.”
Olivia choked on quiet laughter, running the back of her hand across her moistened lips.  “Whisky?” she asked through a strained whisper.
“Throughout my years I’ve found that there are definitely times when it comes in handy to have a—shall we say— secret stash on hand.  With the crap the degenerates in this city bury us in on a daily basis, sometimes you need a little something to help settle your nerves.”  He backed up to a stack of beds, situating the backs of his shoulders against an iron-slatted footboard.  “And nothing settles your nerves quite like a one-on-one conversation with Mr. Daniels.”
Olivia tilted the mouth of the cup in both agreement and further appreciation, before taking another drink.  A cough vibrated around the burn in her throat, her eyes narrowing in retaliation to both.
“I thought you’d like to know that while you haven’t been sleeping, Don’s been busy pulling a few proverbial strings,” John said, twisting his arms across his chest.  “He managed to get the body that was found in your car transferred to Manhattan.  Warner called a few minutes ago, she’s personally handling the autopsy.”
“Anyone get an I.D. on the kid yet?” Olivia asked around a third sip, her eyes tearing as the acerbic liquid once again assaulted her throat.
“Not yet.  But Warner’s going to send a picture over the airwaves to see if Elliot and you can identify him, just incase we don’t get any hits off of his prints.”
“I don’t know how much help we’ll be.  We only heard first names, not last names.”
“My personal opinion?  Even if it is only a first name, that has to be better than stumbling your way through eternity as John Doe Number Sixty-Seven.”
She nodded, pushing back against the window, the chill from the glass burrowing beneath her shirt and cooling her skin.  “Maybe it is,” she quietly agreed.  It was better than nothing, at least, to be able to hold onto half of your identity instead of having it completely taken from you, as if you had never had one at all.  As if you had never existed, never held any type of worth.  Or at least that was what she had tried to convince herself twenty-four hours earlier, on March twenty-fourth; the day that she had reluctantly accepted would be her last.  
“She’s gotta name!  It’s Olivia!”
Through another sip, her eyes dropped in avoidance of the insightful stare that had managed to overpower the darkness.  When she had heard Derio scream her name at Vedie, while the gun had still been pressed against her head, she had felt a flash of relief, maybe even gratitude.  They would know her name, in that instant, while she was still breathing, and even if they would forget it as effortlessly as she had known they would forget about her, she had also known that Derio never would.  And that had been enough, in that unbelievable second, the one that she had tried to prepare herself to accept would be her last.  
It had been enough.
Because when nothing was the most that you thought you would be left with, ‘enough’ became everything.
She rolled the cup between her palms, the liquid splashing onto and staining the fragile interior.  “I think, um.”  She shook her head, a myriad of young faces coming to life in her mind.  “My gut tells me it’s a kid named Raymond.  He’s one of the boys who helped us, and that was pretty much a death sentence for him.  The other boys, this bastard…Dominic…they wouldn’t have forgiven him.”
“Ah, yes, the ever-elusive forgiveness,” John said through a drawn-out, thoughtful nod.  “Often sought but rarely achieved.”
“I got the feeling it’s never achieved in Dominic’s world,” she returned.  She glanced up quickly, both questioning and concern sparking in her darkened irises.  “Have we heard anything from the hospital?  When Elliot and I left earlier Derio was—”
“He’s still holding his own,” John interrupted.  “They expect him to be in the hospital for a couple of weeks, but he should make a full recovery.”
Olivia breathed out a tinge of relief that quickly transitioned into apprehension, her fingers tightening around the brittle base of the cup.  “He’ll make a full recovery and then we’ll send him to prison,” she whispered censoriously, before drowning the hard facts that would become the thirteen-year-old’s future with another drink.  “We’ve taken him out of one prison just to stick him in another one.”
“Look at it this way, at least he won’t be on the streets any longer.  He’ll have a roof over his head, a bed to sleep in, three meals a day—”
“He didn’t understand the consequences of what he was doing,” Olivia broke in, “and I know he didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
John tilted his head, his inference ambiguous.  “Maybe he didn’t intend to hurt anyone, but I think we can all agree that he did.”  
“So Derio gets sent to some facility for the next seven or eight years of his life, and what happens to Dominic?  What if he really has murdered other kids like Derio said?  What about what he tried to do to Elliot and me?  Derio may have started all of it, but Dominic’s the one who gave the orders to end it.”
“And we’ll find him,” John said with a heartening wink.  “The bad guys never manage to stay hidden forever.”
“But most of them stay hidden for a helluva lot longer than they should be able to.”  She popped the back of her head against the window, her gaze lifting to the shadowed ceiling.  “This kid they found in my car, if it is Raymond… I want to do something for him.  Some kind of burial, or I don’t know.  Something.”  She smiled fleetingly, with a trace of gratitude toward John’s undeclared, but sensed, amenable reaction.  It was different than Elliot would react, she knew, with John leaning toward the compassion that Elliot hadn’t yet been able to find within himself for any of the boys.  “He couldn’t be older than sixteen or seventeen, and I don’t think he has any family who would be able to do anything for him.  Derio is his cousin, and if it is Raymond…” She shook her head, sighing heavily.  Guiltily.  “I want to be the one to tell him.”
“You know, you don’t owe these boys anything, Liv.”
“Yes, I do.  I promised Derio and Raymond that I’d help them, and I intend to keep my promise.”
He cocked an eyebrow, a prolonged breath whistling through his nose.  “While that’s admirable, it’s also rather excessive, don’t you think?  Considering?” 
“No,” she returned sternly.  “Especially considering, I don’t think it’s excessive at all.”
John cleared his throat, nodding, his stare narrowing over the rims of his glasses.  “From the tidbits of information I’ve received so far, it doesn’t seem that your partner is experiencing the same fond recollections of your experience that you are.”
Laughter bubbled inadvertently in Olivia’s chest, as tears unexpectedly assailed her darkened eyes.  “I’m not going to be angry just because Elliot is.  I don’t…I’m…Jesus.”  She laughed again, softer, sorrowfully.  “I’m so tired of being angry.”
“I’d say you have a right to be.”  He nodded, crossing his ankles, his chin lowering and stare remaining aimed over the tops of his glasses.  “So, Detective.  Care to tell me how your partner and you ended up in this mess?  Not to appear boorish, but I have seen your car.  It’s never exactly struck me as one that even a less than astute gang banger would view as a prize catch.”
She lifted a brow in conjunction with the cup, taking a drink.  “Did you come up here just to insult me?” she asked around the rim.  “Or was your reason to interrogate me?”
“Check behind door number three,” he said.  “Behind that one, you’ll find concern.”  A smile hooked crookedly on his lips, sustaining life only fleetingly.  “But I have to admit, inquisitiveness is an unfavorable side effect of this job.  So your second assumption doesn’t fall entirely into the category of inaccurate.”
Olivia breathed into the cup, her hot breath mixing with the whisky before she gulped both down with one biting swallow.  “John.  I’m fine.”
He lifted a bushy eyebrow, his eyes making a quick dip toward her bandaged hands before rising again.  “Mm-hmm,” he mumbled through a nod.  “You look fine.”
“Just scratches and bruises,” she said, lifting a hand and flipping it from side to side.  “Nothing that won’t heal.”
“You’re sure about that?”
Her eyes met his, only for an instant, her hesitation slamming into his perspicacity.  She shook her head, breathing out a sad chuckle before she swallowed the remainder of her drink. Wincing through the alcohol’s harsh aftertaste, she grumbled a throaty, “Damn,” and shoved the empty container onto the windowsill behind her. 
As she reached behind her, the rays of the moon caught her hands, the gleam washing across and highlighting Elliot’s crude handiwork.  The gauze had begun to loosen, wrinkling across her palms and bunching over the backs.  He had done a shoddy job at best of securing the bandages, but maybe one that was fitting.  He had been careless with his efforts, and they had been careless with each other.  But even worse, they had been careless with the truth.  Not allowing it the opportunity it deserved to develop naturally—the way it should have—instead of so rushed and recklessly.  And now they were trying to mask their stupidity—just as Elliot had tried to conceal the wounds that had resulted from it—with anger and demands for a justice that she wasn’t sure they had the right to claim.
Maybe all they really needed was understanding.  To understand the how and why and if something more significant than carelessness—than damned corporeal urges—had been the motivation behind their injudiciousness.
“Liv?” John asked, dipping his head and stealing a glimpse into her down-turned eyes.  
She apologized for her silence with a shake of her head, stepping away from the window and heading across the room.  Stopping beside the corner cot, she studied the lingering contour of Elliot’s frame that was still visible in the rumpled blanket.  When they had first arrived at the stationhouse, still wrestling with shock and subdued by exhaustion, she hadn’t offered any glances or excuses or estimations to the apprehensive audience that had assembled in the squad room.   Instead, she had made a silent trek toward the crib, her steps dragging, her thoughts processing even more slowly.  And Elliot had followed her, with his steps just as labored as hers, but his thoughts having accelerated to lethal speeds.  Maybe more between them had changed than had stayed the same throughout the past twenty-four hours, but her ability to read him hadn’t yet become a casualty of their awkwardness.  Admittedly, she didn’t always understand or agree with his thoughts, but she could still interpret them through his eyes.  They were portholes giving an unobstructed view into who he was, what he felt, and they had become wild.  Colored by irrationality, cold with anger, empty of compassion. 
It wasn’t retribution he wanted any longer.  He didn’t believe in the philosophy an eye for an eye; she knew him well enough to know that.  But she also knew that he believed in justice, with his heart, his soul, his entire being.  He believed that everyone was entitled to it, and that there were times when it was necessary—maybe even acceptable—to break any law—whether written by man or God—in order to get it.  And he wanted it, for her, for himself, and now for even more important reasons.  Reasons that had been unfairly pushed onto him, and that he wouldn’t be able to overlook or ignore.  Reasons that had taken from him what little rationality he had fled the junkyard still possessing, and that would convince him to charge head-first into battle instead of retreating, as she had begged him to do.
He would fight.  Not because he believed that he was above the law, or because he was some radical vigilante, or even a cold-blooded killer.
But because he was worse.
He was a father.
She dropped down onto the bed, pressing her hand over the blanket and flattening a wrinkle that Elliot’s restlessness had inflated.  During the short time that he had laid across the aisle from her, with ankles crossed, arms jammed behind his head and stare battering the ceiling, she had known that he was plotting.  Elliot wasn’t impulsive, but when threatened, his common sense was typically his first victim.  Maybe there had been a chance of handing the control back to his good judgment before, when it had been just about them, but it wouldn’t happen now.  A line had been crossed; one that he wouldn’t be able to forgive anyone for being bold enough to purposely leap over.  Before, it had been random.  They had been chosen simply because they had left themselves open to the opportunity for it to happen.  But now, moves had become calculated, plans had become detailed, and targets had been deliberately singled out.
And Elliot would retaliate.  In the only way he knew how when pushed beyond the limits of what he deemed acceptable.
By doing something stupid.
She glanced up, a smile still dangling precariously from her lips.  “Has, um.  Has anyone talked to Elliot?”
“The Good Humor Man?” John quipped, turning to face her.  “Other than offering a few Paleolithic grunts, he hasn’t made any real attempts to engage in civil conversation as of yet.”
“He’s upset.”
“And you’re not?”
She shook her head.  Not in an attempt to downplay her own feelings, but to support Elliot’s.  “They went to his house, John.  What if Kathy and the kids had been there?”
“They weren’t, but you were.  You were there through all of it.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“It just makes me wonder, that’s all.  Why is it that Elliot is downstairs taking out his frustrations over what could have happened on a row of blameless lockers, instead of up here with you dealing with what did happen?”
“Because he’s…” She lifted a shoulder sluggishly.  “He’s Elliot.”
“I thought he was also supposed to be your partner?”
“He is,” she responded, her answer given as tentatively as it was received.  “Look, you don’t understand what we went through, what it was like—”
“No, I don’t,” he broke in.  “There’s only one other person who understands it like you do.  So, let me ask you again, Olivia.  Why is he downstairs and you’re up here?”
She sought out the stare across the room; shadows having latched onto the tinted lenses of John’s glasses and stealing from her an unobstructed view into what she knew were insightful eyes.  “He left because he thought I was asleep.”
“Mmm,” he mumbled.  “Then let me rephrase my question.  You obviously haven’t been sleeping, so why have you stayed up here alone?”
Olivia groaned softly, scrubbing the patch of skin beneath her nose with tingling fingertips.  The medication was wearing off and her hands were beginning to throb again, the ache burrowing beneath her skin, heating muscles and nerves.  She studied the bandages, wishing that it were Elliot’s hands she could feel on her again instead of the stretched cotton.  But she was beginning to understand that his hands had been no different than the gauze, able to offer only temporarily relief, hiding wounds but not healing them.  Merely acting as a buffer in an attempt to keep the pain to a minimum so that it wouldn’t have to be experienced fully.
“He left,” she whispered, bowing her head as tears began pounding against her willpower, threatening to crash through it.  Damn it.  Damn it.  Damn it.  She didn’t want to cry.  She didn’t want to seem that vulnerable, or affected, or Jesus.  So damned immature.  
“He’s just down in the locker room,” John soothed.  “Defacing the city’s property—”
She shook her head, stopping him.  “No.  At, um, at…when we were...” She blinked against her tears, once, twice, the salty pools blurring her vision.  “He’s angry because they went to his house, and he’s scared for his kids, and…I think…I know he feels guilty because of…me.” Dabbing the corners of her eyes, she sank back against the wall.  Deflating.  “It was just…there, I mean…it was just the two of us against God knew how many of them, and he…Elliot…left.  We were supposed to stay together, that’s what we’d said we would do.  No matter what the outcome, we’d be together.  But then he…he just…he was gone.  Without any explanation or reason, he just left.”
“Oh…” John said, his understanding intermixed with a sigh.  Stepping into the aisle, he rocked onto the balls of his feet, wedging his hands into the front pockets of his trousers.  
“And now… Now, I think he feels guilty about it, and I guess…in a way, maybe, I’ve wanted him to feel like that.”  She laughed softly, remorsefully, the first of her tears toppling onto her cheeks.  “I mean, I haven’t exactly discouraged him from feeling that way.”
John took another step forward, and another, his shoulder sliding along the metal frame of an upper bunk.  “I think it’s important to remember who we’re talking about.  No matter how irrational Elliot can be, he generally has a reason for the things he does.”  He grinned crookedly, with noticeable sarcasm.  “At least one that seems logical to him.”
Olivia nodded, knowing that he was right.  Elliot’s reasons were always logical, or at least he always seemed able to convince himself that they were.  She just wished this time that she understood his actions well enough to believe that a rational idea had actually been behind them.  
“I didn’t think we were going to make it out of there,” she admitted.  “And for a while I didn’t know if Elliot was…I thought they had…” She smiled weakly, through sniffles.  “They, uh, a couple of the boys, they caught up to me, and I knew that was it.  I mean, it was over, but then…Elliot was there, just…out of nowhere.  And I, I…” She dragged her fingers across her forehead, groaning.  “When I heard his voice, I started praying for five more minutes.  I just wanted five more so that I could get my hands on the son of a bitch and kill him.  Because if he hadn’t left, if we’d stayed together… We were almost out.  Almost, damn it.”
Slender fingers slid onto her lap, surprising her not only with their arrival, but with the gentleness of their touch.  Olivia’s right hand began to shake as John’s coiled around it, squeezing lightly, enough to fully awaken the pain beneath her skin.  But in that second she wanted to feel it, every flash of it.  At least there was a reason for it.  Maybe not one that she understood, but that she could identify.  She knew the cause of it, and that in time it would stop.
And she needed to be reminded of that, that pain had as explicit of a beginning as it did an end.
She needed to believe that it wasn’t perpetual.
“I can’t say I blame you for being upset,” John said.  “But don’t let that overshadow the big picture.”  He sat down beside her, sliding one thin leg over the other.  “When it was all said and done, you both left, Liv.  And you left together.”
She laughed softly, with a tinge of embarrassment, as she slid her quivering hand out of his.  “Yeah, I know,” she whispered.  “I’m sorry.  I’m just…I haven’t slept in…” Chuckling again, a scarlet hue replacing the dampness on her face, she added, “To be honest, I don’t remember when I slept last.”
“Well, then, I should let you rest.”  He tapped a hand against her knee, his smile in place when she glanced up.  “It’s been my experience that nothing refreshes your perspective quite like a little sleep does.”  Climbing to his feet, he patted her knee again, reassuringly, and started off across the room.  As he reached the doorway, he stopped.  Hesitating through a split second before turning back toward her.  “You know, I’ve known Elliot for a lot of years, and I like to believe during that time I’ve learned what kind of man he is.  And even if there are times when I find it close to impossible to agree with him, I always trust him.  I know that on any given day he wouldn’t hesitate to take a bullet for any one of us, because that’s who he is, the type of man who puts himself last.”  He leaned a shoulder into the door, twisting his arms across his chest. “Except with you.  When it comes to the two of you, he always puts himself first.”
Olivia’s watery gaze stretched across the room, her brows creasing as John counteracted her confusion with a sturdy nod. 
“With the two of you, he’ll step up first to take heat from the brass, a sucker punch from a perp, criticism from the captain, or a bullet to the heart.”  He redistributed his weight, the hard soles of his shoes scraping across the floor.  “Elliot is selfish in that respect, I suppose.  The way he always puts himself ahead of you.” 
Olivia bit into her lip, remaining connected to the unwavering stare across the room.  
“Forget all the partner bullshit the NYPD pumped us full of in the academy.  Forget the crap about your partner being your priority, making sure they’re safe before you are, always having their back.  This is about you and me, Olivia.  Just us.  And if I made it out of here without you, I’d still be just as dead as if those kids filled me full of lead.”
“Son of a bitch…” she whispered.  “That son of a bitch had it planned the whole time.”
“Knowing Elliot,” John agreed through a sturdy nod.
Her eyes widened, both incredulity and anger sparking in them.  “He never planned for us to walk out together, he didn’t plan to walk out at all.  In the junkyard…” She balled her hands, wincing as a throb erupted beneath her sliced flesh.  “Son of a bitch.  He left on purpose so that I would— Damn him.  He thought I’d leave.  The whole time, he stayed away so that I’d—” 
“But you didn’t,” he returned, spiking his heavy brows.
Olivia glanced up, her anger making a swift tilt toward self-defense.  “I couldn’t.”
John agreed through a nod.  “No, you couldn’t.  Because when it comes to each other, you’re both selfish.  Neither of you can ever put the other one first.”  He tapped twice on the edge of the door, nodding toward the rows of beds.  “Get some rest.  I’ll let you know when any new information comes in.”
+++
March 25, 12:01 A.M.
Fucking hell.  His leg hurt.
Flesh wound, his ass.  It felt like the damned bullet was lodged in his thigh, as if someone was slicing his muscle in two with the dull edge of a butter knife.  With his luck, he’d ended up with the one and only quack in the ER, an unmotivated jackass who had paid $19.95 for a copy of How To Be A Doctor for Dummies, complete with a tear-out medical degree on the last page that he had filled out himself—and had probably misspelled his own name.
Elliot stretched out his leg, groaning as he felt his muscles tighten unnaturally.  He clutched the edge of the bench, “Son of a bitch,” rumbling indignantly in his throat.  Fuck.  Gangrene had probably already set in and he would be dead by the end of the week.  At least those adolescent bastards had better hope he dropped; otherwise he was going to make damn sure that they started going down like fucking dominoes.
He rolled his neck, the shadows in the locker room dancing around him as he tilted his head to the left, right, backwards, before dropping it forward.  He had left the light off, had closed the door to shut out the echoes of passing voices and glow in the hallway.  Around him, darkness hovered.  Filling the corners of the room, dripping down the walls, looming above him like a storm cloud ready to crack wide open, all hell breaking loose with it.  Trapped in the blackness were whispers, endless, taunting.  Heavy in one instant like rushing, pounding footsteps and then screaming out shrilly before morphing into deafening gun blasts.
Motherfuckers.
Fucking poor sports, that’s what the sons of bitches were.
They had lost.  They had lost at their own sick game and playing by their own twisted rules, but they were too cocky and full of themselves to accept it.  They were too stupid to admit defeat, too ignorant to understand that it was game fucking over.
He rocked forward, flexing his left foot, his eyes slamming shut as a flash of pain shot through his leg.  He had been trying, damn it, trying just like Olivia had asked him to put it behind him, to move past it, to let the fucking law take over the fight for him.  But now the juvenile delinquent pricks had gone too far, too fucking far.
Who in the hell did they think they were?  They had overstepped their rights from the very beginning, with Olivia, with him—with Olivia—and now they had taken it even further and made it more personal than it ever should have become.  The motherfuckers had gone to his home.  They had contaminated his property, tried to lay claim—again—to what was his, not theirs.  Jesus Christ.  It was his family, his fucking family, and those bastards didn’t have any right to try and drag them into the middle of a cluster fuck that never should have had the chance to begin in the first place.
Olivia thought the assholes needed forgiveness—understanding.  Fuck that.   Maybe they were just kids, maybe they had gotten crappy starts in life, but who in the hell hadn’t?  Everyone had their own shit to deal with, but not everyone became pintsized killers and rapists because of it.  They didn’t deserve automatic exoneration just because their mommies and daddies didn’t pay as much attention to them as they should, or they didn’t have a new pair of shoes at the start of every school year, or they were slapped around more than hugged.  They didn’t deserve to be forgiven because of it; it should make them more understanding.  Because they knew—they knew, damn it—what it felt like to be treated unfairly, to be hurt for no reason, to be used as a scapegoat when you weren’t at fault.
Motherfuckers.
He should have run them down when he’d had the chance.  He should have taken them out one by one, flattened them into the God forsaken gravel beneath the bald tires of their own stolen piece of crap.  Then there wouldn’t be any doubt who had won, no opportunity for fucking do-overs, and no one else who would have to suffer just so one of those twisted bastards could make himself believe that he was a man deserving of fucking respect.  The pubescent pricks would finally understand that if they played with fire they’d get burned.
Maybe that was exactly what they needed, to feel the burn.  And he would personally start feeding the flame.  He would hit the streets and start up his own game of Hide and Seek, putting into play his own fucking rules.  He would hunt them; take them out of play one at a time, two at a time, however he was lucky enough to find them.  
He would make damn sure the game finally ended.
For his family.  For Olivia.
Damn it.  For Olivia.
Ollie, ollie fucking oxen free.
“What the hell?”
Elliot’s eyes constricted, his face swinging toward the doorway as the barrier was pushed open and light flooded the room.  He waved a hand in the air, grumbling indecipherably until Fin popped the light switch for a second time, shadowing the room with the subtle light from the hallway.
“The fuck’d you do?” Fin growled, stepping between the bench and row of lockers.  He shoved his thumb over his shoulder, his lips rolling into a snarl as he pointed toward a succession of dents that marked three metal doors.  “One of those is mine!  Damn, I get that you’re pissed, Stabler, but why the hell you gotta tear up my shit?”
“Sorry,” Elliot mumbled.  “I didn’t mean to…I, uh…” He finished his apology with a shrug, the feeble gesture met with an unreceptive sigh from the other detective.
“That’s why God invented punching bags,” Fin said, dropping down onto the bench.  “And perps.  If you gotta hit something, make sure it’s something that deserves it.”
Elliot chuckled humorlessly, through a nod.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”  Motioning toward the doorway with a tilt of his head, he asked, “Anything new happening?”
“From what I’ve heard, a whole lot of screw ups,” Fin responded.  “Cragen talked to a Captain Garcia from the two-three.  Dude finally got off his ass and took a couple of units over to the junkyard to check things out.”  He shook his head as Elliot looked up.  “Didn’t find nothing.  Not that Vedie guy you said you shot, no signs anyone was ever killed there, didn’t even find the mattress in the trailer that Liv and you talked about.  According to Garcia, everything was in order.”
“Bastards,” Elliot hissed, digging the tips of his fingers into the underside of the bench.  “The sons of bitches gave those kids how many hours to clean up after themselves?  Like it’s a surprise they didn’t find anything.”
“We did get some information on Dominic.”  He folded his legs beneath the bench, his clasped hands sinking between his knees.  “Last name is del Torres.  According to Garcia, he’s a real upstanding member of their community.  Fronts a lot of money for renovation projects, gets a bunch of the kids off the streets by giving ‘em jobs in his warehouses.  He teaches ‘em how to work on cars, gives ‘em a place to stay if they don’t have anywhere else to go.  Capt’n said Garcia didn’t seem all that excited about going after the dude, talked about him like he’s the Patron Saint of El Barrio.”
“Motherfuckers at the two-three aren’t going to do a damn thing.”
Fin snorted a chuckle.  “I don’t think that’s gonna matter.  Cragen’s hot enough for everybody.  He’s been dragging one ass after another outta bed tonight.  When I left the pen, he was on the phone with the Chief of D’s.”
Elliot rocked forward, supporting himself on stiffened arms, his biceps flexing.  “It’s gonna take too long,” he said, his voice low, aimed at the darkened floor instead of an attentive Fin.  “We need to be out there now.  We have to move now if we’re going to get our hands on those kids.”
Fin turned toward him, his heavy brows lowered, meeting above the bridge of his nose.  “Think you oughta slow down for a second, Flash Gordon?  Let Cragen handle this—”
“It’s already been, what, almost ten hours since Liv and I busted our way out of that hellhole?  Ten fucking hours, Fin.  You can make a lot of crap disappear in that amount of time.”
“As soon as Cragen gets a warrant, we’ll go over to the junkyard ourselves—”
“And find what?”
“Whatever’s there,” Fin responded confidently.  “Nobody here is gonna let this drop, Elliot, and Cragen’s gonna make damn sure nobody else does, either.  So you gotta chill.  Don’t fuck anything up by trying to handle it yourself instead of letting Cragen push it through the proper channels.”
“Fucking proper channels,” Elliot growled, jumping up from the bench.  His left leg buckled, a flash of pain sending him shoulder-first into the lockers.  Metal screeched beneath his weight, and he retaliated with a vibrating blow to the center of an already dented door.
“Jesus, Elliot!” Fin barked.  “Save your energy, man!  Focus it where it needs to be!”
“That’s what in the hell I’m doing!” Elliot shot back, shaking out his right hand.  He limped up the row of compartments, his hand fisted and pressed against his chest.  “They went to my house, Fin!  My fucking house!  What if Kathy and the kids had been there?”  Stopping at the end of the room, he flattened his hands against the wall, his head sinking between his shoulders.  “You didn’t see them, the way they were with Olivia.  The way they fucking talked about her—to her—”
“And she deals with that kinda shit every time she goes up against some perv in interrogation,” Fin returned.  “None of us like it, but we all know she can handle it.”  
“She can handle it,” Elliot chided through a shake of his head.  “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“Maybe not as far as this situation goes, but I know Liv—”
“We weren’t in fucking interrogation!” Elliot bellowed, curving his fingers into the wall, scraping them down the hard plaster and rolling them into his palms.  “They had all the control!  They had it!”  A scream ignited in his chest, sticking in his throat.  Rumbling.  Rattling.  He jerked back his right arm, slamming his fist into the wall.  Once.  Twice.  His knuckles cracking and skin splitting, blood oozing onto and streaking his hand.
Fin jumped to his feet as a third crack vibrated the wall.  He hurried through steps, skidding to a stop at the end of the bench as Elliot left a fist-sized, crimson stain on the plaster with a fourth punch.  “Christ, Stabler—”
“The fuckers took control!” Elliot growled, tightening his right arm against his chest.  “But I’ll be damned before I let them keep it!  I’m gonna—”
“You’re gonna, what?” Fin snapped.  “What, you planning to start up your own personal war, is that it?  ‘Cause if that’s what you’re thinking, you better call Warner first and tell her to reserve a metal slab in the morgue for you!”  He shook his head, mumbling a barely audible, “Shit,” as he swayed forward and then backwards on the wooden seat.  “The facts are, they’re prepared and you’re not.  They’ve got the advantage right now, and if you get stupid and start thinking they don’t, then you’re gonna end up just like that kid they parked in your front yard.”  
“They’re not gonna touch me.”
“They already did!” Fin grumbled.  “They got the better of you, deal with it and then do something the fuck about it—the right something!” 
“That’s what I’m planning to do!”
“No, what you’re planning is a suicide mission!” Fin spit, jumping to his feet as Elliot spun toward him.  “You’re so pissed about your family and Liv—well, just what in the hell do you think is gonna happen to them if you get yourself killed?  You and I both know if something like that happens Liv’ll blame herself for it!  Damn, if you really care about her, you won’t do something like that to her!”
“I’m doing it for her!”
“What the hell makes you think she wants you to?”  He took a step back, his thick arms bowed and flexed at his sides.  “Anyone ever tell you that you’re one selfish sonuvabitch?”
Elliot took in a breath, his chest heaving, each exhalation shuddering through his tensed lips.  “You don’t…you can’t…” He fell back against the wall, his right arm cradled against his chest.  “It wasn’t the knowing what those bastards were planning to do to her, it was…Jesus…knowing…that there wasn’t a fucking thing I could do to stop them.”  He staggered forward, the sole of his right shoe thudding against the floor and his left one dragging noisily.  “If they’d gone after her, tried anything, I wouldn’t have been able to stop them.”
“And you didn’t have to, so why don’t you put some time into being thankful about that instead of pissed about the other crap?  It doesn’t seem like Liv’s worrying about it, ‘least not like you are.  To tell you the truth, outta the two of you, she seems like she’s in a helluva lot better shape.”
Elliot made an unsteady trek back to the bench, lowering onto the end and hunching forward.  He propped his elbows on his thighs, the impact to his left leg sending a shiver of electricity down his calf.  It twisted around his ankle, cramping the muscles in his foot.  He groaned through the jolt of pain, digging his heel into the floor.  “I just keep thinking…damn it.  When those sons of bitches came up to the car, I should’ve…if I’d just… I don’t know.  Put up a fight, or tried to go for one of their guns, or at least tried harder to get Olivia out of the car.  And at the junkyard…” He flexed his left leg, wincing.  “She was scared, scared of them.  And I thought…I just thought if I could give her a reason… That’s what that kid was supposed to be.  Damn it, I thought he’d be reason enough for her to leave.” 
“C’mon, man,” Fin said, sinking down onto the bench again.  “Don’t do this to yourself.  Liv and you both did what you had to do, and she’s okay.  You both came out of it okay.”
Elliot glanced back over his shoulder, his stare shattering the haziness that occupied the space between them. “Where were you?” he asked.  “When Harris dragged her down into that basement, where were you?”
Fin gnawed on his lower lip, his gaze dropping to the floor as Elliot’s did.  “Waiting in line to get that damned shot.”
Elliot nodded, making it clear that he wasn’t trying to gather information in order to place blame, merely to compare failures.  “I don’t even remember where I was,” he admitted.  “When they caught up with her, I can’t…even… It would’ve been in the bed of some broken-down truck, or hiding in the front seat of a rusted-out car, or… Christ.  All the cars started to look alike.  After awhile, I couldn’t figure out where I was anymore.  If I’d already run past one, turned at another.  I couldn’t…find…her.”
“Elliot.  Those kids, they didn’t… Liv said it didn’t go that far.”
“It didn’t go that far with Harris, either.  But does knowing that make you feel any less guilty?”
Silence settled between them, as thoughts drifted in different directions, guided by unresolved emotions.  The clock on the wall chronicled their seconds of self-imposed guilt, each advance of the second hand ricocheting off of the shadows, echoing, morphing into sounds of the past that both men feared would somehow gain passage into the future.
“I’ve gone over that day a million different times in my head,” Fin finally said.  Not expecting an acknowledgement from Elliot.  Not receiving one.  “I work through it, figure out what I should’ve done different, what I could’ve done different.”
“Ever come up with any answers?” Elliot asked.  
Fin lifted a shoulder.  “Could’ve lied, told ‘em I’d already gotten my shot.  Then I wouldn’t have got stuck waiting.”  He shrugged again, raising both shoulders.  “I could’ve outed us as soon as I heard about the quarantine, gone straight to the warden and gotten Liv pulled outta GP.  I could’ve…” He shook his head.  “I don’t know, man.  There’s just a lotta things I could’ve done.”
“Why didn’t you do any of them then, when you had the chance?”
He hesitated.  “I don’t know.  That’s the one answer I haven’t come up with yet.”  He resituated on the bench, sliding his legs out in front of him.  “What’s with the questions?  You think there’s something different you could’ve done?”
Elliot straightened, pulling in a chest full of air.  He coughed as the inhale rolled down his throat, on the cool air that he knew only his imagination had weighted.  Littering it with specter particles of dust and debris.  With guilt.  “There’s always something, right?”
“Maybe,” Fin tentatively agreed.  “Probably.  But you wanna know what I always remind myself of when I start thinking about all those should’ve’s and could’ve’s?”  He nodded, just once, answering when Elliot didn’t.  “I remember that when I got down into that basement, when I saw what the situation was…” A smirk tightened his lips, a shake of his head following.  “That bastard Harris looked a helluva lot worse than Liv did.”
“How’s that make you feel better, to remember that?”
“Reminds me just how tough she is,” he responded simply, climbing to his feet.  “Liv’s a fighter.  Always has been, always will be.”  He made his way out from between the bench and lockers, not looking back as he headed toward the doorway.  “And that makes me feel better.  Knowing that no matter how hard anybody might try, they’ll never be able to take that away from her.”  He stepped into the hallway, becoming spotlighted in the bright light.  “Wouldn’t hurt for you to remember that, too.  Trust me, it makes you feel a helluva lot better to think about that instead of all those would’ve’s and could’ve’s.”
+++
March 25, 12:47 A.M.
There was a full moon.
Olivia could see it clearly through the window and tracked its rays to where they butted up to the locker room floor.  They unfolded in unison, a touch of beauty being lent to the otherwise drab tile base and bringing it to life with muted shimmers.
Leaning a shoulder into the doorframe, she rested her head against the metal border.  Tearing her gaze away from the provisionally iridescent floor, she settled it on Elliot.  Silently studying his hunched form at the end of the bench, his head supported in his hands, shoulders rising steadily through deep, meditative breaths, and completely unaware of her.
“I talked to Fin, talked to Cragen, too.  He gave me the okay to throw you in a holding cell if I have to, to make sure you stay put.”
Elliot’s shoulders rose slightly, tensing at the sound of Olivia’s voice.  She stepped into the room, wavering just inside the doorway, her arms twisted behind her and fingers tugging at the slack strips of cotton that circled her hands.  Crossing her left foot over her right one, and then right over left, she staggered through two more steps that delivered her to the opposite end of the bench from where Elliot remained slumped.  
She didn’t have to see his face to envision the anger that had taken hold of it.  The wrinkles around his eyes would be deeper than normal, his bottom lip would be marked by indentions from where he’d consistently gnawed on it, and the muscles in his jaw would be drumming and keeping beat to a frenzied tune that he had co-authored with irrationality and fear and exhaustion.
She already knew it.  She sure as hell didn’t want to see it.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?” she asked through another step.  “Because this…it isn’t you.”  She took another step, and another, pressing the side of her knee into the wooden edge of the bench.  As her movements silenced, Elliot lifted his head, facing the window and catching the stare of the observant Man in the Moon.  “I know you’re mad, that you’re scared.  I get that, El, because I feel the same way.  But we’ve already fought them.  We fought, and now we need to let someone else take over.  Not forever, but for now.  For a little while.”
He shook his head, grumbling his disagreement to the indistinct eyes peeking in through the window.  
She slid against the bench through another step, the fall of her feet timid echoes in the room.  “We made it out, Elliot.  Finally, we found our way out, and I’m not going to let you go back in.”
He pulled in a breath, his shoulders rising and chest puffing.  “We have to do something.”
“And we will, but we need to do it the right way.”
“The only way they understand is theirs.”
“But we know there’s a different way.”  She moved forward again; taking a single step that hesitance lent sound to.  “What’re you going to do, just hit the streets, go on a one-man crusade to try and stop God knows how many of them?  Because if that’s what you decide to do, you won’t stop any of them.  They’ll stop you.  And what happens to your kids then?”
“They’ll be safe, that’s what’ll happen.”
Olivia laughed softly, with a hint of tears.  “What happens to me?” she whispered.  “I thought we were supposed to be in this together?” 
“Together?” he snorted, his eyes narrowing accusingly, his stare still lost outside of the window.  “You don’t even want them found; you want them forgiven.  The bastards who wanted to rape you and tried to kill you, and you want to fucking forgive them.”  He chuckled again, through a shake of his head.  “You don’t want to fight them, Olivia.  You want to save them.”
She took another step, one that brought him into her reach.  But her hands remained clasped in front of her, the gauze only loosely secured around her palms, ineffectively concealing her wounds.  “What I want, Elliot, is to figure out a way not to feel so damned angry anymore,” she said.  “You’re wrong, I haven’t forgiven them.  I don’t even know…if…I’ll be able to.  But if I can’t at least stop feeling angry then I’ll become just like them, and that scares me even more than they do.”  She moved in front of him, tracking the path of muted light that snuck in from the window and spotlighted his hands.  Blood glistened on top of the knuckles of his right hand, the fractures in his skin clearly visible beneath it.  “Maybe we can’t save all of them, but Derio and Raymond are proof that we can save some of them.  And maybe that’s what we need to give this some sort of purpose, just to save a few of them.  Then there’ll be a reason for it happening, for what we had to go through.”
“Those assholes didn’t need a reason,” he growled.  “They were just bored and needed something to do.”
Olivia took a step back, distance sliding noticeably between them.  No.  No, she couldn’t accept that.  She needed to believe that it was more than that.  For all of them.  There had to be reasons, someone had to have a reason.  Whether it was Elliot, or the boys, or some divine higher power.  Someone had to be in charge of fate.  She needed someone to be, for someone to have an agenda, some sort of purpose.  Because she couldn’t accept that the past twenty-four hours boiled down to nothing more than a hand full of senseless mistakes and coincidences.
She didn’t want to believe that any of them were insignificant enough that that was the most fate had decided they deserved.
“If it’s reasons you need, you’re going to be disappointed when all of this finally is over,” Elliot grumbled.  “Because the only ones who’ll be changed by any of it are you and me.”
She chuckled faintly, with conviction.  “We’ve already been changed, don’t you think?  And it happened before those kids ever showed up.”
“Right,” he grudgingly agreed through another rumble of laughter, the resonance churning in his throat like loose gravel.  “Because we were stupid.”
“We were,” she returned firmly, “and I…there’s a lot that I…regret.”  Challenging the distance that so perceptibly separated them, she took a step forward.  Toward him.  “I regret that we didn’t have one more drink last night, or I don’t know.  Maybe we should’ve had one less.  I regret that I parked my car on the side street instead of in front of the bar like you did, and I… I regret that I didn’t tell you what I really wanted—that it wasn’t to climb into the backseat of the car.”  She saw his eyes shift beneath his lids, sliding to the right and then left, remaining down.  Avoiding looking into hers and seeing what he assumed to be the truth.  “When you…last night, when we… What I wanted was for it to be right, and it wasn’t.  At least…” She shrugged.  “It wasn’t the right place.”
He shuffled his feet unevenly, his right foot making a solid pass across the tile floor and left one only barely skimming it.  Tentatively, Olivia took the victory away from distance and knelt in front of him, blanketing his hands with hers, the blood from his wounds staining the gauze that concealed hers.  “If you go after them, Elliot, they’ll kill you.  And that’ll be one regret that I won’t be able to live with.”  She tilted her head down, as his stare settled on their hands.  “You can’t pick the vic, remember?  That was the first lesson we both learned, and the second one I learned was that when you’re the one who does get picked, the only choice you’re left with is how you handle the aftermath.  That’s it, all you get.  So you can either give into the anger and let it destroy you, or you can fight it and become stronger than it.”
He nodded, with as much agreement as conviction.  “And that’s what I’m trying to do.  I want to fight the bastards.”
“No, you want to beat them.  There’s a difference.”
“I want to stop them.”
“For who?” she asked.  “Because I don’t want it to be for me.  I won’t be an excuse for you.”
“You’re not an excuse.”
“That’s what you’re trying to turn me into.  And I won’t—”
“You’re not an excuse!” he growled, pulling his hands out from under hers.  “Jesus, Olivia.  You’re that fucking reason you need so badly.”  
Her eyes widened fleetingly as she breathed in his exhale.  Hot.  Rushed.  Scented as thickly with intent as mint-flavored Colgate.  She was a reason.  Elliot’s reason.  
She was Elliot’s reason.
And maybe that meant that together, they were fate’s reason.  After all, Divine Intervention sure as hell couldn’t claim originality when it came to resorting to extreme measures in a last ditch effort to get the better of their hardheadedness and knock some common sense into them.
So maybe they had been the reason all along, the only reason.  
Or at least the only one that was really supposed to matter to either of them.
She slid her hands onto his knees.  Cupping lightly, squeezing hopefully.  “If that’s true, Stabler, then prove it,” she said.  “Make me the reason why you don’t do anything stupid.”
His gaze rose, his eyes narrowed with an onslaught of emotions.  None discernible or identifiable, but each powerful; blackening his irises with their combined strength.  “I don’t know if I… How do I just let it go?  Before, I didn’t have a choice.  I couldn’t stop it.  I couldn’t stop those bastards, and I knew it—they knew it.  But this time I can.  God willing, I can stop every last one of them.”
“Who made that your responsibility?” she asked quickly, forcefully.  “Who put you in charge of protecting me?  Because that’s never what I’ve expected you to do.”  The moon’s rays fell across her face, easing the tension, highlighting a small smile as it hooked her lips.  “No more leaving, Elliot.  If you try really hard to make it up to me, I might be able to forgive you for doing it the first time.  But there’s not a chance in hell of me forgiving you if you do it again.”
“Liv, Elliot.”  Two knocks vibrated against the open door as Fin filled the frame.  “Warner just sent over that picture of our joyriding corpse.  Capt’n wants the two of you to take a look at it.”
Olivia nodded.  “Be right there,” she said, her stare never wavering from Elliot’s.  She pressed down on his knees for leverage, beginning to rise up.  As her face passed his, she leaned in closer, gliding her cheek over his, whispering with a hint of supplication, “I don’t want you to fight for me, Elliot.  I just need you to fight with me.  So don’t try to be a superhero, okay?  Because you’re the only one who thinks that’s who you should be.”
+++
March 25, 1:22 A.M.
Death didn’t belong on the face of a child.
No matter who that child had been, or how far he had strayed.  He still deserved to have life filling his eyes, not death hollowing them.
“Do you recognize him?”
Olivia nodded stoically, not returning the captain’s glance.  Instead, she continued to study the image on the board.  The knuckle-sized bruises that stained the left side of the captured face, the swollen flesh around the nose, the emptiness that had consumed the jet black eyes.
“Damn, bitch, c’mon.  This ain’t no time to play fucking games.  You want it to be rough; it can be rough.  It don’t make no difference to me.  ‘Cause no matter how it goes down, I’m getting what I want.”
She recognized him.
She would never forget him.
“This’s gonna be fucking fun, bitch.”
He was a nice looking kid.  Something that he hadn’t allowed her to notice before, but that death flaunted tauntingly.
He was a nice looking kid.  A normal looking kid.
“He was one of them,” Olivia said, feeling Elliot’s shoulder brush against hers as he staggered from his left leg onto his right one.
Cragen nodded, clearing his throat.  “Silvio Chavez, seventeen.  He’s in the system.  Has a list of priors, mostly petty crimes.  Shoplifting, stealing a few purses, things like that.”
“Looks like he escalated,” Elliot said, leaning closer to the screen.  “C.O.D. the gunshot wound?”
“Warner hasn’t confirmed it yet,” Cragen returned, “but it seems pretty cut and dry.  There was a single GSW to the upper back.  Looks like someone took him down while he was trying to run.  The marks on his face were done earlier, several hours before he died—”
“By me,” Elliot confessed, his voice thick, low, absent of remorse.  “It was, uh, it was…”
Olivia glanced at him, seeing him tense.  His brows lowered, creasing, and he pulled his bottom lip into his mouth.  Chewing.  Thinking.  Maybe combating the guilt that he didn’t want to feel.  “When we were trying to get out of the trailer,” she continued for him.  “Silvio was at the bedroom door.  He, uh, he was…it was supposed to be…his…” She pulled in a breath as Cragen did, hers a mixture of relief and lingering disbelief, his of understanding.  “Derio told the others that he had…with me…and it was supposed to be Silvio’s turn next.  Elliot and I jumped him at the door.  We had to subdue him, to keep him quiet, get his gun.”
Cragen nodded, just once, firmly.  “Looks like you let the bastard off easy.”  He shot a frown past Olivia, targeting Elliot.  “I would’ve blackened both his eyes.”
“Why this kid?” Olivia asked, stepping closer to the screen, analyzing the pallid face with narrowed eyes.  “It doesn’t make sense.  He was the leader of the pack, seemed to call all the shots when Vedie and Dominic weren’t around.”
“That’s the problem with a hierarchy,” Crage responded, his jowls wrinkling as his frown deepened.  “Everyone’s always fighting to get to the top, and they generally don’t let anything—or anyone—stop them from making their climb.”
“That means…” She glanced back at Elliot.  “Maybe they haven’t found Raymond yet.”
“Yeah, and with our luck we won’t, either,” Elliot grumbled, running his fingers over his scraped knuckles.  “That kid’s probably already made it out of the city.”
“Oh my, God!  Silvio?”
They spun around in unison, each spurred by the unfamiliar voice that was characterized as heavily by surprise as a Latino accent.  Each set of eyes instantly narrowed, the suspicion that filled them constrained but not hidden.
“That’s— My, God.  What happened to him?  Is he dead?”
Olivia unconsciously glanced back at the screen, her eyes closing as Silvio’s emotionless ones slammed into her.  She turned back, trying to find similarities between the face that she would never forget and the one that she had just encountered.  But aside from the thick black hair and tanned skin, she didn’t find any shared likenesses.  The man in front of her had sharper features, a hardness that clung to his face like a crude Halloween mask and was accentuated by the coolness that radiated from his eyes.  An air of superiority swirled around him, keeping his back straight, shoulders squared and jaw tensed.  He stared through them condescendingly, his gaze making a calculated pass from Elliot to Olivia to Cragen, before quickly shifting back to Olivia.
She felt a chill roll through her, and could tell by the way Elliot immediately stiffened that it had leapt off of her skin and onto his.  He took a step forward, limping sideways on his throbbing left leg, partially shielding her from the conspicuous stare that hadn’t yet released her.
“You know him?” Elliot asked with a quick tilt of his head toward the illuminated screen.
“Of course I know him,” the man returned.  “He’s my foster son.  He’s been with me for the last four years, since he was thirteen-years-old.”  He rolled his brawny shoulders forward, straightening his black suit jacket.  “Where is he?  What’s happened to Silvio?”
“He’s your foster son?” Olivia asked, her voice breathless, her nerves heightened. 
“Yes,” the man confirmed with a sturdy nod.  “If something’s happened to him, why didn’t anyone notify me?”
Elliot cocked an eyebrow, tightening his flexed arms across his chest.  “If you didn’t know something had happened to him, why are you here?”
The man wrapped his fingers around the knot in his striped tie, tugging, straightening it down the center of his white silk shirt.  A small smile cracked his lips, one that wouldn’t have been noticeable if it hadn’t been so cold.  “To speak with you,” he answered, nodding around Elliot toward Olivia.  “I was given your name by Captain Manuel Garcia at the Twenty-Third Precinct in Harlem.”  He took a step forward, outstretching a hand in the static trio’s direction.  “You are Detective Benson, I presume?”
“Who the hell wants to know?” Elliot growled.
“I’ve become negligent with my manners,” the man said through an apologetic shake of his head.  “Please, excuse me.  It’s just, when I walked in and saw Silvio’s photograph—”
“How exactly can we help you?” Cragen asked, sinking his hands into the front pockets of his trousers.  “I’m afraid we don’t have any information to offer yet about your foster son—”
“I didn’t come for information,” the man interrupted, his gaze narrowing on Olivia.  “I came because I was told by Captain Garcia that Detective Benson has requested information about me.”  He took another step forward, his arm still outstretched and hand aimed in Olivia’s direction.  “Please, Detective Benson, allow me introduce myself.  My name is Dominic del Torres.”
CHAPTER ELEVEN
March 25, 1:33 A.M.
“It isn’t him.”
Olivia didn’t know which occurred first, her revelation or the launch of Elliot’s bloodied, right fist.  All she knew for sure was that one happened too late and the other too soon.
Scrunching her eyes through a hard blink, she attempted to defog her vision as she followed the blur that was Elliot’s arm.  She lunged toward him, exhaustion delaying her reaction time by a split second too long and giving Elliot’s elbow a victorious edge over her labored movements.  Slurring an indignant, “Son of a bitch!” as his arm connected with her chest, she staggered backwards until her feet defied gravity and shot into the air in conjunction with her ass buying hook, line and sinker into Sir Isaac Newton’s theory and speeding toward the floor.  Her body jarred as she landed on the cold tile, her head popping backwards and hands slapping palms-down at her sides to stop herself from sprawling completely beneath the throng of feet that were suddenly running and jumping and thumping around her.
She shook the dizziness out of her head, huffing out a breath that unburied her flushed face from beneath a tuft of hair.  Somewhere in the air, shrill and echoing, she could have sworn she heard a bugle blast, confirming the beginning of battle and instantly sending the bodies in front of her into uncoordinated motion. 
The captain’s head snapped back as he took an elbow to the chin, his face instantly reddening with the impact, and Fin and Munch became a jumbled mass of arms and legs as they resumed their chase after Elliot.  Fin took him on the right and Munch covered the left, but neither was quick enough to intercept his second punch, and it completed the job that his first one had failed at and landed squarely against Dominic del Torres’s sanctimonious face.
Through the swarm of shuffling legs, Olivia caught a flash of black, her widened eyes tracking the blob through its ungainly descent to the floor.  As del Torres landed, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth, black suit jacket hanging cockeyed on his broad shoulders, and a thick strand of gelled hair bobbing up and down over his forehead, their eyes linked.  She felt it again, a chill sweep over her.  But she couldn’t look away, and his calculated stare made it clear that he wouldn’t.  Even with chaos ensuing around him—because of him—he continued to stare.  As if making sure a message would be heard, a threat interpreted.  The guise of concern and graciousness were no longer visible on his face, only coldness.  It was strong; a façade of warning that hardened his features and emptied his eyes of emotions.
“Get up, you bastard!” Elliot bellowed, twisting out of Munch and Fin’s holds and making another lunge for del Torres.  He snatched up a handful of silk before Fin pulled him back, the lapel of del Torres’s jacket ripping away from the seam.  
“Elliot, stop!” Olivia hissed as Cragen hooked a hand under her arm and tugged her back to her feet.  She slipped out of his light grasp, charging forward.  Skidding to a stop in front of del Torres as he steadied himself on his feet and straightened his rumpled jacket, her eyes narrowed in analysis of the tall frame, broad shoulders, hard features, black hair…black hair…black—
It wasn’t him.
She took a step backwards, all sounds and movements in the room ephemerally ceasing in her mind as a small smile shuddered across del Torres’s pale lips.  He cocked one heavy brow, a glimmer of taunting igniting in his pitch-colored eyes as he looked her up and then down before his dark stare once again captured hers.  
The son of a bitch knew her; he wanted her to know that he did.  And the mocking in his eyes made it clear that he understood that he had the upper hand because she didn’t know him.
del Torres glided backwards a step, digging into the breast pocket of his jacket.  Swiping the gelled strand of hair off of his forehead, he muttered in warning, “I believe I’ll contact my attorney.  It doesn’t seem as if Detective Stabler is interested in returning the benevolence that I—”
“Benevolence?” Elliot cut in, flying past Olivia.  “You’ll get all the fucking benevolence you want in GP at Rikers!  You were stupid enough to walk in here on your own, but no one’s gonna let you walk back out!”  He delivered another target-less blow before Fin’s bulky arms circled his waist and dragged him backwards a step.  “Welcome to my fucking junkyard, you prick!”
“C’mon, Elliot!” Fin barked.  “Damn!  This ain’t the way to handle it!”
Olivia spun away from del Torres as she heard Fin’s jaw crack, another of Elliot’s wayward punches converting it into an unanticipated bulls eye.  Fin stumbled sideways, cursing, with one hand pressed over the side of his face before he lost his footing and plopped down on the floor at her feet.
“Your partner’s a real bastard, you know that?” Fin snarled at her as he dug his feet and hands into the floor and jumped up.  He charged forward again, colliding with Elliot and manhandling his flexed arms behind his back through a growled, “The fuck you doing, Stabler?”
Olivia almost laughed as she watched Fin and Elliot begin to dance ungracefully, with their feet tripping over each other’s, arms flailing, and Munch and Captain Cragen dodging extremities with the precision of martial arts experts.  She wanted to laugh as they toppled to the floor, Fin riding Elliot’s back, Elliot’s fists still punching at an out of reach del Torres, and Munch and Cragen tottering precariously over their sprawled bodies.  
Jesus.  She wanted to laugh.  
Until her gaze instinctively shifted and slammed again into the jet black, compassionless eyes on the other side of a twisted and heaped Elliot and Fin.
“Get out of here!” Cragen puffed, looming over a panting Elliot and grumbling Fin.  “Go somewhere and cool off!  Now!” 
“I’m contacting my attorney!” del Torres threatened, flipping open a cell phone and steadying it in front of him with as much authority as if it were a fully loaded, semi-automatic pistol.
“You’re gonna need one!” Elliot barked.
“That’s enough, Detective!” Cragen bellowed, the intensity in his voice instantly reducing the noise in the room to a myriad of deep, rushed breaths.  “Get the hell out of here!” He slammed an arm into Elliot’s chest before shooting a glance toward a glowering Munch.  “Stay on him, don’t let him out of your sight!  You lose him and he does something stupid, it’s your ass!”
“Exactly how did my ass get caught up in the middle of this absurdity?” Munch muttered.
“It’s in it because I gave it a direct order to be!” Cragen returned.  He spun around, ramming a finger toward Fin.  “Escort Mr. del Torres to Interview B!”
“I wanna talk to him!” Elliot hissed, squaring the collar of his shirt.  “I’m gonna be the one to—”
“I don’t believe you’re in any position to start making demands!” Cragen shot back.  “In case you’ve forgotten, Detective, this is my unit!  And if you get out of here and cool down like I ordered, you still might have a job in it when you get back!”
“Go, Elliot!” Olivia said, nodding forcefully as Elliot spun toward her.  “Get out of here and clear your head!”
“The son of a bitch is gonna walk!” Elliot seethed, charging up to her.  “Are you gonna be able to live with that, watching him walk free?”
Olivia shot a cautious glance over his shoulder; her eyes instantly lowering as she found del Torres once again staring.  “No one said he’s going to walk,” she whispered, tilting her head into Elliot’s.  “But if he starts crying police brutality, Cragen won’t have any choice but to suspend you.  Then where will that leave us?”  She flattened her hand over his chest, the hard vibrations of his heartbeats tingling her skin.  “I need you here so we can figure out who this guy is, because he isn’t the same guy I saw at the junkyard.”
Elliot’s eyes constricted to slits as he shot a glare at del Torres.  “He said he’s—”
“I’m telling you, he’s not the same guy!” Olivia said.  “The guy I saw had a stocky build, he was shorter, and he had gray hair—”  
“And the best look you got of him was in the dark!”
“Maybe I couldn’t see his face, but I saw enough to know this isn’t him!”  She lifted her chin, peeking over Elliot’s shoulder as Fin led del Torres out of the room.  The black eyes peeked back at her before distance and obstacles separated them, once again permeating her with a bone-reaching chill.  “It isn’t…him…” she repeated, the realization sticking in her throat.  “So if this guy really is del Torres, who’d I see?  Derio never mentioned anyone else being in charge, just Dominic and Vedie.”
“Elliot.”  Munch came to a stop beside them, a wry smile hooking his lips.  “I’ve been told there’s a cold shower waiting to cool you off.  And because I’ve apparently drawn the proverbial short straw, I get the pleasure of scrubbing that belligerent monkey off your back.”  He motioned toward the doorway with a nod of his head, his smile falling flat.  “Shall we?”
“Go,” Olivia instructed.  “Fin and I will talk to this guy, see what we can get out of him.”
“I don’t think you should…” Elliot huffed in a breath, the ruddiness in his cheeks instantly darkening a shade.  “I want you to stay away from him, Olivia.  I’m not gonna let you—”
Olivia silenced him with a glare; sparks igniting her eyes.  “You’re not going to let me?” she spit.  “Who in the hell are you to make that decision?”
“I’m just trying to—”
“Take charge, Elliot, that’s what you’re trying to do!  And I don’t need you to!  This is still my job just as much as it’s yours, and you don’t have any right to tell me how to do it!”
“I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job!”
“You just told me not to go near a suspect!  What the hell do you call that?”
“He can’t keep his fucking eyes off of you!” Elliot hissed.  
“So some pervert wants to stare at me!  When has that ever stopped me from getting my job done?”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with you!  It has to do with—”
“You’re right!” she growled under her breath.  “It has to do with you and your damned, caveman-like sense of ownership!  I’m not your wife, Elliot, I’m your partner!  No matter what’s happened, we’re still equals inside this precinct!”
“Oh, come on!” Elliot groaned.  “It doesn’t have anything to do with that!  It has to do with that piece of scum—”
“It has to do with the fact that, for some reason, you don’t think I’m capable of taking care of myself anymore!” she reproached, leaning into him, eyes blazing.  “You know, I’ve been trying really hard to give you a break about what you did at the junkyard, but the more crap you pull, the harder that’s getting to do!”
“You’re pissed because I wanted to get you out of there alive?” he hissed.  
“No!  I’m grateful as hell for that!” she spit back.  “I’m pissed because you didn’t give your chauvinistic brain one second to remember that I was just as capable as you to get us both out of there!  Christ!  Who in the hell lied to you and told you that you have all the answers?”
He took a calculated step back, his lips trembling, hinting at a smirk that never fully formed.  Slowly, with his hands still tightly balled, he knotted his arms across his chest, his chin dropping as his cold stare rose.  “Who’s the one that got us out?” he asked.  “It sure as hell wasn’t you.  You’re the one who got caught.”
Olivia’s eyes widened a fraction, darkening, a tidal wave of emotions speeding to their surface.  “The only reason I got caught was because I didn’t lose focus of who we really are.”  She cocked an eyebrow as Elliot’s expression fell flat, ignoring the shuffles of their ill at ease audience.  “First rule, Elliot—the only rule that matters—you never walk out without your partner.  Even when that partner is a controlling jackass.”
“Now I’m a jackass?” Elliot asked, surprise bleeding into his features.
“Don’t forget controlling,” she quipped.  “And, you know, I can live with you being a jackass.  Hell, I’m used to that by now.  But I can’t live with this sudden need of yours to protect me.”  She tightened her arms across her chest, mocking his defiance.  “No matter what’s happened, I’m just as capable now of holding up my end of this partnership as I was twenty-four hours ago.  So if you want to play fucking superhero, you should find somebody who needs one.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s what I did,” he returned coolly.  Pointedly.  Blatantly shoving his self-aggrandizing beliefs into her face.
“Oh Jesus, Elliot,” she scoffed through a roll of her eyes.  “What in the hell do you get out of making yourself believe that everyone else is so much weaker than you?  Does it somehow make you forget that you’re human, is that it?  Does it make you feel better about your own inadequacies?”  She took a step forward, toward him.  “You know what, people get knocked down all the time.  And when it happens, the majority of us hop back up.  Just because you need to take time out to wallow in your own self-pity and throw a tantrum doesn’t mean everyone else needs to do that, too.  So deal with this however you have to, but don’t expect me—or try to force me—to deal with it in the same way.”
“I just want you to deal with it, period.  Anyway you have to—”
“And that’s what I’m doing!” she squealed.  “You think it’s so important for me to admit that I was scared?  Fine!  The bastards scared me, okay?  They scared me, Elliot, but I’m not scared anymore!  Now I’m pissed, and that’s what I want that son of a bitch to see!  I sure as hell don’t want to hide from him and let him think he still has some type of control over me!”
“He does have the control!” Elliot growled.  “Still!  And that’s what I’m trying to get back for us!  I saw the way del Torres looked at you, and I saw the way you looked because of him!  He intimidated the hell out of you, and you didn’t try to fight him to get any of that control back!  You can’t even admit who he is—that he’s the prick who tried to turn you into a fucking statistic!  And if I let you go in there with him, by the time you walk back out you’ll want everyone to forgive him, too!  You’ll have convinced yourself that he’s just another poor, misunderstood—”
“You’re such a pompous ass!” she accused through a censorious laugh.  “You want to tell me just when in the hell you became so fucking blameless?  Because if memory serves, it hasn’t been during the past twenty-four hours!”
“Fuck you, Olivia!”
“No thanks!  I try to learn from my mistakes, not repeat them!”  
“Are the two of you about finished?”
Olivia bit into her lower lip, stifling the remainder of her implicating rampage as the captain sidled up beside them.  His gaze oscillated steadily between Elliot and her, wrinkles dimpling the skin around his down-turned lips.  She dropped her head forward, groaning, feeling the heated assault of each of Elliot’s breaths against her scalp.  
She understood his anger; she did.  But she didn’t—couldn’t—understand how she had become the recipient of it.  She couldn’t understand him, and she would be damned before she wasted any more of her time trying to.
Captain Cragen cleared his throat, the resonance shattering the awkward tension that had settled in the room.  “Olivia, go back with Fin.  Talk to del Torres, see if you can get anything out of him.”  He made a slow turn, the hard soles of his shoes rasping indignantly against the floor.  “John, I want you back there, too.  Listen in, run interference if you have to.  And you…” He turned again, slower, methodically, his steel gawp swallowing Elliot.  “In my office, now.  And you so much as think about arguing with me, you can go ahead and clean out your locker.”
+++
March 25,  2:08 A.M.
The anger was what leapt out at her first.  In the eyes, consuming the eyes.
It was perceptible.  Unmistakable.  Strong.  
It overrode all other emotions, cumulating into blackness.  
She had learned long ago how to identify it.  Instinctively, she could pinpoint the exact second it began rumbling to life.  Effortlessly, she could isolate its stages of growth.  And experience had taught her to recognize the moment when it became too strong to be challenged.
A diffused stream of light trickled from the low wattage bulb in the ceiling, shadowing her reflection in the glass.  It glowed around her, creating a halo behind her head, the shimmer creeping across her shoulders and gradually fading as it dripped down her arms.  
There was a chill in the air, the coolness having blanketed her skin like a fitted coat, and she shivered in an attempt to shed it.  But it continued to cling to her, hugging her, burrowing its way into her pores.
Through the window, Olivia concentrated on the eyes.  Hard.  Cold.  Angry.  She leaned into the glass, closer, continuing to analyze what was unquestionable.  The anger vanished for a moment, temporarily through a sleepy, drawn out blink.  But as the eyes reopened, the anger still apparent in them, the chill reached her bones.
She didn’t want to recognize them, but she did.
They were her mother’s eyes, filled with an anger that Olivia had never before understood.
Until it had begun to become visible—too visible—in the replicas that stared back at her from her own reflection.
She shivered noticeably, fogging a circular patch of the glass with a breath.  It had been just a few months earlier, an amount of time that seemed to have passed as quickly as it had dragged on ruthlessly, that she had stood in the same spot.  Staring.  Analyzing.  Searching inside herself to find just an ounce of the courage that she had been unfairly stripped of and familiarizing herself with the demon that had, until that time, maintained an unidentified and hypothetical existence in her mind.  
It wasn’t that she hadn’t feared it before, but her fears had been rational.  Born from truth, but restrained by knowledge.  She had never been naive enough to let herself believe that she couldn’t become a victim, but she had always consoled herself with the confidence that came with training and facts and honed intuition.  She knew—had been taught—how to identify the anger before it could target her, and that had always given her an inkling of peace, maybe even a false sense of security.
Until she had been foolish enough to give far too much credit to her intuition and not nearly enough to the anger.
Olivia blinked against the subtle light, the soft rays biting at her eyes.  She had been afraid of Lowell Harris.  Even with chains locked around his wrists instead of hers, with the two-way mirror exposing him and hiding her, she had been afraid.  He had still held the control, and she had hated him for it just as much as she had feared him.
“You don’t hafta go in there, you know.  I’ll be glad to go in and talk to the prick.”
It had taken every ounce of her strength not to accept Fin’s offer that day, standing outside of Interview B, feeling weaker than she had ever before felt.  She had wanted to tell him yes, to send him inside of the room, to let him fight the demon that had already defeated her.
“I have to go in.  I need to.”
The doubt in Fin’s eyes had been as noticeable as it had been in her voice, but he hadn’t argued with her.  He hadn’t tried to protect her, but had accepted that she needed to relearn how to protect herself.  Maybe the process would be slow, accomplished by staggering through two steps forward and then getting knocked back one, but it was something that she had to undertake.  And she had to do it alone.
When she had first walked into the room, Harris had smiled at her.  He hadn’t realized yet that he was going to lose; he hadn’t understood that she had managed to fix her grip on the tail end of control and was already beginning to pull it back in her direction.  Maybe she had been afraid in that initial moment when she’d heard the door settle into the frame.  Maybe her instincts had told her to run again, to hide.  But she hadn’t, she’d known that she couldn’t.  Because if she had let him force her into hiding again, it would have become too easy to remain hidden.  From the fear, the confusion, the hurt, and the anger.  She knew that from experience—her mother’s.  Just as she knew that once hiding became your custom—your only reliable routine—it wasn’t just the demons that lost sight of you.  
Eventually, you lost sight of yourself.
Olivia stared through the regrettably familiar eyes reflected in the glass, settling her gaze on the equally as angry ones across the room.  del Torres had watched her, she knew that he had.  Through a window, with a coward’s distance separating them, with an unsubstantiated belief in his own superiority. 
“Put a bullet in both her legs, then in both her arms.  When I think the bitch has begged for mercy long enough, then you can put one in her head.”
He had watched her.  She could see it in his eyes, the recognition, his recognition of her.  He had remained hidden from her sight; acting as a puppet master and calculatedly pulling the strings that controlled the toys he believed were not only inferior but also expendable.  He had expected to be a spectator to her death, had felt justified in taking her life, and confident that he had control of her destiny.
“I can go in there if you’d like, interject some sophisticated dialogue into my partner’s unschooled rambling.”
Olivia met John’s suggestion with a frown, his reflection overpowering hers in the window as he stepped up beside her.  “I’m going in.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Yeah, I do.”  
This time she was on the other side of the glass.  Hidden.  Keeping a coward’s distance, just as she knew del Torres expected her to do.  But she wouldn’t, she couldn’t.  When the control was ripped out of his callous hands, she wanted him to see exactly who was responsible for taking it, just as she had wanted Harris to see.  She wouldn’t hide in the shadows, fooling herself into believing that elusiveness in some way equated strength.  She wanted to be face-to-face with the bastard, standing up to him, fighting him so that he would finally begin to understand that she was a force to be reckoned with versus an object that he could thoughtlessly discard.
“I’m going in,” she repeated.
“You know, Fin and I can handle this—”
“Don’t,” she warned as John turned toward her, his brows raised and confusion marking his eyes.  “I can’t take one more person questioning my abilities.”
“I’m not questioning.”
“Right, you’re concerned,” she said, laughing lowly, tiredly.  “And I told you, you don’t have to be.  I’m not unpredictable like Elliot, or incapable like he suddenly seems to think I am.  I’m fine, and I can handle this.”
John agreed through a slow nod of his head.  “I don’t doubt that.”
She stepped around him, heading for the door.  “It’s nice to know someone doesn’t.”  
Both sets of eyes in the interview room shot toward the door as it swung open, but only del Torres cracked a smile as Olivia stepped inside.  His eyes narrowed and then widened as they made a slow, noticeable trek from the top of Olivia’s head to her boot-clad feet, and by the time they reached her face again a glimmer had ignited in them.  It was fleeting but appreciable and left in its wake a coldness that consumed his face. 
“Detective Benson,” he said, arching an eyebrow, the taut action causing a spray of wrinkles to erupt across his forehead.  “Olivia, correct?”
“Detective will do,” Olivia returned coolly, her head bowed and stare directed across the room through upturned eyes.  Backing up against the closed door, she dropped her gaze as del Torres’s made another conspicuous pass over her.  This time, she would set the rules of the game.  Screw Elliot’s chauvinistic assumptions and del Torres’s tired intimidation tactics, she wouldn’t crumble under either.  She would play it calmly and carefully, keeping her cool so that, hopefully, del Torres would lose his.  There couldn’t be any wisecracks about pureeing his balls in a blender, no coerced head butts with the tabletop and no falling into the roll of hysterical victim as Elliot had.  She had to be manipulative without being obvious, because she knew the son of a bitch was well rehearsed.  And if she let herself stumble into Elliot’s frantic mindset, she would be the one to slip up instead of del Torres.  
Then they wouldn’t get him.  They would never get him.
And she would rather be stuck back in the God forsaken trailer with its stained mattress and unsettled ghosts than have to admit to Elliot that she had broken like he’d so sanctimoniously predicted she would.
She cleared her throat, sneaking a sideways glance at Fin as he backed up to the two-way mirror.  Stepping back.  Silently giving her the go ahead to step forward.  Urging her to take charge.  Trusting her even though she wasn’t yet sure that she trusted herself.
“It’s very late,” del Torres said, taking a quick glance at his diamond-studded wristwatch.  “Unless there’s something specific you would like to discuss with me—”
“There is,” Olivia broke in, nodding.  “We can start with your foster son.  Because I have to say, for just finding out that the child you raised as your own for—what was it you said, four years—is dead, you seem to be holding up pretty well.”
“Of course I’m concerned about Silvio,” del Torres returned.  “I would appreciate information about what happened to him.”
“That’s what we want, too,” Olivia quipped.  “So why don’t you explain to us why you had him killed?  You did give the order for it to be done, right, just like you did for Detective Stabler and me?”
“You think I could kill Silvio?”
“I think you could kill your own mother if it meant saving your skin.”  She arched an eyebrow, not running from the hard stare that rushed across the room toward her.  “You know, just for curiosity sake, I’d like to know if you enjoyed the show?  When Vedie had me down on my knees, when he had a gun pressed against the back of my head, when he pulled the trigger on a thirteen-year-old child, did you find that as entertaining as you’d hoped it would be?”
del Torres shook his head, grunting through patronizing laughter.  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”  
“Sure you do,” she said, hooking her thumbs in the front pockets of her blue jeans as she leaned a hip into the barrier behind her.  “Maybe I didn’t see you, but I know you were there.  You had two cops dropped in your lap that you had to make disappear.  You’re a smart man, and you wouldn’t have left a bunch of kids unsupervised to handle something that big.  You knew people would look for us, that sooner or later the trail would lead to you, and you had to make damn sure that when that happened we’d never be found.”
“You’re suggesting that I gave orders for you to be killed?”
“Oh, it’s not a suggestion,” Olivia answered through a firm shake of her head.  “It’s a fact.”  She pushed off of the door, her steps slow and stare locked with del Torres’s as he tracked each of her calculated movements across the room.  Stopping at the center of the table, she dropped her bandaged hands onto the wooden surface, flattening them, not allowing a muscle to twitch or a flash of pain to radiate in her face as she pressed down.  His eyes dipped, their shift deliberate and conspicuous as a small smile trembled on his lips, one of taunting that was laced with triumph.
Olivia pulled in a breath, her gaze following del Torres’s to her hands.  She lifted a shoulder casually, with a forced air of indifference.  “Not quite as extensive as you expected the damage to be, is it?” she asked.  “Just some cuts, scrapes, nothing as lethal as a bullet wound.  In fact, just enough to really piss me off but nothing that’s going to stop me.”  She crooked her elbows, leaning closer.  “I know there are other children besides Silvio that you’ve murdered, and even if it means I have to dig through every square inch of gravel in that junkyard with my own hands, I intend to find them.  And when I do, the accommodations you’ll end up with are going to make that old trailer you stuck my partner and me in seem like a four-star hotel.”
“I must admit,” del Torres began around a thick sigh, “I’d had hopes that you would be reasonable about this unfortunate matter.”  Chuckling lowly, he spiked a brow as his dark stare once again entrapped her.  “Surely you can appreciate the frustration that comes along with being perceived as something you’re not.  I mean, of all people, you can understand what that feels like, can’t you, Olivia?”
Olivia pushed off of the table, locking her arms over her chest.  “Give us a minute, Detective Tutuola?” she said, not tearing her gaze from del Torres.
Fin grumbled behind her, shuffling hesitantly.  His gaze darted between the closed door and Olivia’s stiffened frame, as he silently calculated travel time into and out of the room versus Olivia’s reaction time if the smug-faced prick on the opposite side of the table said the wrong thing.  He knew her composure was a partially cracked façade at best, one that was capable of being shattered completely at any given moment.  And if that happened, it wouldn’t matter if he was in Jersey or just outside in the observation area.  She would manage to kick the son of a bitch’s ass before he could get close enough to stop her.
“Detective.”  She turned her head slightly, just enough to launch a glare over her shoulder.  “I can handle it from here.”
“Yeah,” Fin grunted, stepping away from the window.  “That’s what’s got me worried, exactly how you are gonna handle it.”  He shrugged in del Torres’s direction, both in subjection and foreboding, as he crossed behind Olivia and headed toward the door.
As the door clicked closed, Olivia hooked her foot around the leg of a chair, pushing it away from the table and sliding onto the worn seat cushion.  With a slow tilt of her hips, she crossed her right leg over her left one.  Pulling in a strong breath, she almost choked on the tainted air as del Torres’s piquant cologne filled her mouth.  The offensive spiciness seemed to thicken her tongue and coat her throat, becoming as indigestible as the dirt and dust in the junkyard had been.
“You know…” she began, her nostrils flaring through a second breath, another burn from his sharp cologne.  “Maybe you judged me incorrectly, but I haven’t made the same mistake.  I know exactly what you are.”  She lifted a brow, subtly but noticeably.  “You’re a coward who preys on children.  You make promises to them, pretend to care about them, tell them you’ll take care of them, but it’s all a lie.  You use them and once you don’t have a need for them anymore, you get rid of them like they don’t matter at all.”
He laughed smugly.  “I can assure you, I always keep my promises, Detective Benson.”
“I guess that’s something we have in common, because I always keep mine, too.”  She leaned into the table, her eyes narrowing.  “And I promise you, I’m going to stop you.  You’re going to lose everything, including your freedom.”  
“And what makes you so certain?”  He lifted his hands, glancing around the room.  “I haven’t been arrested, and I highly doubt I will be.  While I feel horrible about the unfortunate ordeal you had to suffer through, I’m not responsible for it.”
“That wasn’t your warehouse and junkyard Detective Stabler and I were held at?”
“Of course they’re my property.  You already know that.  But I assure you, both are legally recognized corporations—”
“Since when is rape and murder legal?”
“Now I’m a rapist, also?” del Torres asked.
“No,” Olivia responded through a condescending shake of her head.  “I don’t think you are.”  Her gaze drifted conspicuously across the table, peeking over the blunt edge toward his crotch.  “You don’t have what it takes.  That’s why you force children to rape for you.”  She chuckled lowly, mockingly.  “It must really suck to know that a thirteen-year-old has a better package than you do.”
“This conversation is becoming preposterous, as are your accusations,” del Torres said, pushing back in his chair.  “And since it’s obvious that the good intentions I arrived with aren’t going to be returned, I think I should I leave.”  He rose out of the chair, brushing his hands across the silk sleeves of his jacket.  He smiled down at her, coldness tensing the muscles in his face.  “It’s important to remember, Detective, that things aren’t always what they appear to be.  You should be careful not to believe too quickly.  That can be a very dangerous mistake.”
Olivia slid sideways in her chair, tracking his slow steps to the end of the table.  His appearance was cheap, even though he was trying like hell to exude wealth.  He was simple, not nearly as intelligent as he hoped to appear, and as the minutes had dragged on, as she had met each of his obscure threats with explicit ones of her own, nervousness had begun to permeate his pretentiously calm demeanor.  She hadn’t backed down as he had expected her to, and she could tell that he was trying to regroup, to formulate a new way to deal with her.  He was still trying to win, and beginning to understand just how close he was to losing.
“One more thing I’m curious about,” she said, stopping him midway across the room.  “What’d you do with Vedie?  I mean…” She shrugged, climbing out of the chair.  “You had to stick him on ice somewhere, right?  So, where’d you stash him?”
“Vedie?” del Torres asked, turning back toward her.  “I can assure you, he’s fine.  In fact, just yesterday he left for Miami to handle some business for me.”
“Miami…” Olivia repeated contemplatively.  “Hmm.  So, that’s what they’re calling Hell these days?”  She took a step away from the chair, the squared heels of her boots vibrating against the floor.  “You saw Raymond kill him, I know you did.  I’m not sure where you were watching from, but I know that you were watching.  And it was because you expected Derio to kill me.”  She took another step, and another, squaring her shoulders as she stopped in front of him.  “It must’ve really pissed you off when he chose me over you.”
“Derio is an ignorant child, and I don’t waste my anger on children.”
“No, you just murder them.”  
“If that’s true, then where are all the bodies of these murdered children?”
“Don’t worry,” she responded coolly, “I’ll find them.  No one stays hidden forever.”  She nodded toward the doorway.  “Don’t leave the city, Mr. del Torres.  We’ll definitely be talking again.”
“I wouldn’t dream of leaving,” he said, a smile quivering across his pale lips.  “Especially now, with Derio in the hospital and Raymond missing.  I have obligations to fulfill.  Just like with all my boys, I promised to take care of them, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.”
Olivia felt the floor tilt beneath her, jolting her forward, propelling her.  She reached del Torres as Fin and Munch busted into the room, Munch instantly wedging between her rigid frame and del Torres’s deceivingly relaxed one.  She fisted her hands, the sting in her palms becoming the imagined effect that would replace the smug expression on the son of a bitch’s face, as Fin barreled up to her and snaked his arms around her waist.  He lifted her off of the floor, carrying her backwards a step as she stretched and tried to reach around Munch, her arms shaking noticeably as she fought to hold onto the punches that she was ready to launch.
“Don’t go all Elliot, c’mon!” Fin hissed into her ear.  “Cragen’s got details planted outside Derio’s room!  This piece of dirt ain’t gonna get close to him!  So you just gotta play it cool!  Let him mess up, don’t you be the one to do it!”  He glanced back at Munch, nodding toward the doorway.  “Get him outta here!”
“Let me escort you to the door, Mr. del Torres,” Munch said, peering over the tops of his glasses.  “And during our stroll, what do you say we have a little chat about airtight alibis and corroborating witnesses?”
“I’ll give you any information you need,” del Torres responded, his deportment once again polished.  “As I’ve said, I have nothing to hide.”  He tugged on the edges of his jacket, straightening the silk.  Catching Olivia’s glare over Munch’s shoulder, he nodded.  “My apologies again for this misunderstanding.  And to prove my sincerity, I would be more than happy to give you a new car to replace the one that Derio stole.  Just drop by my warehouse anytime, I’ll personally show you what we have to offer.”  He cocked an eyebrow, his lips making a slow curve upward.  “Possibly you’d be interested in looking at larger models?  Something with more space, roomier in the backseat so that you can move around more freely?”
“You son of a bitch!” Olivia growled as Munch shoved del Torres out of the room and Fin once again became a roadblock between the doorway and her.  She staggered backwards, her upper back colliding with the door as her knees began to buckle beneath her.
“Damn, Liv!” Fin barked, gripping her arms to steady her.  “How long’s it been since you had any sleep?”
She shivered out of his hold, swiping her tousled bangs away from her face.  “I can’t…I don’t need…sleep.  What I need is to get to the hospital, check on Derio—”
“You’re not gonna be any good to him this way,” Fin said.  “del Torres won’t be stupid enough to try anything now, not when he knows we’re watching him.  So go up to the crib, grab some sack time, and I’ll drive you over to the hospital later.”
She shook her head, disagreeing through a heavy sigh.  “Fin, I… The things he said, maybe I didn’t see him but I know he was there.  Somewhere.  Whether at the warehouse or junkyard or both, he was there.  And he’s going to try and get to Derio  He has to keep him quiet.”
“I’ll talk to Cragen about doubling up on the details, okay?”  He tilted his head to glance down into her pale face, frowning.  “Derio’ll be okay, but you won’t be if you don’t get some sleep.  You’re gonna end up killing yourself trying to keep this kid alive.”
She dragged a hand through her hair, further messing the tousled strands.  “Maybe,” she half-heartedly agreed.  “I just...” She shook her head, her shoulders drooping.  “Wake me up by eight, okay?  I want to get to the hospital early.  Hopefully, Derio will be awake and he’ll talk to us.  He has to talk to us, because he’s the only chance we have of stopping this son of a bitch.” 
+++
March 25, 2:10 A.M.
Thump, slide…thump, slide…thump, slide…thump, slide…
The hard soles of Elliot’s shoes pounded against the tile, reverberating indignantly and impatiently.  Eight steps.  It took eight steps to get from the observation window to the file cabinet on the opposite side of the room, roughly five seconds to cross from one side to the other.
Eight steps.
At best, he’d only been five times that many away from Olivia when she had climbed out of the door-less sedan in the junkyard.  He could have gotten to her in forty steps, give or take a stumble in the gravel.  Twenty-five seconds tops, that’s all the time it would have taken to correct his mistake.  
Less than half a minute—twenty-five fucking seconds—was all the time he had needed to change everything.  Or to at least keep it the same.
“Why don’t you sit down?  You already managed to give me a headache, now you’re starting to make me dizzy, too.”
Cragen’s stern suggestion brought Elliot to a stop in the middle of his umpteenth pass in front of the desk.  He groaned in disagreement to the command, locking his hands over his hips as his narrowed gaze burrowed into the closed office door.  “Look, Don, I’ve got it under control now, so let me go back there with del Torres.  Just let me talk to him—”
“I believe that’s what I told Fin and Olivia to do.  If they run into any trouble, they’ll let us know.”
Elliot’s gaze shifted to the clock above the door as the black minute hand made a jerky slide forward.  2:12.  It had been five minutes, more or less, since Olivia had stomped out of the bullpen in one direction and he had sulked off in the other.  When she had headed toward the interview room she hadn’t looked back at him, not once.  Just as he hadn’t looked back when he’d left her in the junkyard.  She had ignored him out of anger, maybe a little confusion, too.  But his reason had been different, one that he had been able to justify—at least to himself.  
It had been out of necessity.
His own, not hers.
Because if he had looked back, that would have been the direction he would have run in instead of the direction he had decided he had to go in.
“Is there something other than the obvious that I should know about?” Cragen asked, leaning into his desk and propping his elbows on the paper-cluttered top.  “Because the message I’m getting here is that you don’t feel that your partner is competent to do her job anymore.”
Elliot responded first with a shake of his head, before muttering, “I know Liv can—”
“Then let her,” Cragen said, making a firm nod toward the empty chair in front of his desk.  As Elliot grudgingly plopped down in the structure, the captain reclined in his.  “Based on that little performance you just gave, I have to say that, personally, I have a lot more confidence in Olivia right now than I do in you.”  He frowned, silently scrutinizing Elliot’s battered appearance before asking, “Wanna explain what in the hell that was all about?”
“It was about that prick,” Elliot grumbled, “and how he had the balls to march in here like it’s another piece of damn property that he owns.”  He settled back stiffly in the chair, strangling the inflexible wooden arms with his hands.  “Did you see the way he acted with Olivia?  Getting up in her face like he was some fucking Good Samaritan, not the asswipe who’d just put her through hell?”
“And in spite of that, Olivia handled herself like a professional.  So, why couldn’t you do the same?”
Elliot glanced up quickly, stares meeting only briefly before his dropped to the desktop between them.  Because of twenty-five fucking seconds, he wanted to answer; he knew was the answer.  Less than one full minute that could have changed everything; twenty-five seconds that he had let change everything.  Jesus Christ.  He was an idiot.  He had chased Olivia down outside of the bar, had practically thrown himself at her, and hadn’t given her a chance to say no or a reason to believe that he was even remotely sincere when he had told her that his mind was saying yes.  
He had pushed himself on her, and then he had substantiated her caution and confusion by pushing her away.
Olivia was right; he was a selfish bastard.  Because he had let his need to be the fucking superhero overshadow every one of her needs—her one need. 
Just to finally have someone need her enough that they wouldn’t walk away.
“There are some things we should talk about,” Cragen said, his voice shattering Elliot’s thoughts, scattering and disconnecting them.  “CSU has been going over Olivia’s car the last couple of hours.  They’ve lifted some prints.  We’ll run them through the system, see if we get lucky and get any more hits.  Maybe some of these other kids have records like Chavez did.”
Elliot nodded, hunching forward, digging his elbows into the tops of his thighs.  It wouldn’t matter, he knew, if they found every one of del Torres’s brainwashed followers.  If only Derio was arrested or fifty kids total were, it couldn’t give back to Liv and him what they both needed most.
Twenty-five seconds.
“Elliot.”  The captain cleared his throat, the gravelly resonance commanding Elliot’s stare to rise.  “At the hospital, you told me that Olivia and you were together the entire time up until they took you out of the warehouse, that she was never alone in the car with any of those kids.  It was just you; you were the only one alone with her.”
“In her car, yeah,” Elliot responded through a crooked nod.  “And once they let us out at the warehouse, neither of us got back in it again.  We never even saw it again.”
“Mm-hmm,” Cragen mumbled, his jowls drooping as he frowned.  “Why don’t you explain to me again how it was that these kids were able to catch the two of you off guard?  You said you were at the car, right?  Talking, a little drunk, not paying attention—”
“Don.”  Elliot searched the intuitive eyes across the desk, seeing in them questions that were quickly becoming theories.  “Why don’t you just ask what you really want to know?”
Cragen cleared his throat again, louder, drawing out the raspy action. He shook his head, rolling his chair into the desk again and propping his elbows on the top.  “Everything is in the preliminary stages right now, CSU hasn’t had a lot of time with the car.  But like I said, they’ve lifted some prints, and, uh…and…” He raised a brow, balancing the tip of his chin on his laced fingers.  “They found fluids on the backseat, Elliot.  So what I need to know is exactly what it is Olivia and you are trying to hide?  Do I need to add attempted rape to the charges we already have, or…” He pulled in a breath, his shoulders rising through the sturdy inhale.  “Should I tell the boys in the lab not to waste their time or the city’s money running a DNA analysis?”
“Tell Cragen whatever story you want about the car.  Whatever you say, I’ll corroborate it.”
Elliot dropped his head forward, Olivia’s voice swimming in his head.  She had just wanted him to admit it.  He had known it then and guilt wouldn’t let him forget it now.  She had needed to hear it from him, the truth, an explanation of the purpose that he had escaped from the unimaginable believing in.  She had just needed to know for sure whether or not—once the hysteria had subsided—he would hide behind excuses like spontaneity and impaired judgment and regret.
“Even if I tell him the truth?  Maybe that’s the best way to handle this.  We should just tell the truth.”
“Why?”  
“I don’t know.  I guess, because… Anything could’ve happened.  In that junkyard, anything could’ve happened to us, and I…when I heard you…if those bastards had… I didn’t know what I’d do, I just knew that I couldn’t do it without you.”
“So, what?  Because you got scared you think that’s enough of a reason to ruin our careers?” 
“No, it’s not enough of a reason.  I don’t even know if it is the reason.”
He was a liar, fucking bold-faced and without an ounce of integrity.  He knew the reason; there wasn’t any second-guessing or mulling over to reach a definitive conclusion.  He knew it.  But even though he had been able to tell it was what she needed most from him, he hadn’t admitted it to her.  
Maybe because he hadn’t been sure that she would believe him, or maybe because he wasn’t sure any longer if he deserved to be believed.
“Elliot,” Cragen said, once again interrupting Elliot’s condemnatory thoughts, “I’m not asking for details, just your input on how I should proceed with this investigation.”
“I won’t be an excuse for you.”
“You’re not an excuse.”
“That’s what you’re trying to turn me into.  And I won’t—”
“You’re not an excuse!  Jesus, Olivia.  You’re that fucking reason you need so badly.”
When he had finally told her, he’d shoved it in her face like he was blaming her instead of trying to convince her.  But damn it, she was the reason.  The reason he would go back into that damned junkyard, relive every grueling second and risk his life again just to take back those twenty-five seconds that he had been stupid enough to throw away.  Because then she would know for sure, she would know that she could trust him.  
She would finally be able to believe that he was done running away from her and had started running back to her.
Elliot scrubbed his hands over his face, peeking at the stone-faced captain over the tips of his fingers.  He took in a breath, the air ricocheting off of his palms as he exhaled.  “If one of us needs to leave the unit, it should be me,” he said, his voice muffled behind his hands.  “Unless you’re feeling generous and want to assign us new partners.”
Cragen nodded once, knowingly, void of surprise.  “There aren’t any other options?”
Elliot shook his head, dropping his hands between his legs.  Remaining hunched, seemingly weighted.  “A couple of years back when we were working the Clifford case…the day Gitano cut Liv…” He shook his head again, his shoulders sinking lower.  “There were a couple of minutes there where I thought I’d lost her.  I didn’t know how to deal with how I felt then, I don’t even know if I…understood…it.  So, I did what I always do, I pushed her away.  And I’ve kept pushing ever since.”  He straightened, slowly, with noticeable effort.  “Yesterday in that junkyard, I knew I’d lost her.  I knew it, and I was right.  I lost her there, and now I have to figure out a way to get her back.  And doing that is a helluva lot more important to me than this damned job.”
Cragen dropped his hands down onto the desktop, tapping out an unidentifiable, rushed tune on the polished surface with his fingertips.  “A little advice?” he deadpanned, arching his brows.  “You might start by trying not to be such an ass.”
Elliot chuckled lowly, with far more exhaustion than amusement.  “I guess some habits are hard to break.”
“Some are.  But it’s been my experience that you gain a lot more than you lose when you do finally manage to break the hard ones.”
Elliot stared into the insightful eyes across from him, searching for signs of anger or disappointment or disapproval.  But he didn’t find any.  He saw only understanding, maybe even a hint of expectance.  “So, uh.”  He raised a shoulder, just slightly, cautiously.  “Where do we go from here?” 
“That’s not for me to decide,” Cragen answered, shaking his head.  “It’s just something you need to let me know once a decision has been made.”  He reached across his desk, snagging a gold-cased ink pen off of a stack of papers.  “Oh, and one more piece of advice?  This time, don’t do it on your own, Elliot.  Ask Olivia for her opinion, don’t tell her what it should be.”
+++
March 25, 3:28 A.M.
Men were asses.
Not that that was a new revelation, merely one that had been reconfirmed one too many times throughout the past twenty-four-plus hours.
Olivia rolled onto her side, kicking her feet beneath the coarse blanket.  When she had stumbled back into the crib she had bee-lined toward the far end of the room, into the darkest corner, and had buried herself beneath the blanket that Elliot had tossed and turned on top of a few hours earlier.  She didn’t know why she’d chosen to climb into the bed he had deserted.  She didn’t want to be near him, not figuratively any more than literally.  But it was where she had ended up.  Covered with his scent, her body stretched across the mattress where his had laid, hating him as much as missing him.
She pressed the folded edge of the blanket beneath her nose and breathed in the lingering scent that had become tangled with the wool.  Elliot’s smell overpowered the nauseating stench of del Torres’s, and she breathed in again, and again, and again, until her senses were cleansed of at least one jackass.
Propping her head on her arm, she peeked up at the window across the room.  The moon’s rays glimmered on the glass, dancing, twinkling, shimmering with a deceptive sense of peace.  But it didn’t really exist, she knew.  Calm only existed before the storm; at the height of it there was chaos and confusion.
And somehow, she had gotten swept up in the eye of Hurricane Elliot.
“I can live with you being a jackass.  Hell, I’m used to that by now.  But I can’t live with this sudden need of yours to protect me.  No matter what’s happened, I’m just as capable now of holding up my end of this partnership as I was twenty-four hours ago.  So if you want to play fucking superhero, you should find somebody who needs one.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s what I did.”
She didn’t need to be protected.  If there was one thing life had taught her how to do it was take care of herself.  But what it had never shown her, what it had never given her a taste of, was what it felt like to be wanted.  At least for the right reasons and as something more than an obligation or an urge or an easy mark.
Or, Jesus.  As something more than an impulsively chosen substitution.
She didn’t know what she believed anymore; she didn’t know if she had the strength left to try and force herself to believe anything.  She wanted there to be a reason.  She needed there to be one, but even more, she wanted to believe that she was Elliot’s.  But she didn’t want to fall into that position by default.  He needed to protect, to see himself as a superhero, but she wouldn’t take on the role of damsel in distress simply because Kathy Stabler had finally gotten tired of being typecast.  She wouldn’t allow herself to become an unsung understudy just so that Elliot could keep his damned sense of self-worth pumped up by acting out the same tired rescue scenes over and over again even though they had become plot-less and even more pointless.
It wasn’t her, and Elliot knew it.  She didn’t need to be protected or saved.  For God’s sake, her survival instincts had been sharper than most people’s before she’d ever left the womb, and she had spent the past forty-one years obsessively strengthening them.  And one half-drunken and one completely hysterical attempt at sex didn’t change the fact that she couldn’t—wouldn’t—become who Elliot thought he wanted her to be.  
She wouldn’t settle.  She couldn’t.  
She knew what it felt like to be chosen simply because there wasn’t another, better choice to be had.  She knew how hurtful it was once you finally realized that you were nothing more than a wish, someone else’s wish that you were someone different, someone else, someone that you could never become.  And she had promised herself that she would never force herself to do that again, to look into someone’s eyes and see their disappointment staring back because she was nothing more than a visible reminder that their wish was unattainable.
She wouldn’t settle.  She couldn’t.
Not even for Elliot.
+++
March 25, 3:36 A.M.
He could tell she wasn’t asleep, even though she was pretending that she was.  Or maybe it was that she really wanted to be—she was trying to be—but she’d forgotten how to achieve it.  She didn’t know how to relax anymore, how to let go and empty her mind of victims and statistics and children with dead end futures and failures that didn’t even belong to her. 
She didn’t know how to relax, and he knew part of the blame for that—more than he wished he were responsible for—belonged to him.
Elliot walked into the crib, his steps mere whispers as he made his way across the room.  He stopped at the foot of the cot, tilting his head and peering through the shadows that canopied the slender bed.  The light of the moon veiled Olivia’s face, coming to rest just beneath her closed eyes, highlighting her set jaw and tensed lips.  Her hair, wavy from drying naturally, framed her luminous skin, wisps spilling over onto the white-cased pillow beneath her.
She looked peaceful, even though he knew that wasn’t how she felt.  Because like sleep, peace was something she chased after far more than achieved anymore.
He moved to the side of the bed, hesitating, staring, waiting for her to open her eyes, knowing that she wouldn’t.
“I guess some habits are hard to break.”
“Some are.  But it’s been my experience that you gain a lot more than you lose when you do finally manage to break the hard ones.”
She had become his habit, one that he didn’t want to break—that he knew he could never break.  At some point during the past ten years, she had become his addiction.  On days he had to suffer through without her, he felt out of control, unsettled, as if part of him were missing.  His need for her had snuck up on him without him even realizing.  But it was there, too strong to be denied, too rewarding for him to want to deny it, too consuming to ever be broken.
Now he needed to know what her addiction was.  If it was still the same that she had confessed to in the fictitious safety of the darkness while they were trapped in the trailer, or if he had misguidedly—thoughtlessly—convinced her to break it.
He stretched his neck, peeking at her face again.  Her eyelids fluttered but never fully opened as she burrowed the side of her face deeper into the pillow.  She was ignoring him, and maybe he deserved that.  Okay, he probably deserved it—hell, he did deserve it.  If there was one thing he knew she hated, it was to be coddled.  And, Jesus, in the past twenty-four hours the kid gloves had become wedged so tightly on his hands that he wasn’t sure they could ever be peeled off.
“Liv?”  His voice hit the air timidly, with a hint of hesitance.  Leaning forward, he continued to stare, to scrutinize her fallaciously peaceful face.  “Olivia, think we can, uh… Can we—”
“Go away, Elliot.”
He shuffled from foot to foot as she dragged the edge of the blanket higher, partially concealing her face, attempting to hide from him.  “How’d it go with del Torres?”
Her right eye popped open above the rim of the blanket, her gaze targeting the barren wall in front of her.  “He stared at me.  A lot.”  She slid her legs to the edge of the mattress, sighing.  “So I stared back.”
“Look,” Elliot grumbled, “about that, about del Torres—”
“We had to let him go,” Olivia said, pushing a tuft of hair away from her face.  “Fin and I are going to the hospital later to talk to Derio.  Hopefully, he’ll tell us enough that we can get a warrant and bring del Torres back in.”  She turned her head slightly, toward him, frowning.  “We’ve both been awake for almost forty-eight hours, Elliot.  I can’t even think anymore, and I don’t want to talk.  I just want to get some sleep.”
Elliot nodded as she settled the side of her face back into the pillow, her eyes clamping shut.  He watched the rise and fall of her chest, quick at first before gradually slowing and evening out.  She was trying to relax, or to at least make him believe that was what she was doing.  But what she was really doing was shutting him out, blatantly, self-protectively, just as he had done to her.
Pinching the top corner of the blanket in his hand, he hesitated before pulling it off of her shoulder.  He lifted it slowly so as not to chill or startle her, and climbed into the single occupancy structure beside her.  Rolling into her, settling against her, he felt her stiffen instantly and draped his arm across her waist in response.  Squeezing.  Pulling her against him.  Holding onto her even when she began to fight, growling in protest and popping his shins with the soles of her socked feet.
“What are you doing?” Olivia grumbled, impending sleep having deepened her voice.  “Someone could walk in here.”
Elliot nodded, his chin ruffling the strands of her hair as his head glided up and then down.  “Someone could walk in.”
“Want to tell me how you plan to explain this if someone does?”
He chuckled lowly, without concern, his breath separating strands of her hair and heating the back of her neck.  “I already did,” he muttered around a yawn.  “Explained it, I mean.”
Olivia jerked backwards, rolling partially, the back of her head slamming into his nose and her shoulder slapping his chest.  “What does that mean?” she asked, overriding his playfully groaned, “Ouch!”
“It means I’m pretty sure you just broke my nose,” Elliot returned, pinching the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb.  “There’s not a lot of room in here, Liv.  Next time, think you can give me a little warning before you start moving?”
“Elliot, stop!” she hissed impatiently, staring back at him, jabbing his chest again as his hand slithered beneath the hem of her shirt.  “If the car turned out to be a bad idea, this’ll end up being a really rotten—”
“Cragen knows.”
Her eyes widened, expanding steadily until the whites were fully exposed.  “Cragen knows…what?” she whispered breathlessly.  She dug her elbow into the center of his chest, ignoring his retaliatory grunts as she pushed herself up.  “Oh, Jesus, Elliot.  What in the hell did you do?”
His heavy brows dipped, his expression contorting with questioning.  “I’m not really sure, but I think I might’ve gotten myself transferred out of SVU.  Or, worst case scenario...” His lips hooked crookedly into a grin.  “Munch is my new partner.”
She dropped back on her elbows, a groan catching in her throat.  As Elliot reached for her, smoothing her fallen bangs behind her ear, she whimpered a disingenuous, “Don’t,” and pushed herself the rest of the way up.  She slid awkwardly in the small amount of space, falling back against the wall with her folded knees pressed against his stomach.  “You told him everything?” she asked, another groan churning in her throat as Elliot answered with an ambiguous nod.  “God.  You really have lost your mind.  I mean, I was trying really hard to chalk up what happened with del Torres to sleep deprivation, but now I know you’ve gone completely crazy.”
“Olivia, I didn’t—”
“You didn’t have the right to say anything!” she whined, pressing the balls of her palms into her forehead.  Jesus.  Her head hurt.  From lack of sleep, an overload of emotions, the stink of del Torres’s cologne, and too much Elliot.  “It’s not just your job in jeopardy now, it’s mine, too!  For God’s sake, a couple of failed attempts at screwing me doesn’t give you the right to start making decisions for me!  It was humiliating enough in the squad room, you know, when you—whatever the hell that was you were trying to do!  I don’t know, protect me or discredit me or— Damn it, Elliot!  I’m not some possession you own now!”
“I don’t own you,” he agreed, his voice remaining even, calm, as he touched a fingertip against her ankle and traced around the bone.  Circling to the right and then left before flattening gently on top of her shin bone and gliding beneath the faded denim toward her knee.  “And I didn’t tell Cragen anything that he hadn’t already figured out for himself.”  He pushed the wrinkled denim over her kneecap, his eyes narrowing as he studied the scrapes and bruises that blemished her skin.  
“Oh, God…” she whimpered, sliding her hands over her face.  “He knows we had sex in my car?”
“It seems I left a little evidence behind.”  He continued to dig beneath the furrowed denim, flattening his hand on the inside of her thigh.  “Guess Vedie was wrong, those kids aren’t really all that thorough when it comes to cleaning the cars.”
“Why in the hell didn’t you just let Vedie shoot me?” she moaned, dropping her head forward.  “Dying would’ve been easier than facing Cragen.”
“Just relax.  Everything’s going to be okay—”
“Okay?” she squealed, her eyes bugging over the tips of her fingers.  “How long do you think it’s going to take before this information makes its way through the entire force?  Everyone’s going to know that we…that we were…and, Jesus, we got car jacked right in the middle of it!  And by kids!  The majority of them weren’t even legal drinking age yet!”
“They were kids,” he agreed through a slow nod, “but kids with guns—loaded guns.  That makes a difference, don’t you think?  Kind of makes it sound better for us?”
She slapped at his hand as he began to move further up her leg, wincing as he did, shaking out the sting that burned across her palm.  “The only thing that’d make this better is if it’d never happened at all,” she said, straightening her pant leg as Elliot unburied his hand from beneath it.  “You know, Elliot, you’ve been screwing me in one way or another for the last ten years.  Almost every mark in my jacket is because of you.  Because you couldn’t follow orders, or control your temper, or… Whatever the reason, the outcome is always the same.  My ass ends up on the line because of you.”
“It’s always your ass?” he shot back.  “What about all the crap I took right after you found Simon?  You screwed up more than one case that time, and I took the heat right alongside you!  Christ, on a daily basis you break a minimum of seven laws!  You’ve never been interested in playing by the rules!  Hell, you’ve never even taken the time to learn what half of the rules are!”
“At least I know when to keep my mouth shut!”
“Hey, what’d you want me to do?” Elliot hissed, propping himself up on an elbow.  “If I’d lied and told Cragen nothing had happened, he would’ve filed attempted rape charges!  Then he would’ve dragged every son of bitch under the age of eighteen in El Barrio down here!  CSU already found the sample, and they would’ve figured out the truth once they ran the DNA!”
“Have you ever heard of a condom, Elliot?” she sneered through an exaggerated roll of her eyes.  “I get that you’ve spent most of your life married, but it’s not like you were hopping into that backseat with your wife hoping to up the Stabler count to an even half-dozen!  I’m not any more interested in getting pregnant by you than I am in getting dragged through the gutter with you!”
“I don’t remember you being too concerned the other night!”
“When did you give me time to be concerned?  When in the hell did you even give me time to think?  As usual, it was all about what you wanted!”
“It was only about what I wanted?” he asked, his eyebrows spiking.  “Because if that’s how you act when you’re not into it, I don’t know if I could keep up with you when you are in the mood!”
She rammed a knee into his stomach, hissing over his stifled coughs, “Get out of the fucking bed!  Just stay the hell away from me!  For God’s sake, I’ve lost two nights of sleep because of you and now I might lose my job, and I’m sure as hell going to lose my reputation!”
“Which reputation are you afraid of losing?” he barked, sitting up and kicking his legs until they were freed from beneath the blanket.  “The one about you being an obsessive workaholic who’s sacrificed her entire personal life for a pension and shield, or the one about you being so closed off from your damned emotions that it’s made you scared to death of any type of real commitment?”
Olivia fell still, her right leg bent, ready to deliver another kick.  Elliot’s face became blurred behind a wall of tears and his accusations began to coil around her lungs, squeezing and compressing until the last morsel of air was forced out of them.  She wouldn’t cry, she wouldn’t.  Damn it, she wouldn’t— She brushed away the first tear quickly, barely giving it time to wet her skin, and whispered a shaky, “Bastard,” as a second tear managed to elude capture and rolled down her cheek.
Elliot grumbled under his breath, dropping his legs over the side of the bed.  He slumped forward, his energy finally depleted.  “I didn’t…mean…” He dug his hands into the sides of his head, his eyes closing as Olivia sniffled behind him.  He hadn’t meant to blow another twenty-five seconds all to hell, marking their passage with confusion and hurtfulness and—damn it—intentions that ended up being off the fucking cuff instead of how he’d planned them.  All he had wanted was to turn back the clock by twenty-five seconds, just twenty-five, and give back to her what he had selfishly taken from her.
A reason to believe in him.  And even more, a reason why she could believe in them.
“I can’t do this, Elliot,” she whispered.  “Whatever this is, I can’t…” She dragged the tips of her fingers beneath her eyes, drying them, clearing them.  “I mean, it hasn’t even really had a chance to get started and already it’s too hard.”
“It’s supposed to be hard.  That fucking makes it worthwhile, Olivia.”  He pulled in a breath, forcibly lifting his shoulders as he straightened.  “Jesus.  Why do you have to make caring about you so much damn harder than it should be?”
“I didn’t ask you to care,” she said, pulling her legs up to her chest.
He shook his head, agreeing, as he flattened his palms on top of the mattress and pushed himself to his feet.  “No, you didn’t.  You never ask for anything.”  He glanced back at her, his chest tightening as the moon’s rays became tangled in the tracks of her tears, illuminating her face with each of his well-intentioned mistakes.  “Why is that?  Because you don’t expect anything, or you just don’t want anything?”
She bit into her lip, whimpering.  “I don’t know,” she finally answered.  “I just know that I never expected this.”
“Maybe not.  But is it what you want?”
She hugged her legs closer, burying the tip of her chin into the crevice between her knees.  Her lips fluttered unresponsively, silence the only answer she could articulate, as she watched the expectation drain into his face.  It emerged slowly, cautiously, but with enough potency to erase the tension and exhaustion that had held his features captive for the past two days.  But as her silence dragged between them, each second that passed fragmented the hopefulness until understanding was all that was left.
Elliot nodded, not noticing the quickening of her tears as he fought to keep his own at bay.  “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice a low rumble that shattered the stillness between them.  “For, uh…about everything.  I didn’t mean to make things harder.  I thought…I just, I thought…” He lifted a shoulder, just slightly, once again fighting the weight of exhaustion.  “I don’t know.  Guess I’d hoped that I could make things better for both of us.  And I shouldn’t have done that.  I shouldn’t have assumed that what I thought would make it better was what you thought, too.”
He glanced toward the door, squinting as the bright light in the hallway assaulted his eyes.  “Let’s get some sleep, huh?  You’re right; we both need it.  In the morning I’ll talk to Cragen again, tell him to go ahead and push that transfer through.”  Turning away, he left Olivia’s muffled sobs behind him.  Not letting them slow him or stop him, not bothering to count out the number of seconds it took to walk away again.  
+++
March 25, 4:01 A.M.
The last time she had picked up her mother from a late night binge had been six hours before she was supposed to board the train at Penn Station for Loudonville.  She was leaving for college, running away under the guise of higher education, escaping alcoholism and abuse and confusion by means of steel tracks and speeds faster than any human—than her mother—was capable of competing with.
That early morning as she had watched her mother stumble to the car at quarter-past three, tripping through steps, cursing the darkness, looking like a common drunk instead of a distinguished professor, she had felt relieved that it would be the last time.  It would be the last night that she would be forced to atone for an eighteen-year-old transgression that had become hers by default.  It would be the last night that she would try to bear the weight of her father’s sin in an attempt to salvage what was left of her mother’s sanity, and the last night that she would willingly submit to being the scapegoat that her mother unfairly demanded she be in order to rid herself of one more morsel of rage.
It would be the last night that her mother would confuse her with tales of love and sacrifice, testimonials whose actions and words consistently contradicted each other.
By the time Olivia pulled the old Buick back into the driveway, Serena had slumped in the corner, undertaking a battle against sleep.  And after Olivia’s persistent suggestions that they go inside of the house were continually ignored, they finally settled in with condensation obscuring the view outside of the windows and an unusual chill seeping through the metal frame of the car.
“You can’t leave me, Olivia.  I won’t let you,” Serena had said with eyes closed and her stale breath contaminating the air.
“You have to,” had been Olivia’s whispered answer.  Spoken with a hint of regret, but even more honesty.
“You can go to college here.  There’s Columbia, NYU, Hudson… You don’t have to go to Siena.  Stay here, with me.”
“I can’t.”
 
Serena had laughed whisperingly, tears sliding out from beneath her closed eyelids and her lips trembling.  Slowly, she had pushed off of the passenger’s door and fallen toward Olivia, the weight of instability propelling her into her daughter’s dependable arms.  She had nestled her head in Olivia’s lap, her eyes remaining closed as Olivia began to caress her face with gentle strokes.  
“If I let go of you, you’ll never come back.”
Olivia had wanted to respond with something profound, maybe even a little poetic.  Nothing that had to do with the truth, but something about birds needing to spread their wings, or caterpillars finally breaking free from their cocoons and becoming butterflies, or seeing the bigger pictures of independence being achieved and dreams being discovered.  But the metaphors had sounded contrite in comparison to her mother’s insightfulness.  Words had always been her mother’s talent, not hers.  And so when Serena’s honesty demanded the same from her, she had answered in the way she’d always been most articulate.  Through silence.
“I’m losing you, aren’t I?”
Olivia had tangled her finger in a wispy strand of her mother’s dyed hair, coiling the thick strand, answering Serena’s second question in the same way she had her first.  Through silence.
“I suppose it’s my own fault.  I’ve never given you a reason why you should want to stay.  I know that.  And whether or not you believe me, I do regret it.”  She had raised her hand, tracing Olivia’s jaw line with shaky fingers.  “Do you remember the old saying, if you love something set if free?”
Olivia had nodded, her fingers lost in the soft strands of Serena’s hair.
“Well, it’s a load of crap.  The only purpose freedom serves is to open up options.  Once you offer it, the moment you loosen your grasp, you’re giving that one thing that means more to you than anything else the chance to find something better.  Something they’ll want more than you.”  Her smile had begun to quiver, oscillating between sorrow and perception.  “The only thing you can count on when you decide to be a martyr is that you will lose.  So when you finally find what you want, hold onto it.  No matter what, don’t ever let go.”  She had turned her head, staring up into the brown eyes that she had never really taken the time to look into or get to know, and offered a similar glimpse into hers.  “All anyone really wants is to know that someone else wants them.  And if they know that—if you make them believe it—that’ll be all the reason they’ll need to stay.  So don’t push people away, Olivia, pull them to you.  Hold onto them just as tightly as you want them to hold onto you.”
The next morning—fresh from the shower, finally packed and anxious to leave—Olivia had dragged her suitcases down the hallway and into the living room.  She had called out for her mother before noticing that the front door was ajar, and when she stepped onto the porch she saw that the driveway was empty.  Her mother had left, taking the old Buick with her, and Olivia had managed to inhale her first breath in eighteen years.
When she had turned back into the house, disappointed but not surprised, she had headed into the kitchen to call a cab.  Beside the telephone was a crisp one hundred dollar bill and a handwritten note whose scrawls were familiarly illegible.  
Taxi arriving at 8:30 sharp.  Safe travels, my love.  Come home soon.
Throughout her childhood, her mother had given her anger and blame and more confusion than there were years left to sort through.  She had given Olivia one reason after another to leave, and finally—finally—she had given her a reason why she should stay.
And in the end, it had been far easier than either of them had ever thought it could be.  
All Serena had had to do was just admit that was what she wanted her to do. 
Olivia opened her eyes as bed springs squeaked whisperingly across the room.  She rolled away from the wall, her eyes narrowing as she caught the gleam of light from the hallway.  Trapped in the shaft on the opposite side of the room was Elliot.  Sprawled on his back, arms folded beneath his head, ankles crossed, and eyes closed.  Even in sleep, his jaw drummed and eyebrows remained creased, making it clear that his anger ran deep enough to reach his subconscious.  
He had tried to pull her in, to hold on.  But she had reacted in the only way she had ever been taught, by letting go before she even attempted to get her grip.
“All anyone really wants is to know that someone else wants them.  And if they know that—if you make them believe it—that’ll be all the reason they’ll need to stay.”
She crawled out from under the blanket, her socked feet landing silently on the floor.  Tiptoeing through the darkness, sidestepping obstacles, she made her way across the room.  Even from the foot of the bed she could hear him breathing, his chest puffing with each steady inhale and collapsing with every strong exhale.  
Jesus.  He was an ass.  Controlling and protective and bad tempered, and she hated him more hours out of the day than she liked him.  As far as headaches in her life went, he topped the list.  On a regular basis, because of him, she lost sleep, her appetite, her sense of humor, her temper, and had almost lost her job more times than she could count.
But she had never lost him.
No matter what, no matter how hard she pushed.  He still held on.
Olivia crossed the thin aisle, lowering onto the bed across from Elliot’s.  She leaned forward and hooked her hand around his forearm, his skin instantly warming hers.  Pulling his hand out from beneath his head, she stretched his flaccid arm over half of the distance that separated them and laced her fingers through his.  Relieved that they still fit comfortably, snuggly, as if the spaces between his fingers had been sized solely to fit hers.  
She laid out across the cot, her hand linked to his and hidden in the shadows that hovered between them in the aisle.  Nestling the side of her face into the pillow, exhaustion forced her eyes to close and proximity allowed sleep to take command of her senses.
“I know what I want,” she whispered, her plea catching in the wrinkles of the pillowcase as she tightened her grasp on his hand.  “I’ve known for a long time.  So stay, Elliot.  Please, just stay.”
CHAPTER TWELVE
March 25, 10:55 A.M.
The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was her.  Folded on the edge of the bed, her face half buried in the pillow, arm stretched across the aisle that separated them, and her hand locked firmly around his.
It had been just after eight when Fin’s heavy steps in the hallway had woken him, but they hadn’t caused her to stir.  Even when they had taken turns calling her name, when Fin had tapped her shoulder, the only response sleep allowed from her was for her grip around his hand to tighten.
And so he had tightened his.
He had sent Fin away with the promise that he would take the blame for her not getting awoken at the time she had requested, and then settled back on his side of their divide.  He didn’t know when she had left her side of the room for his, or what had caused her to want to.  Maybe it had been a bad dream, restlessness, ghosts rattling too loudly in her head, or just a need to know that someone else was close.  Whatever the reason, he wouldn’t ask her to explain it because he knew she wouldn’t anyway.  She kept her fears carefully guarded.  She hinted at them on occasion, in the midst of a particularly rough case or coming down from the high of closing an unimaginable one.  But she was never any more forthright about them than she was any of her other feelings.
And maybe that was her greatest fear.  If she did become careless and fully expose her feelings, they wouldn’t be received with the same consideration that she had given them with.
A chill attacked his palm as Olivia wriggled her hand, disconnecting their touch.  She moaned through a roll, her eyelids fluttering open as she landed on her back.  Squinting through acclimating blinks and sweeping her hair away from her face, she mumbled hoarsely, “I hope to hell someone got the number of the truck that hit me.”
Elliot chuckled, rolling onto his side and propping himself up on an elbow as her gaze slid sideways in his direction.  “Morning.”
Olivia hid a yawn behind her hand as she nodded in response.  A smile built slowly and awkwardly on her lips, as she turned to face him again.  “So, you’re talking to me again?”
“If you’re talking to me.”
“Guess I am,” she whispered, taking another swipe at her bangs and hooking them messily behind her ear.  
He nodded once, settling the side of his face into his palm.  “Good.”
“Good,” she agreed through a whisper.  She slid an arm beneath her head, the wavy strands of her hair fanning across the white-cased pillow beneath her.  “Elliot.  About earlier—”
He stopped her with a shake of his head.  “It’s okay.  Like I said, I’ll talk to Cragen—”
“I don’t want you to.”
He could feel the confusion take hold of his face, his brows dipping of their own accord and what little of a smile he had managed wilting instantly.  She didn’t want him to…  What?  Be the one to run away again?  After all, it had become her forte more than it had ever been his, so maybe what she was really pissed about was that he had stolen her glory in the junkyard.  She had made it clear from the start that she would be willing to sacrifice anything—everything—just to get him out.  Because of his kids, because he had more to return to, because of a hundred different reasons that had made sense to her but never to him.  She had wanted to run; it was something she was good at doing.  But he had proven to be better at it, and maybe she couldn’t accept suddenly being stuck in second place.
“Look, we got everything settled, right?” he asked.  “We’re good.  So I think we should concentrate on wrapping up the case, and we can…then…we’ll, uh…” He swallowed around the two-day-old lump in his throat, forcing out the last words that he wanted to say.  “We’ll put it all behind us.”
She took in a breath, tossing his idea around in her still hazy mind.  “I don’t know if…” Her eyes fell closed, popping back open after only a second of thought.  “The way we left things, Elliot, it’s not the way that I thought…that I…wanted…it to be settled.”
Elliot bit into his lip, chewing, contemplating, trying not to jump the gun before Olivia completely depressed the trigger.  Not the way she wanted it settled.  His eyes narrowed, analyzing hers.  Looking for a clue, just a damned hint of a hint that would tell him which direction was safe to move in.  Did he make an enthusiastic beeline for the positive and interpret her ambiguous confession as meaning she actually wanted what he wanted?  Or should he just charge down the straight and narrow path of pessimism and go toward the assumption that she was still pissed, just not awake enough yet to finish raking his still smoldering ass over the coals?
The only thing he knew for sure was that his chance of picking the right direction was slim to none.  So he remained quiet, grabbing hold of caution with both hands and waiting with feigned patience for her to set their course.
“I acted like a real bitch,” Olivia said around a heavy breath, “and I’m sorry.” 
He gnawed deeper into his lip, upholding his temporary vow of silence.  It didn’t matter which direction he decided to go, there was just as good of a chance that he’d fall flat on his face either way.  Christ.  He hadn’t spent every year of his marriage as a distracted spectator.  He’d been an active participant enough times to know that he had been inadvertently set up, and whichever way he responded to Olivia’s admission would be the wrong way.  If he accepted her apology, it would mean he agreed with her—which would be the same as calling her a bitch himself.  But if he brushed her off, told her not to worry, that it wasn’t a big deal, then she would take his casualness to mean that he didn’t care.  She would think it had all been a lie; everything he’d told her, everything that he had sworn was the truth.
Maybe the smartest recourse would be for him to follow her apology with one of his own.  After all, she had managed to swallow her pride in one bitter lump, and if he choked down his too, she would hopefully see that as his attempt at conciliation.  Unless she decided to dig deeper into their individual mistakes, expounding on what she felt she had done wrong and expecting him to do the same.  And then he would be screwed, because he wasn’t really sure he had done anything wrong.  At least not during their last attempt at a conversation, which he had initiated only as a means to make up for mistakes that had already been singled out, hashed out and rehashed again.
“So, uh.  How’d you sleep?” he asked, making a sharp, impromptu veer toward Switzerland and leading them onto neutral ground.  
“Okay,” she answered, shrugging.  “Pretty good.”
He nodded again as she hoisted herself up and dropped her feet over the edge of the bed.  She still looked tired, but there was a radiance that had caught her features.  With her makeup light and smudged a little from sleep, her hair tousled and clothes wrinkled, she looked gorgeous.  Maybe not one hundred percent refreshed, but recharged.  She was ready to start up the fight again, and he could tell by the somberness that marked her eyes that she was hoping this battle would play out differently than the ones they had already charged through.  This time, as she had told him that she needed him to do, she hoped he would fight with her.
“What time is it?” Olivia asked, shivering her hands through the sides of her hair and fluffing the wavy strands.
“Eleven.”
Her eyes widened through a disagreeing groan.  “Damn it.  I told Fin to wake me up—”
“He tried,” Elliot confirmed, sitting up.  “At eight.  But you were out cold, wouldn’t even budge.  We even stuck a mirror under your nose just to make sure you were still breathing.”
“At least I wasn’t snoring,” she returned, cocking an eyebrow.
“Says who?”
“I don’t snore, Elliot.”
“But you do talk in your sleep.”  
He watched the suspicion bleed into her eyes, twisting with a trace of fear.  Her incoherent ramblings had woken him more than once, her voice whispery, whimpers edging their way into it on occasion.  Most of her one-sided conversation had been carried out through mumbles, jumbled words that he hadn’t been able to decode or separate.  Except for one, the only one that she had continued to consistently repeat.
Stay.
He didn’t know whom she had been talking to, and he sure as hell didn’t feel confident enough to hope that it had been him.  But whoever it had been, she had begged them.  With a hopefulness to her voice that he had never before heard, a desperation that he sometimes imagined lived within her.  An unmistakable desire that he wished belonged to him.
The first time he had heard her say it her fingers had closed around his.  Her hold had been tight, and he had held onto her just as tightly.  The decision not to let go had been an easy one for him, made quickly.  Because even if the only way she could give him a part of herself was through the safety of sleep, he would take it.  No matter how much or how little, he would take anything and everything that she offered.
“You, uh.”  He shrugged a shoulder, sliding his feet into the center of the narrow aisle.  “You seemed kind of restless.”
“Sorry,” Olivia whispered, her gaze dropping to the floor.  “I didn’t mean to keep you awake.”
He hadn’t minded, not with her hand wrapped inside of his, with her close and safe.  He had put the time to good use, better use than if he had spent it sleeping.  He had watched her.  The changes of her expressions, the way her eyelids fluttered during what he had assumed were particularly vivid portions of dreams, the way her lips would part just slightly when she would beg someone—or maybe it had simply been anyone—to stay with her.  He’d wanted to climb into bed with her again, in spite of his anger and with hopes that hers had subsided.  But he hadn’t.  He had made himself settle for the simplicity of her touch, and had spent his time wondering if once she awoke her feelings would be different than the ones she had fallen asleep with.  Would she want to give him more, or was the touch the last of her that he would ever get?
“You didn’t,” he lied, a reassuring grin crooking his lips.
She rocked forward, looking for a moment as if she were about to make a quick escape.  But she settled back onto the mattress, butting her foot up to his.  “I don’t want you to talk to Cragen,” she said, timidity controlling her voice.
“Yeah, well, one of us is going to have to… I mean, now that he knows, he’s going to have to do something.”
“Yeah, I know.  It’s just, it’s… Look, this…thing…whatever it is we’ve been doing, or, uh, or trying to do…” She chuckled softly as he did, both conveying nervousness, an unfamiliar awkwardness that had never before existed quite so fully between them.  “I don’t know if there’s anywhere for it to go, or if it even should go anywhere—”  
“Liv, it’s okay,” he broke in, nodding as she glanced up.  “I mean, you made your feelings clear, and I’ll respect them.”  I’ll try my best to live with them, he thought about adding, but didn’t.  Because even if he tried his best, in this circumstance—when the circumstance was her—his best wouldn’t be anywhere close to good enough.
“That’s just it.  I don’t think I want you to,” she said.  “Because what I said earlier...that’s not…” She pulled in a breath, swirling the air in her mouth before giving her lungs a needed taste of it.  “It’s, um.  It’s…not…how I feel.”
Elliot bit into his lip again, opting to renew his vow of silence.  It wasn’t how she felt.  He was pretty sure the room shuddered from the base boards to the ceiling, and he instinctively knew it happened the second that Olivia ripped Switzerland out from under his feet.  There wasn’t any neutral territory to be had anymore, every inch of it was about to be claimed.  Either by him, her, or them.  And he sure as hell wasn’t brave enough to risk breaking their unexpected peace treaty by making an assumption as to which one Olivia was voting into power.
“You’re wrong,” she continued.  “I’m not afraid of commitment.  I’ve just never…there’s never been…anyone…” She sighed; her expression tensing as she cursed her suddenly inarticulate brain.  “It’s not that I’m obsessed with this job; I mean, I don’t want to be obsessed with it.  It’s just, I’ve never really had anything else to be passionate about, so I guess it’s, you know, it’s just kind of won by default.”  She smiled faintly, with a tinge of embarrassment, and propped her socked toes on top of his.  “But I’ve…I’ve always wanted…”
She had always wanted…  Elliot stared down at their stacked feet as Olivia wiggled her toes on top of his.  She had always wanted to belong.  Somewhere.  Anywhere.  With a father who wasn’t a monster, a mother who wasn’t damaged, a family that was whole.  Maybe she had always wanted a husband, and she had definitely always wanted children.  But her fear had always been too fierce of a competitor for her desire to conquer, making her too quick to concede to her weaknesses and annoyingly reluctant to recognize her strengths.  Even though that was all he could see in her, all he had ever seen in her.  Unbelievable strength.
“I could’ve settled,” Olivia said, Elliot’s eyes instantly rising at the sound of her voice.  “Believe it or not, there are men in my past—a couple, at least—who actually wanted to marry me.”
Elliot nodded.  “I believe it.”
“My reason for not getting married wasn’t because I was afraid of commitment or felt like I didn’t deserve something more.  It was, I don’t know.  Maybe it was kind of childish, really.  But it was because I wanted to prove my mom wrong.”  She chuckled softly.  “In hindsight, I guess I kind of cut off my nose to spite my face.”
“Prove her wrong?” Elliot asked, his brows creasing.  “About what?”
“Love,” she whispered.  “She never really believed in it, but I…” She shook her head.  “I’m not desperate, Elliot, and I haven’t spent my life chasing after the theory of romance.  I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever bought into the whole idea of seeing fireworks or hearing violins playing in the distance.  I just, I wanted it to feel right, you know?  I needed it to be bigger than the doubts.”
Bigger than the doubts.  Elliot swallowed hard, his gaze dropping as Olivia leaned forward and latched her hands around his knees.  She squeezed lightly, as if trying to find her grip.  It all came down to something as simple as proof.  She had been waiting for—maybe even searching for—someone who could prove to her that her doubts in herself were unfounded, and even more so that her mother’s were.  She needed someone who could show her through consistency and dependability that she was more than her past had convinced her that she was, that she could be more, maybe that she could even be everything to someone else.  She needed proof, sure as hell not a selfish jackass who turned tail and ran in the opposite direction the moment things got tough.  
He nodded, understanding her feelings as well as his failures.  He hadn’t tried to prove to her that she had become everything; he’d let her believe that she wasn’t anything.  Not competent or intelligent or capable, not valued.  Jesus.  Not even loved.  And that was all he had wanted to prove to her when he’d invited her out for drinks at the end of their shift on Friday night.  That even though he couldn’t pinpoint the exact year or month or day when it had happened, he had fallen in love with her.
“The thing is…” she began, tilting her face upwards to meet his.  “I don’t know if this is going anywhere.  I don’t even know if there’s anywhere for it to go.  I just know that I, I don’t want to let it go until I know for sure there isn’t anything to hold onto.”
Stay, her voice whispered in his mind, repeating again and again.  She had said it in her sleep, and maybe—Jesus, just maybe—she had been saying it to him.  He slid off the edge of the bed and dropped to his knees in front of her, scooting across the small amount of space that separated them.  He saw the hesitance take root in her features and uncertainty darken her eyes; he could see both clearly.  And he could also see that she was fighting them.  For him, for her, and with the hope that she could overcome both if they fought them together.  Even though they would be fighting for something that neither of them could fully identify nor trust in yet, it was still something that they both already knew they weren’t ready to let go of.
He took her face in his hands, pulling her to him.  Touching his lips to hers, he glided the tip of his tongue across her mouth.  She nipped at his bottom lip, laughing softly, with a hint of tears but even more relief.  Maybe he should ask if she was sure, or possibly for an explanation as to what had caused her to change her mind.  But with her so close, with the taste of her filling his mouth, nothing else mattered.  What she had given him was already enough, because it had the possibility to become everything.
“One more thing,” Olivia said, her voice sliding into his mouth as his lips grazed hers again.  She pulled her head back, Elliot’s fingers still buried in her hair.  “If we’re going to try this, it’s not going to be a continuation of your marriage.  It has to be about you and me, not about how things have always been with Kathy and you.”
His fingertips caressed her scalp, her silky strands of hair tangling in his fingers.  “That’s what I want, too,” he said, nodding, assuring her.  “We all get stuck somewhere, Olivia, all of us.  Maybe there’s a part of you still at Sealview, but you were wrong about me.  I didn’t get stuck in that junkyard; I got stuck at a dead end.  Kathy and I, we didn’t have anywhere to go, nowhere new, nowhere that either of us wanted to go together.  So, we got stuck spinning our wheels, and I don’t want to do that anymore.  I don’t want to settle, either.”
She smiled, just faintly, with honesty.  “Then get out of Stabler mode, okay?” she said.  “Because I don’t need you to take care of me, Elliot.  I just need you to be with me.”
She just needed him.  Jesus.  He needed her.  Because he wasn’t strong enough to break his addiction, he didn’t even know how to.  And he sure as hell didn’t want to.  “Well.”  He grinned, the arc catching crookedly on his lips.  “In case you hadn’t noticed, Detective, that’s what I’ve been trying like hell to do.”
“Yeah,” she agreed through a slow nod, “and you’ve been trying too hard.  So have I, and I think the best thing for us to do is just to slow down a little.  Let’s give Cragen’s blood pressure a chance to go back down to normal, take time to figure out what’ll be best for our jobs, get this case wrapped up—”
“Do it the right way,” Elliot concluded, smoothing a tuft of hair behind her ear.  He nodded once, not with one hundred percent agreement but with understanding.  
“That’d be a nice change,” she said, smiling.  
He tightened his hold on her again, pulling her back to him.  “This is a nice change,” he said, caressing the corner of her mouth with his lips.  An unexpected change, he might have added, but didn’t have the chance before her lips were pressed against his.  And as her tongue filled his mouth, connecting with his, tasting, taking time to familiarize, he heard it again.  Whisperingly in his mind, repeated not with desperation but desire, spoken in her voice.
Stay.
And he would.  Because he finally understood that she wasn’t looking for a superhero, or someone to erase the confusion lingering from her past, or who would smother her over protectively, or try to prove to her what, deep down, she already knew.  What she needed—all that she wanted—was far simpler.  
Just someone who wanted her.
+++
March 25, 12:16 P.M.
The P.A. system hummed through the air, voices seeming to filter out of nowhere as they recited commands that echoed off of the stone walls.  “Doctor Jansen, report to the O.R.,” “Doctor Harrison, you’re needed in pediatrics,” “Respiratory Therapy, call extension 1422.”  The announcements were endless, as was the activity that coincided with them.
Olivia glanced at each passing face, knowing she was paying closer attention than usual but unable to put her suspicion into perspective and stop herself from doing it.  The hospital corridor was crowded, a bustle of activity, too active for her to feel comfortable being stuck in the middle of.  She slithered her hand beneath the hem of her jacket, the tips of her fingers butting up to the edge of her belt.  God.  She wished she were armed.  But she could barely keep her grip on a coffee cup much less control a loaded gun, and if she came face to face with del Torres or any of the boys, she doubted they would be inclined to give her a courtesy head start to get her weapon drawn and readied before they went for theirs.
Elliot had given her ‘the look’ when Fin told her that he was ready to leave for Mount Sinai, and had grumbled—with a failed attempt at indifference—that she wasn’t even armed and that left her as vulnerable as she had been in the junkyard.  He had wanted to say more, she could tell.  He’d wanted to argue, maybe throw another tantrum, insist that she stay put, but he hadn’t.  He hadn’t said anything else, at least not verbally.  But his eyes had spoken volumes.  They had told her that he was worried, scared, reluctant to let her go, and there had been a part of her that liked that he felt that way.  It sure as hell beat the way he’d made her feel over the past couple of years, like she needed to jump up and down and wave her hands in front of him just so he would notice that she was still around.
She liked having her own personal superhero, even though she would never admit it to Elliot—or anyone else for that matter.  While she didn’t need to be taken care of, it was nice to know that for once—finally—someone actually wanted to take care of her.
But not just anyone.  It was Elliot.
And something about it being him made it feel different.  It made it feel right.
“Just talked to Munch,” Fin said, sidling up beside her in front of the elevator.  “They ran the prints that were taken from your car, found a coupla more kids in the system.”  He shuffled behind her as the doors slid open, stepping into the compartment behind her.  “Looks like Tiny Tyke’s managed to get himself busted a coupla times for shoplifting.  Full name’s Desiderio Soto.  No one’s been able to locate his mom, and his dad’s a little preoccupied doing a life sentence in Attica for a botched robbery that left a bodega clerk with a twelve-inch hole in his chest.”
“Why didn’t Derio go into the system after his first arrest?” Olivia asked, pressing a thumb against the number five on the wall panel.  “He should’ve been placed in foster care.”
“An aunt took him in,” Fin answered, lifting his chin as he tracked the illuminating row of numbers above the door.  “Graciela Medina.  She’s Raymond’s mom, Derio’s dad’s sister.  Munch got a hold of her, but she claims she ain’t seen either of the boys in a coupla months.  Said she didn’t even know Derio was in the hospital.”
Olivia stepped out of the elevator ahead of Fin, glancing to her left and then right down the corridor.  “This kid hasn’t had any support,” she said, sighing, as she nodded to her right before setting off in that direction.  “He’s pretty much been on his own his entire life.”
“Yeah, well, something tells me he ain’t the amateur he wants you to think he is,” Fin growled.  “His dad’s a lifelong member of the Latin Kings, has a long record.  There’re a coupla other murders besides the bodega clerk that they think he’s good for, just can’t find enough evidence to pin ‘em on him.”
“So now Derio’s guilty by association?” Olivia asked, rounding a corner a step ahead of Fin.  “That seems fair.”
“Was it fair what he did to Elliot and you?”
“He didn’t—” She came to an abrupt stop in front of a closed door, glancing at the No Visitors sign taped crookedly to the center of it.  “No,” she conceded, turning to face Fin.  “It wasn’t fair.  It was survival.  And that’s all he was trying to do, just survive.”
“Yeah, by making sure you didn’t.”
“He didn’t shoot me.”
“Thought about it, though,” Fin said.  “Came damn close to doing it, too, from what I’ve heard.”
“Close doesn’t count,” Olivia responded.  “Whether or not he thought about doing it, in the end he didn’t.  And that’s what should matter.”
“Really?” Fin asked, shoving his shoulder against the barrier.  “That’s funny, ‘cause I don’t remember you feeling the same way after Sealview.  When all that went down, it seemed like ‘close’ mattered a helluva lot to you.”
Olivia remained in the hall as Fin barreled through the doorway, flashing his shield to the guards in the room and grumbling introductions for both himself and her.  There wasn’t a comparison between Harris and Derio, why couldn’t anyone else understand that?  Maybe they had both tried to take advantage of her; she could admit that much, at least.  But in the end, only Harris would have been able to succeed at doing it.  Derio might have had the control on his side, but she’d still had the power.  At least when it was just the two of them; when wits were going head to head.  She had been unsure of him, but not afraid of him.  Not like she had been of Lowell Harris.
She cleared her head of thoughts that only warranted being acknowledged when the meter was ticking in her therapist’s office, and stepped into the room as the two uniformed officers stepped out.  Giving the door a shove closed, her gaze shot toward a snarled-lip Fin before trekking across the room toward the bed.  Derio looked smaller than she remembered, half-buried beneath tubes and wires, flanked by IV bags and humming machinery, with the bracelet of a cuff locked around one wrist and the other end secured around the metal railing, alone in a bed that a mother should be holding a vigil beside.  
She crossed the room hesitantly, her steps light.  Stopping at the foot of the bed, she offered a smile that went unseen as Derio rolled his face away from her.  “Hey,” she whispered, the emergence of her voice not receiving an acknowledgment from the openly angry child.  “How’re you feeling?”
 
Derio moved his right arm a fraction, the metal bracelet clanking abrasively against the bedrail.  “What do you want?”
“To check on you, see how you’re doing.”
He pulled against the cuffs again, the anger dissipating in his face long enough to allow a flash of fear to be seen.  “They got me chained up like some kinda fucking dog.”
“It’s procedure,” Olivia responded, nodding.  “What they have to do.”  She watched the anger return, hardening Derio’s face unnaturally, aging him.  Distrust filled his eyes, the same as she had seen in them before, what she had tried so hard to replace with trust.  “As soon as you’re well enough to get out of here, they’re going to take you to jail.  You understand that, right?”
“All I know is that I shoulda listened to Raymond,” he said, a sleepy slur attached to his words.  “He’s always straight with me, and he was right about you.  He told me you’d fuck us all over if you got out, and that’s exactly what you done.”
Olivia shot a glance over her shoulder at Fin; his expression having tensed as noticeably as Derio’s had.  He took a step out of the corner, stopping abruptly when she commanded him to with a shake of her head.  “I was straight with you,” she said, turning back toward a disgruntled Derio.  “I told you that I’d help you, and I will.”
He shook his head, wincing with the movement.  “You’re gonna lock me up.  Damn.  Might as well just send me to the fucking morgue, ‘cause that’s where Dominic’ll make sure I end up.”
“No,” she returned firmly.  “You’ll be safe.  I promise—”
“Your promises ain’t worth shit.”  He pressed the back of his head into the stacked pillows, his stare locking on the ceiling.  “Everybody was right about you.  You ain’t nothing but a fucking ho.  I shoulda done you like Dominic told me to.”
“Hey.  She’s trying to save your ass,” Fin hissed from his mandated corner.  “You’re so worried about getting fucked over, then Dominic’s the one you better be worried about.  ‘Cause he’s the one that’s gonna do it to you, not Detective Benson.  So you might wanna think about that before you keep running your mouth.”  He shook his head, knotting his arms across his chest.  “You make an enemy outta her, then all you got is enemies.”
“Who the fuck’s the player?” Derio sneered, his heated gaze shifting toward Olivia.
Olivia’s hand immediately shot out behind her, stopping Fin in mid-step.  There was a part of her that wished she could see Derio like everyone else did, as a lost cause, unchangeable, unable to be saved, a prospective monster.  She wanted to see him that way, but she didn’t.  She couldn’t.  Because all she saw when she looked at him was a child who was struggling to grow up without anyone to guide him through the correct steps.  A child who wanted to do good—to be good—even though the world kept telling him that he never could be.  A child who didn’t want to be angry, but whose anger was getting too big to fight.
What she saw in him was herself.  And she didn’t want to lose hope in either of them.
She rounded the foot of the bed, grabbing hold of and dragging a chair behind her.  Stopping midway up the side, she situated the wooden-base structure behind her and sank down.  “Come on, Derio,” she said.  “You know I’ve been straight with you.  I promised I wouldn’t leave the junkyard without you, right, and I didn’t.  I didn’t leave you behind.”
“Just ‘cause you wanted to throw my ass in jail,” Derio groused, his pudgy lips tightening into a frown.  
“Because I wanted to help you, just like you helped me.”  Olivia leaned forward, peeking over the top of the metal rail.  “And now we need to help each other out again.  You have to help me stop Dominic so that he doesn’t hurt anyone else.”
“Damn, when you gonna get it?” he returned.  “You can’t stop Dominic.  Nobody can.”
“I will,” she said sternly, adamantly, “if you help me just one more time.  Tell me everything you know about him.  Tell me what you know about the boys—the boys he’s killed.  What’d he do with their bodies?  Did he bury them in the junkyard—”
“Jesucristo!” Derio whimpered, yanking against the cuffs, metal rattling angrily against metal.  “You fucking deaf or just stupid?  We’re both already dead, bitch, Dominic just ain’t wasted no bullets on us yet!  It don’t matter what you say you’re gonna do or even what you wanna do, you can’t stop him!”
“Why not?” Olivia asked quickly, rising halfway out of the chair and flattening against the railing.  “What is it that makes him so powerful?”
Derio lifted a shoulder, the anger in his eyes transforming into resolve.  “’Cause he’s Dominic.  Ain’t nobody but you crazy enough to go up against him.”
“Vedie’s dead,” Olivia announced, dropping back down in the chair.  “So is Silvio.  And you’re right, you and I are probably going to be next if we don’t do something.  So tell me what I need to know, and then the police can stop him.  That’s the only way either of us will be safe.”
“Fucking polis,” Derio said, laughing weakly, patronizingly.  “Damn.  He’s got ‘em in his fucking pocket.”
“In his pocket?” Olivia asked, her brows creasing as she shot a glance at Fin.  “What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean?” he grumbled, dragging a finger over the chain that trapped him to the bed.  “You really don’t listen too good, do you?”  
“Explain it to me,” Olivia pressed.
Derio dug his head further into the pillows, his stare once again shooting to the white tiled ceiling.  “It means Dominic owns El Barrio, owns everybody in it, too.”
She shook her head.  “He doesn’t own you.”
“Yeah, he does, and he’s gonna kill me.  Maybe Vedie fucked up, but Dominic never does.”
“Where are the bodies, Derio?” Olivia asked, intensity filtering into her whispery voice.  “Just tell me that much.  Because if we can find them, we can arrest him.”
“I don’t know where the fuck they are,” Derio responded, his heavy eyelids fluttering through a blink.  “It ain’t like we had funerals for the motherfuckers or nothing.  Dominic done ‘em, and that was it.  Usually Silvio and Hector took care of the rest of it.  Nobody else knew what was going on.”
“Okay…” Olivia whispered, her voice dragging.  “What about Raymond?  Did he ever help Hector and Silvio?  Would he be able to—”
“You got my primo locked up?” Derio asked quickly.  
Olivia sank down in the chair, answering first with a shake of her head.  “He ran.  No one’s been able to find him.”
A small smile caught Derio’s lips, a spark of triumph igniting in his eyes.  “You ain’t gonna find him, neither.  Raymond’s good at hiding.  Real good.”
“Good enough to stay hidden from Dominic?” Olivia asked pointedly, cocking an eyebrow.  “Because that’s who he’s really hiding from.  Raymond killed Vedie, Derio.”  She leaned forward again, hooking her bandaged hands around the railing.  “I’ve seen Dominic.  He came to the police station last night, and I could tell by the things he said that he’s not done with any of us yet.  He knows where you are, and he’s looking for Raymond.”
“Raymond…wasted…” Derio’s eyes widened.  “Damn, primo.  Sliced his own throat doing something loco like that.”
Olivia nodded, reluctantly agreeing.  “Tell me what you know, please.  That way, I can do my best to make sure that Dominic doesn’t bury Raymond like he did those other kids.”
Derio pulled in a long breath, his fingers sliding across the chain that connected the metal cuffs.  “You gotta do it on your own,” he hesitantly admitted.  “Polis in El Barrio won’t do nothing to help you, not if you’re against Dominic.”  He took in another breath, and another, building his courage.  “I don’t know no spots for sure, but I know them vatos that Dominic wasted never left the junkyard.  He left ‘em there ‘cause he knew nobody’d come looking for ‘em.  Not the polis, nobody.  That’s how it works for Dominic.  He does whatever the fuck he wants and he always gets away with it.”
“Why?” Olivia urged.  “Why does he get away with it?”
Derio lifted a shoulder sluggishly, resolve once again taking control of his face.  “Like I said, ‘cause he owns El Barrio.  And no matter what you wanna think, he owns every motherfucker in it, too.”
“Including the police?”
Derio made a slow roll of his eyes, grunting a laugh.  “Dominic ain’t stupid.  They’re the first fuckers he bought.”
+++
March 25, 1:27 P.M.
“You think that kid’s telling the truth about the cops over at the two-three?” Fin grumbled, pulling the door closed after Olivia followed him out of Derio’s room. 
Olivia shivered a hand through her hair, glancing back at the barrier before setting off down the hallway.  “At this point, what reason does he have to lie?”
“To take somebody else down with him,” Fin answered simply, with a shrug.  “Nobody likes to go down alone.”
“No,” she disagreed.  “I don’t get that feeling from him, that he’s out for revenge.  I mean, if that’s what he wanted he would’ve talked a lot more than he did while we were in the junkyard.  But even then, I had to pull information out of him.  I think he’s…” She made a final glance back at Derio’s door before they rounded the corner.  “He’s just scared.  He knows exactly what this bastard is capable of, and he’s terrified of him.”
“Maybe he gave us enough that we can get a warrant to start searching the junkyard, look for those bodies he says are still there.”
“Maybe,” Olivia halfheartedly agreed, coming to a stop.  “Call Cragen, see what he thinks.  If we’ve got enough, we could be at the junkyard tonight—”
“You crazy?” Fin returned, his expression knotting.  “Cragen ain’t gonna let you or Elliot within a mile of that place again.  The only reason he let you off house arrest to come here is because he didn’t think the kid would talk to anyone else.  Otherwise, you’d still be chained to your desk like Stabler is.”
Olivia sighed her agreement, disinterestedly focusing on the activity at the nurses’ station at the end of the hallway.  “Someone needs to get over there, though, and dig the place up before del Torres gets the chance to.”
“Someone will,” Fin agreed assuredly.  “Just not Elliot or you.”
“No, probably not,” she conceded.  “When you call Cragen, make sure you tell him that we can’t talk to the cops at the two-three.  If Derio’s right and del Torres is paying them off, they’ll contact him before we get the chance to do anything.”
“It’s gonna take a lot of fast talking to get the okay to move into their territory without letting them in on what we’re doing.”
“But things are starting to make more sense now,” Olivia returned.  “What Derio said makes sense, and it explains why the cops over there have been moving so slow on this, why none of them want to get involved.”
“And here I’ve been thinking they’re just lazy,” he grunted.  “Never thought about any of ‘em actually being dirty.”
“This whole thing is getting dirtier by the minute,” Olivia groused, nodding toward the ladies’ room door a few steps behind Fin.  “Just get a hold of Cragen, fill him in on what’s going on.  I’ll meet you downstairs.”
Fin glanced back at the door, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket as he turned back toward her.  “I’ll wait—”
“Jesus,” Olivia muttered, sweeping her hands through the sides of her hair.  “There are some things I’m still capable of doing by myself.  So just go downstairs, I’ll be there in a minute.”  She shook her head, continuing her rant through indecipherable mumbles as she pushed past him and barreled through the restroom door.
“Go downstairs…” Fin grumbled as the door slammed shut.  He tensed his shoulders, turning reluctantly in the direction of the elevator.  “One minute’s all I’m gonna give you.  Cragen or Elliot finds out I let you outta my sight for even that long, it’s my ass that’s gonna be in a sling.”
+++
March 25, 1:33 P.M.
“Damn…” Olivia whispered, her sore hands fighting against the metal buckle of her belt.  The end of the strap dropped without resistance out of her fingers, once, twice, before she managed to bulls eye the clasp’s opening and push the leather through.  Studying her accomplishment, she laughed to herself as she felt her cheeks flush hot.  What in the hell had happened to her?  She was blushing like a schoolgirl just remembering the last time she had struggled with a belt buckle.  In the backseat of her car, with the low wattage street lights hiding her awkwardness, straddling Elliot’s lap.  
She had straddled Elliot.
Elliot.
For as strange as it had felt to be with him, that close to him, it had also felt… Jesus.  It had felt right.  Oddly familiar, just as she had imagined it would.  And she wanted that again, to feel that way.  But without it being rushed or hidden or desperate or difficult.
Or for God’s sake, interrupted.
“Impeccable timing, Derio,” she muttered to herself, tugging the hem of her sweater over the waistband of her jeans.  “Maybe everyone’s right.  I really should be pissed off at you.”  With a roll of her eyes, sighing, she nudged the lock on the stall door with her elbow and disengaged it.  As the metal barrier glided open, she caught the reflection in the wall-length mirror on the opposite side of the bathroom.  The toned frame, oversized clothing, pitch-colored hair partially hidden beneath a bright yellow bandana, and the pistol clutched in the right hand and aimed at her.
“Don’t do nothing stupid, bitch.  I fucking swear I’ll waste you right here.”
Olivia swallowed the scream that had instantly built in her throat, her gaze dropping to the gun steadied in Raymond’s hand.  She nodded in momentary compliance, raising her hands in front of her.  “I’m not going to do anything,” she said, glancing down the row of stalls, finding an open door at the front of each one.  “What’re you doing here?”
“Figured you’d show up sooner or later,” he answered, motioning with a jerky wave of the gun for her to step out of the cubicle.  He followed her slow movements with the black barrel, keeping it trained on her, his finger remaining tensed over the trigger.  “You can hide real good in a place like this.  Nobody really pays attention to nobody else.  They just wanna take care of their own shit, you know?”
She peeked over his shoulder, eyeing the door at the opposite end of the room.  Since Raymond had made it into the bathroom, that meant Fin hadn’t pulled an Elliot and ignored her but had actually gone downstairs like she’d told him to.  Which meant she was on her own—again.  Without a partner to rely on and armed only with a disposable cell phone that was useless in her back pocket.  
Fuck.
Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.
Raymond looked nervous, too nervous to have any kind of solid plan worked out.  He was fidgety, swaying non-stop, and he couldn’t keep eye contact with her.  He was nervous, and she had to calm him down.  Otherwise, he was too unpredictable, and if anyone walked through the door—anyone—he would react solely off of irrational impulses.
“Why don’t you, um…” Her eyes shifted toward the pistol.  “Put the gun down, okay?  Just put it down, then we can talk.”
“I don’t wanna fucking talk to you,” he scoffed with a roll of his dark eyes.  “Look what all your talking done to Derio.  Made him start thinking all sorts of fucked up shit, and what’d that get him?  Got him a bullet in his back, and that’s your fault, bitch.”
“That was Vedie’s fault,” Olivia countered through a slow shake of her head.  “And Dominic’s.  I didn’t—”
“You made him think he could walk away from who he is!” Raymond hissed, jamming the barrel of the gun jerkily toward her.  “You didn’t have no right to lie to him like that!”
Olivia took a quick step backwards, her raised hands trembling in front of her and back flush against the cool, tile wall.  “I didn’t lie to him, Raymond,” she whispered.  
“You’re gonna send him to prison!  He ain’t gonna be able to survive there!”
“He’ll go to a juvenile facility—”
“And you don’t think a place like that is crawling with fuckers who’re loyal to Dominic?”  He grunted a condescending laugh, the barrel of the gun swaying from left to right before steadying on her again.  “You lock Derio up and he won’t live through one night!  Dominic’ll make damn sure of that!”
“No,” Olivia responded quickly, breathlessly.  “I won’t let that happen.  There are ways to make sure he’s protected—”
“Fucking bitch!” Raymond seethed, once again lessening the gap between the muzzle of the pistol and Olivia’s heaving chest.  “What’re you gonna do, lock him up all by himself in some little cage?  Stick him somewhere he won’t never see nobody else, won’t have nobody else to talk to?  You can’t fucking do that to him!  I know Derio can’t live like that!  The kinda kid he is, he’s gotta have somebody around to help him out!  Somebody who’ll take care of him!”
“There isn’t…I can’t…” She choked on the remainder of her admission, knowing that fully confessing her limitations could be the same as pulling the trigger on herself.  “Raymond, listen to me.  I promised Derio that I’d help him, and that’s what I’m trying to do.  I’ve talked to my captain about getting him tried as a juvenile, okay, and we’re going to fight to make sure that happens.”
“Don’t matter if that happens or not.  He’ll still get locked up.”
Olivia nodded, hesitantly, just faintly.  Tightening the noose another notch around her own neck.  Derio would still get locked up, and he would probably serve the majority of his sentence in solitary.  And she knew that Raymond was right, for a kid like Derio that would be a death sentence.  It wouldn’t save his life; it would slowly and torturously end it.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “I wish there was another option, I do.  But the only choices are to send him to an adult prison or a juvenile facility.  And believe me, Derio will have the best chance of surviving in a juvenile facility.”
He shook his head, grunting his disagreement.  “Those ain’t the only choices.  See, I got two of my own—two that’re a lot fucking better than yours.”  He shifted his weight from foot to foot, claiming another fraction of the space between them with the barrel of the gun.  “Now what I need from you, bitch, is for you to help me decide which one I’m gonna go with.”
“You need me to…” She shook her head, her brows flattening.  “What’re you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you keeping your fucking promise.  You told Derio you’d help him, and that’s what you’re gonna fucking do.”
Olivia swallowed hard, inching her arms downward until they were flaccid at her sides.  “What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean your first choice is to go back to Derio’s room and get him,” he responded, his voice lowering, the emotion seeping out of it.  “Bring him to me so I can take him outta this place.  ‘Cause that’s the only way he’s gonna keep breathing, if he’s with me.”
“Get…him…” She dropped her head forward, moaning whisperingly.  “Raymond, I can’t do that,” she said, glancing back up.  “He’s in custody.  There are guards in his room.”
“You’re a cop, too, right?  Make something up, tell those other fuckers you gotta take my primo somewhere.  Just walk out with him.  Who’s gonna stop you?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Olivia laughed.  “Maybe the hospital staff and the entire NYPD?  For God’s sake, Derio almost died!  He’s not strong enough to leave here yet!  And even if he were, no one would let me just walk out with him!  I don’t have that kind of authority!”
“You got a fucking badge!  People’ll do whatever you tell ‘em if you show ‘em that!”
“I don’t have a badge to show anyone!” Olivia shot back, her eyes widening.  “You have it, remember?  Along with my wallet, credit cards, house keys and the forty bucks that was in my bag!”
“Then just tell ‘em who the fuck you are!” Raymond hissed, shuffling again, each movement rushed and impatient.  “They gotta know you’re a cop, right?”
“Without the proper authorization, I can’t even take Derio for a walk down the hall!”
“There’s gotta be something you can do!”
She popped the back of her head against the wall, sighing.  “There isn’t,” she admitted.  “Other than…” Straightening her arm out in front of her, she turned her hand palm-up between them.  “Give me the gun, Raymond, and come back to the station with me.  I’ll tell them that you turned yourself in, that’ll look good for you in court.  A judge might be more lenient—”
“I ain’t stupid like Derio!” Raymond barked.  “I go with you, you’ll stick me in a fucking cage and forget all about me!”
“No!  No, I won’t—”
“You gotta fucking get my primo for me!” he said, jumping toward her.  “Just get him outta that room, that’s all you gotta do!  Then me and him’ll be gone!  We’ll get the fuck outta this city and no one’ll ever find us!  Not the fucking polis or Dominic—”
“I can’t!” Olivia hissed, flattening against the wall as Raymond took another step closer, her hands shooting up as ineffective buffers between them.  “There isn’t anything else I can do!”
“You’re a fucking liar!” Raymond reproached, grabbing hold of the front of her shirt.  Strangling the material inside of his fist, he yanked her away from the wall and shoved her toward the center of the room.  Olivia staggered under his power, searching for balance, finding it gradually.  She took off at a sprint for the closed door, focusing on the barrier instead of Raymond’s heavy steps behind her.  As her hand circled the handle, Raymond pummeled into her, flattening her against the sturdy wood.  
“Raymond…” she panted, shuffling futilely, trying to wedge her way out from between the door and him as the cold metal of the gun’s muzzle became flush with the back of her skull.  “Think about what you’re doing!  You shoot me here…now…think about how many people will see you!  You’ll never make it out of here—”
“Shut the fuck up!” he commanded, his words spraying across the side of her face.  “I don’t want you dead, bitch!  I need you fucking breathing!”
Olivia pressed her eyes closed, her rushed breaths hitting the air out of sync with his.  “What’re you doing then?” she whispered.  “What are you going to do?”
“It’s your fault!” he said, tightening a hand around the back of her neck as he stuffed the gun into the front pocket of his baggy jeans.  “I didn’t wanna do it, but you ain’t giving me no other choice!  You won’t help Derio, then I gotta!”  He pressed the side of his face against the side of hers, his breath prickling her skin.  “We’re walking outta here, just me and you.  You needa remember where we are, there ain’t nothing but sick little kids up here.  You make one sound—one wrong, fucking move—and I’m gonna start shooting.  And if that happens, bitch, you can be damn sure it ain’t gonna be you I’m aiming at.”
She moaned as his fingers tangled in her hair, jerking her away from the door.  Glancing back at him, she no longer saw nervousness, no uncertainty.  Only determination.  “We won’t make it out,” she said, another indignant moan rattling in her throat as Raymond clutched her wrist in his hand.  “There are police and security guards all over the hospital—”
“I told you,” he said, yanking her against him and tightening his hold on her arm as he pulled open the door.  “You can hide real good in a place like this.  The stupid fucks around here, they don’t never pay attention to nobody else.”
+++
March 25, 1:45 P.M.
Fin had to know that she was gone.  
By now, he would have every stall door in the ladies’ room torn off of its hinges and would have gotten up in the face of more than one of the nurses who had been too preoccupied to notice Raymond and her making their way awkwardly toward the stairwell.  He would have charged back into Derio’s room, spouting threats that neither Derio nor the unaware guards would understand, and would have run the length of the hallway at least a dozen times, checking each room at least twice to see if she was in it.
He had to know that she was gone.
He would have already put a call into Cragen—purposely bypassing talking to Elliot—and a fleet of squad cars had been dispatched to Mount Sinai.  They were looking for her, already.  It wasn’t like in the junkyard.  She wasn’t on her own, her absence unnoticed.  
Fin knew.  He knew that she was gone.
He had to know.
“Hurry the fuck up!”
Olivia grabbed for the metal railing as her right foot slid off of the concrete step, Raymond’s persistent tugs on her arm causing her to stumble.  They had already flown past floors four and three, Raymond remaining a step behind her through their descent.  She only had two floors left to do something, to convince him not to follow through with his so far undisclosed plan of action that he believed she had forced on him.
“Where are we going to go once we get out of here?” she asked, the metal pole sliding through her curved fingers as Raymond directed her around the landing and onto a new flight of stairs.  “We can’t go back to the junkyard, and the…the warehouse… My partner knows where it is.  He knows—”
“Jesucristo!” Raymond hissed, giving a push to the back of her shoulder.  “Do you ever shut your fucking mouth?”
“Listen to me!” Olivia spit back as they hit the landing for floor two.  “As soon as we step out the door, cops are going to be all over you!  I didn’t come here by myself, Raymond, and my partner has to know I’m gone by now!”
“Your partner can go fuck himself!” Raymond laughed, jumping ahead of her and dragging her down the final two steps onto the landing of the ground floor.  “’Cause he ain’t gonna be fucking me over, not when I got my own polis on my side!”  He rammed a shoulder into a steel door, the hinges squealing from his force as the barrier swung open.  He stepped outside in front of her, her shirt fisted in one hand and his other hand tensed around the butt of his holstered pistol.  Glancing to his left and then nodding to his right, he pulled her after him.
“No!” Olivia screamed, stiffening her arms and grabbing hold of the metal doorframe.  The odor of exhaust overpowered her as her angry shriek echoed through the parking garage beyond the doorway.  Her voice rolling desperately, shakily, bouncing from one concrete wall to another before gradually fading into the roar of car engines and consistent slams of doors.
“Bitch, c’mon!” Raymond grunted, digging his heels into the concrete and giving another forceful yank to the front of her sweater.  The material tightened across her back and shoulders, threads popping as they ripped free from seams.
“Let go!” she cried, her hands beginning to shake as the rusted metal dug through the gauze and assaulted the scrapes that dotted her palms.  “Stop—” Her plea morphed into an angry growl as she was wrenched through the doorframe.  Her arms shot out in front of her, her hands punching at air, the fire raging beneath her skin only a haze in her mind as she was spun forcefully and slammed, face first, into the concrete wall.
“Stop, damn it!  Let go!  Raymond, don’t—”
“You need to shut your mouth, Detective Benson, and you need to do it now.”
Olivia choked on a breath, the unfamiliar voice ringing in her ear and coarse lips brushing against the side of her face.  She tried to twist around, to steal a look behind her, crying out as she was once again slammed up against the wall.
“Now, listen very carefully,” the voice commanded, its resonance low, threatening.  “Two rows over there’s a woman getting out of her car.  She has a little boy with her, can’t be more than four or five.  You make another sound, you do even one thing I don’t like, and as soon as she comes around the corner, Raymond’s gonna start shooting.  The kid goes first, then the mother.  You understand?”
Olivia slammed her eyes closed, nodding; her skin rubbing over the cool surface through each slow bob of her head.  Her dissension rumbled in her throat as her arms were yanked behind her, a metal bracelet locking tightly around her right wrist and then left one.
Fin had to know she was gone.
By now, he would have searched every floor of the hospital, torn apart every room.  There had to be backup on their way, maybe some had already arrived.  
Maybe Elliot already had.
“Disorderly conduct in a public place, we can’t have that.”  Laughter preceded the jerk against her arms as she was pulled away from the wall.  “We’re gonna have to take you in for that.”
She was spun quickly, the soles of her shoes scraping against the floor as she fought to maintain her balance. In the center of the aisle a police cruiser idled, the backdoor propped open, muffled voices competing with static on the radio.  But she barely noticed it, her stare instantly locking with the cold eyes in front of her before becoming blinded by the thick mass of gray hair that framed the tanned face.
“You did real good, Raymond,” the man said, a callous smile settling on his lips.  “Go on back inside now.  Detective Petri is waiting for you.”
“He’s gonna get Derio?” Raymond asked, tucking his pistol into the front pocket of his jeans.
“Dominic gave his word, didn’t he?  He said if you could give him what he wanted, he’d give you what you wanted.”
Raymond nodded hesitantly, affording a flush-faced Olivia only a passing glance before turning back toward the doorway.  “He’s gonna have the bus tickets, too?”
“You’ll be in Chicago by morning.  Derio and you both.”
“No…” Olivia whimpered as the door behind her slammed shut, causing her to startle.  The cuffs around her wrists bit into her flesh, each echo and rumble in the concrete garage beginning to drone in her head.  A fog swirled around her, separating her from the stocky man in front of her and partially shrouding the young woman with the child grasped protectively in her arms as they hurried by.
The man hooked an arm through Olivia’s, dragging her through steps as they set off toward the car.  Pulling a handheld radio out of his shirt pocket, he steadied it in front of his mouth.  “Dispatch, this is Captain Garcia.  I’m gonna be taking my lunch break now.  If you need me, you know how to reach me.”  
As they approached the car, Olivia let her legs buckle.  She began to drop, her feet kicking at the concrete beneath her as Garcia tugged her back up.  “Come on now, Detective Benson, let’s make this easy for both of us,” he said, latching his hand around the back of her neck and forcing her into the backseat of the cruiser.  “The sooner we get this little matter taken care of, the sooner I can have my lunch.”
CHAPTER THIRTEEN
March 25, 2:07 P.M.
The last time she had talked to her mother had been on a Thursday morning.  No, no it had been a Friday morning, just before ten o’clock, a few sips into her umpteenth cup of coffee and while sifting through telephone messages and case notes and eye witness accounts.  She had hurried through the conversation instead of savoring it, and had only half-listened to her mother instead of committing to memory the sound of her voice—the lilt in her tone, pronunciation of her words, and welcomed sobriety versus the all too familiar drunken slur.
“I have the afternoon free.  Meet me for lunch, my treat.”
She hadn’t entertained the suggestion.  Not for a second, not with even an inkling of interest.
“Mom, I can’t.  We caught a case last night; a young girl was attacked in her hotel room.  There’s too much to do—”
“There always is, isn’t there?  You need to slow down, Olivia.  Take some time for yourself.”
“I’m fine.”
“You’re losing yourself to your job, and even more so to the victims.  Compassion is admirable, my dear, but total self-sacrifice isn’t only foolish but also unhealthy.”
She had wanted to laugh; she almost had.  Had her mother forgotten whom she was talking to?  Her entire life had been an extended lesson in sacrificing—her sense of security, sense of trust, her time and herself.
Most of all, herself.
“I lose a few nights of sleep every now and then, which isn’t anything I’m not used to.  I can handle it.”
Her retort had been sharper than intended, unintentionally aimed to strike below the belt.  Silence had followed, dragging, tinged with detectable guilt from both her mother and her.  But it had been the truth, and so Olivia hadn’t apologized.  After all, all she had done by accepting a job in SVU was to up the count of victims that she was required to take care of, increasing the number from one to hundreds.
“Look, things really are crazy this morning.  Maybe one night next week we can have dinner?”
“We’ve had this hypothetical dinner planned for months now, Olivia.”
“I know, I know, and I’m sorry.  But it’s not like I have a nine-to-five job.  I don’t have any control over the hours I have to put in.”
“You don’t have any control over the people whose actions force you to put in such ungodly hours, either.  I think it would benefit you to remember that, that whether or not you take an hour out of your day to meet your mother for lunch, maybe a couple of hours during an evening to actually go on a date, cruelty will still exist.  Working yourself to death won’t change that fact.  Even after you’re gone, people will still be hurting each other.”
Her patience had grown thin, that was all she really remembered feeling.  She’d wanted to get off of the phone, to lose herself again in someone else’s misery versus being reminded of her own.
“Just an hour for lunch, Olivia.  You pick the time and place, I’ll meet you.”
“I can’t.  I wish I could, but—”
“You won’t.  Not when there’s someone out there who really needs you.”
“Mom, don’t.  It’s my job.”
“No, it’s your life.”
Of course it was, she’d almost said.  Trying to right someone else’s wrong had been her entire life, from her very first breath.  She was good at it; she had been trained to be.  Not in the academy, though, or through on-the-job experiences, but throughout her childhood.
“Well, I suppose I’ll just have to hope for that dinner next week.”
“We will have dinner.  I’ll call you, okay?  And next week, it’ll be my treat.”
“Do me a favor?  Call someone, Olivia, even if it isn’t me.  You’ve lived in the past for too long.  It’s time now to give yourself a future.  Time goes by quickly, don’t waste any more of it.”
She had looked at her wristwatch when she’d hung up the phone.  It had been 10:02 on a Friday morning, with her umpteenth cup of coffee having chilled to room temperature and her mind focused on clues and leads and one young girl’s devastation instead of the loneliness that she would later remember hearing in her mother’s voice.
She hadn’t eaten lunch that day, not alone or with anyone else.  And six hours after she had said good-bye to her mother for the last time, Captain Cragen had asked her to step into his office.  
Her mother had had her afternoon free; she’d wanted a date for lunch.  And she had found one in a bottle of gin.  It had been the one constant in her life that had never rejected her, never been too busy for her, never had a reason to be angry with her, never left her, and had always helped her do what she wanted most to do.  Forget.
“Why do you have to make caring about you so much damn harder than it should be?”
She had never wanted to repeat her mother’s mistakes, but she had.  She had isolated herself, from possibilities, opportunities and love.  She had taken on the loneliness that she’d heard in her mother’s voice during their last conversation as a penance, allowing it to become the one constant in her life.  The one thing that never rejected her, was never too busy for her, never had a reason to leave her, and helped her do what she felt it was her inherent responsibility to always do.  Remember.
She had let time pass her by, wasting it, living through each second for someone else but never herself.  Until Elliot had begun working so damn hard to try and convince her of what her mother had never been able to.  
That maybe—just maybe—it was okay to be a little selfish.  
It could even feel right to put yourself and your own needs first once in a while.
And so she had begun teetering toward the possibility of selfishness, toward incorporating it into what had always been a selfless existence.  Somehow, somewhere, she had found the courage to tell Elliot it was what she wanted, to be selfish with him.  But as had always been her routine, she’d waited to tell him until it was too late.
And, Jesus, she wished she had known.
She wished she had known.  That the conversation she’d finally found the strength to initiate and believed could lead to a new beginning had actually been a final good-bye.
The rumble of the garage door sliding open startled her from her thoughts.  Olivia peeked through the mesh wiring that separated her from the stoic man in the front seat, the barren interior of the warehouse coming into view through the cruiser’s windshield.  It wasn’t the same warehouse that Elliot and she had been taken to.  This one was empty except for stacked, cardboard boxes that lined the walls.  It was cleaner than the other one had been, the air was free of exhaust fumes, and the ceiling was dotted with row after row of fluorescent lights.
They were somewhere else, somewhere that neither Elliot nor she had been before.
Somewhere that Elliot wouldn’t know to look.
She wriggled in the seat; once again undertaking a useless struggle against the chains locked a notch too tightly around her wrists.  Leaning forward, biting off her breath as moans began rattling in her throat, she twisted her arms until her fingers became wedged inside of her back pocket.  She pinched the disposable cell phone between her fingers, tugging until it popped free from the denim and dropped behind her onto the seat.
Olivia froze as the cruiser was eased to a stop in the center of the room.  The cell phone behind her propped open and its soft hum cushioned by the vinyl as the man in front of her made a half-turn in the seat and nodded at her.
“Okay, now.  I have to make a call,” he said, lifting a black-cased cell phone into view.  “I need you to just stay calm, keep quiet.  As soon as I’m done here, we’re gonna have a little talk.”  He nodded again, firmly, and situated the phone to the side of his face.  “Dominic?  Yeah, it’s Manny.  Everything went as planned.  Raymond did his job, and I’ve got her here with me now.”
Olivia ran the tip of her finger over the cell’s pad, blindly assigning a number to each button.  One…two…three…  She pressed against the nine, retracing her route toward the top of the pad.
“Don’t worry, there won’t be any problems this time.  Hector should be here any time, and we both know what you want done.”
One…  Fuck.  Fuck— It was the two, the fucking two.  She grasped the cover in her left hand, slamming it shut.  Prying the phone open again, her fingers trembled across the pad.  
“I’ll personally handle the job.  Once it’s taken care of, Hector will dispose of the body.  No one will find her, I can assure you of that.”
Nine… Eight, seven six, five…
“Raymond’s prepared to finish the job at the hospital, right?  I’m sure once they discovered she was gone, Detective Stabler would’ve shown up.  It’ll be chaos around there, which will make him an easy target.  No one will be thinking about watching him, they’ll be concentrating on finding her.”
Four, three, two… One.  One.
Olivia hooked her fingers beneath the phone, tossing it beside her on the seat in conjunction with the call in the front seat being disconnected.
“9-1-1.  What’s your emergency?”
The driver’s side door was pushed open and hard shoe soles clanked against concrete.  She leaned toward the center of the seat, lowering her face to the telephone.  “This is Detective Olivia Benson, Manhattan SVU!  I need help!  I’m in Harlem, El Bar—”
“What the hell are you doing?  Damn it!  Are you trying to blow a hole in this thing?”
“No!” Olivia screamed as Garcia reached across her and slammed the phone shut.  A sob caught in her throat as he chucked the cell over his shoulder and across the room, pieces breaking off of it and scattering as it landed.  She flipped onto her back as he reached back inside for her, her legs flailing, assaulting his torso with hard kicks before finally landing squarely in his groin.  As he stumbled backwards through gasps and curses, she popped up and jumped out of the car.
She turned a full circle, searching frantically for an escape route.  The door had been lowered again and padlocked chains were wrapped around the metal handle of the side door.  At the back of the building was a staircase leading to an upper balcony constructed of steel.  Beneath it was darkness, an alcove that was filled with more boxes.  She headed toward it, her rushed steps drowning out Garcia’s breathless commands for her to stop.  Stumbling as the blackness engulfed her, her right shoulder knocked against cardboard.  The top box tumbled off of the stack, slapping against the floor, its contents spilling and scattering noisily.
“Detective Benson, get back here!  You’re making this harder than it needs to be for both of us!”
Olivia rounded a corner built of cardboard, her feet sliding out from under her and sending her crashing to the floor.  Landing on her left hip, she instantly drew her legs up toward her stomach and buried her face in the smooth surface beneath her.  A scream raged in her throat, filling her mouth and becoming muffled by her clamped lips.  She rocked slowly, shakily, sliding her legs forward and then backwards as she tried to reclaim her balance.
“Jesucristo!  I’m starting to think you’re more fucking trouble than you’re worth!”
Hands locked around her arms, pulling, tightening as she tried to wiggle out of their hold.  She kept her legs limp, not standing even though the yanks against her arms became more persistent.  Dropping her head forward, slamming her eyes closed against the tears that had begun to bite at her eyes, she groaned through a final, hard heave that forced her to her feet.
“Don’t!” she whimpered.  “Please...please, don’t…” She opened her eyes slowly, timidly, her tears blurring the tensed face lowered in front of hers.  
“You’re a real pain in the ass, you know that?” Hector grunted, wrapping a hand around the chain of the handcuffs.  He shoved his fist into the small of her back, sending her staggering forward.  “Damn!  The shit you put me through in the junkyard was bad enough!  Now you’re really getting on my fucking nerves!”
Olivia’s eyes instantly narrowed as they stumbled out of the darkness and back into the bright lighting in the main room.  Tears began to topple onto her cheeks, the salty droplets stinging her skin.  She blinked quickly, sniffling, able to see Garcia’s smile even though the distance of half of the warehouse separated them.  The son of a bitch was smiling.  And probably already planning the ways he would spend the fat bonus that del Torres would reward him with for accomplishing the job that she had taunted would never be accomplished.
Why was fate fucking with her?  She had prepared herself to die on March twenty-fourth.  She had accepted that it would be her last day; she had fucking accepted it.  And then she had thanked anyone—anything—that might have added the slightest contribution to the unexpected break she had been given.  Maybe she hadn’t sought out a church or fallen down onto her knees, but she had stolen a moment to herself in the emergency room at the hospital and shared it with whatever higher power had felt inclined to listen to her and receive her gratitude.
She had been prepared to die on March twenty-fourth, when she still hadn’t been sure if she would be leaving anything behind.  But she didn’t want to die on March twenty-fifth.  
She didn’t want to die. 
Not after Elliot had just started to make her believe her that the future she had always put on hold was not only the one she deserved but also the one he wanted to share with her.
“You don’t give up easily,” Garcia grumbled as Hector jerked her to a stop in front of the cruiser.  “I guess I should’ve taken those warnings about you a little more seriously.”
Her eyes once again began to tear as Garcia reached for his side holster, his palm gliding over the butt of his pistol.  She had always been told that when you were shot, you never heard the gun blast.  The bullet reached you before the sound could, and she hoped that was true.  She hoped that death was a fast bastard, fast enough not only to outrun sound but also pain and shock and regret.
Most of all, regret.
“This isn’t going to work unless you calm down, Detective Benson,” Garcia said, stepping away from the car.  He came to a stop in front of her, pulling his hand away from his side and dangling a set of silver keys between them.  “If you can do that, I’ll unlock the cuffs.  But first, I need your word that you’re not going to pull another stupid stunt.”
Her word—the son of a bitch wanted her word?  Jesus.  She wasn’t even dealing with Andy Taylor; del Torres had gotten lazy and sent Barney Fife and Opie to do his dirty work for him.  Were they really that stupid or just that pompous, to ask for her word—her fucking word—that she would just lay down and die for them like she didn’t suddenly have something to live for?
“Can I trust you?” Garcia asked suspiciously, cocking a fat, bushy eyebrow.
Olivia sniffled, feeling the tension on the chain between the cuffs ease as Hector loosened his grip.  She nodded, licking at her upper lip and clearing away the tears that had dampened her skin.
“No more tricks?” Garcia pressed.
“No,” she whispered, adding a shake of her head for sincerity’s sake.  If the son of a bitch was actually going to be stupid enough to entertain the idea of trusting her, then she would sure as hell be smart enough to lie and encourage him to. 
“I got my doubts about this, Manny,” Hector groused, catching the keys after Garcia tossed them.  “I dealt with her the other night, remember?  She don’t go down all that easy.”
“We’re trying to build a little trust here, Hector,” Garcia returned, folding his brawny arms over his chest.  “Go ahead, unlock ‘em.  Detective Benson gave us her word.”
Olivia felt the bracelet slip away from her left wrist and then right one, and her elbow instantly shot backwards.  Hector’s scream contaminated the air, twisting with Garcia’s yelp of surprise as she charged toward him and pummeled her shoulder into the center of his chest.  Both men went down; Hector dropping to his knees and Garcia sprawling onto his back across the hood of the cruiser.  She took off at a sprint toward the front of the garage, frantically scanning the gray walls for a switch that would raise the steel door.  But she only managed to cover half the distance before her footing was knocked out from under her, her legs tangling in Hector’s strong arms as they hit the floor simultaneously.
“I told you not to fucking trust her!” Hector panted, locking a hand around the back of Olivia’s neck and pressing her face into the dirt-littered floor.  “There’s no reasoning with this one!  Bitch has a death wish!”
“Let me up!” Olivia screamed, kicking her legs, the toes of her boots popping repeatedly off of the concrete.  “Let go, damn it!  Let me fucking—” A scream took control of her voice as the fingers around her neck dug into her flesh and she was yanked onto her knees.  She came up swinging, shrieks burning her throat and filling the building with high-pitched, deafening echoes.
“Shut the fuck up!” Garcia commanded, lowering onto his haunches in front of her.  He lifted his hand to the side of her reddened face, an intended slap causing the muscles in his arm to bulge.  As Olivia cowered, scrunching her eyes closed, he cautiously lowered his arm, his hand fisted by the time it landed at his side.  “Christ…” He shook his head, wiping a sheen of sweat off of his forehead.  “Looks like we need to go with a different approach here.”
Olivia rolled her shoulders, trying to loosen Hector’s grip on her neck.  But her resistance only caused his hold to constrict more, sending a jolt of pain across her upper back and down the lengths of her arms.  “Okay, okay…” she whispered as Garcia began to dig through his jacket pocket.  “I’m…I’m sorry… I won’t, I promise—” She flinched again as the captain pulled his hand back into view, the black cell phone wedged in his palm.
“Fucking sorry…” Garcia mumbled, flipping open the phone and hurriedly punching out a succession of numbers.  “I’m the one who’s sorry.  Sorry I ever agreed to this damn job.  There’s not a pension big enough to make up for this kind of crap, let me tell you…” He cleared his throat, settling the phone against his ear and running his hand across his sweat-dampened forehead for a second time.  “Yeah, it’s Garcia.  Looks like you were right, cooperating doesn’t seem to be much of a priority for her right now.”
Olivia pulled back again, fighting the steel-like fingers clamped around her neck as Garcia shoved the phone in her direction.  He nodded sternly, stilling her, and pushed the cell against the side of her face.
“Olivia?  Olivia, it’s Don.  Can you hear me?”
Silence suddenly swept down on her, swirling in her ears, separating her from the men’s heavy breaths and intermittent, irritated grumbles.  Whimpering, she took the phone out of Garcia’s slackened grip.  “Don…” she whispered, her breath hitching as a sob tightened her throat.
“Olivia,” Cragen said, his tone firm, even.  “You need to calm down.  Listen to what Garcia has to say, follow his directions.  He’s on our side.”
Her watery gaze shifted to the flushed face in front of her, and she deflated, collapsing on folded legs.  “What?”
“Do exactly what he tells you,” the captain continued.  “Everything’s going to be fine.  Elliot and I will see you soon.”
She released her hold on the phone, letting it fall back into Garcia’s hand.  Nodding her compliance, she rolled her shoulders again as Hector unlatched his fingers from around her throbbing neck.  “Tell me what’s going on,” she whispered, running a hand shakily beneath her nose.
“You sure you’re ready to listen this time?” Garcia asked.
“I’m… Yeah,” she said, taking in a breath.  “Just…tell me.”
Garcia flashed a crooked grin, sitting down on the floor in front of her.  “Why don’t we start with introductions?” he said.  “Manuel Garcia, Federal Bureau of Investigation.”  He pointed over her right shoulder, nodding.  “Hector Gutierrez, Narcotics Detective with the NYPD.”
Olivia glanced back quickly into the boyish face behind her, catching Hector in mid-eye roll.  “NYPD?  You’re—”
“Undercover,” Hector confirmed.  “Been working this assignment for close to ten months now.”
“And you’re…” She spun back around, finding an amused grin still settled on Garcia’s lips.  “FBI?”
“I went undercover about six months ago,” Garcia confirmed.  “Managed to infiltrate del Torres’s operation almost five weeks later.  We’d been watching him for a while, finally decided to try and get a man on the inside.”
“You tried to kill us, you son of a bitch!” Olivia hissed, turning toward Hector again.  “At the junkyard, you—”
“I was trying to get you out!” Hector rebuked.
“You took me back to Vedie—to those damned trailers!  And my hands—” She thrust her hands between them, the gauze slack around them and half ripped off.  “That’s a helluva way to try and save someone!”
“We didn’t know Derio had switched sides!” Hector returned, raising his hands to excuse his prior actions.  “We thought he was still playing for the wrong team, so we had to make it look good, you know?  But once we got you back to Vedie, Silvio and I didn’t go far.  We stuck around, stayed outta sight.  One of us was going to take Vedie down before he could shoot you, but then your partner and Raymond showed up.  After that, all hell broke loose.”
“Silvio?” Olivia stammered.  “He, he…”
“Got the shit knocked outta him trying to get the two of you outta that trailer!” Hector scoffed.  “We were going to take you out of there that morning, the two of us.  But your partner and you jumped the gun and ran off before we got the chance.”  He shook his head, making another roll of his eyes.  “You guys have some real trust issues.  You know that, right?”
“Silvio was undercover, too?” Olivia asked, incredulity discoloring her widened eyes.
“Silvio Chavez was just a mixed up kid who was trying to keep himself out of prison,” Garcia explained.  “He’d been busted for trafficking, moving del Torres’s drugs over the state line.  We made a deal with him.  He worked as an informant for us, we let him keep his freedom.”
“Is that why he was murdered?” she asked, glancing from one sober face to the other.  “Did del Torres find out he was helping you?”
“We’re not sure,” Garcia said.  “Either that or he blamed Silvio for your partner and you getting away.  That’s the way the bastard works.  Something doesn’t go his way, he has to blame someone for it.”
“So, uh.  So…” Olivia dropped her head forward, her mind swimming.  She sifted her hands through the sides of her tousled hair, breathing out, breathing in.  Trying like hell to relax and finally lower her guard.  “I don’t, um.  del Torres… He’s dealing in more than just stolen cars?”
Garcia nodded, his lips wrinkling into a pensive frown.  “Aside from the auto theft, we know he’s good for insurance fraud, felony murder, child abuse and endangerment, and drug trafficking.  And of course now he can add kidnapping to his resume.”
“Then why haven’t you arrested him?” she asked quickly.  “If you know he’s guilty—”
“We’re trying to get further up the chain of command,” Garcia answered.  “We need to find out who’s supplying the drugs to del Torres.  He moves a large quantity on a regular basis, uses all those boys he takes in as mules.  If we take him down now, his supplier will just replace him with someone new before del Torres even has the chance to say ‘cheese’ for his mug shot.”
“And while you’re taking your time trying to find some damned drug dealer, del Torres is hurting those kids!” Olivia argued.  “He’s murdering them!”
“Four boys that we know of, yeah,” Hector said.  “He got to two of ‘em before I’d infiltrated, and the other two…” He shrugged.  “I wasn’t around either time it went down.  Didn’t even know it’d happened until Dominic brought Silvio and me in to clean up his messes.”
“You should’ve arrested him then,” Olivia returned.  “If you had, at least one of those boys would still be alive now.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Garcia said.  “Like I said, Dominic isn’t the top dog in this.  If someone new had come in, he might’ve ended up being even worse than del Torres.  And that means we could’ve lost even more kids.”
Olivia sank down further, her shoulders drooping.  Weighted with an overload of information and disbelief and shock.  “But Raymond…” She shook her head, swiping a fallen strand of hair away from her face.  “At the junkyard, he…he helped us…”
“He helped Derio and got a price tag stuck on his head because of it,” Garcia answered matter-of-factly, scrubbing the tip of his thumb across his chin.  “So did you.  In case you haven’t figured it out yet, del Torres has a hit out on both Detective Stabler and you.  He wants you out of his way, and so he was giving Raymond a chance to redeem himself.  He put the word out on the street that if Raymond handled the job, he’d consider bygones to be bygones and help Derio and him get out of town.  When I was informed that Raymond had agreed to make the hit, I stepped in and convinced Dominic it’d be better if I took care of it since the boys had messed things up the first time.  So now…” He nodded past her, at Hector.  “Don’t go crazy on us again, we really need you to stay calm.  But, uh, but…we’re going to have to kill you.”
Olivia stiffened, her gaze shooting past Garcia toward the locked-down doors at the front of the warehouse.  She flinched as Hector’s hand curved around her shoulder, holding her still, stopping her from running.  Once again trapping her.
“Relax, Detective Benson,” Garcia continued, his hands raised in front of him.  “We’re gonna try and get through this as painlessly as possible.”
“Get through…what?” she croaked, her gaze once again darting between the two men.  “What’re you going to—”
“I’m sure Dominic has someone outside watching the warehouse,” Garcia said.  “So, what I’m gonna do is fire off a couple of shots.  Hector here is going to spread a tarp out on the floor, and we’re gonna need to roll you up inside of it.”  He pushed his palms forward as Olivia’s mouth fell open, dissension gurgling in her throat.  “Just listen, okay?  Once we have you wrapped up, we’re gonna carry you to the van Hector has parked out back.  That way, if someone is watching like we think they are, they’ll see us moving what they’ll hopefully assume is your dead body.  Hector will drive for a few blocks then make a stop at a known crack house, someone watching will think he’s going in to score.  He’ll park in an alley, hidden from the street, and while he’s inside, you’re gonna get out of the van and back into the cruiser with me.”
“And then?” Olivia choked around a hard swallow.
“And then I’m taking you to a safe house in Brooklyn.  Detective Stabler and Captain Cragen will meet us there.  Both Detective Stabler and you will need to stay low until we can get a handle on this situation.”
“But del Torres will think only I’m dead,” she responded.  “He’ll still be looking for Elliot.”
“He’ll be looking,” Garcia agreed,” but we’re gonna do everything possible to make sure he doesn’t find him, and Detective Stabler has agreed to fully cooperate with us.”  He glanced up as Olivia’s expression tensed, questions—maybe even blame—filling her dark eyes.  “Before you get upset with anyone else, no one in your unit knew about this until after I’d gotten word that you’d shown up at the hospital to see Derio Soto.  The plans were put into place too quickly to alert you about what was going on, and I can assure you that every precaution was taken to make sure both Detective Stabler and you weren’t harmed in anyway.”
“But Elliot’s okay?” Olivia asked.  
“As fine as you are,” Garcia assured.  “But, uh.  From what I understand, he’s handling this turn of events a little better than you have so far.”  
“But how’d you…” She shook her head, groaning.  “I heard you talking on the phone.  If Raymond was supposed to shoot Elliot, why didn’t he—”
“I had men planted in the hospital,” Garcia broke in.  “We had all of our bases covered.  As soon as Raymond went back inside after bringing you down to the parking garage, he was taken into custody.  After that, Derio was moved from Mount Sinai to another hospital and checked in under an alias.  For now, everyone’s safe, and I’d appreciate your cooperation to make sure everyone stays that way.”
“So, we’re…” Olivia smiled faintly, nervously.  “We’re going to Brooklyn?”
“We’re going to Brooklyn.”  He grinned crookedly, reassuringly.  “So, what do you say, Detective Benson?  Think you’re finally ready to die?”
+++
March 25, 3:47 P.M.
It sure as hell wasn’t a mansion, but it wasn’t a shack, either.  All in all, she’d seen worse.  She had even shelled out rent to half-crooked landlords to live in worse a time or two, back in the days before she had her footing under her and a steady paycheck to rely on.  But fancy or not, Garcia had promised her that it was safe.  And in Olivia’s mind, that suddenly transformed the single-story, brick exterior house into Buckingham Palace.
“I’m pretty sure we weren’t followed,” Garcia announced from the front seat of the cruiser, turning the car’s ignition and silencing the engine.  
“Pretty sure or positive?” Olivia deadpanned from where she was slouched in the backseat, only her eyes peeking over the rim of the rolled up window.  “There’s a big difference between the two, you know.”
“I had men staked out along our route.  No one reported seeing anyone around who shouldn’t be around.”
She nodded, understanding that she didn’t have any other option but to place her faith in the agent’s instincts.  “So what do we do now?  Just walk in, or am I going to get stuck in the role of fugitive caterpillar again and have to crawl back into my cocoon?”  She made a tired roll of her eyes, sighing as she brushed her messed bangs away from her face.  The airlessness inside of the tightly wound tarp had coated her in sweat, leaving her skin tacky.  She was uncomfortable, on edge, and still not sure whether or not she entirely trusted Garcia or Hector.  She needed to see Elliot, to know for sure that he was okay, and hear him confirm that he believed in the last two men that she had ever thought she would be able to trust.
“I think it’ll be okay for us to walk in like normal folks do.”  He turned partially, draping an arm over the top of the seat.  “You ready?  Because you need to understand, Detective Benson, once you go inside, you won’t be coming back out again.  Not until we know for sure that it’s safe for you to.”
“What, now you’re actually giving me the choice of whether or not I go with you?” Olivia grumbled, pushing herself up in the seat.  “That would’ve been nice to have before you slammed me into the wall at the hospital and handcuffed me.”
“You do hold grudges, don’t you?” Garcia said, chuckling.
“Yeah, well.  You have the weekend I’ve had, and then we’ll see just how forgiving you’re feeling.”  She grabbed for the door handle, shoving the barrier open.  “Let’s get this over with.  Even if you’re positive that no one followed us, I still feel like a sitting duck.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Garcia said, pushing open his door.  “Whatever you say.  I’ve learned my lesson already, and that’d be that it’s just a waste of my breath to disagree with you.”  He climbed out of the car, jogging around the backend to meet up with Olivia.  They made their way up the narrow walkway side-by-side, one of Garcia’s large hands wrapped around her arm and the other cupped over his holstered pistol.  His eyes shifted continuously, studying their surroundings, alert to any movement, hunting for the danger that he had assured her wasn’t close enough to further harm.
They ascended the concrete staircase, taking two steps at a time.  Even before they’d landed on the porch the front door to the tiny house was yanked open and Elliot peeked anxiously around the edge.
Elliot.  Jesus.  He was there, just as Garcia and Hector had promised her that he would be.  There.  In front of her, in one piece, alive, breathing.  
And that meant she could finally start breathing again, too.
“You okay?” Elliot asked quickly, nervously, grabbing Olivia’s arm out of Garcia’s light grasp and tugging her inside.  
She nodded as he dragged his hands up and down her arms, caressing, inspecting, reassuring both of them.  “Yeah,” she answered.  “Yeah, I’m fine.  What about you?”
He grinned, just faintly, with the same noticeable reservation as Olivia had conveyed.  “Not a problem.  Everything went down without a hitch.”
“I’m dead, Elliot,” she said through a roll of her eyes, “and del Torres still wants you to be.  You don’t call that a hitch?”
His smile broadened, a touch of orneriness marking it.  “Actually…” He shrugged a shoulder.  “I’m trying to look at it more as an overdue vacation.”
“This is your idea of a vacation?” she remarked dryly, taking in the shabby décor in the tiny living room.  “Next time, Stabler, I’m making the travel arrangements, okay?  This place is…” She swallowed a mouthful of the musty air, turning a circle.  Her expression fell as the heels of her boots became snagged on the thick fibers of the pea green-colored shag carpeting.  Matching burnt orange La-Z-Boy recliners partially hid one wall, situated across from a yellow and brown plaid-design sofa.  In the center of the room was an oval-shaped coffee table, watermarks dotting the unpolished top, and shoved cockeyed into one corner was a console television set with tin foil-wrapped rabbit ears dangling from a thick, black wire down one side.
“You’ve gotta be…kidding…” she added, her widened gaze instantly shooting in Garcia’s direction.  
The stocky man buried his hands in the front pockets of his trousers, rocking forward on the balls of his feet.  “Now keep in mind, we did have to put things together rather quickly.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare.”
“Really?” Olivia muttered, making another sweep of the room.  “I never would’ve guessed.”
“Well, you are dealing with the government, Detective Benson.  They have to cut costs somewhere, you know?”
Olivia nodded, with defeat more than agreement.  “Just tell me there’s running water, please.”
“You have all the comforts of home,” Captain Cragen answered, walking into the room.  “Along with the added comfort for all of us of around the clock protective details.”  He came to a stop between Elliot and Olivia, his focus concentrated on a rumpled and openly impatient Olivia.  “You’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said, her tone and expression softening.  The past few hours had melded into a haze, except for one moment.  The only moment that had really mattered.  When she had been trapped on the floor of the warehouse between Garcia and Hector, expecting a bullet to be the next—and last—thing she felt.  But what she had felt instead was relief, indescribable and overwhelming relief the second that she had heard the captain’s voice over the telephone.  She had wanted to cry, maybe she even had.  She couldn’t remember anymore.  She only knew that she would never forget the reassuring resonance and how it had immediately chased away the loneliness that had begun to suffocate her.
“Well, uh.”  Garcia stepped in front of the door, running a hand over the tarnished knob.  “Captain Cragen and I should get out of here.  We don’t want to draw any more attention to this place than is necessary.  So, a few of the ground rules…” He cleared his throat, reburying his hands in his trouser pockets.  “The kitchen and bathroom have been stocked, but if there’s anything else you need just let us know.  We’ll try to get it for you as soon as possible.  Four agents will be watching this place at all times.  You won’t see them, and hopefully neither will anyone else.  If an agent comes to the door, he’ll knock in code—two quick taps followed by a pause and then a third tap.  If it’s not done that way, don’t answer.”
“Jesus…” Olivia whispered, taking a step back, steadying her shoulder against Elliot’s.  “This is really happening.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Garcia responded, nodding firmly.  “It really is.”
“It’s our only option right now,” Cragen added, “and what’s safest for both of you.”
Garcia cleared his throat a second time, the abrasive vibration reclaiming the attention of the room’s shell-shocked occupants.  “Don’t go outside, not for any reason.  Stay away from the windows, and only make calls from the disposable cells we’ve left you.  Either Captain Cragen or myself will contact you a couple of times each day to see if you need anything and to update you on the case.  Other than that, it’ll just be the two of you.”
“I sent Fin and Munch to your houses,” Cragen added, nodding past Elliot toward the narrow doorway behind him.  “They packed some clothes for both of you.  Suitcases are in the bedroom.”
Elliot turned slightly, sneaking a glance into the room behind them.  A frameless double bed was flush with the far wall, a blonde-wooden dresser pushed against the opposite wall.  Other than Olivia’s and his bags propped side-by-side on the floor, the room was impersonal.  There were no pictures, no color, no warmth.  Nothing inviting.
“Only one bedroom,” Cragen mumbled, spiking an eyebrow as Elliot turned back toward him.  “On such short notice, this was the only place we could find.  There wasn’t anything bigger.”
“It’s, uh.”  Elliot shrugged, dragging a breath in through his nose.  “It’ll be fine.  Liv and I will make due.”
“Make due, mm-hmm,” Cragen returned.  “I’m sure you’ll find a way, Elliot.  But in the interest of those options that we never got around to discussing earlier, the sofa is a sleeper.  It folds out into a bed.”  
Olivia dropped her head forward, hiding, her cheeks heating.  She felt like a Catholic schoolgirl who had gotten caught with contraband in the back stall of the sanctuary bathroom by Mother Superior.  If she thought there was even a chance that she could fake her way through the Hail Mary, she would drop to her knees right there on the grimy carpeting and give Cragen fifty repetitions.  But all things considered, maybe it wasn’t the captain’s forgiveness that she needed to gain; she just needed to earn back at least a fraction of his respect.
She glanced up, her stare locking with the captain’s.  “We’ll manage,” she said.  “Elliot and I, we’ll, uh…we’ll…” She shook her head, making another, unappetizing glance around the outdated living room.  “Don’t worry about us, just concentrate on bringing down del Torres before anyone else gets hurt.”
+++
March 25, 4:55 P.M.
“Only four towels in the bathroom,” Elliot announced, a cabinet door slamming shut and competing with his announcement.  “A couple of washcloths, a bar of Irish Spring, a bottle of shampoo, and a razor…”
Olivia nodded, her back to the tiny bathroom adjacent to the bedroom as she surveyed the neatly stacked items inside of her suitcase.  “I think it’s safe to assume that Munch packed my bag,” she said.  “I have fifteen pairs of underwear in here, but only three shirts and two pairs of jeans.”  She huffed out a breath as Elliot stepped up beside her, the fallen strands of her bangs fluttering against the side of her face.  “John Munch dug through my underwear drawer.  Can this day get any worse?”
“Hey.”  Elliot tilted his face downward to peek into hers, hooking her long bangs behind her ear.  “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” she assured through a hesitant nod.  “I’m…” She smiled softly, the truth shivering across her lips.  “That was the second time in two days that I thought I was going to… But it was different at that warehouse with Garcia and Hector.  I knew there wasn’t a way out, no way that anyone would find me in time.”
“Liv.”  He cupped his hand beneath her chin, lifting her face to meet his.  “If I’d known what Garcia had planned, I would’ve told you.  I wouldn’t have made you go through that.”
“I know,” she whispered, nodding again, more forcefully.  “I just wish Garcia would’ve said something.  He could have told me what was going on while we were driving to the warehouse.”
“He needed it to look real.  If del Torres had someone watching, they needed to think you were scared—”
“I was,” she blurted, a quick shake of her head following her unintended admission.  “When I saw Garcia at the hospital, I knew who he was.  I knew it was…him…  He was who I’d seen in the junkyard.”
Elliot moved behind her, his arms circling around her waist without hesitation.  “I’m sorry that you had to go through that, that you had to go through it alone…again…” He nuzzled her neck with his face, leaving a soft kiss against her skin.  “I’m sorry, Liv.”
“Don’t say you’re sorry,” Olivia whispered, melting into his strong hold, leaning into him and letting him support her.  “No more ‘I’m sorry’s’ or feeling guilty or getting angry.  I don’t care about any of that.  I just want this to be over.”
“It will be.”
“When?  After we really are dead?”
“No one’s gonna touch us.  We have the FBI on our side, right?  Not to mention Don’s more pissed off than I’ve ever seen him before.  del Torres will have to put up a helluva fight to get through him.”
“del Torres is used to fighting.  He’s good at it.”
“So are we,” Elliot responded, his lips tickling the crook of her neck as they curved into a smile.
She tilted her head into his, whispering a laugh.  “I did give Garcia a run for his money in that warehouse.”
“I knew you would.”
“I wasn’t going to make it easy for him,” she continued, strands of her hair sliding across Elliot’s cheek as she dropped her head back onto his shoulder.
“Don warned him that you wouldn’t.”
Olivia took in a breath, her eyes closing.  She wanted to tell him how scared she had been, to explain that the reason for her fear had been what she would be leaving behind, not necessarily the finality of her own life.  She wanted him to know that she’d wanted to live because of him.  Because finally, after forty-one years of searching for something to hold onto, she’d found it.  Or maybe it was more that he had found her, she wasn’t sure.  She didn’t even care which it really was.  She only knew that now that she’d managed to get her grip, she didn’t want to let go.  And she didn’t want Elliot to ever let go, either.
She turned within the circumference of his arms, her arms snaking around his waist.  She wanted to tell him that he had been her only thought when the handcuffs had been locked around her wrists, when Garcia had dragged her to the cruiser, during every step that she had taken in the warehouse hoping it would lead to her escape.  It had been him that she’d worried about, not herself.  How he would retaliate because of her death, if he would be able to recover from it, and if he would ever be able to move forward or if he would become stuck behind anger and guilt.  
She wanted to tell him that she had finally—he had finally—proven her mother wrong.  Urges were real, she couldn’t deny that, but so was love.  She finally believed in it.  Or maybe she always had, because she’d always believed in Elliot.
“I don’t want all of it to be over,” she admitted, sliding her hands over his chest.  “Not all of it, Elliot.”  Pressing her mouth against his, she touched his lips with the tip of her tongue.  He tasted familiar, exactly how she had expected him to—even though it still felt strange to expect anything at all.  But she didn’t care anymore about awkwardness, or the truth being known, or opinions about right versus wrong.  She only cared about what was real, and what was real was Elliot.
“It doesn’t have to be over,” he whispered between her parted lips.  “If neither of us wants it to be, then it doesn’t have to be.”  He slid his hands beneath the hem of her shirt, goose bumps instantly rising across her back from the warmth that radiated off of his touch.
“El.” She rubbed her cheek over his, sighing.  “I don’t know if now is the right… I mean, so far our timing has pretty much sucked.”
He chuckled, nodding his agreement.  “So far it has, but this time we have four FBI agents running interference for us,” he said.  “And I already checked out that joke of a television in the living room.  It gets one channel, but other than that it’s just a whole lot of static.  There aren’t any magazines around here, no newspapers; I didn’t even find a deck of cards.  So, uh…” He cocked an eyebrow, looking as hopeful as mischievous.  
“I guess we need to find some way to pass the time,” Olivia concluded, nervous laughter ineffectively stifled in her voice.
“Guess we do.”
“I mean, no one could really blame us…for…”
Elliot shook his head, forcing a frown.  “No one could.”
“Time goes by quickly, don’t waste any more of it,” Olivia heard spoken clearly in her mother’s voice.  Not with loneliness tarnishing it, but insightfulness.  Laughing softly, still with nervousness, she dropped her suddenly shaking hands to Elliot’s waist.  Her fingers fumbled with his belt buckle, the metal clasp effortlessly winning the battle she had initiated against it.  “Christ…” she muttered.  “The damn buckle, Elliot.  My hands…I can’t…” She groaned impatiently, resting her forehead against his shoulder.  His hands quickly covered hers, just lightly, carefully, and he directed her through the movements until the leather strap slid free from the clasp.
“It’s okay,” he said, guiding her backwards until the backs of her legs were flush with the edge of the bed.  “If things go the way I have planned, you’re not gonna need your hands.”
She sank down on the bed, hooking her hands around his hips as he straddled her legs.  Her eyes made a conspicuous dip below his waist, an eyebrow spiking in response to the tightened material that shrouded his erection.  “You’re sure Raymond didn’t get that shot off at the hospital?” she teased, hooking her fingers around the waistband of his jeans as he unlatched the clasp.  “Because from what I’m seeing, Stabler, rigor mortis has set in.”
Elliot chuckled, dropping his jeans to the floor and stepping out of them.  “Trust me,” he said, pressing his hands against the fronts of her shoulders and pushing her back onto the mattress, “right now, I’m as far from dead as anyone can get.”  Leaning over her, he unfastened her jeans, tugging lightly, persistently, until the denim slid over her hips and down her legs.  “Swear to God, if someone interrupts us this time—”
“I’ll kill ‘em,” Olivia moaned, arching her back as Elliot stepped between her legs and glided a finger over the crotch of her lace-trimmed thong.  She dragged her feet up the sides of his legs, gasping softly, with anticipation, as he pulled the silk off of her.  “Oh, Jesus…I’ve thought about…”
“This,” he said, a grin catching crookedly on his lips as he climbed onto the bed.  He knelt between her separated legs, raising them, hooking his hands around the backs of her thighs.  “Damn it, Liv, you’re…” He watched her wriggle beneath him, fisting the floral print bedspread in her hands.  “Gorgeous.”
His compliment became a haze in her mind, muddled, the words morphing into her own recognizable moan as his tongue circled her clit.  She bit down on her bottom lip, tilting her head, arching her neck, unable to stifle her consistent whimpers.  Her body jerked reflexively as he pushed his tongue inside of her, his thumb massaging her clit and hands cupping her ass.  He was going to make her come.  Already.  Jesus Christ.  She didn’t know if it was the tension that had built over the last two days, or the shock that had barely passed, or the exhaustion that still had a hold of both of them.  Or maybe it was Elliot.  Just him.  Combined with the damned urges that she couldn’t deny and the love that she had only just cautiously begun to believe in.
She swayed her hips, bucking into him as his tongue once again circled her drenched center.  Crying out softly as he pushed a finger inside of her, she dropped her stranglehold on the bedspread and gripped the sides of his head.  Pulling him into her, holding him against her, incoherency claiming her mind as Elliot took control of her body.  
“Oh, God…El…” she whimpered, spasms constricting her muscles and stealing her voice.  She loved him.  She loved him.  Even if it sounded as strange to think as it did to feel, she knew that she was in love with him.  
And she loved what knowing that—finally admitting it—could allow him to do to her.
She ran her hand across her sweat-soaked forehead as Elliot peeked at her from between her legs, licking at his lips, consuming the taste of her that still moistened his mouth.  “I have to say, that…was worth the wait,” she laughed.  Not with embarrassment or uneasiness, but from deep within her.  Somewhere that convinced her that what she felt—was feeling—was right.  
Maybe even deserved.
She hoisted herself up onto her elbows, swaying her legs to the left and then right, the sides of her knees knocking against Elliot’s shoulders.  “You know…” She spiked an eyebrow, licking at her lips as Elliot made another swipe across his.  “Maybe there are some things I can’t do with my hands right now, but I don’t need them to do everything.”
Elliot wrapped his arms around her legs, covering her knees with his hands.  Hesitantly, he shook his head, his expression tightening.  “Liv…” He shook his head again, more forcefully.  “I don’t expect you…to…”
“I know you don’t,” she responded, sitting up.  She leaned into him, her lips teasing his with the prospect of a kiss.  “It’s my choice, what I want to do for you.”
Flattening her hands against his chest, she pushed him back onto the bed and draped a leg over his waist, straddling him.  Rising up, she shimmied out of her sweater, tossing it onto the floor.  She leaned back over him, her torso blanketing his as her tongue filled his mouth.  Tasting him, tasting the hint of her that still lingered on his tongue.  Her fingers tickled aimlessly along his neck and onto his chest as he fumbled with the clasp of her bra, the straps sliding onto her shoulders as he finally unhooked it.  She pulled it the rest of the way off, discarding it on the floor as she had her sweater.
Moving slowly, her breasts skimming his chest as she crawled backwards, she kept her stare locked with his.  She could see his hesitation, in his eyes, still in the tensed muscles of his face, and could feel his excitement as the tip of his hard cock wetted her stomach as she slinked over it.  She rocked above him, his dick rubbing between her breasts and a groan gripping his voice.  She wanted him, all of him.  She wanted it to be him who erased the memories that she no longer wanted to hold onto; she needed it to be him that she could hold onto instead.
Shivering her fingers over the base of his dick, she took him into her mouth.  Her tongue circled his tip, enticing, instantly driving him to the edge.  She could feel him fighting to hang onto his control, not to give in as quickly as she had, but she continued to coerce him.  Forcefully.  Consistently.  His moans became deeper, rattles vibrating in his throat and chest as he twisted his fingers in her hair.  But his grasp remained loose, not commanding, allowing her the freedom of escape if it was what she suddenly needed.
But escaping was the last thing that she wanted to do.  She had already wasted too much time running away.
She felt the warmth of his release inside of her mouth, tasted him, and eased her lips over his length.  Glancing through the fallen strands of her hair, she saw repose replace the tension on his face.  Or if she were going to be brave enough to allow herself to be completely optimistic, maybe it was even contentment.  A fulfillment that the physical act of sex wasn’t totally responsible for but that intimacy played the largest role in.
It wasn’t just satisfaction she saw in Elliot, it was more.  It was his belief in more, maybe even his belief in love.
+++
March 25, 10:33 P.M.
Olivia opened her eyes, blinking against the sleep that still weighted her lids.  She exhaled deeply, the warm breath rolling across Elliot’s chest.  Her legs were tangled with his, her shoulders blanketed by his arms, his scent seasoned each of her inhales.  Darkness had settled over the tiny house, stillness accompanying it.  But it didn’t feel unfamiliar, not at all frightening.  Even with the world outside of the locked door teeming with threats and intentions, she couldn’t seem to make her drowsy mind acknowledge anything but the security she felt wrapped up with Elliot.
She laughed softly, at herself.  She didn’t believe in romance, so why in the hell was she acting like a damned, love-crazed romantic?  It was Elliot, for God’s sake.  Elliot.  He was the one constant headache in her life, the constant pain in her ass.  He pissed her off more than anyone else did.  And he made her believe in herself more than anyone else had ever been able to.  
He was her constant.  Only the second constant she’d ever had in her life, and the only one that she wanted to remain.
“You awake?”
Olivia took in another breath of him, nodding.  His arm tightened around her shoulders, and she slid her foot up his leg, hooking it beneath his knee.  Jesus.  She hoped she was awake, that it wasn’t just a cruel joke fate was playing on her.  She hoped that she wouldn’t eventually wake up only to discover that she was still as alone as she’d always been.
“Doing okay?” Elliot asked, burying his fingers beneath her hair, his fingertips tickling her scalp.
She lifted her head off of his chest, finding both his stare and smile waiting for her.  Finding him waiting, as he always was, as he always had been, she somehow knew.  Just as she knew that she had almost waited too damn long to notice.  She dragged a leg over both of his, climbing on top of him.  His stare remained sleepy, but a spark shuddered through his smile as she lowered her face toward his.  The wispy ends of her hair caressed his cheeks as she kissed him, the silky strands sliding over his skin, tickling and enticing and fully awakening.
Running her hands over his chest, she felt his muscles quiver beneath her fingertips.  His breathing deepened, filling her mouth as she slid her lips across his.  She nipped at his lower lip, her smile materializing slowly, playfully, as he grabbed hold of her ass.  Squirming, she bucked her hips as Elliot glided a hand between her legs and skimmed her clit with his fingertips.
“No,” she commanded hoarsely, pulling his hand away and then taking his dick in her hands.  This time, she wanted all of him, just as much as she wanted to give him all of her.  She wanted to feel him, for him to fill her.
She guided him inside of her, sinking down on top of him.  Rocking.  Swaying.  Her fingers sliding between his as he raised his hands and took hold of hers.  She let him pull her down on top of him, her breasts grazing his chest.  Their fingers remaining locked, their thrusts in sync, his exhales replenishing her lungs as hers refilled his.
Rising up, she kept hold of his hands.  His movements became hers, his hips rocking beneath her as hers rocked over him.  They moved in rhythm, but not rushed as they had before.  There wasn’t any rawness, no racing against time.  Instead, they remained in step, each second marked by sensations instead of desperation. 
“Jesus, Olivia…Jesus…” Elliot’s fingers clamped around hers, his short nails digging into the backs of her hands.  He tightened beneath her, inside of her, once again warming her body with his release.  As his breathing gradually steadied, he loosened his grasp on her hands, and moved a hand to her center, beginning to caress her.  
She stopped him with a shake of her head, pulling his hand away again.  She wanted to feel him again, to have him touch her, to take control and hurl her over the edge.  But she didn’t need him to, not in order for him to prove his sincerity to her, or to prove to her that she could feel anything but urges for him. 
Collapsing on top of him, she ran the tip of her tongue beneath his chin, wetting a trail to his lips.  “Biggest regret?” she whispered breathlessly, staring up into his dozy eyes.  “Definitely wasted time.”  She laughed softly, nibbling at his bottom lip.  “Think of how much time we’ve wasted over the years alone in a car on stake outs choking down bad coffee and forcing our way through small talk when we could’ve been…” Her smile broadened flirtatiously.  “Christ.  I think we just proved there are better ways we could’ve spent all that time.”
He chuckled, his chest vibrating against hers.  “Biggest regret?” he responded.  “That you didn’t have this epiphany a lot sooner.”
“Even if I had, you wouldn’t have listened to me.  You’re a control freak, Stabler.  When are you finally going to admit it?”
“I don’t listen to you nearly enough,” he agreed through a slow nod.  “Guess that’d be my second biggest regret, and a mistake I don’t plan to repeat.”
“Yeah, well… I hope there are some things that you do plan to repeat.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, dragging his hands down her back, once again settling them on her ass.  “As often as I can.  We have a lot of time to make up for, right?”
Her laughter filled the darkness as Elliot flipped her onto her back, pinning her arms above her head as he wedged his legs between hers.  She breathed out her consent, chasing after his lips with kisses that he teasingly evaded.  As his erection pressed against her, she obediently fell still, staring up into his face, once again seeing the belief in his eyes as he pushed inside of her.
And for the first time in forty-one years, she understood the sense of contentment that came hand-in-hand with putting your needs ahead of your worries, your desires ahead of your demons, and yourself ahead of your responsibilities.
But most of all, she finally understood what her mother had never taken the opportunity to learn.  That participating in life was far more rewarding than fighting so damned hard to try and forget that you were a part of it.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN
March 26, 10:17 A.M.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent a lazy morning in bed, let alone a Monday morning.  By six A.M. the house in Queens was awake and alive with activity.  The twins were either arguing with each other or Kathy and him, and Eli—fresh from a full night’s sleep—was demanding attention that there wasn’t time to give.
He’d always thought he enjoyed it, the hustle and bustle and chaos.  He liked awaking at full speed, with his body falling into motion even before sleep completely released its hold on his mind.  He’d always thought it was how he wanted life to be, hectic and rushed.  Always moving, never slowing down.  But he had begun to wonder if he’d preferred it that way in the house in Queens because it had kept him from hearing his own thoughts, and even more from realizing just how unhappy he had been there.
“So, what do you think?  Are Cheetos really potato chips?”
“They’re puffs,” Elliot answered, popping an orange puff into his mouth.  He licked at the corners of his mouth, collecting the leftover cheese-flavored crumbs that had become adhered to his lips.  “They puff up because they’re made with water, then put through a drying process that causes the steam inside of them to expand.  Then you get…” He lifted another puff between them.  “The puff.”
Olivia froze, her orange-stained fingers half inside the open bag propped between them.  “And you know how Cheetos are made…why?” she asked, spiking an eyebrow.
“School report Dickie did a few years ago,” he answered through noisy chews.  
“Dickie actually did an entire report on Cheetos?”
Elliot answered first with a shake of his head, sliding his discolored fingers over Olivia’s as he reached inside the bag.  “His report was on Frito-Lay, who happens to make Cheetos.” 
“I thought they made potato chips?”
“And Cheetos.”
Olivia studied the puffs piled in her hand, licking at a seasoned corner of her mouth.  “So then, which is it?” she asked.  “Is or isn’t the Cheeto a potato chip?”
“This is really the biggest concern you have right now?” Elliot asked, chuckling.
She shrugged, dismissing his teasing.  “It beats thinking about all the other crap.”
He agreed with a crunch through the center of another artificially flavored cheese puff, as he resituated the backs of his broad shoulders against the wall behind him.  The old bed felt as if the springs were close to popping through the aged mattress, and every toss and turn—every movement—that Olivia and he had made throughout the night had been accompanied by high-pitched squeaks.  The foot of the bed was lopsided, with the left side sitting a good two inches lower than the right side, and the metal frame swayed precariously with the slightest shifts of their bodies.  Elliot doubted if it could really be considered a bed anymore, but more of a death trap.  It was uncomfortable and too small and about as steady at the Titanic after it had slammed into the iceberg.  
And he’d had the best night’s sleep of his life in it. 
“There’s, uh.  Cheese…on your…” Elliot nodded at her, a smile catching his lips at the sight of the orange streak on her forehead that her dyed fingers had left behind as she’d hooked a tendril of hair behind her ear.
“Where?” Olivia asked, her eyes widening questioningly.
“Here…” He fisted his hand around the front of her shirt—his shirt that she had slipped into after climbing out of bed thirty minutes earlier to raid the sparsely stocked kitchen—and eased her toward him.  Brushing a fallen strand of hair away from her face, he pressed his lips over the orange smudge on her forehead and kissed away the stain.
“Thanks,” she whispered, a soft blush sweeping her cheeks.
“Anytime,” Elliot responded, the material of the shirt sliding out of his fingers as Olivia straightened.
He had always convinced himself that he liked the hustle and bustle in his life.  And he did; he liked most of it.  Elizabeth’s endless chatter about boys and friends and who was going out with who amused him as much as her constant whining about why she couldn’t have her own MySpace page annoyed him.  Dickie’s animated recounts of football games and girls and what type of car he wanted to save up to buy reminded him of himself, and he loved being able to connect with his son over shared interests and on a deeper level than his own father and he had never achieved with each other.  And he reveled in each of Eli’s accomplishments, balance gained, steps taken, words spoken.  Each took him back to times that he had almost forgotten, the day Maureen took her first steps, when Kathleen had first smiled at him, how Elizabeth had begun talking so much sooner than Dickie had.  
He loved remembering the life he had once had, but he didn’t love the life that he had ended up with.  The worries about how he would ever manage to pay off Maureen and Kathleen’s school loans, and if there would even be loans available once Liz and Dickie were ready for college.  If he was too old—too damn tired—to be the type of father that Eli deserved, or if his youngest son would have to muddle his way through becoming a man all on his own just as he’d had to do.  He hated worrying about a thirty-year mortgage, if there would be enough money to pay the bills that seemed to stack up higher each month, or what shows would be on TV each evening that Kathy and he could lose themselves in just to avoid conversation and interaction and the truth.
He hated the routine they had fallen into.  Lying apart at night in bed; too worried about accidentally touching for either of them to be able to relax, and neither of them even attempting to make up excuses as to why they weren’t in the mood for sex.  Excuses weren’t needed anymore, not since they had both stopped asking and expecting and wanting.  He hadn’t seen Kathy’s body in months, at least not unburied from beneath layers of clothing or floor-length nightgowns.  And it scared him that he didn’t miss seeing it—seeing her—anymore than he missed touching her. 
“Hey.  You okay?”
Olivia’s smile was what he first saw as he broke out of the haze of his thoughts.  Soft, tinged with concern, but with relaxation prevalent.  Her bare legs were folded and crossed in front of her, his shirt unbuttoned low enough to teasingly expose the tops of her breasts, and the crotch of her pale pink boy shorts taunting him from beneath the hem of the roomy shirt.  Christ.  She was gorgeous—fucking mind-blowing.  And he wondered when exactly it had been that he had stopped seeing Kathy the way he had begun to see Olivia?  When had they switched places in his mind?  When had his wife fallen into the category of friend, someone who he respected but whose beauty and sex appeal had become blurred to him, and when had Olivia become everything that he not only wanted but also needed?  When in the hell had it become normal for him to avoid touching his wife and unable to think about anything other than touching Olivia?
“Just thinking,” he answered.
“Care to share?” she pressed, licking a layer of crumbs off of her lips.  
He shook his head, crossing his outstretched legs at his ankles.  How could he share what he was feeling when the end result of his honesty would only confirm that he was the jackass Olivia had accused him of being?  How was he supposed to make her understand that even though his life had been flipped upside down and turned inside out, he didn’t care?  How in the hell was he supposed to keep himself from looking like a total schmuck and also admit that he was far more excited about what had unexpectedly been found versus upset about what had been lost? 
“El, if something’s wrong—”
“Something is,” he admitted.  “I mean, I keep thinking I should feel like something’s wrong, but I don’t.”
“You…” Olivia shook her head, laughing softly, with confusion.  “Want to try that again, in English this time?”
He shrugged.  “I can’t remember the last time I was still in bed at ten-thirty in the morning.  I can’t even remember the last time I wanted to be in bed this late in the morning.”
“Well, there’s not exactly a lot to do around here,” Olivia excused, making a quick glance around the nearly barren room.  “I mean, other than sleeping, eating, taking a shower…or…” She lifted a brow, a hint of crimson once again assailing her cheeks.  “Our choices are pretty limited.”
“But that’s just it,” Elliot said.  “This is where I want to be.  In this crappy, half broken down bed with you trying to figure out just what in the hell Cheetos really are.  There isn’t…” He touched a fingertip against her ankle, tickling a path up her shin to her knee.  “I can’t think of anywhere else I want to be.”
He wished that he could remember when it had become different with Olivia.  What exactly had happened, what she had done differently than she’d done a million times before that had made him suddenly see her in a new way?  Had it been something new that she’d worn—a shirt that accentuated her curves, maybe a pair of pants that fit just a little tighter than her others?  Maybe it’d been a different way that she’d worn her hair, or a new perfume that she had tried, or a look that she had given him that he’d never seen before?  He couldn’t remember why or when his feelings had changed, he just knew that they had.
And he knew even more that he never wanted them to change again.  
Tracing a circle around her kneecap, he smiled, a hint of shyness creeping across his face.  “This feels good,” he admitted, nodding once, decidedly.  
Olivia tilted her head as he brushed a tousled strand of hair away from her face.  She leaned forward, closer, his shirt falling away from her frame and offering an unobstructed view of her breasts and down her stomach to where the waistband of the pink shorts lay flush against her skin.  Brushing her lips over his, just lightly, barely touching, she smiled.  “So.”  She shrugged, looking just as shy as flirtatious.  “Any ideas on what we’re going to do with the rest of the day?”
“I think I can come up with a few,” he answered, taking one of her hands in his.  Her fingers curved through his as he raised both hands to his mouth, her orange fingertips staining the back of his hand and his staining the back of hers.  Slowly, he straightened her index finger, licking at his lips before guiding her finger into his mouth.  He worked his tongue over the pad, licking, sucking, before dragging it out from between his lips and prying her middle finger off of his hand.
“What’re we doing, Elliot?” she sighed as he pulled her finger across his lips.
“Cleaning up from breakfast,” he answered, cocking an eyebrow.  
She exhaled again, heavier.  “Have you, um, thought about what you’re going to tell Kathy?”
Elliot let their hands drop, their fingers unlatching as they hit the mattress.  He took in a breath, his bare chest inflating as he slid his arm around her shoulders and guided her back until her head was propped on his lap.  He reached to the hem of the shirt, raising it above her pale pink underwear.  Waiting through just a second of hesitation, he ran his fingers across the waistband, to the left and then right, before dipping them beneath the elastic.  His touch was light as he traced designs on her skin, asymmetrical figure eights that became accented by her goose bumps.
“Kath and I already said everything that we need to say,” he finally answered.  “At this point, we’ve probably said too much.”
She shook her head, her hair fanning across his lap.  “I mean about…this.  Us.  What’re you going to tell her, Elliot?”
“The truth,” he answered simply, with a shrug.  “I’d never lie to her.”
“I don’t want you to lie, but…” She bit down on her lower lip, her brows creasing.  “She’s had her suspicions about me almost since the beginning of our partnership.  We both know that she has, and finding out about…this…is only going to make her think she’s been right all along.”
“She hasn’t been.”
“You and I know that, but what if she doesn’t believe it?”
“Honestly?  I’m not so sure she’ll even care.”  He dragged his finger upward over her abdomen, drawing a circle around her bellybutton.  “Kathy and I were over a long time ago, Liv.  The only reason we gave it another try was because of Eli.  But even he wasn’t enough to make the truth something other than it’d become.”
Olivia nodded, just faintly.  “You have a lot of history with her.”
“I have a lot with you, too.”
“But with us, it’s different.”
“It’s different,” he agreed, sliding his hand beneath the waistband of her underwear again.  “And that’s what I want, something different.  It’s what I need, Olivia.”  What I need is you, his mind reconfirmed to him as his actions took on the responsibility of confessing to her.  He moved his hand lower, gently, each finger outlined beneath the cotton material of her underwear.  She gasped softly as he slid a finger between her folds, skimming her clit and causing her eyes to instantly close and hips to rock in response.  
He loved watching her, mostly when she was just beginning to feel aroused.  The tension generally present in her face drained away, softening her features even more than normal, more than he’d thought could be possible.  Her lips trembled and her breathing became deep and rhythmic.  She looked as if tranquility was within her reach, as she deserved for it to always be.
He loved watching her, and loved even more that she allowed him to.
She arched her neck as he pushed a finger inside of her, and then another, thrusting, her body instantly soaking both of them.  A whimper vibrated in her throat, tangling with her breath, blending melodiously.
“I want to watch you, Liv.”
She moaned compliantly, lifting her shaking hands and clumsily unhooking the four buttons that held his shirt closed around her.  The material opened up, falling away from her, exposing her hardened nipples and quivering stomach.  Slowly, she lowered her hand, gliding it beneath the waistband of her panties.
“Jesus.  You’re beautiful,” Elliot whispered, his dick stiffening as he studied the definition of her fingers beneath the pale pink material.  Her soft strokes against her clit fell into sync with his thrusts, and she dug the back of her head into his thigh as he pushed deeper inside of her.  Her legs began to shake; her hips rocking steadily up and then back, as her breaths became strangled.
“You’re beautiful, Liv,” he repeated, his voice low, a growl.  He saw her release build, in her face, the way her muscles momentarily tensed and then shuddered, then relaxed as her body willingly gave up its control.  She tightened around him, her cries stifled as she bit into her lower lip.  
It didn’t feel anymore as if he’d had a life before that moment, as he watched Olivia gradually relax and heard her breathing slowly even out.  He’d just been trying to keep up with the hustle and bustle and chaos, but he hadn’t been a participant in it, merely a spectator.  He hadn’t belonged in it; he had never really known what belonging anywhere felt like.  
Until that moment.  
If he were a brave man, he would tell her that he loved her.  He would beg her to believe him and pray that she felt the same way.  But he wasn’t brave; he was scared to death.  Scared that he would open his eyes and awaken in the house in Queens again.  His body cold from not being touched, and his mind numb from repeating the same routines day after day and pretending that the tedious repetition was enough to sustain him. 
But it wasn’t, not anymore.  Not after awaking with Olivia.
“You okay?” he asked.
She nodded, “Mmm,” humming softly in her throat.  She rolled onto her side, her head still propped on his legs and his hand clutched against her stomach.
He wished he were still young and naïve enough to have an imagination, to actually believe in the fantasies that his unmarked mind created.  If he were both—or even either—he would pretend that the world outside of the tiny, time-forgotten house had disappeared.  There wouldn’t be any time clocks waiting to be punched, no rules etched in stone that were expected to be followed, no corrupt divorce lawyers sharpening their fangs, no mortgage to be paid, no college tuition to try and scrape together.
There would only be Olivia and him.  Comfortably sprawled out on the joke of a bed, with time having become irrelevant, and completely relaxed the most stressed that either of them would ever feel.
“You know, we aren’t going to be able to stay here forever,” Olivia said, her words slurred by a yawn.  “Sooner or later, this case will break, and we’ll have to go back to our regular lives.”
“Says who?” Elliot asked, frowning.  “I kind of like Brooklyn.”
“You know what I mean.”
He nodded, with as much reluctance as understanding.  “Let’s not think about all of that, huh?  Let’s just…” He shrugged.  “Let’s enjoy this.  Right now.”
“Right now won’t last forever.”
“But we get to have it for a little while,” he responded, sliding his hand through her hair and smoothing the messed strands.  “And that’s all I want to think about.”
“Having non-stop sex,” Olivia grumbled with a roll of her eyes.  “That’s a helluva way to stay focused on reality.”
“I haven’t heard you complaining.”
She smiled, just fleetingly, with a touch of embarrassment.  “I didn’t say I was complaining,” she returned, rolling onto her stomach and folding her arms across his legs.  She dropped her chin down onto her overlapped hands, staring at him with upturned, deceivingly innocent eyes.  “I said this can’t last forever.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Well…” She exhaled, the strong breath ruffling the material of his boxers.  “For starters, I refuse to live in a house that has shag carpeting.  The 70’s are dead and gone, and I think that’s exactly how they should stay.”
“We could put in new carpet, make it a weekend project.”
“A weekend project?”  She ran her hand over the waistband of his boxers, up and back, her light touch tickling his skin beneath the elastic.  “Is that how you normally spend your weekends, doing projects around the house?”
“Sometimes,” he confirmed, nodding.  “Every year there seems to be more and more that needs fixed.”
“So, you’re a good handyman?”
“I can fake my way through most things well enough to make it look like I am.”  
A smile became detectable in her eyes, one that never reached her lips.  “When I was a kid, weekends were generally pretty crazy around my house,” she began.  “Except for Sunday.  I used to call it, the day of sobriety.  My mom never drank on Sundays, usually because she was trying to dry out from Friday and Saturday.”
 
He nodded, twisting a tuft of her hair around his finger.  Listening.  Watching.  Wishing that his extinct imagination would return in force, powerful enough to defeat reality.  
“Sunday became my favorite day,” she continued.  “My mom and I would spend it together, just the two of us.  We’d go places…museums, bookstores, the park, sometimes to a movie.  Wherever we wanted to go, whatever we wanted to do.  It was always our day.”
“Sounds nice.”
“It was,” she said, nodding.  She lifted onto her elbows, her gaze bypassing Elliot and latching onto an unspecified target across the room.  “Yesterday was Sunday, and I…I thought I was going to…” She shook her head, her eyes narrowing thoughtfully.  “Thinking that I was going to die made me start thinking about my mom, about the last time I’d talked to her.  She’d called me at work, asked if I’d meet her for lunch.  But I told her that I couldn’t.  I said I was too busy.  That’s what I usually told her when she called.”
“It’s hard to get away during the day,” Elliot consoled.
“I lied to her, Elliot.  If I’d wanted to, I could’ve taken an hour out of the afternoon to meet her.  But I told her that I couldn’t because I didn’t want to.  It was a Friday morning when she called, the start of her crazy weekend.  And I knew if we went to lunch, she’d have a drink, and then another one, and probably two or three more after that.  Then she would get loud, draw attention to us, and I’d end up getting mad.  And I didn’t…I didn’t want to fight with her, but even more I didn’t want her to embarrass me again.”
“Liv.”  He tightened his hold on her hair, tugging lightly.  “Anyone could understand—”
“She didn’t,” Olivia returned, folding her legs beneath her and sitting up.  “I’d never told her, so how could she understand?  Never once had I told her how much I hated her drinking, or how much I hated her when she was drunk.  I just assumed that she knew but didn’t care.  And yesterday I got to thinking that maybe if I had told her, it could’ve made a difference.  Maybe we could’ve gone to lunch that day and she wouldn’t have drank.  If I’d just told her, maybe she wouldn’t have ended up alone at The Velvet Room, and she wouldn’t have decided to ride the subway instead of taking a cab like she normally did.”
“Life is full of maybes, Olivia.  Regretting what you did or didn’t do won’t change anything.”
“Maybe it can,” she responded, looking as hopeful as questioning.  “I’ve spent my entire life assuming, Elliot.  I always assume that everyone else knows what I’m thinking, just like I assume I know what they’re thinking.  But I never say anything, and I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that assuming is a method that hasn’t really worked all that well for me.”
He wasn’t sure what she was trying to say, or what point she wanted to make.  So, he took her lead and avoided assuming.  Instead, he waited for her to explain, to erase any questioning.  To tell him.  Because away from cases and anger, he rarely saw her honesty.  He didn’t know what excited her most, or frightened her, or saddened her, or had left her feeling the deepest regret.  And he wanted to know.
After ten years of assuming that he knew her, he finally wanted to beyond question.
“I wish I had told my mom that I didn’t like her drinking, because at least then she would’ve known how I felt,” Olivia continued.  “Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but now I’ll never know if it could have.”  
Elliot nodded, still not fully understanding the obscured meaning behind her words.  She had said that she was tired of the assuming also, and he hoped that she had included him in that.  Because he didn’t think he could go back to doing it.  He liked knowing more about her—having more of her.  He liked feeling as if it were okay—even acceptable—for him to haven taken as much as he had.  And, Jesus, he loved feeling as if she wanted to give him absolutely everything.
Olivia leaned into him, taking the sides of his face in her hands.  She hesitated through a smile before pulling him closer and touching her lips against his.  Kissing softly.  Honestly.  “Thank you.”
He pulled back from her, her hands dropping away.  “For what?”
“For giving me back my Sundays,” she answered simply, still with a hint of a smile.  “Because that’s what today has been for me, and I’d forgotten how much I missed them.”  
He mirrored her small smile, sliding a wavy strand of hair behind her ear as she leaned in for another kiss.  Her lips were soft against his, but her touch was absent of timidity.  He wished he could promise her a lifetime of Sundays.  Because it was what she deserved, and exactly what he wanted to give her.  And even more, what he wanted to receive from her.
“Oh, and by the way…” she continued, climbing over him and dropping down onto the floor.  “For what it’s worth, I think you’re a very skilled handyman.  I mean, what you can do with those hands…” She shook her head, her smile broadening playfully.  “There’s no faking that, Stabler.  It’s a God given talent.”
+++
March 26, 12:47 P.M.
God bless Victoria for not keeping the secret about boy shorts to herself.
Elliot felt his crotch begin to twitch as Olivia padded out of the bedroom, the ends of her hair still damp from soaking in the tub, black boy shorts having replaced the pink ones she’d worn that morning, and his white shirt having been swapped for his pale blue one.  Her nipples were visible beneath the thin material, hard and stiff, and as she rounded the foot of the sofa bed, he caught a glimpse of the stretched hems of the shorts.  They hit midway over her ass, curving perfectly across her smooth skin, giving him an unrestricted view. 
Christ.  He wondered if anyone had ever died from a perpetual hard-on before?   Because if not, he was about to become a medical anomaly.
“What’re you doing?” she laughed, coming to a stop at the side of the narrow, rickety sofa bed.  She knotted her arms across her chest, staring down at him sprawled across the flattened, worn mattress with the backs of his shoulders propped against the coarse cushion of the sofa, arms folded behind his head, ankles crossed, and the front of his boxers erected like a high-rise in downtown Manhattan.
She chuckled again, adding a roll of her eyes that made it clear the unavoidable had been noticed as quickly by her as it had been felt by him.
“I think I’m watching Public Broadcasting,” he answered, shifting stiffly as he nodded around her toward the television set.  The rabbit ears were situated centermost on top of the console, the tin foil-wrapped antennae positioned into a V-shape.  Static played out on the tube, sizzling and crackling as unidentifiable images flickered behind it.  “The Life of a Sewer Rat.  I’m actually starting to feel kind of sorry for the poor bastards.  Every day pretty much sucks for them.”
“They eat their young, Elliot.  They’re dirty and disgusting—germs on four legs.”
“All God’s creatures, Olivia,” he mumbled, tilting to his right to peek around her cocked hips.  He scooted his legs as she plopped down on the edge of the bed, the frame swaying and creaking with the addition of her weight.  Both sets of eyes narrowed as they continued to study the indistinct picture and tried to understand the broken commentary.
“I was talking about the bed,” Olivia said, distracted as she concentrated on the grainy images scurrying across the television screen.  “Why’d you pull it out?  What, are you thinking we need to christen every square inch of this place?”
“Actually, I was thinking about Cragen.”
She glanced back over her shoulder, her brows flattening.  “Cragen?” she remarked dryly.  “Should I be concerned or offended?”
He shook his head, grinning.  “I was thinking that I don’t want to have to lie to him.  We can lay here, watch a little TV, and that way if he asks if either of us used the sofa we can tell him honestly that we did.”
Olivia nodded crookedly, with partial agreement.  “You know, with that steel trap of a mind you have it’s a wonder you don’t have at least a dozen gold bars pinned on your uniform by now.”  She rolled her eyes, nudging his leg until he scooted into the center of the bed.  Filling the space that Elliot vacated, she stretched out on her side with her head propped on top of her folded arms and ass pressed against his hip.  
She heard him groan, just lightly and with a hint of pain, as she settled against him.  “Jesus, Elliot,” she laughed.  “You’re so easy.”
“What do you expect?  When you walk out here looking…wearing next to… I mean, Christ, Olivia.  Did you bother to look in a mirror?  Because if you had you would’ve noticed that you’re…I mean, there’s not much…everything is…pretty fucking noticeable…”
She peeked at him over her shoulder, a deceptively sweet smile arcing her lips.  “You’re only wearing boxers, and I’m managing to hold it together.  It’s called self-control, Elliot.  You should really give it a try sometime.”
He’d like to tell her what he wanted to try.  No—hell, no, he’d rather show her what he wanted to try.  On top, bottom, frontward, backwards, fucking upside down if she was in an adventurous mood.  Accommodating was his middle name, and all Olivia had to do was sneeze in his direction and he would be ready, willing and—God help him—able to satisfy any and every need that she admitted to. 
“You’re a tease,” he grumbled, swiping a finger down the back of her panties.
“No, what I am right now is…” She rolled onto her back, the top of his shirt dipping above and giving a full, taunting view of her right breast.  “Hungry.  And since I fixed breakfast, I think it’s only fair that you fix lunch.”
“You opened a bag of Cheetos.  You call that fixing breakfast?”
“Hey, I also started a pot of coffee.”
“Coffee and Cheetos,” he muttered through a roll of his eyes.  “A real breakfast of champions.”
“Must’ve been,” she replied, batting her eyelashes.  “It sure as hell gave you a burst of energy.”  
“Being hungry has the same effect,” he said, rolling on top of her.  He grabbed hold of her wrists, stretching her arms above her head and pinning them against the mattress.  Attacking her neck with wet kisses and tickling licks, he tried to subdue her flailing legs with his own as her high-pitched laughter overpowered the television’s static and consumed the tiny house.  He rocked his hips into hers, his stiff cock caressing her center as he growled into her ear, “Tell me what sounds good, Olivia.”
She blinked, her expression deadpan as she stared up into his flushed face.  “Grilled cheese,” she answered, nodding as his lips puckered into a frown.  “I saw a loaf of bread and cheese slices in the fridge.”
“Grilled…cheese…” he repeated, lifting his chest off of hers, his hands still tightened around her wrists.
“Oh, and make sure you use two slices of cheese and just lightly brown the bread.  I don’t like it when the bread gets burned.”
“Why do I get the feeling it’s not the bread that’s getting burned this time?” he grumbled, straddling her as he hoisted himself onto his knees.  He supported himself with his stiffened arms, lowering his face closer to hers.  Pressing his mouth over hers, forcefully, hard, his tongue slipped between her lips.  She tasted like mint-flavored toothpaste and smelled like Irish Spring, and, Jesus, he couldn’t remember a time when he’d been more sure that his dick was going to explode.
As she tried to wriggle her wrists out of his hands, he pushed harder, applying his full weight to the top edge of the mattress.  The back legs of the bed popped up off of the floor from their unevenly distributed weight, the metal frame giving off warning squeals and groans that coincided with the foot of the structure becoming air born.  
“Shit, Elliot!” Olivia shrieked as they began to slide, the top of her head ramming into the coarse sofa back as Elliot’s forehead pummeled against it.  She began to kick her legs again, squirming frantically, the heels of her bare feet continually popping off of the emaciated mattress.  She pulled her hands free from his, flattening her palms against the sofa back to stop herself from dropping into the crevice that had opened up beneath them, and screamed out again as Elliot gave a kick to the untrustworthy structure that jolted it back onto all fours.
Tap, Tap…Tap.
They froze, their widened stares connecting before both shot toward the bolted door across the room.
Tap, Tap…Tap.
“Fuck…” Elliot mumbled, dragging himself off of Olivia’s stretched-out frame.  “You answer it.”
“Me?” Olivia hissed, sitting up as Elliot climbed off of the bed.  “Why do I have to—”
“It’ll look a little suspicious if I go to the door in just my boxers, don’t you think?”
“And I won’t look suspicious?” she asked, still wide-eyed.  “There’s an FBI agent on the other side of that door, Elliot!  Not some salesman from the Braille Institute with a cane and seeing-eye dog!”
“Just answer the door, Olivia!” Elliot grumbled, heading toward the kitchen.  “FBI agent or not, trust me, you open the door looking like that and the last thing the guy’s gonna be thinking with is his brain!”
Tap, Tap…Tap.
“Just a second!” Olivia huffed as Elliot disappeared through the dome-shaped doorway into the seclusion of the kitchen.  She crawled to the end of the bed, tugging at the cockeyed sides of Elliot’s oversized shirt as she landed on the floor.  Stopping in front of the door, she took in a breath, released it, and combed her shaking fingers through her messed hair.
Pulling open the barrier, her eyes instantly lifted, skimming over the brawny chest, broad shoulders, and settling on the black lens sunglasses that concealed what she assumed were beady and unsmiling eyes.  The bulky body was stuffed into a pressed, black suit, a holster and thick-handled gun visible beneath the right flap of the jacket.  Salt-and-pepper hair was buzzed into a military cut, and every muscle in the pale face was tensed, making it clear that there wasn’t an ounce of good humor coursing through the gargantuan man’s veins.
“Agent Cox, ma’am.  We heard a scream.  Is everything okay in here?”
Olivia glanced nervously into the deserted living room, her lips fluttering before she did a double take that once again linked her stare to the reflective, black lenses.  “Agent…” She ran a hand across her trembling lips, trying to thwart the smile that was threatening to erupt.  “I’m sorry, did you say…Cox?”
“Yes, ma’am.  Cox.  I thought I should check in—”
“Sorry.  I, uh, I…” She motioned over her shoulder toward the bedroom, shrugging apologetically.  “Tripped.  In the…while I was…” She shrugged again.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize I’d screamed that loud.”
Steel-colored eyes peered over the tops of the sunglasses, a fat brow lifting.  Olivia followed the conspicuous stare with her own, glancing down and finding her right breast peeking back at her over the wrinkled edge of Elliot’s shirt.  She slapped her hands over her chest, tugging the two sides of the shirt together and twisting them at her neck.
“I was…sleeping…” she stammered.  “I didn’t get much sleep last night.  I mean, being in a new place, and…so…” She shook her head, conceding to the obvious.  Elliot and she had been busted.  “Thanks for checking, but everything’s fine.  We didn’t…I mean, I didn’t…mean to bother you.”
“It’s no bother, ma’am,” he responded, his eyes once again becoming hidden behind the opaque lenses.  “If you do need anything, just call the number that Agent Garcia left.  Dispatch will notify us immediately.”
“We will,” she assured, beginning to push the door closed.  “We’ll call.  And, uh, and thank you…thanks.  Again.”  She fell back against the barrier as it latched into the frame and buried her crimson-tinged face in her hands, whining, “I think that went pretty well.”
“You tripped?” Elliot asked, his laughter ineffectively stifled as he peeked around the doorway.  “Smooth, Benson.  It’s nice to know that after all these years you haven’t lost your ability to think on your feet.”
“My breast was staring at the guy, Elliot!” she squealed, popping off of the door.  “Jesus!  You could’ve stuck around and helped me out!  In case you’ve forgotten, it was you who attacked me on that sorry excuse for a bed!  Which makes it your fault that I screamed in the first place!”
He continued to chuckle, his brows spiking flirtatiously.  “I have to admit, you did surprise me.  I never figured you for a screamer.”
“Shut up!” Olivia groused, dropping down on the end of the bed.  “Go fix my lunch.  After throwing me to the wolves like that, you definitely owe me.”
“Well, you know what they say,” Elliot returned, his grin dangling crookedly.  “Paybacks are hell.  At least that’s what I’m hoping.”
+++
March 26, 4:39 P.M.
“…The Andean Condor doesn’t reach sexual maturity until five or six years of age.  During courtship displays, the skin of the male’s neck flushes and inflates.  He approaches the female with the inflated neck and while hissing, then spreads his wings and stands erect…”
Olivia opened her eyes slowly, sleepily; her dark lashes fluttering through blinks as she tried to focus on the television set.  She couldn’t remember the last time she had slowed down long enough to sleep in the middle of the afternoon, aside from attempting to catch twenty minutes here or there in the crib during a tough case that demanded around-the-clock hours.  Normally, though, she tried to avoid sleep, whether during daylight or nighttime.  When her eyes closed, her mind came alive with memories of fears and failures and insecurities that she could always seem to outrun as long as she kept moving and didn’t give into the exhaustion.
“…To attract a mate, the male California Condor turns his head read and puffs out his neck feathers before approaching the female.  If the female bows her head to accept the male, the condors become mates for life…”
She stretched out her legs beneath the floral print spread that Elliot had snatched from the bedroom, the wobbly frame of the sofa sleeper announcing her secret that she had awoken through soft squeaks and moans.  Sliding backwards just a fraction, through the tiny amount of space that Elliot had left between them, she pressed her back against his chest.  She could feel the vibrations of his heartbeats, steady and strong and reassuring, and snuggled even closer as his arm dropped limply over her waist.
She never wanted to move, never wanted to crawl out from beneath the musty smelling blanket or away from Elliot’s warmth.  For the first time in months—maybe in forever—she was comfortable.  Completely relaxed.  Undeniably content.  No longer afraid of exhaustion catching up with her. 
“Sleep okay?”
She nodded, the side of her face sliding over the air-chilled sheet beneath her.  She had slept okay, better than okay.  For the first time in her life, she felt as if she had actually managed to rest both her body and mind at the same time.
“I changed my mind,” she whispered hoarsely.  “Maybe shag carpeting isn’t so bad.  I mean, I think I could live with it.”
“Yeah?” Elliot asked, his voice thick from sleep.  “Anything else you think you could live with?”
Olivia rolled onto her back, her shoulder knocking against his chest as she turned.  “I’ve always wanted a dog,” she teased.  “Never could have one when I was a kid because my mom was allergic.”
“A dog…” Elliot grumbled.  
“Yeah.  Something big, you know, that would protect me.  Like a…oh, I don’t know…”  She stared up into his drowsy eyes, smiling.  “Maybe an Irish Wolfhound.”
“Thought you didn’t need to be protected?” he asked, dragging a fingertip across her forehead and sliding tousled strands of hair off of her face.  “What about that speech you gave about being able to take care of yourself?”
“What’s this?” she asked, her eyes widening mockingly, with surprise.  “You mean after ten years of ignoring almost everything I’ve said, you actually listened to me for once?”
He tightened his arm around her waist, nuzzling her neck with his face.  “I always listen,” he admitted.  “Sometimes I just act like I haven’t because your ideas are usually better than mine.  I hate it when you show me up.”
“My ideas are usually better?”
“Generally.”
“Try always, Elliot.”
“Always is pushing it.”
She chuckled, turning into him.  Resting her forehead against his, she studied his eyes.  She had spent the past decade looking into them, sometimes avoiding them.  But now, she wasn’t sure if she had ever really seen them before.  The flawlessness of their blue coloring, the warmth that radiated from them, the hopefulness that Elliot tried to hide for vulnerability’s sake.  They were familiar and new all at the same time, and she wondered why she had waited so long to really notice them?
Elliot placed a soft kiss on her forehead.  “So.  What’re you gonna fix me for dinner?  It is your turn to cook.”
“Dinner?” she asked.  “That’s what you’re thinking about right now?”
“No,” he answered with a slow shake of his head.  “Actually, I’m thinking about dessert.”
“Dessert…” she whispered, unable to contain her smile.  “And what makes you think you’re going to be lucky enough to get that?”
“Because you’re predictable, Benson.”
“And you’re cocky, Stabler.”
He shrugged a shoulder.  “Can’t seem to help myself around you.”
She nestled her head beneath his chin, her fingers fluttering over and caressing his chest.  “Dinner.  Okay, let’s see.  Based on what I found in the kitchen, I could heat up Spaghetti-o’s, boil pasta for Macaroni and Cheese, or scramble some eggs.”  She frowned, warming his skin with a breath.  “I think it’s pretty obvious that whoever did the grocery shopping had convenience in mind instead of nutrition.”
“Maybe you could talk your new buddy into going to pick up some burgers.  What was the ape’s name—Agent Schwarzenegger?”
“Cox,” Olivia answered through a chuckle.  
“Cox, yeah,” he said, laughing with her.  “Think that’s a coincidence, or is Cragen trying to make a point and picked the guy special for this assignment?”
Olivia tensed her shoulders, grumbling into his chest.  “I think right now Cragen’s trying even harder than we are to forget about this past weekend.”
“You want to forget?” Elliot mumbled, burying his lips in the flyaway strands of hair that lined her scalp.
“Some parts of it, yeah.”  She found his feet with hers beneath the blanket, tangling her legs with his.  “Aren’t there parts of it that you’d like to forget?”
“I guess,” he whispered, placing a kiss on the top of her head.  “Yeah.  There are parts.”
“You know, when all of this is over, Cragen’s going to want to talk to both of us.  We need to have some decisions made by then.”
“By then,” Elliot agreed, “but not now.  We don’t have to make any decisions right now.”
She nuzzled closer, tickling his neck with a kiss as he rolled into her.  His erection grazed her inner thigh, and she hiked her leg up on his, pushing against him.  Wetness instantly stained the cotton crotch of her underwear, and she wriggled against him, her body heating, tingling, and her mind once again succumbing to haziness.
Elliot slithered his hands beneath her roomy shirt, cupping a hand over her breast.  “Remember back in the trailer when you told me about that hidden talent of yours?  You know, that thing with the lipstick?”
Olivia chuckled into his neck.  “Don’t be a pervert, Elliot.”
“You can’t blame me for being just a little intrigued, can you?”
She arched into him, his hard dick sliding between her legs.  “Munch packed my bag, remember?” she moaned.  “All I got were the essentials—underwear, deodorant, toothpaste.  He even threw in dental floss and a bottle of Midol.”  She pulled her leg further up onto his, rocking her hips into him.  “But other than one tube of mascara, he forgot to pack makeup—and that includes lipstick.”
The chime of the cell phone cut through the house concurrently with Olivia’s laughter.  Elliot groaned into her neck, filling his lungs with a breath of her as he untangled their legs and dug his out from beneath the blanket.  “No one’s called to check in yet today.  It’s gotta be either Cragen or Garcia.”  He climbed out of the makeshift bed, his feet hitting the floor with an impatient thud.  “You start the eggs, I’ll get the phone.”
“You’re hungry now?” Olivia asked, hoisting herself up with her elbows.
“Not really,” Elliot answered, grinning over his shoulder as he headed toward the bedroom.  “But the sooner we get dinner out of the way means the sooner we can start on dessert.”
She sat the rest of the way up, throwing off the thick blanket.  “Jesus.  You’re a horny bastard.”
“Some people think that’s one of my better qualities,” he said, disappearing through the doorway.
“Yeah,” Olivia muttered, crawling off of the bed.  “But only the ones who don’t have to try and keep up with you.”  She straightened the hem of his shirt, pulling it over her ass and hiding the black shorts that she knew had held his attention hostage for the majority of the day.  As she tugged on it, the flaps of the button-up separated further across her chest, offering a glimpse of her breasts.  Just enough to tease, she decided, and knowing Elliot, more than enough to use as a bribe to get her out of having to fix dinner.
“Scrambled eggs…” she muttered to herself, making a beeline for the rust-colored refrigerator as she entered the kitchen.  She could hear Elliot talking in the living room, giving a vague assessment of how they were holding up—stuttering his way through lies about boredom, going stir crazy and being more than ready for their stint of house arrest to be over.  Chuckling, she pulled open the heavy door as the one-sided conversation in the living room became reduced to grumbled “Mm-hmms” and grunts, a soberness suddenly detectable in Elliot’s voice that sent a chill of understanding speeding down her spine.
She knew that tone of voice.  She knew it and exactly what it meant.
Elliot had fallen back into cop mode, one hundred and fifty percent.
Turning away from the refrigerator, her hand strangling the oblong handle, she caught sight of him as he passed in front of the dome-shaped doorway.  His head was bent, his left hand gripping his hip and right hand choking the cell phone.  He made a fluid spin; his feet half-buried in the long fibers of the carpeting, and headed back toward the opposite end of the living room.  
He was pacing.  Pacing and listening and back in cop mode.
No.
She wasn’t ready yet, damn it.
No, no, no, no.  No.
They’d only had one day of ‘right now,’ and she wasn’t ready for it to end yet. 
But as Elliot passed by the doorway again, apprehension marking his face, she knew that ‘right now’ had already been taken away from them.  Maybe Dominic del Torres hadn’t found them in the tiny house in Brooklyn, but reality had.
“Yeah, Don,” Elliot mumbled into the phone, his fingers clinched around the silver casing, “I’ll let her know.  Keep us updated, okay?”
Olivia hurried across the room as she heard Elliot flip the cell closed.  She didn’t want to know.  Not about grotesque methods concocted by monsters to manipulate children, or children whose problems were too big for her to fix, or lives that had been lost too soon.  She wanted to be selfish, just for a little longer.  Not forever, she wouldn’t ask for that much time, but—damn it—she wanted ‘right now.’  
It was all that she was asking for, all that she would ask for.
It was all that she had ever asked for.
She stopped in front of the stove, grabbing a frying pan off of the back burner as she heard Elliot’s soft steps against the linoleum floor.  Clearing her throat, keeping her back to him, she forced light heartedness—sheer ignorance—into her voice.  “Can you, uh…the eggs.  Grab ‘em for me?”  
“That was Cragen—”
She shook her head, stopping him.  Silencing him.  
She didn’t want to know. 
She wanted to be selfish, just a little while longer.  And especially now that Elliot had shown her just how much her selflessness had cost her.
“The eggs,” she whispered, tears straining her voice.
“Olivia.”
She shook her head again, stronger.  She didn’t want to know.  Not yet.  Not about someone else whose pain she couldn’t ease, or nightmares she couldn’t erase, or fears she couldn’t eradicate.  She didn’t want to lose herself in someone else’s misery, not after she had just found her footing and had finally—finally—gained the lead on her own.
She lifted the frying pan, her fingers whitening around the handle.  The hard plastic pressed into her palm, awakening the cuts and slices in her skin.  They came back to life with a vengeance, retaliating angrily with white hot flashes of pain and stinging burns beneath her flesh.  Her arm began to tremble, and she whispered an admonishing, “Damn it!” as the pan dropped back to the stovetop.
“Liv, come on.  Forget about the eggs for a minute.”
“You said you were hungry, and it’s my turn to cook, right?  So get the eggs for me, Elliot, and I’ll fix dinner.”
“Dinner can wait.  We have to talk about—”
“Why?” she hissed, spinning around.  “Why do we have to talk about it?  Is it going to change anything?  Whatever’s happened; is it going to somehow change because we talk about it now?”  
“You need to know—”
“No, I don’t!  I don’t want to know, Elliot!  I want to fix the fucking eggs!”  She stomped away from the stove, her footsteps vibrating against the floor as she charged toward the refrigerator.  She tugged at the door, once again reprimanding her uncooperative hand with a hissed, “Son of a bitch!” as she lost her hold on the handle.
“Hey, c’mon—”
“I said no!” she bellowed, turning toward him.  Tears toppled onto her cheeks, their emergence surprising Elliot as much as her.  “Please, not now.  Not…today.”
“Okay,” Elliot whispered, his hands raised in a show of surrendering.  “Okay.  We won’t talk about it.”  He crossed the room, his steps hesitant, each seeming to strengthen her tears.  As he stopped in front of her, she backed into the refrigerator, shaking her head as he reached for her.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered, running the backs of her hands across her cheeks.  “It’s not fair to you.”
“No.  No, baby, it’s okay.”
“No, it’s not,” she disagreed, tears once again filling her eyes.  “It’s just, I’m so…I’m tired of thinking about it, all of it.  And I’d stopped.  Today I’d stopped, and I don’t want to…I don’t have the energy…to start again right now.”
He nodded, understanding.  Reaching for her, he didn’t let her stop him again, even though she flinched under his touch.  He cleared her cheeks with gentle fingertips, drying her skin before placing just a hint of a kiss on her lips.  As he began to pull back, she latched her hands around the back of his head, urging him closer as she pressed her mouth against his.
Fuck selflessness.  
It was a self-serving son of a bitch anyway, and she was tired of being its doormat.
She didn’t want to think about anything—anyone—else; she wanted to be selfish.  Just for a little while longer—another hour, another night, another day.  She wouldn’t ask for forever, but she would be damned before she gave up ‘right now’ without a fight.
She slid her hands to the front of Elliot’s shoulders, shoving him backwards, their steps an uncoordinated succession of staggers and trips as they made their way across the room.  As they stumbled to the doorway, Elliot curved his hands across her hips, holding on as he guided her back against the smooth wood that lined the frame.  
A melancholy smile caught Olivia’s lips as his hands fumbled beneath her shirt, her muscles quivering in the wake of each of his touches.  She grabbed hold of his wrists, strangling them, and directed his hands to her breasts.  Guiding his fingers, she cupped them around her, begging for further touches through breathy whimpers.
Elliot pushed the thin material above her chest, choking it in his hands as he sucked her left nipple into his mouth.  He worked the hard knob with his tongue, flicking, circling, wetting, before switching his frantic attention to her right breast.
Olivia moaned impatiently, ripping the shirt out of his hands.  Pulling it over her head, she arched into him, the wrinkled material fluttering to the floor as she slid a leg up his and hooked her knee around his hip.  She glided against him, up and then slowly down, the dampness from her heated center soaking through her underwear and then his.
“You’ve lived in the past for too long, Olivia.  It’s time now to give yourself a future.  Time goes by quickly, don’t waste any more of it.”
Her mother had been wrong, she hadn’t spent her time stuck in the past; she had become stuck in the future.  The time she had foolishly wasted had been the present.  She had consistently skipped over it and leapt directly into the future.  Never looking back, never allowing herself to miss what she had purposely denied herself the opportunity to experience.
“Right now won’t last forever.”
“But we get to have it for a little while.  And that’s all I want to think about.”
She didn’t have a point of reference for ‘right now’—how long it should last, or even how long it could last.  Her entire life she had avoided it rather than grasp hold of it.  As a child, she had spent the majority of her time trying to ignore it and concentrated instead on the time that would follow it, hoping it would be better, happier, safer and soberer.   And as an adult, she had continued the same, unsuccessful routine.  Because ‘right now’ was always too painful, filled with disbelief and devastation and insecurities that were owned by her as much as the victims that she only pretended to know how to help.
She didn’t know how long ‘right now’ could last, or how long it should last.  She only knew that she wanted to find out.  She didn’t want to rush forward anymore.  Not anymore.  Whether good or bad, she wanted to experience every second that was graciously given to her—to be a part of every second that Elliot was also a part of.
Finally—selfishly—she wanted to take what was hers.  
Right now.
She reached for the waistband of Elliot’s boxers, tugging the elastic over his erection.  As the shorts crumpled on the floor, she circled his dick with her hands.  She rubbed her palm across his wet tip, his body jerking and muscles tensing from the friction.  His hands dropped away from her breasts, his fingers streaking her skin as he dragged them down to her hips.
“Now, Elliot…” she whispered between brisk inhales.  “Right…now…”
She pressed the back of her head against the sleek wood behind her as Elliot tugged the black shorts down her legs, the material cooling her skin as his fingertips singed it.  Once again locking his hands around her hips, he spun her around and pressed her front side into the grooved, slick doorframe.  Grabbing her wrists, he lifted her arms, extending them above her head as he pushed his leg between hers and caressed her saturated center with the top of his thigh.
She swallowed a scream as he pushed inside of her, her legs shuddering and causing her fingers to dig into the wooden frame.  Rising onto her toes, she slid up and then down the even plane, Elliot’s hard cock filling her completely as she lowered.  She hooked a leg on the smoothed edge, bucking into the wood and then into Elliot.  Rising.  Lowering.  Swaying.  Goose bumps layering her skin beneath a sheen of sweat.
She didn’t want to know about anything beyond that moment.  Not about horrors that might have already occurred, or ones that had been threatened.  She didn’t want to know about expectations that had already been placed on her, or ones that would be.
She didn’t want to know.
Not after Elliot had taught her how good being selfish could feel.
“Oh, Jesus… Liv…”
Elliot tightened inside of her as he slammed her hips into the wood, again and again and again, his thrusts rushed and hard and consistent.  Their moans tangled, Elliot’s deepening to growls as Olivia’s rose in pitch to barely murmured whimpers.  He buried his face in her shoulder, biting at her skin before erasing the stings with forceful kisses before snaking an arm around her waist.  He pulled her away from the frame, turning her toward him, flattening her against him, as desperation once again began to thicken the air around them.
“Just tell me,” she whispered breathlessly, resting her forehead against his chin.  “Do we have to leave?”
He shook his head, hers swaying in sync as his fingers became buried in the sides of her messed hair.  “Not yet.  Not right now.”
“Then that’s all I want to think about, please.  While we still have it, Elliot, this is what I want to concentrate on.”
She didn’t want to know about anything else, only how it felt to have Elliot beside her, inside of her, to have him coursing through her.  She only wanted to know—to continue knowing—how incredible it felt when love and urges finally integrated and became one and the same.
Because that was enough, it was more than she had ever allowed herself to hope for.
With Elliot, it had become everything.
And even though she knew it was selfish, she didn’t want to know anything else.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN
March 27, 7:01 A.M.
Olivia took in a breath, a rush of air that did little—if anything—to rejuvenate her tired mind.  She pulled her legs up to her chest, her back flush against the wall and bare feet half-buried in the thick strands of carpeting.  She didn’t know how long she had been on the floor, or when for sure she had filled the narrow corner in the bedroom.  It had been some time after two o’clock that morning, she thought, after Elliot and she had made love for the third time.  After sleep had finally laid claim to both his mind and body, but hadn’t proven powerful enough to seize hers.
She had ambled through the tiny house, already familiar enough with it to be able to trust the darkness, and had peeked out of the windows that had been proclaimed forbidden territory.  Outside, the world had been quiet.  The houses that surrounded them dark, the street deserted, the subdued moonlight offering only a faint glimpse of the quiescent neighborhood.  There hadn’t been any noise, and she had found it deafening.  Traffic and car horns and airplanes roaring overhead—movement—had become her respite, but silence was far too loud to offer any type of solace.
And so she had found herself back in the bedroom, with Elliot’s muffled snores comforting her.  She had sat down on the floor across from the bed, shadows separating them, hiding Elliot and leaving her shrouded in memories and mistakes and truths.
“What’re you doing?”
She pulled in a breath, a dozy smile catching on her lips.  “Thinking.”
Elliot nodded, shoving an arm beneath the pillow and lifting his head a fraction higher.  The hem of the sheet hit across his stomach, his bare chest exposed, and sleep still clung perceptibly to his face.  “About what?” he asked, knowing commanding his voice.
She breathed in again, stronger, her chest rising.  “That you were right,” she admitted, her words slipping across the room as whispers.  “It’s not about me saving these kids, it’s about them saving themselves.  There’s nothing I can do to help them.”
“You’ve already done a lot.”
She shook her head, her smile wilting.  “I pretended that I wanted to do something, but what I really wanted was for them to be punished for what they’d done to us.  I was angry, Elliot—I’m still angry.  And I’ve been pretending that I’m not so that I don’t have to think about forgiving them.”
He lifted himself up onto an elbow, balancing the side of his face against his fisted hand.  “You have a right to be angry, don’t you think?”
“But I don’t want to be, I want to forgive them,” she responded.  “I’m just not sure how to do that.”
“By giving yourself some time,” he answered, making the process sound far simpler than Olivia knew that it was.  
“How much time?” she asked.  “How much time does it take to really forgive someone?  Because after almost forty-two years, I still haven’t completely forgiven my mother.  And after thirty-four years, she hadn’t forgiven my father.  You haven’t forgiven either of your parents yet, and I’m already a few months into wondering if I’ll ever be able to forgive Lowell Harris.  So how much time does it take to get to the point where it’s just too damn hard to keep being angry?”
“Liv, there’s nothing you could’ve done to stop—”
She closed her eyes, blocking him out, stopping him from continuing with his predictable speech about fault and accountability and—Christ.  What she didn’t want to believe, that she couldn’t save someone just because they needed to be saved.  
“He was sixteen-years-old,” she whispered, tears constricting her voice.
“He was sixteen,” Elliot repeated, “and he made his own choice.”
She dropped her head forward, battling the tears that anger was still too proud to release but compassion was trying to coerce out of her.  It had been just before midnight, only minutes after they had made love for the second time, with breaths still rushed and bodies still glistening with sweat, when she had finally asked Elliot about the telephone call.  He had hesitated, working and re-working explanations in his mind.  Trying to find the right words, the least painful way to string them together.  And with each passing second, she had watched the truth discolor his eyes and heard the echo of its scream in his silence.
Death.
The iniquitous bastard had struck again, choosing hopelessness as its accomplice for its latest sneak attack.  Raymond had been alone, locked away in a cage, expected to adapt to what he had tried to tell her he could never survive.  Isolation.  And even though it had been imposed on her also, she had found within its confines hopefulness.  But all Raymond had been able to find—to grab hold of—had been desperation.
“You didn’t tell that kid to hang himself in his cell,” Elliot said.  “For whatever reason, that’s what he decided to do.”
The suddenness of his voice—the abruptness of his words—startled her.  Her head popped up, her face a flushed canvass highlighted by tension and disbelief.  It had been Raymond’s decision, to take the sheet from his bed, to knot it around his neck, to become a follower of hopelessness.  It had been his choice, one that no one had ever tried to dissuade him from making.  No one had ever taken a second of their time and given it to him.  No one had ever encouraged him, or complimented him, or offered him even a morsel of hope.  No one had ever told him that there were other options, that he had other options.  No one had ever tried to save him, because no one had ever seen him as being valuable enough to save.
“At the, um, at the hospital…” she began, “he didn’t want to hurt me.  He didn’t want to take me to Garcia.”
“But he did.  And when he took you down to that parking garage, he did it thinking that Garcia would kill you.”
“But it wasn’t what he wanted to do,” Olivia returned.  “When we were in the bathroom, he told me that he didn’t want to do it.  All he wanted was for me to help Derio and him.  He wanted me to help him get Derio out of the hospital so they could leave town.  And if I would’ve listened to him…if I just would’ve…” She shook her head, tears once again pooling in her eyes.  
“You didn’t owe him anything.”
“Then who did?  Someone had to have owed him something.  He was a child, for God’s sake.  Can we really blame him for making all the wrong choices when no one ever took the time to tell him what the right ones were?”  She pulled at the gauze that shielded her hands, peeling it off of her reddened, marked skin.  “His father was never around, his mother ignored him most of the time.  He was abused and neglected—”
“And you still managed to turn out okay,” Elliot broke in, arching an eyebrow for validity’s sake.  
Her gaze shot up, her lips fluttering with arguments that her voice refused to lend itself to.
“You didn’t have any more than Raymond ever did,” he continued, “and look at you now.  Kid or not, Olivia, he still knew when he climbed into the backseat of your car and pointed a loaded gun at us that it was the wrong thing to do.  But he chose to do it anyway, and you and I aren’t responsible for that choice.”
She could still see Raymond’s face in her mind—that night—half hidden in the darkness.  What she remembered was his smile, how cold it had been, and how amused he had looked when he’d waved his gun in her face and asked, “Hey, bitch.  What’s your price for a full fuck?”  She remembered how strong his arms had been when he’d locked them around her in the warehouse and dragged her away from Elliot, and how tightly his hands had squeezed her arms as he’d tossed her into the trunk of the car.  And she remembered that the absence of compassion in his voice as he had lectured Derio in the junkyard had frightened her enough that she had prepared herself to kill him.
“Gotta remember, she’s the policia.  It’s her or us, primo, and we gotta take her out before she gets the chance to take us out.  ‘Cause she will, she’ll fuck us all over if she gets outta here.  You know that, vato, right?”
But what she remembered most, what she knew had already become singed into her memory, was how young he had looked in the restroom at the hospital.  
How desperate he had sounded.
“Fucking bitch!  What’re you gonna do, lock him up all by himself in some little cage?  Stick him somewhere he won’t never see nobody else, won’t have nobody else to talk to?  You can’t fucking do that to him!  I know Derio can’t live like that!  The kinda kid he is, he’s gotta have somebody around to help him out!  Somebody who’ll take care of him!”
Raymond hadn’t been asking her to help Derio; he had been asking her to help him.
“He told me,” she said, smiling shakily, timorously.  “He kept saying Derio’s name, but he was talking about both of them.  He told me that he wouldn’t survive being locked up.  All he wanted me to do was help him so that wouldn’t happen.”
“The kid had a gun on you, Liv.  You had to help yourself at that point.”
She bit into her bottom lip, pressing, digging, a single tear breaking through her anger’s debilitating restraint.  “I didn’t want to help him, Elliot,” she admitted.  “I was—damn it.  I was so…angry... It was like everything was happening all over again, when they’d gotten in the car with us, at the warehouse when he’d laughed at me as he was slamming the trunk lid closed, and at the trailer when all I could do was…wait…for them to come into that room.  And I knew if they did—when they did—I wouldn’t be able to…stop…” She dropped her head forward, tears freefalling from her cheeks.  “I don’t want to feel this damn angry anymore.”
Elliot slid his legs out from beneath the blanket, sitting up on the edge of the bed.  Stiffening his arms, he leaned forward, rocking slightly, waiting.  Giving her the space that he could tell she needed.  “We have a right to be angry,” he finally said, softly, unobtrusively.  Truthfully.  
“But it comes with such a big price tag,” she whimpered, dragging the backs of her hands across her damp cheeks.  “All Raymond wanted to do was start over, just Derio and him.  He was afraid to go to jail.  I could see it in him, I could tell.  But I didn’t care.”
“And they didn’t care that we were afraid, either.  Not one of those bastards cared, Olivia.”  He climbed off of the bed, crossing the small amount of space that separated them.  “And if you’d helped Raymond, Derio and he would’ve stayed on the streets.  Maybe they would’ve met up with someone worse than del Torres, or maybe they would’ve ended up hurting someone else worse than they hurt us.”  Sitting down beside her, he pointed to the roll of fresh gauze on the other side of her.  “Why don’t you give me that?  Let’s get your hands wrapped back up.”
She grabbed the roll of cloth, settling back against the wall as she passed it to Elliot.  Holding her hands out in front of her, palms up, she followed his gaze to the deep, blood red slices that flecked her skin.  She could still feel it, the burn as her flesh had ripped and the rocks had burrowed into the cuts.  The pain had been paralyzing, just as much as the fear had been.
Elliot poked the tip of a finger into the center of a purple-tinted bruise at the base of her shin, gliding over her skin to another bruise a few inches higher, and then another, and another, until circling her scraped and battered knee.  “There’s a cut on your back,” he said, unwinding the gauze.  “Right under your shoulder blade.  How’d you get it?”
“El…” She shook her head as he pulled her left hand toward him.  “It doesn’t—”
“Tell me,” he commanded, holding the squared edge of the fabric against the backside of her hand and making a pass with the unrolled strip over her palm.
Olivia cleared her throat, stalling.  Jesus.  She hated when she was forced to hand over all the ammunition that Elliot needed to say, I told you so.  “There was an old Bronco.  I climbed in the back of it to hide.”
“Why?” he asked, circling her hand a second and then third time with the gauze.
“Derio heard someone coming.”
Elliot nodded once, ripping through the thin material.  “Who was it?” he asked, pulling the two ends of the cloth together and tying a thick knot over the back of her hand.
She sighed loudly, with defeat, as Elliot tugged her right hand toward him.  “Raymond.” 
“Raymond,” Elliot mumbled, circling her hand with the strip.
“He didn’t…do…” She shook her head, a soft groan rattling in her throat.  “The back window had been broken out and there was glass on the floor.  I rolled over and a piece stuck in my back.  It wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“Looks like a pretty deep cut.”
“The doctor looked at it.  It wasn’t even bad enough to need stitches.”
“Still looks deep,” he said, tearing through the gauze again before knotting it.  His eyes shifted, moving upward fluidly until slamming into hers.  “Why’d you think you had to hide from him?”
“Why?” she asked, her eyes narrowing questioningly.  “It was after you and I had gotten separated.  Derio and I were together, we heard someone coming, but at first we didn’t know who it was.  He told me to hide and considering what was going on, I thought it sounded like a pretty good idea.”
Elliot nodded, biting into his lower lip.  “Okay.  So, after you knew it was Raymond, why didn’t you get out of the Bronco?”
“I know you, Derio, know you better than anyone, and I seen the way you looked when you came outta the trailer earlier.  You was feeling bad for that puta, and you gotta stay away from them kinda feelings.  A bitch like that, she’s only gonna get you in more trouble.”
“I, uh.”  She shook her head, trying to untangle Raymond’s voice from her own thoughts.  And trying even harder to make the truth into something different, something that both Elliot and she already knew it could never be. 
“Tell me, Derio.  You know, right?  Ain’t no bitch worth getting yourself killed for.”
“I don’t…know…” she whispered.  “I guess because I didn’t know what he’d…” She sighed, resigned to both her anger and the truth.  “Because I knew if he found me he’d either take me back to the trailers or shoot me right there.”
“Yeah,” Elliot agreed, turning her hands over in his and assessing his handiwork.  “He would have.  Because that’s who he was, Olivia, a kid who was only looking out for himself.”
“He cared about Derio.”
“If he’d really cared about Derio, he wouldn’t be on ice in the morgue right now.”  He cocked an eyebrow, his stare unfaltering.  “He cared about himself, that was it.”
She slumped against the wall, tilting her head into Elliot’s hand as he combed his fingers through her hair.  “I didn’t want to see him that way.  I wanted to believe that he was one who could be saved.”
“How were you supposed to know how to save him when he didn’t even know how to save himself?”  He pulled her closer, nuzzling the top of her head with his bristly chin.  “We have to save ourselves, Liv, no one can do it for us.  That’s why you’ve turned out as great as you have, and why I’ve done, well…okay.”  He smiled, just faintly.  “Because we wanted more than we’d been given, and so we fought for it.  But the difference between those kids and us is, we made the right choices and fought the right way.  They didn’t.”
“Derio made the right choice,” she whispered.  “In the end.”
“In the end,” Elliot agreed hesitantly, through a slow, forced nod.
“Someone’s going to have to tell him about Raymond.”
“Garcia was handling it.”
“Raymond was all he had.”  She sniffled, closing her eyes as Elliot made another gentle pass through her hair.  “I don’t want to give up on him, El.  I...” She sniffled again as he gave a gentle tug to her hair.  “I can’t.  Because I know if I do, I’ll never stop feeling this way.”
“I know,” he said, understanding thickening his voice.  He slid an arm around her sagging shoulders, squeezing.  Holding on.  “We’ll, uh.  We’ll try to get him a good lawyer, okay?  And we’ll…both of us…we’ll testify on his behalf.  That should help.”
She choked on a sob, peeking up at him with both relief and tears darkening her eyes.  Nodding, she whispered a barely heard, “Thank you.”
He nodded, wetting her forehead with a kiss.  “Did you sleep at all?”
“I’m not tired.”  She nestled her face into his neck as he smoothed back her hair and placed a second, gentler kiss on her ear.
“Then why don’t I get us some breakfast?  Spaghetti-o’s and coffee, my treat.”
She chuckled, Elliot’s riposte smile tickling the top of her ear.  “I’ve never in my life eaten Spaghetti-o’s, Elliot, and I sure as hell don’t intend to start now.”
“No Spaghetti-o’s, okay,” he said, sliding an arm beneath her calves and pulling her legs across his lap.  He leaned back into the wall, Olivia’s head still propped on his shoulder and her body curved around his.  “Then you tell me what you want.”
She murmured a drowsy, “Mmm,” running her finger down the center of his chest, across his stomach, stopping at the waistband of his boxers.  “To go back to bed,” she answered.  “With you.”
“Another breakfast of champions, huh?”
“Don’t ruin the mood by getting cocky.”
“Told you.  With you, I can’t seem to help myself.”
She glanced up, sliding a hand over his whisker-shadowed jaw and tilting his face downward toward hers.  Gently, she touched her lips to his, letting a second elapse before gliding her tongue into his mouth.  Still holding their kiss, with her tongue eagerly exploring, she crawled onto his lap and flattened her hands over his hard pecs.  Straddling him.  Rocking against him.  Feeling the effect she had on him as his erection pressed into her inner thigh.
Circling his arms around her shoulders, he guided her backwards until she was flush against the floor.  Breaking their kiss, her lips still chasing after his, he moved his hands to the boy shorts partially hidden beneath the hem of his shirt.  She lifted her hips as the waistband slid over her ass, swaying to the left and then right, the cotton caressing her legs as Elliot pulled the panties off of her.
The cool air attacked her, chilling her as she felt dampness seep between her legs.  She didn’t know what they were doing, or why either of them were fighting so damn hard to hang onto a fantasy that she wasn’t even sure they could continue.  Neither of them were uneducated, they knew statistics.  They knew that sex was too often used as a form of self-medication in order to cope with devastation.  Hell, it had been the drug of choice for both of them before, and they knew that it was impulsive and dangerous and reckless, and—for God’s sake—why didn’t she care?  She was living proof of how damaging it could be when you gave into impulses, as well as when you barreled through life recklessly.  The fact that she existed at all was a firsthand lesson on the destructiveness of both.
So, she should care.  She should.
But she didn’t.
She arched her neck as Elliot touched the side of her knee with a kiss, marking out a soft trail up her inner thigh.  Twisting her fingers in the thick carpeting, she pulled at the long strands as he skimmed his lips across her center, only leaving a hint of a touch before his tongue wetted a patch of skin between her thigh and pelvis.  Her hips rocked involuntarily as his tongue glided over her, tickling as it swept circularly across her skin.  Each area that he tantalized, he drew into his mouth.  Sucking.  Warming.  Leaving behind a rash of goose bumps as he worked toward her raised knee.
His name rattled in her throat, repeating over and over before tumbling out of her as nothing more than a breath.  She pressed a hand against her clit, her body trembling in response.  She didn’t know what they were doing; she didn’t know what in the hell Elliot was doing to her.  She only knew that she never wanted it to stop, not after he had shown her all that urges were capable of becoming when she let down her guard and allowed something more meaningful to co-exist with them.
Elliot blanketed her hand with his across her clit, deepening her touches.  While directing her fluid strokes, he weaved a haphazard path of kisses from her pubic bone to breasts.  Sucking her left nipple into his mouth, he flicked the hard knob with his tongue.  Circling.  Nipping.  
She stirred beneath him as the sensations coursing through her collided, causing her to quiver through raspy, strangling breaths.  “Don’t stop, Elliot.  Please…don’t…”
She hooked her legs around his waist as he lowered on top of her, the tip of his cock grazing her sensitive center and causing tremors to once again ripple through her.  Grabbing the sides of his head in her hands, she dug her fingers into his short strands of hair, pulling him closer, pushing her tongue into his mouth as he thrust inside of her.  
She didn’t know what they were doing, to each other, their partnership or the future.  She only knew that it was too late for them to turn back.  Too much had already been lost, and she needed to find out what—if anything—had been gained.  And she would gamble everything—let every last thing that she possessed ride—on the hope that something, no matter how big or small, had been. 
A moan scratched her throat as Elliot pulled his lips away from hers, panting, his chest heaving and pecs flattening over her breasts.  He locked his hands around her wrists, pinning them against the floor as his thrusts intensified.  Her name became twisted with each of his rushed breaths, rolling sinuously off of his tongue as he buried his face in the crook of her neck.  As he tightened inside of her, she pulled her arms free from his restrictive hold, digging the tips of her fingers into his back and dragging them down his skin until butting up to the stretched elastic of his boxers midway across his ass.
She didn’t know what they were doing.  Elliot and she knew statistics; they lived and breathed them.  And they knew there wasn’t a shrink in any one of the fifty states who would endorse unrestrained fucking as an acceptable means of diversion.  Some would say it was an irresponsible form of avoidance, others would advise that they were still too immersed in shock to confront reality, and still others might diagnose their anomalous behavior as a symptom of PTSD.  But their claims would be unfounded, assumptions drawn from a lack of understanding.
But she knew the truth; she understood it.  
It was about winning.  About being able to claim back something, no matter how small, when all that you had been left with was loss.
+++
March 27, 2:15 P.M.
Olivia flipped the stainless steel handle, the rainfall of lukewarm water dwindling to a cessation through sporadic drips.  She reached above her, sliding the towel off of the curtain rod and hugging it against her face.  It was the same towel that Elliot had used earlier.  His scent was still tangled in the cotton fibers, and she took in a deep breath, holding him in her lungs until her chest began to ache.
Jesus.  Her mother would laugh at her if she could see her now.  Hanging onto scents, prancing around half-dressed and flirting like a dissolute schoolgirl, and hoping for more from each round of sex than just to satisfy some damned, physical urge.  Her mother would tell her that she was being ridiculous, that she needed to jump back into reality with both feet.  She needed to remember who she was, not lose herself to fantasies about becoming someone different, someone less educated, or someone less versed on the hard facts of life.
She needed to remember, that was what her mother would tell her.
But she had wasted too many years following her mother’s advice.  She had wasted every day of her life, except for four.  The four that she had spent forgetting, who she was, where she came from, and who she was expected to be.  Maybe the transition she was attempting to make wasn’t completely effortless, but every time Elliot pushed inside of her, every time his kisses warmed her skin, every smile of contentment that he gave to her made her believe just a little bit more—a little less skeptically—that in the end, whatever hard work she had to put forth would pay off more than she had ever hoped it could.
Olivia let loose of one end of the towel as the bathroom door was pushed open.  The burgundy fabric fluttered down her front side, swaying back and forth between her hips before settling across her abdomen.  “You used up all the hot water,” she accused teasingly as Elliot leaned a shoulder into the doorframe, smiling as his gaze settled unapologetically on her exposed breasts.
She liked when he looked at her; she liked how he looked at her.  As if he approved, as if just the sight of her excited him and made him want more of her, as if he couldn’t wait to touch her again.  
Returning his smile, her cheeks blushing, she looped the towel around her torso and stepped out of the tub.  Water stained the floor beneath her, steady streams of beads rolling down her legs and dotting the checkered-design linoleum.  “You, um.  Why’d you…” She cleared her throat, tightening the towel around her chest as Elliot’s state of overdress registered in her mind.  Faded blue jeans hung loosely around his frame, a short-sleeved, gray t-shirt was tucked into the waistband and a black belt was strung through the belt loops.  He was definitely dressed to the nines, at least when taking into account the overly relaxed dress code they had put into effect almost as soon as the front door had been shut and bolted twenty-four hours earlier.
“You’re dressed,” she said, disappointment overpowering the indifference she had attempted to inflect into her tone.
“Thought it’d be a good idea,” he responded, nodding toward her sparingly clad frame.  “It’d probably be a good one for you, too.  Considering.”
Considering?  She stepped up to the vanity, snagging her hairbrush from behind the sink.  What in the hell did that mean, considering?  What, had the game suddenly become tiring to him—the game that he had initiated?  He was suddenly done, just like that?  After screwing her every which way from Sunday, he’d had enough—of her.  But he was too big of an ass to tell her himself, so he was relying on Levi’s and Hanes to make his unscrupulous confession for him.
“When Cragen called he was already driving.  I figure he’ll be here…” He shrugged, glancing down at his wristwatch.  “Fifteen minutes tops.”
“Cragen?” she stammered, shaking her head.  “He’s coming…here?” 
“He’s coming here,” Elliot confirmed, crossing his arms over his chest.  “Said there’s some new information he needs to brief us on, thought it’d be better if we talked in person.  So…” He stepped through the doorway, coming to a stop behind her.  Their gazes connected fleetingly in the tiny, rectangular-shaped mirror above the sink before he lowered his face to her shoulder and caressed her skin with a kiss.  “As much as I was hoping for a repeat of breakfast for lunch, I think it’d be in our best interest—not to mention Don’s blood pressure’s—if we hold out for an early dinner.”
She chuckled, rolling her shoulder as he followed the kiss with a nip against her skin.  Okay.  So maybe she had overreacted, maybe just a little. Christ.  Her mother really would laugh at her for allowing an adversary like dependence to gain even the slightest of footholds over her fiercely whetted independence.  But Elliot wasn’t done yet, not with the game or her.  And even with the awareness of her mother’s phantasm disapproval hovering around her, she couldn’t seem to shake her relief—hell, her borderline schoolgirl giddiness.  Because the truth was, she wasn’t even ready to break for a halftime breather yet.
“Think it’ll give us away if I put in a request for disability leave as soon as we get released from house arrest?”  She turned her head to the side, brushing her lips against his cheek.  “Because if we keep up this pace, Elliot, I’m not going to be able to walk when we finally do get out of here.”
“Bed rest works for me,” he said, his eyebrows bobbing.  
“You, yeah,” she laughed, “but how do you think Cragen would handle the diagnosis?”
“Probably about as well as he did the other night in his office.”
“The other night…” she repeated through a whispery breath.  “Oh, God.  You don’t think that’s what he’s coming here to talk about, do you?”
“He said it was about the case,” Elliot answered, slinking his arm around her shoulder and running a finger between her breasts.  “Something new has come up, but he didn’t want to go into it over the phone.”
Olivia tensed, the feel of Elliot’s arms sliding around her waist causing her to bristle.  “If he didn’t want to tell you over the phone, that means it isn’t good news.”
“Or maybe it is,” Elliot countered, shrugging.  “Maybe del Torres is locked up and Cragen’s coming to personally drive us back to civilization.”
“They’re never going to lock up that bastard, we both know that.  He isn’t even a priority for the FBI, just a pawn.  And even if it takes the next twenty years for them to get to the top of that damned chain of command, they’ll let the son of a bitch hold onto his freedom.  Stopping some drug pusher is more important to them than saving another street kid’s life.”  She tossed the brush onto the vanity, the plastic rattling against Formica as it twirled toward the corner.  “I’ve worked with the FBI, remember?  They’re never satisfied.  They always want bigger and better, and del Torres sure as hell isn’t big enough in their opinion for them to blow an entire undercover operation.  It doesn’t matter how many kids die, they’ll keep pushing.”
“Then we’ll push back.”
“Us?” she asked, her eyes widening as she caught his reflection in the mirror again.  “Right now, we don’t even exist, Elliot.  Or at least I don’t.”  She sighed, curving her fingers around the smooth ledge of the countertop.  “I mean, what if they do let del Torres stay on the streets?  He thinks I’m dead, so where does that leave me?”
“Safe,” Elliot answered simply, with a hint of gratitude.  “And that’s how I want you to stay.  It’s how I need you to stay.”
“And what about you?” she asked, turning to face him.  “They’re still looking for you.”  
“But they’re not going to find me,” Elliot responded assuredly.  A smile hooked his lips, but it failed its intended job of lightening Olivia’s mood.  He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, pulling her closer, against him.  “Hey, come on.  We’re okay right now.”
“Then why is Cragen coming over here?” she whispered into his shoulder.
“I don’t know,” he answered, dragging his hands down her back before cupping her ass.  “And, uh… You walk out dressed like this, I have a feeling he won’t remember why he’s here, either.”  His smile faded as he left a gentle kiss against the side of her head.  “Put something on, huh?  I’ll go wait for Don.”
She nodded, her chin scraping against the cotton of his t-shirt with each tilt of her head.  She closed her eyes as Elliot pulled his hands away, their absence instantly chilling her.  “So, which will be better?” she asked as he stepped through the doorway.  “That something else has happened and we have to stay here longer, or there’s been a break in the case and we can leave?”
Elliot glanced back, his expression as knotted as her stomach had become.  He shrugged a shoulder, wrapping a hand around the dulled wood of the doorframe.  “Whichever it is, we’ll deal with it.”  
“Will we?” she asked, a tinge of fear fraying her voice.  “Because that’s never exactly been a strong point for us, El.  Dealing with things, let alone with each other.”
He hesitated, agreement filling his eyes as fortitude fought for control of his features.  Reaching for her, he slid his fingertips down her jaw line, nodding.  “Maybe it never was before, but things are different now.  We’re different, don’t you think?”
“I think we’ve become the psychiatric world’s wet dream,” she responded through a soft, embarrassed laugh.
He winked playfully, encouragingly, turning away from her.  “It’s good to know I’m not the only one having them.”
+++
March 27, 2:39 P.M.
“Well, one good thing that’s come out of this, you both have airtight alibis.”  Cragen dropped his hat into a recliner, sliding out of his trench coat.  He let the beige wrap crinkle over the arm of the chair, stuffing his hands into the front pockets of his trousers as he cocked an eyebrow in Elliot’s direction. “That’s good for all of us, but especially for you.”
“Why do we need alibis?” Olivia questioned, coming through the bedroom doorway.  The boot-cut legs of her blue jeans were wrinkled over the tops of her bare feet, the hems dragging the floor.  For the first time in over twenty-four hours, she was wearing one of her own shirts instead of one of Elliot’s, a soft pink tee that melded to her breasts, defining and accentuating them.  Her hair, still damp from the shower, was pulled back into a messy ponytail; flyaway, wavy strands that had broken free from the elastic band hooked behind her ears.
Cragen gave her a once-over, his lips puckering as she came to a stop beside Elliot.  “When someone’s murdered, it generally works out to your advantage if you can prove you were somewhere else when it happened,” he answered dryly, making an unimpressed glance toward the sprawled-out sofa bed behind them.  “And considering that little show your partner gave at the precinct the other night, I’d say it’s very good that we can prove he was here this afternoon.”
Olivia shook her head; her confusion evident as her brows creased and lips sank into a frown.  “Murdered?  Is this about Raymond Medina?  Because I thought, I mean, it was ruled a suicide, right?”
“It’s about Raymond Medina,” Cragen confirmed.  “Or at least about his death.”
“Don,” Elliot began, impatience marking his tone, “why don’t just tell us what’s going on?  What, now they don’t think Raymond killed himself?”
Cragen took in a deep breath, the rush of air echoing through his nose.  He shook his head, coins and keys jingling in his pockets as he weaved his fingers through them.  “It’s still suicide, at least as far as Medina goes.  But Dominic del Torres…” His gaze shot to Olivia, his stare locking with hers.  “That’ll go on the books as first-degree murder.”
A breath slid noisily between Olivia’s lips, her eyes widening with disbelief before misunderstanding constricted them.  “del Torres?”
“Garcia got a call from Hector Gutierrez a little before two this afternoon,” Cragen explained.  “Gutierrez was at the junkyard, had shown up for a meeting he was supposed to have with del Torres.  When he got there, he found del Torres in one of the trailers with three bullet holes in his chest.”
“He’s dead?” Olivia asked, her voice a croak, deepened as much by relief as shock.
“Huh,” Elliot grumbled, twisting his arms across his chest.  “Looks like karma really is a bitch.”
“Who?” Olivia whispered.  “Did, um.  Does Hector know… Did he see anyone?”
The captain cleared his throat, lowly, abrasively, his eyes remaining fixed with Olivia’s.  “The shooter was still there.  When Gutierrez went into the trailer, he ended up getting a leg full of lead.  Luckily, he managed to escape before he was hit again.  He made it back outside, hid behind some cars and called Garcia.  The two-three’s at the junkyard now.  They have the trailer surrounded and are trying to talk the gunman out before anyone else gets hurt.”
“Then we should let the two-three handle it,” Elliot said sternly, shooting a glance at Olivia.  “It’s their jurisdiction—”
“Who is it?” Olivia broke in shakily.
Cragen nodded, silently confirming her fear before saying, “No one’s sure how he got out of the hospital, Liv.  Seems like it’s a case of a whole lot of little screw-ups adding up to one big one.”
“Oh…God…” Olivia whispered, taking a step back, her legs butting up to the metal frame of the sofa bed.  The structure squeaked in retaliation, swaying unsteadily.  “There were supposed to be guards with him.  Around the clock, they were supposed…to…”
“It happened around eight-thirty this morning,” Cragen said.  “Shift change.  One guard left a few minutes early, the other stopped to get a cup of coffee on his way up to Derio’s room…” He shook his head, exhaling his disapproval.  “Heads are going to roll, bet on it.”
“And how’s that going to help Derio now?” she hissed.  “For some irresponsible son of a bitch to get a mark in his jacket?”
“Liv,” Elliot began warningly.  “Olivia—”
“Don’t!” she reproached, spinning toward him, her eyes widened.  “Don’t lecture me again about choices, Elliot!  del Torres took every single option away from that kid, and Derio fought back the only way he’s been taught to!”
“He hunted the guy down so he could kill him!”
“And del Torres would’ve done the same thing to Derio if he’d gotten the chance!”  She turned back toward Cragen.  “He doesn’t trust anyone.  He won’t listen to them, Don, not even Garcia.  They’ll never get him out of that trailer alive.”
Cragen nodded once, hesitantly, his eyes making a cautious shift toward Elliot before returning to Olivia.  “He’s asked to talk to you, Olivia.”
“Forget it!” Elliot barked.  “This is Garcia’s fuck up, let him clean it up!  This kid is obviously unpredictable!  He’s already shot two people—”
“He’s not going to shoot me!” Olivia returned.  “If that’s what he wanted to do, he would’ve done it a long time ago!”
“That was before, Olivia!” Elliot argued.  “Before you got him arrested!  Fin told me how Derio acted when you saw him in the hospital!  He was pissed, and pissed at you just as much as everyone else!  So maybe this is some kind of vendetta he’s settled on, if he’s going down then he’ll take all of his enemies with him!”
“He’s not going to shoot me!” she repeated, her gaze shuffling frantically between Elliot and the stoic captain.  “He wants someone to help him!  He never wanted to hurt anyone!”
“But he did, didn’t he?” Elliot asked, bug-eyed.  “He shot Gutierrez—a cop—”
“Derio doesn’t know he’s a cop!  He thinks he works for del Torres!  He had to have been scared of what Hector would do to him!”
“It’s stupid!” Elliot continued.  “Stupid to think you can make any difference with this kid!”
She took in a raspy breath, the air rattling indignantly in her throat.  “To hell with all of your lectures about making a difference!” she spit.  “What about just trying to keep Derio alive?  Or what, you don’t think he’s even worth trying to do that much for him?”  
“It doesn’t have anything to do with keeping him alive!” Elliot shot back.  “It has to do with keeping you alive!  Jesus Christ!  You can’t even handle a gun right now!”
“I’m not going to need one!”
Cragen cleared his throat, loudly, causing both detectives to impatiently bite off the remainders of their arguments.  They turned toward him, both flush faced and clutching their points of view with strangleholds.  “I told Garcia I’d talk to you about coming to the junkyard, Olivia, but nothing was ever said about you going inside the trailer.  I’m going to have to agree with Elliot on this one, it’s not a good idea.  Right now, Derio is unpredictable, and I’m not going to give the okay for you to get anywhere near him.”
“I’ll wear a vest,” Olivia said, pleading softening her tone.  
Cragen responded with an indomitable shake of his head.  “I understand that you feel a responsibility to help this kid, but I have a responsibility, too.  And that’s to keep you safe.”
She stepped sideways, the backs of her legs sliding along the air-chilled frame of the bed until she cleared it.  Shaking her head, reemphasizing her disagreement, she turned and headed into the bedroom.  Rushing to the corner, she grabbed her shoes off of the floor, tossing them behind her onto the unmade bed as Elliot filled the doorway.
“Christ,” she muttered, kneeling in front of her suitcase and digging hurriedly through its contents.  “Munch didn’t even put any socks in here.  Why in the hell wouldn’t he pack at least one pair of socks?”
“I’m going to the junkyard with you.”
“Do whatever you have to do,” she returned, heading toward the bed.  “Just make sure you stay the hell out of my way.”
“I didn’t create this mess, Olivia.”
“You haven’t done anything to help clean it up, either,” she reproved, dropping down onto the bed and propping her left foot on the edge of the mattress.  “All you want to do is fight, Elliot—del Torres, Derio, even me.”  She grabbed a boot, shoving her foot into it.  “But what you haven’t taken the time to understand is, del Torres was the only one interested in fighting back.”  
“What about that speech you gave this morning about being angry—”
“I am angry, damn it!”  She grabbed her other boot, dropping her left foot to the floor and lifting her right one.  “I’m mad as hell, but that doesn’t mean my judgment has become so clouded that I think the useless death of a thirteen-year-old child will somehow make me feel better!  He’s scared, and he needs someone to help him!”
“And that someone has to be you?” Elliot asked brusquely.
“It sure as hell doesn’t look like anyone else is going to step up and do it,” she snarled, jumping up from the bed.  “So, yeah.  I guess that means it has to be me.”  
“No, it doesn’t,” he disagreed, stepping into the center of the doorway as Olivia charged up to him.  “We’re out of this now, Liv.  Let Garcia handle it.”
“Get out of my way.”
“Tell Cragen to leave without you.”
“No.”
“Good Samaritans get their heads blown off every day, Olivia.”  
“Then I guess we’re about to find out if this is the day it’s going to happen to me.”  She crossed her arms defiantly, spiking an eyebrow.  “Get out of my way, Elliot.”
He held his ground, tensing, his eyes narrowing intrepidly.  “What in the hell is it about this kid?” he asked with a small shake of his head.  “Just tell me that much.  Jesus.  Just help me understand what’s going on in your head.”
She slinked backwards a step, peeking over Elliot’s shoulder as Cragen, with his cell phone pressed against his ear and one-sided conversation muffled, disappeared into the kitchen.  “He needs help,” she answered.  “He needs someone to care that much about him, just enough that they’re willing to at least try and help him.”
“So why does it have to be you?” Elliot persisted.
“I told you—”
“Now tell me the truth.”
Olivia groaned, reluctance thickening her voice.  She dug the tips of her fingers into her forehead, her eyelids fluttering closed as she massaged her skin through hard strokes.  “It doesn’t matter, Elliot,” she finally said.  
“It matters to you, so explain it to me.”
She took another step backwards, and another, sighing.  “Because I know how it feels,” she admitted.  “I know how it feels to wish so damn badly that someone—anyone—will look at you, just see you for once.  And I know what it feels like when no one will.”  
He leaned a shoulder into the doorframe, nodding.  Urging her to continue.
She knotted her hands in the hem of her t-shirt, pulling it even tauter across her chest.  Licking nervously at her lips, she shrugged nonchalantly, attempting to lessen the weight of overbearing memories.  “When I was a kid… I don’t know, starting around the time I was five or six, my mom used to load me up in the car and we’d drive to her bar of choice for the night.  She’d fix me a bed in the backseat then she’d roll up all the windows, lock the doors, and leave me in the car while she went inside to drink.  It’d be dark, sometimes it was cold, and I’d… I’d, uh, I’d get scared, you know, in the car all by myself.  I’d watch the people walking by on the sidewalk, I’d stare at them out of the window, but none of them ever looked at me.  All I ever wanted was for just one person to stop, to ask me if I was okay, if I needed help, or…” She shook her head, laughing sadly, with pointlessness.  “No one ever did, though.  In all the years I sat in that backseat by myself, hour after hour, sometimes crying, no one ever stopped just to see if I was all right.  And I hated feeling invisible; I hated it as much as I hated my mom’s drinking.  But now I understand that it wasn’t me, I wasn’t invisible.  It was them; they didn’t want to take the time to see me because if they did, then they’d have to get involved.  And you know what?  After a while, I started hating them, too.”
Elliot grumbled through a breath, sliding a hand over the top of his head.  He took a step toward her, stopping abruptly as Olivia’s hands shot out between them.
“I don’t want your sympathy,” she warned.  “All of that happened a long time ago, and I’ve dealt with it.  But it wasn’t always easy to do.  I was lucky, though, because I made some good friends and had a few good teachers—I’ve had you—people in my life who’ve helped me realize that I didn’t have to always be that scared kid in the backseat of my mom’s Buick.  People finally took the time to see me, Elliot.  But if no one had, I don’t know if I would’ve ended up any different—any better—than my mom ever was.”
She turned, walking back to the bed, deflating on one corner that the blankets had been ripped away from.  “I can tell it’s how Derio feels, too,” she continued.  “Invisible.  That’s why all of this started, why he took us with the car.  It wasn’t because he wanted to hurt us; he just wanted to finally be noticed.  He wanted someone to finally look at him, to see him.”  She lifted her hands, turning them, scrutinizing the strips of cloth wrapped around her palms.  “I’m not kidding myself.  I know the odds are against him.  But I, I…” She smiled weakly, with a mixture of pleading and futility.  “I won’t be able to live with myself if I’m one of those people who just keeps walking and doesn’t stop to help.”  
Elliot hesitated, making a partial glance over his shoulder as Cragen walked back into the living room.  Slowly, still with uncertainty but also with an inkling of understanding, he motioned toward Olivia with a tilt of his chin.  “Okay,” he said, empty of the sympathy that she had proclaimed not to want.  “Then let’s go give it a try.”
+++
March 27, 3:33 P.M.
Her breath stopped as the front tires of the Crown Victoria rolled onto the gravel, and by the time the back wheels began to crunch through the rocks her heart had started drumming in her chest.  Rationality told her to relax, or at least tried in vain to convince her that she could.  del Torres was dead, which meant that, more than likely, his misguided followers had already scattered.  Loyalty became just a seven-letter word when the threat of harm was expunged from its definition, and without del Torres to give repeated, firsthand lessons in his odious meaning of it, the boys would forget it just as quickly as they had been forced to learn it.
Olivia leaned her head into the window, her eyes squinting against the sun’s rays as she caught sight of the lights in the distance.  Flashes shimmered above the stacks of crushed metal, red and blue beacons that ricocheted off of the visible destruction that filled the junkyard.  In the front seat, Cragen mumbled to himself as he fought with the steering wheel, whispering something she couldn’t quite decipher about potholes and screwed up alignments.  She thought about telling him that he should try making the drive locked in the trunk of a car, but she didn’t.  Because she knew that no matter how hard she tried to make the comment lighthearted, none of them would find it funny.  So she continued to stare, letting the crushed frames pass by silently, one after the other after the other.  Endless rows of cars that formed one passageway after another, none of which really led anywhere, least of all toward freedom.
“Jesus,” Cragen grumbled, jerking the steering wheel to the left.  “How long were the two of you running around here?”
Elliot grunted an unintelligible response, something that Olivia interpreted as, “Too damn long.”  She nodded, just vaguely, her agreement unnoticed by the petulant men in the front seat.  It had been too damn long, hours that had stretched into an unsolicited eternity.
“Looks like the two-three brought the entire precinct,” Elliot said as the Crown Victoria edged between the mangled frames of a Jeep Cherokee and Dodge Ram.  As they cleared the narrow path, they became immersed in a sea of cruisers with lights flashing and doors propped open.  Uniforms squatted behind each vehicle, all with guns drawn and impatience masking their faces.  
“No one gets out of the car,” Cragen instructed, jamming the gearshift into park, his squinted eyes aimed at the rearview mirror and Olivia’s tensed reflection trapped within its boundary.  “That’s an order.  Anyone even rolls down a window and they’ll be riding their desk for the next six months.”
Olivia crooked her neck, taking in the organized mayhem.  Beyond the cruisers sat the two trailers, both with front doors shut tight and blinds drawn over every window.  The sight of them flipped her stomach, the broken down one that she had accepted would be Elliot’s and her tomb and whose abysmal interior she could still visualize even though she wished that she couldn’t.  And the opulent one beside it, big and sturdy and repulsive.   
She startled as the backdoor on the opposite side was pulled open and Manuel Garcia dropped his bulky frame onto the corner of the seat.  He nodded his hello, his attention instantly falling on Olivia.  “Glad you came.  We can use your help.”
“Where’s Derio?” she asked quickly, watching as Garcia pulled a cell phone out of the breast pocket of his shirt.  “Is he okay?”
“He killed del Torres and damn near blew off Gutierrez’s leg,” Garcia grumbled, punching through a succession of numbers.  “What do you think, Detective Benson?”  Jamming the phone against the side of his sweat-marked face, he sent a heavy sigh over the line before saying, “She’s here.  Put me through to Derio.”
“You’re not getting out of the car,” Cragen repeated, turning in the front seat and dousing Olivia with a humorless stare.  “That boy starts asking for promises, you don’t make any until they’re cleared first.  Do we understand each other?”
“Yeah.  I got it,” Olivia assured, taking the phone from Garcia as he shoved it across the seat toward her, instructing, “Do your best to talk him out.  The last thing I want is this kid’s blood on my hands.”
She agreed through a hesitant nod, gripping the phone as her gaze returned to the half-rotted trailer situated on the other side of the police cars instead of acknowledging Elliot’s anxious stare peeking back at her.  She inhaled shallowly through each high-pitched chime that screamed at her over the line, and exhaled shakily through the seconds of stillness that separated them.  As the fifth ring resounded, she let her eyes fall closed, whispering in supplication, “Come on, Derio.  Don’t do this.”
“Have there been any shots fired inside the trailer since Gutierrez got out?” Elliot asked, turning his attention briefly, reluctantly, on Garcia.
“None,” Garcia answered, straining to catch a glimpse out of the windshield between Elliot and Cragen.  “I just talked to Derio a couple of minutes ago, told him that Detective Benson was on her way and we’d have her call as soon as she got here.”  He cleared away a film of sweat from above his upper lip.  “He seemed relieved, said he wanted to talk to her.”
“He’s not answering,” Olivia announced, holding the phone tremblingly between Garcia and her.  Her stare made the rounds in the car, connecting only fleetingly with each worry-filled set of eyes before settling on Cragen.  “Captain, I know what you said, what we talked about, but I—”
“The answer is still no, Detective,” Cragen countered brusquely.
“I’ll go in with her,” Elliot said, nodding firmly, resolved, as the focus in the car fell silently on him.  “Everything Liv has said about this kid is true.  When they dragged her back to these trailers the other day…” He shook his head, his instincts battling his combined anger and fear for control.  “I watched the whole thing go down.  Derio could’ve pulled the trigger on her and saved himself, but he didn’t.  He didn’t shoot her then, and I don’t think he’ll shoot her now.  He trusts her, and she’s the only one who’s going to be able to talk him out.”
“As much as I appreciate that the two of you seem to have some unexplainable faith in this kid, I don’t have any,” Cragen responded.  “And I’m afraid in this situation, that’s what matters.”
“Then his blood will end up on all of our hands,” Olivia said, her voice soft but slicing potently through the car.  “Do you really want to have to live with that?  Because I already know that I can’t.”
Cragen grumbled under his breath, resituating in the seat to face the windshield.  His eyes narrowed thoughtfully as his gaze traveled the length of the smaller trailer and then jumped to the larger one.  Twisting his hands around the steering wheel, he tapped a fingertip against the leather covering.  Each hard rap counting out a second that was marked by deliberation, anxiousness, uncertainty and professional responsibilities versus far weightier personal ones. 
Olivia leaned forward, draping a hand over the edge of the front seat.  “Don, please—”
“That’s Captain, Detective,” Cragen snapped.  “Right now, we’re not friends.  In fact, let me spell out for you exactly what our positions in this situation are.  I’m you’re superior, the one who gets to make all of your decisions for you, and you’re the one who accepts those decisions without questioning the hell out of them.”
Olivia forced down her surprise with a hard swallow, nodding as she settled back in the seat.  “Yes, sir,” she whispered.
Cragen spun around, his expression hardened with disapproval.  “I wish to hell I could understand exactly what your attachment to this kid is, but I’ll be honest, I don’t.  All I do know is that this pint-sized son of a bitch that you seem so willing to risk absolutely everything for tried to kill two of my veteran detectives.”  He cocked an eyebrow tautly, daring Olivia to argue further.  “You can twist the facts around all you want, but it still won’t make them something that they can’t be.  And the facts are, everything that happened to your partner and you is this kid’s fault.  So don’t threaten me with his blood staining my hands, Detective.  Not when Derio Soto didn’t give a damn if yours ended up staining his.”
Elliot cleared his throat, attempting to reduce the tension that had become suffocating within the confines of the car, and trying even harder to deflect it off of a crimson-faced Olivia.  “Cap’n, what’s it going to hurt if Liv and I just try—”
“And I wish to hell I didn’t understand why you’ve had this sudden change of heart,” Cragen continued, turning his heated attention on Elliot.  “Three days ago you were ready to lock every last one of these bastards away and toss the key in the Hudson, and that included Derio Soto.  So, let’s start thinking with the right head again, Elliot—the same one you were thinking with when your ass was wheeled into Mount Sinai on a stretcher.”
“Well.”  Garcia choked out a cough, dropping the cell phone back into his shirt pocket.  “No one loves an awkward moment more than I do, but I have a situation here that needs my attention.”  He gave the door a shove, fully opening it and dropping his left foot down into the gravel.  The rocks rustled beneath the hard sole of his shoe, their abrasive churning causing Olivia to involuntarily bristle.  She turned her face toward the window, assaulting the glass with a heavy breath.  In the soft echo of air she heard Derio’s voice, strained and unsure as he fought to put all of his energy into an unproven belief—a belief that she had fought like hell to convince him to embrace as his own.
“It’s time to be a man.  And a real man does what he thinks is right, even if no one else agrees with him.”
Fault became the weaker opponent when matched against sacrifice.  There was no contest, because it ceased to have any merit or continue to be a conquerable opponent.  It was the lesson she had prayed to be able to teach Derio in order to save Elliot’s and her lives, but in the end, had become the lesson that he had taught her instead.  He had shown her through a child’s naivety that choices—especially the most difficult ones—could be made without the fear of consequences influencing them.  Because when they were made from the heart, the final decision based solely on right versus wrong, then there was nothing to fear.
In the end, there would be nothing to regret.
“Agent Garcia.”  She tightened her hand around the door handle, ignoring the questioning stares from the front seat as she pushed the barrier open.  “I’ll go with you.  We should try and call Derio again, and if he doesn’t answer this time, I’ll go in and get him.”
CHAPTER SIXTEEN
March 27, 4:02 P.M.
“You’ve reached Serena Benson.  I’m currently unavailable, so leave a message and I’ll return your call.”
The night her mother had died, after collecting Serena’s personal effects from the hospital, she had gone home alone.  She’d poured a glass of red wine, changed into sweat pants and a nearly threadbare Siena t-shirt, and huddled in the corner of the sofa.  She had opened her mother’s purse, shock and indifference blending as she’d rifled mechanically through its contents.  At the bottom of the pouch, buried beneath lipstick containers and a tin of breath mints and three miniature, unopened bottles of gin, she’d found her mother’s cell phone.
And so she had called it.
“You’ve reached Serena Benson.  I’m currently unavailable, so leave a message and I’ll return your call.”
She had dialed over and over again; the repetitive, shrill chimes of her mother’s phone the only interruption of the silence throughout the night.  Finally, as the cell’s charge had begun to die, the last bar blinking and fading, she’d left a message.  She didn’t know why she had, just that she’d needed to.
“Mom, it’s Olivia.  I’m, uh, I’m calling about that dinner I promised you.  There’s a new Italian place that opened up around the corner from me.  I know Italian’s your favorite, so I thought maybe we could give it a try.  Just, um, let’s… Call me, Mom.  Please?”
Her entire life, that night included, had been summed up by one word.  Please.  It had always been a useless appendage to every conversation that she’d had with her mother.  
“Don’t make me stay in the car by myself, Mommy.  Please.”
“Don’t go out tonight, Mama, stay home.  Please.”
“Don’t drink…Don’t get mad…Don’t hit…Don’t cry… Please.”
“Call me, Mom.”
Please.
It was a meaningless word.  Please.  Victims used it to beg to their attackers, children used it as a weapon to try and get their way, con artists said it in hopes that it would make them seem trustworthy.  But it didn’t hold any merit, no type of power at all.  It was required as a means of begging just as much as it was deemed appropriate manners.  But no one ever gave any more thought to hearing it than they did to saying it.
It was just a word.  One that existed without there being a valid reason for it.
“Call me, Mom.  Please?”
She knew it had been as silly to beg her mother to call her back as it had been to call her in the first place.  In retrospect, she didn’t know why she had done it.  Maybe out of vindictiveness, so that she could add one last broken promise to the list of others.  Maybe it had been a way to justify staying angry with her mother, or another way of avoiding the forgiveness that had never managed to fully infiltrate their relationship.  Or maybe—maybe—it had been a way to ease her own guilty conscience.  After a lifetime of licking wounds inflicted by her mother’s broken promises, she had needed to keep the last one that she’d made.
She had heard Derio say it, just faintly, as Vedie had pressed the muzzle of the gun against his head.  Please.  It hadn’t even been as strong as a whisper, just a soft breath that the uselessness of begging had unnaturally weighted.  She had wondered then who he was saying it to, Vedie, her, or maybe God?  She hadn’t known whom he’d been pleading with, only that she’d heard the same sense of hopelessness in his voice as she’d heard in her own when she had replayed the message from her mother’s phone.  And on the off chance that it had been her that Derio had chosen to beg to, she wouldn’t ignore him.  
Not as she had always been ignored.
Because someone finally had to give some type of significance to a word that was supposed to hold more power than any other.
“Jesus Christ, Olivia!  Just slow down for a second!”
The gravel shifted beneath her as Elliot’s hand hooked around her arm, dragging her to an unsteady stop.  His fingers burned against her skin, singeing, making her recoil from the touch that just a few hours earlier she had begged to never stop feeling.
“Let go of me, Elliot!” Olivia hissed, yanking her arm out of his hold.  She made a quick glance at the semi-attentive cops situated strategically around them, her unambiguous scowl causing an instant shift in the sets of eyes that had foolishly drifted in their direction.
“You want to tell me what in the hell you’re doing?” he barked.  “Besides throwing away your entire career for some kid who won’t fucking appreciate that you’ve given up even one thing for him—let alone everything!”
“I’m not doing this with you again!” she returned, shooting a follow-up warning glare at the few gape-mouthed officers who had been stupid enough to let their curious stares linger.  “If you’re worried about getting into trouble with Cragen, then go back to the car!  This is what I need to do, Elliot; it’s my decision!  But I sure as hell never said it had to be yours, too!”
“I thought we were in this together?” he asked, his eyes widening, questioning as much as mocking her.
“Together?  Oh, Jesus!”  She turned away from him, just partially, laughter rumbling in her throat.  “We haven’t been in this together since the very start!  All we’ve done is work against each other!  You want to fight one way, and I have to fight another way!  So stop trying to control my emotions when you can’t even control your own, and let me do what I have to!”
“You want me to just standby and watch you throw everything away?”  He shook his head, laughing softly, with the same tone of condescension that she had used.  “I get how you feel about this kid, okay?  I understand, Olivia, but no matter how much Derio reminds you of yourself, he isn’t you!  And you can’t keep trying to convince yourself that there’s some kind of indestructible bond between the two of you just because you both had crappy childhoods!  That fact alone doesn’t make you the same as him or give you some edge over everyone else when it comes to understanding him!  He’s messed up, and the hard truth is, he’s too messed up for even you to fix!”
Olivia gritted her teeth, her nostrils flaring in retaliation to both anger and the thick, indigestible air.  She shook her head as Elliot took a step toward her, her hands shooting out between them to ward off any touches and unwanted proximity.
Elliot took another step, edging closer hesitantly, undauntedly.  “Three days ago it was me who was trapped in that piece of shit trailer with you!”  He took another step, and another, dust sputtering between them as he lowered his face in front of hers and thrust a finger in the direction of the dilapidated mobile home.  “I’m the one who felt you tense up every time there was a noise outside the door, and the one who talked to you about regrets and funerals!  I’m the one who had to wait through every fucking second for one of those bastards to come into that room and rape you!  It was me, not that son of a bitch that’s in there now—the same son of a bitch who started all of this and damn near ended it by putting a bullet in your head!  But even still, I’m the one you want to be pissed at, and he’s the one you think you need to risk everything to try and fucking save!” 
Olivia backed away from him, her steps small, uncertain, as her gaze dropped to the rocky terrain between them.  During the first week after her mother had died, she had kept the silver cell phone charged on her bedside table.  She didn’t know why, only that it had given her an unfamiliar sense of peace when she would awake in the night and see it there.  It was a connection of sorts; somewhere Olivia could always hear her mother’s voice.  And during the loneliest times, she’d listened to her mother’s message and made herself believe that she was communicating with the one person she’d never really been able to communicate with.
Near the end of the week, late into a Thursday night, the phone had rung.  The first chime had awoken her instantly, and she had whispered a hopeful, “Hello?” even before the second chime became audible.  She had known it was ridiculous to think she would hear her mother’s voice on the other end of the line.  But still, when the heavily-accented, unfamiliar voice ripped through the thin veil of sleep that still shrouded her mind, issuing only a partially-sincere, “Sorry to wake you, Miss.  Must’ve dialed the wrong number,” she had started to cry anyway.  She had said, please, damn it.  Time after time, over and over and over again.  But not once had her mother ever acknowledged her begging as anything more than an annoyance.  It had never been potent enough to change her mother’s habits, or mind, or make her keep a promise, or dissuade her anger.  
“Call me, Mom.  Please?”
And she realized that night that it had never been enough to make any type of impact on her mother because she had always been the one begging, and her mother had never seen her as being enough.
She brushed a strand of hair away from her face, fighting the light breeze as she hooked the wavy tendril behind her ear.  “I told you,” she said, “I’m not kidding myself about Derio.  I can’t fix him, I know that, but knowing it doesn’t mean I’m going to turn my back on him.”
“You walk into that trailer, and you’re putting yourself at that kid’s mercy again.”
She nodded, just once, with acceptance.  “I don’t know why, El, but I do trust him.  If he’d wanted to kill me, he had plenty of opportunities.”
“That was before,” Elliot argued.  “Before he was arrested…before Raymond…”
“And all any of that means is that now he needs someone on his side more than ever.”
Elliot shook his head, glancing back at the Crown Victoria.  He could see Cragen in the front seat still, his attention focused on them, his anger visibly strong enough to conquer the distance that separated them.  “Liv.”  He swiped the pad of his thumb across his chin, a faint smudge of dirt marking his touch.  “Give yourself a minute to think about what you’re doing, to really think about it.  And do me a favor?  Think it through like Detective Olivia Benson would, not like Serena Benson’s daughter would.”
Olivia flinched as Elliot’s hand passed over hers, just fleetingly, barely touching, and she drew her arms into her chest.  The morning after the misdialed telephone call—one week to the day that her mother had died—she had unplugged the cell and let the battery die.  She had left it sitting on her bedside table, keeping watch over the battery’s signal as it faded away bar by bar, hour by hour.  And when the screen finally blackened and her mother’s voice was stilled, she buried the phone in the bottom of a drawer.
She never charged the phone again, never again heard the uncustomary carefree tone of her mother’s voice as it had sounded on the taped message.  She didn’t want to hear it, because it wasn’t how she wanted to remember her mother—as someone who had been responsible and lighthearted and magnanimous.  She wanted to remember her mother, with every flaw she had possessed and every promise she had broken.
“Liv—”
She shook her head, quieting him.  “I can’t separate the two,” she said, her voice soft but unapologetic.  “Not this time.  I don’t know why, Elliot, but I, I…” Her gaze once again settled on the jagged ground between them, and she studied the consistent, unsystematic shuffle of Elliot’s feet.  The gravel churned gratingly with each of his movements, rocks popping off the sides of his shoes while others crunched beneath the soles.  Closing her eyes, she breathed in the dust, feeling it settle heavily in her lungs.  
The truth was, she didn’t want to separate herself from the child she had once been.  If she did, then she would forget, and she couldn’t risk that happening.  She would forget how much weightier promises were to children, and even when they’d never been given any reason to, how easily they still trusted.  She would forget that Derio was a child who trusted her, that there was a part of him that was still innocent.  And if she let that happen, then her anger would gain control.  She would put off forgiving, remand the idea to a back corner of her mind.  It would be easy to do, really, maybe even effortless.  She just had to remember the fear she’d felt when Derio had climbed behind the wheel of her car, laughing as he pointed the pistol at Elliot and then her.  She only had to remember the panic that had gnawed at her nerves as Elliot and she had planned their own funerals and confessed regrets, or how lonely she had felt following Derio through the maze of steel.  And how frightened she’d felt through each twist and turn they’d made, expecting to find Elliot.  Dead.  Murdered by the children that she wanted to disassociate herself with but needed even more to find a way to forgive.
 
“Try and understand that I have to do this,” she whispered.
Elliot took a step back, chewing on his lower lip through a slow shake of his head.  He glanced at the Crown Victoria again, at the captain’s stoic frame inside.  “I wish I could understand it,” he confessed.  “I really wish to hell that I could.”
“Back at the house you said that you did.”
He shook his head again, stronger, disagreeing with her memories just as much as the conclusion she had drawn from them.  “I understood you needing to come here, to talk to him.  But that was only because I thought you were going to follow Cragen’s order and keep your distance.  I don’t understand you being so fucking willing to put yourself in danger again, though.”
“Because it needs to end,” she responded quickly, an intimation of anger attached to her voice.  “I need for it to end just as much as you do.  But if I don’t do everything I can to help Derio, then it never will.”
“So, the kid finally does what he set out to do in the first place and kills you, that’s the way you think it has to end?”
“God, no!” she hissed, rubbing the tips of her fingers beneath her eyes and tying to ease the sting of the dust.
“Then for Christ’s sake, explain it to me!  Once and for all, Olivia, tell me what’s going on in your head!  Make me understand, damn it—”
“I really hate to interrupt…whatever this is…” Garcia stepped up between them, his bushy eyebrows rising as he pointed toward the ramshackle trailer in the near distance.  “But to refresh everyone’s memory, on the other side of those paper-thin walls we have a kid who’s already shot two people and, in my best guess, is a little irrational and unpredictable right now.  So can I make a suggestion that the two of you continue this heart-to-heart a little closer to the ground and behind the safety of a cruiser?”  He frowned markedly, shaking his head  “Of course, if that’s going to be too much trouble, we could go ahead and tape bull’s eyes to both of your chests and make you easier targets for Derio just in case he decides to take a few shots out here.”  Tilting his head toward the haphazard row of cruisers and officers crouched behind them, he muttered as he took off ahead of the silent detectives, “Shall we, before someone gets their head blown off?”
Olivia shot a wide-eyed glare at Elliot before spinning around and chasing after Garcia.  She bridled hearing Elliot’s fast steps behind her, almost on top of her, but didn’t look back or acknowledge him as they made their way to the far end of the row of cars.  Instead, she remained focused on Garcia, following his labored lead and dropping down behind a cruiser.  Both Elliot and she watched as the agent leaned into the front seat of the car, rustling and grunts accompanying each of his hurried movements.  As he slid back outside, Olivia’s gaze immediately settled on the bulletproof vest he’d left balanced half-on, half-off the edge of the seat.
“Derio didn’t pick up the phone when you called back?” she asked.
“No answer,” Garcia confirmed, sliding backwards, the soles of his shoes cutting grooves in the thick gravel.  He rose up slightly and stole a glimpse of the trailer through the dust-stained, rolled up driver’s side window.  “I know how your captain feels about your involvement in this, Detective Benson, and I can’t say that I blame him.  But in this particular situation I do have the authority to overrule him.”
“In this situation,” Elliot repeated, inching up beside Olivia.  “But God willing, this crap is going to end today, and then what?”
“I’d never order you to go inside that trailer,” Garcia interjected, nodding at Olivia, “but I can make it happen if it’s what you want to do.”
Olivia kept her focus on the steel-colored eyes in front of her instead of chancing a glance at the steely eyes beside her.  She took in a breath, preparing for Elliot’s backlash and ingesting her own fear all in one gulp.  Nodding toward the precariously balanced vest on the edge of the seat, her gaze remained on Garcia.  “I’ll go in.”
Elliot groaned lowly, not with surprise but abiding dissent.  “She can’t even handle a gun right now,” he said, his sharp stare locking with Garcia’s impervious one.  “Have you bothered to take a look at her hands?  What the hell do you expect, for her to go in there with only a vest to protect her?  What happens if that kid opens fire?”
“He won’t,” Olivia returned through clenched teeth, reaching around Garcia and grabbing hold of the dark blue vest.  “Just go back to the car with Cragen, okay?  I can’t… Jesus, Elliot, I can’t deal with you right now, not on top of everything else.”
Elliot dropped from his haunches onto his knees, a moan rumbling in his throat as the spiky rocks assaulted his skin.  “You can’t deal…” he groused.  “And that’s all that matters, right, what you can’t deal with?  But you go in there and that kid blows your head off, screw what the rest of us have to deal with.  Screw what I’ll have to deal with—”
“Go back to the car, Elliot!” she hissed, punching an arm through the armhole of the vest.  Damn it, she needed him to go, to walk away.  Otherwise, she would never be able to do what she needed to do as much for Derio as she did for herself.  At least try to save, at least try.  Because if she let him go without at least putting in the effort to fight, then she would never have to forgive—not Derio, not even herself.  Her fear and anger were what would stay with her, but she would lose her compassion and understanding.  
She would lose only and gain nothing.  
“Can you handle a weapon, Detective Benson?” Garcia questioned warily.
Olivia nodded assuredly, slipping her other arm into the vest before cinching it.  “If I have to.”
“If you have to?” Elliot grumbled.  “Yesterday you couldn’t even hold onto a frying pan.”
“You might have to fire,” Garcia warned.  “And if it comes to that, I need to know you’ll be able to put your own safety first—that you’ll be able to protect yourself.  Because I’m not sending you in there on a suicide mission, Detective Benson, I’m sending you in because right now you seem to be the only person Derio has any trust in.  And there’s only one end result I’m looking for here, to bring him out of that trailer without anyone else getting hurt.”
“Then we want the same thing,” Olivia returned sternly.  She extended her bandaged right hand as Garcia pulled his pistol out of his holster.  He spun the gun around, hanging onto the barrel as he shoved the handle toward her.  She took hold of the smooth metal, squeezing lightly and biting down into her lower lip as her palm retaliated with a flash of pain.  She could feel the thin slices in her skin ripping apart and fought the shudder that swept up her arm, breathing in sharply, trying not to give any noticeable indication of the pain.
Garcia glanced down at her whitened fingers, his heavy brows flattening.  “Detective Benson—”
“I’m fine!” Olivia reproached, sweat beginning to dot the skin above her upper lip.  Christ.  She just needed one second without Garcia and Elliot analyzing her every move—her every fucking breath and flinch—to get herself together.  Of all people, Elliot knew that she could fight through the pain, that she could do her job no matter the cost.  She could keep fighting when perps threw punches that would drop someone twice her size.  She could stay upright and coherent without sleeping for over twenty-four hours.  She could push forward—push herself, damn it—no matter how hellish the circumstances she was fighting through.  And she’d be damned before she let a couple of scratches stop her this time.
“This is a fucking joke,” Elliot hissed, pulling the gun out of Olivia’s shaking hand.  His eyes narrowed as he caught sight of the fresh blood that had seeped through the gauze before rising to find Olivia’s pain-filled eyes waiting.  Begging him.  Begging for just one second of understanding.  
Nodding reluctantly, not with agreement or even a pretense of understanding but only in concession, he motioned toward the front seat of the car.  “You got another vest in there?  Because she can’t handle a gun, and she can’t go inside without one.  So I guess that means I’m going in with her.”
+++
March 27, 4:33 P.M.
“How long are we going to be here?” 
“Forever, bitch.  This is it.  You ain’t never leaving.”
The concrete block swayed beneath her, dipping down further on the right side as the left side wobbled upwards.  She didn’t remember that from before, how unsteady it was.  Maybe that was because she had been too unsteady—more shaky than the makeshift step—with Raymond pushing her into the trailer, her mind racing as the squeal of the rusted door hinges overpowered the air, and as she had become submerged in a sea of immature leers and hard-ons.
“Stay behind me,” Elliot whispered over his shoulder as his left hand curved around the doorknob.  
Olivia nodded, swaying jerkily as Elliot lifted his weight off of the top step.  She leaned in close to him, peeking over his shoulder as the door glided open.  The staleness inside of the trailer assaulted her as soon as the barrier was cracked from its frame, a pungent combination of body odor and urine and rotting food.
And death.
She choked on a breath, pressing the back of her hand beneath her nose.  She didn’t remember the stench either, at least not consuming every square inch of the tiny trailer.  But it was heavy, thick, causing her stomach to churn and mouth to water.  She turned her head to the side, gulping down a mouthful of dusty air before tackling the final step and creeping through the narrow doorway behind Elliot.
As the door slid closed behind her, the hinges once again crying out and lock clicking echoingly, she startled.  Her gaze instantly shot to her left, to the defined footprints that dotted the dirty floor.  She could hear the voices again, laughing as Raymond had shoved her inside.  Some of the boys had whistled, others had just ogled silently, but each had made their intent—and interest—chillingly clear.  Once the door had slammed shut, she had stopped being anything more significant than an object.  Something to be used and discarded, but not valued or pitied. 
Elliot nudged her with his elbow, nodding to his right and directing her gaze toward the kitchen.  Motionless legs were visible on the other side of the half-broken down counter, draped by black slacks that were wrinkled and stained with dirt.  The right leg was hooked with the knee pressed against the dulled, wooden edge of the counter’s base, and the left one was straightened with the toes pointing toward the backdoor.  
Olivia took a step away from the door, staying on Elliot’s heels, rocks crunching beneath the soles of their shoes with each hesitant step.  She remembered how the pebbles and debris had poked into her knees and hands as they had crawled across the room.  But she hadn’t realized then that it was only the beginning of the pain, the first of the cuts and slices and bruises.  Foolishly—or maybe self-protectively—she had convinced herself that the threats and obstacles they’d faced inside of the trailer would be the worst of it.  They would escape out of the backdoor and directly into freedom, and their nightmare would end without really having a chance to begin.  What had happened inside of the trailer could be forgotten, eventually, even if all that had happened before they’d been imprisoned there never would be.
Elliot glanced back at her, nodding once before motioning toward the darkened hallway at the opposite end of the living room.
Olivia hooked her hands around his waist quickly, just briefly, as Elliot steadied himself in front of her, his arms straightened and the barrel of the gun aimed at the opening of the hall.  She fought down another breath, her stomach rolling nauseously as the sour combination that contaminated the room filled her mouth.  
“I don’t think anyone’s in the mood to get surprised right now,” Elliot whispered.  “Find out where he is.”
She nodded, her eyes watering as she forced down a strained swallow.  “Derio?”  Her voice hit the malodorous air weakly, and she cleared her throat before battling another swallow.  “Derio!  It’s Detective Benson—Olivia!  I need to talk to you!  Tell me where you—” A shot pulsed through the trailer, the blast overriding all other sounds as it exploded in her ears.  As a second blast erupted, whistling past them and escaping through an already fractured, dust-curtained window at the far end of the kitchen, Elliot’s arms locked around her waist and dragged her to the ground.  
She hit the floor on all fours, her arms and legs instantly forced into motion as Elliot shoved her in the direction of the counter.  Even before she rounded the half-dilapidated, wooden base, Garcia’s frantic voice burst out of the radio affixed to the shoulder of her vest.  She came to a sudden stop, only partially shielded by the wood, with Garcia screaming demands into her right ear, Elliot still trying to push her forward, and Dominic del Torres’s hollow eyes fixated on her.  His face was pale, drained of color; emotionless except for the arrogance that had become so ingrained in his features that even death hadn’t been strong enough to completely eradicate its appearance.  A chill swept over her, the same as she had felt in the squad room each time she’d found the son of a bitch staring at her.  As if he held all of the power and had somehow gained control over her destiny, as if he had already won, but she was the only one who hadn’t yet realized it.
“Move before that bastard takes another shot!” Elliot hissed behind her, ramming his shoulder into her hip.  
“Detectives! I need someone to talk to me now!  Tell me what’s going on in there!”
“Stay where you are!  We’re okay!” Olivia huffed into the radio as she climbed over del Torres’s cold body ahead of Elliot.  As her hands and knees landed back on the floor, she felt the sharp-edged rocks dig into her skin, reopening the cuts and scrapes that had only just begun healing.  A sickened grunt scratched her throat as her hand became snagged with del Torres’s stiff left hand, his bent fingers sliding between hers and gripping onto her.  She yanked her arm upward, her hand popping into the air and flying past Elliot’s flushed face with only a fraction of space between them. 
“Thirty fucking seconds is all I’m giving you, and then we’re coming in!”
“Stay where you are!” she screamed again as Elliot pushed her into the corner and fell in front of her, his stiffened arms floating steadily as he aimed the pistol at the end of the counter and then raised it above them toward the ledge.  Gradually, silence crept back over the dwelling, its reemergence overwhelming and eerie.  She dug her way out from behind Elliot, moving beside him and cowering behind the ambiguous safety of the broken-down structure.
“So, you still trust him?” Elliot grunted, shooting a sideways glance at her.  “I’m not trying to start another argument here, but I’m going to have to disagree with you again and say that you’re wrong.  Al Capone, Junior seems more than a little pissed off at you right now.”
“He’s scared!”
“He just tried to blow our fucking heads off—and that was after you identified yourself!  Face it, this kid isn’t looking for some heart-to-heart bonding session!  All he cares about is getting revenge!”
Olivia knocked Elliot’s shoulder with hers, glaring.  “He’ll talk to me!”
“Yeah?  Well, it’s going to be a little tough for you to talk back if you’re dead!”
She shook her head, quickly, with as much anger as intolerance, and rose up until her eyes cleared the edge of the scuffed counter.  Only soundlessness occupied the living room, and as Elliot lifted up beside her, steadying his arms and the pistol on the countertop, both sets of eyes fell on the shadows that danced inconsistently in the hallway.  Olivia squinted, trying to separate the cloudy shafts of light that snuck in through windows from the tricks her mind had begun taunting her with.  She could see faces, prematurely hardened with anger beaten into them and distrust their most defining feature.  She could see young, buff bodies, rigid muscles, forces that she had known from the second that Raymond had locked his steel-like arms around her in the warehouse that she would be powerless to fight.  She could see Derio, trying to hide his fear, trying to be what he wasn’t and trusting that someone—that she—would uncover his secret before the lies became inescapable.
“Derio!” she shouted, her voice bouncing tentatively off of the wood paneled walls before becoming lost in the darkness of the hallway.  “Derio, it’s Olivia!  I want to talk to you, but I can’t do that unless you put down the gun and come out here!”
“Fuck you!  You’re just another lying bitch!  I ain’t gonna listen to you no more!”
“Maybe I do owe you an apology,” Elliot groused.  “Looks like you were right, the kid really has warmed up to you.”
“Shut up!” Olivia hissed, her fingers curving around the blunt edge of the counter as she pulled herself a fraction higher.  She tilted her head to the right and then left, continuing to study the unreliable shadows.  “Derio!  Elliot is with me; it’s just the two of us!  We want to help you, but you’re going to have to put down the gun first!”
“A fucker don’t never give up his piece!  Never!  Only way somebody gets it is if they waste you first!”
“Which is exactly what’s going to happen if you don’t let us help you!” Olivia screamed back, urgency raising the pitch of her voice.  “You told Captain Garcia that you wanted to talk to me, so talk to me now!  Let me help you!”
“Help me into a fucking body bag like you did my primo!” Derio yelled, a nuance of tears detectable beneath the anger that had deepened his voice.  “Raymond’s dead—fucking dead, and it’s ‘cause of you!  I never shoulda listened to you!  Shoulda done what Raymond said right from the start and taken you out!”
“Liv.”  
Olivia lowered behind the counter, dropping her hold on the ledge.  She glanced toward the sprawled body to her left, ignoring Elliot on her right.  Bristling as his arm brushed over hers, she shook her head, whispering, “Don’t say it, Elliot.  Just…don’t…say anything else.”
“Liv, c’mon.  You tried.”
She shook her head again, stronger, fighting the agreement that was slowly beginning to out-proportion her conviction.  “He’s just scared.”
“Which makes him unpredictable.”  He nodded behind her toward the closed backdoor.  “I say we make a run for the door, get the hell out of here while we still can.  There’s nothing else we can do, so let’s let Garcia finish it.”
“They’ll kill him!”
“Christ!  Would you stop making the rest of us out to be heartless bastards?” Elliot snapped.  “No one wants that kid to get hurt, but we also aren’t willing to risk anyone else getting hurt, either!”  He grabbed her chin in his hand, tugging her face toward his.  “If it’s between him or us walking out of here, you can fucking bet I’m going to make sure it’s us!”
“How come you hadda play Dominic?” Derio screamed, his voice slicing through—adding to—the tension that consumed the tiny trailer.  “Dominic told me you was dead!  If you hadn’t done that—hadn’t played Dominic like that—Raymond would be alive now!  Dominic woulda let him stay alive!”
“All I did was play the game that Dominic forced me to play!” Olivia shouted.  “I never asked to be a part of any of this, and I wasn’t going to lay down and die because that’s what Dominic thought I should do!”
“But Raymond’s dead now, and it’s ‘cause of you!  It’s your fault!”
“No!  Raymond’s dead because that’s what he decided!” Olivia shot back, rising up further, her vested chest exposed to the latent volatility of the hallway. 
“Christ’s sake, Olivia!” Elliot seethed.  “Get down!”
“It was his choice, Derio!” Olivia continued, wriggling her arm as Elliot’s fingers hooked around her wrist and gave a forceful tug.  “It wasn’t because of me, or even because of Dominic!  It’s only because of Raymond!”
“Fuck you!  My primo’d never leave me alone!  We stick together!  That’s what Raymond always said!”
“Then he played you!” Olivia returned.  “Because when it got too tough, he only took care of himself!  He didn’t stick around to help you, Derio, but I have!  I promised that I’d help you, didn’t I?  I promised, and that’s what I’m trying to do!  It’s the only reason I’m here now!”
“Olivia…” Elliot warned, rising up cautiously beside her.  He jutted his arms out in front of him, the muzzle of the pistol staring down the shadows that lurked in the hall.  “You’re going to get us both killed.”
“No, I’m not,” she whispered assuredly, standing fully and lifting her hands in surrender as her stare remained focused on the continually changing shadows.  Damn it.  She hoped she was right.  Because she didn’t want to make her unexpected arrival at the Pearly Gates only to have both Elliot and Saint Peter laugh her right back out with a mocking, ”We told you so.”  
She licked at her lips, the dust she lifted from them only intensifying the dryness in her mouth.  “I’m not armed, Derio,” she announced, hoping that her voice didn’t sound as shaky as it had resonated in her mind.  “I came in here without a gun because I trust you.  I know you don’t want to hurt anyone else—that you won’t hurt me.  So, prove me right, okay?  Put down your gun and come out here.”
“You’re fucking loca bitch!” Derio responded, shuffling accompanying his voice.  
“That’s what my partner keeps telling me, too,” Olivia said, smiling weakly, with a combination of uncertainty and fear trembling across her lips.  “I’m sorry about Raymond.  I’m sorry that he broke his promise to you, but I’m not going to break mine.  I’ll help you if you’ll let me.”
“Help them fuckers lock me up, just like they done to Raymond!”
She nodded once, firmly.  Honestly.  “You’re going to jail,” she confirmed.  “But Elliot and I are going to talk to the judge on your behalf.  We’re going to make sure you’re sent to a juvenile facility.  That way you’ll be able to finish school like you want, you’ll be able to figure out what it is you want to do with your life.”
“I already know what I don’t wanna fucking do with it!” he returned.  “Don’t wanna spend it locked up!” 
“We’ll try and work something out, okay, and get you the best deal that we can.”
“Why?” he asked, a short succession of footsteps echoing through the blackness.  “Why the fuck you think I’m gonna believe you’d do that?”
“Because it’s what I promised.”
“Promises don’t mean shit.”
“Sometimes they don’t, you’re right.  It all depends on who’s making them.”
“Can’t trust ‘em if they’re coming from a bitch.  All they know how to do is lie.”
Olivia made a quick shift of her eyes as the radio affixed to Elliot’s shoulder began to crackle, Garcia’s still-frantic voice penetrating the room.  She nodded slowly, silently directing him to ask for more time, to beg for it if he had to, and then refocused on the dark opening across the room as Derio’s silhouette emerged from the haze.  “Is anyone else here with you?” she asked, her soft voice overriding Elliot’s whispers as he passed on assurances of a temporary truce to the anxious officers outside. 
“Ain’t nobody else here,” Derio snapped, irritability suddenly regaining control of his voice.  
“How’d you get out of the hospital?” Olivia pressed.  “Did someone help you—”
“That ain’t nothing you need to know!  Damn!  Why you think you always gotta be up in my business, bitch?”
“Okay,” Olivia responded calmly, through a nod.  “Okay.  I’m, uh, I’m sorry.”
 
“Like I need some ho telling me I was stupid!  Don’t you think I already know that?”  He took another step forward, and another, moving into the light.  His face was as pale as Dominic’s, dried tears streaking his skin.  And his eyes had become just as hollow, emptied of expectations and trust and fight.  He looked small standing across the room from her, too small with the pistol that was clenched in his right hand seeming almost gargantuan wrapped in his pudgy fingers.
“What makes you think you were stupid?” Olivia persisted, Elliot’s left shoulder overlapping her right one as Derio shuffled through another step. 
“She ain’t cared about seeing me in over two years now,” Derio answered, the sunlight that poured in through the front window highlighting a sheen of tears in his dark eyes.  “So why’d I hafta start thinking that today she mighta wanted to?”
“She…” Olivia whispered.  “Are you, um, are you talking about your mom?”
He lifted a shoulder sluggishly.  “Said she wanted to help me ‘cause she heard about what happened to Raymond.  Told me she’d take care of everything if I went with her, but all she done was bring me here.  Sold me back to Dominic for some fucking basa.  He told her it was some of his best shit, that it’d keep her high for a week.  Guess I was stupid for not remembering that’s all that matters to her.”
Olivia took a small step away from Elliot, the side of her foot bumping against del Torres’s lifeless, right arm.  But she didn’t flinch, didn’t look down at the shell of the monster that didn’t deserve her sympathy.  She continued to stare into the tear-filled eyes across the room, eyes that looked chillingly familiar.  Too much like the child’s that she had once been.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said, carefully stepping over the body sprawled beneath her, Elliot’s warnings ignored whispers between them.  “She was wrong to do that, because you’re worth a whole lot more than the drugs.  And I’m sorry she isn’t able to realize that, that she’s too sick to understand it.”
Derio sniffled loudly, echoingly, his eyes narrowing as he tracked Olivia’s slow movements.  As she stepped to the end of the counter, his gaze dropped to the dirty floor and the motionless legs that she weaved her tentative steps through.  He took a quick step backwards as she cleared the structure, once again becoming partially hidden in the blackness that occupied the hallway.
“My mom was sick, too,” Olivia continued.  “My entire life she was a drunk, and that’s how she died—drunk.”  She smiled softly, sadly, with understanding.  “Sometimes she’d leave me alone, she’d break promises that she’d made to me, and other times she’d get really angry.  When she was angry, things could get pretty bad.  And it started to make me angry, too, because I didn’t understand why I never meant more to her than the alcohol did.”  Her steps crunched across the floor as she made her way toward the middle of the room, Elliot’s hesitant steps resounding behind her.  She came to a stop between the two barrels of the guns, Derio’s aimed at her chest and Elliot’s pointed above her right shoulder and targeting the child whose face had become stained by tears.  “But you know what I’ve learned?  That just because one person hurts you doesn’t mean everyone will.  There are people who want to care about you, but you have to let them before they can.”
Derio dragged the back of his hand across his face, sniffling through a small shake of his head.  “You’re wrong,” he muttered, lifting the pistol higher, locking his aim above the protective vest.  “Only person who’ll care about you is yourself.  Ain’t nobody else gonna look out for you.”
“That’s what I used to think, too,” Olivia said.  “I thought it for a long time, but that’s what I was wrong about.  And you’re wrong, too, because Elliot and I wouldn’t be here now if we didn’t want to help you.”  She edged forward just slightly, almost unnoticeably.  “Tell me what happened when you got to the trailer this morning.  Why’d you shoot Dominic?”
The dark, watery eyes shifted jerkily toward the bottom portions of the legs that were visible across the room.  He lifted a shoulder stiltedly, licking at his upper lip and clearing away the tears that had pooled above it.  “Hadda do it,” he said through a second, less perceptible shrug.
“Why?”
“He was pissed,” Derio answered, the muzzle of the gun trembling downward a notch.  “He was screaming and shit ‘cause he found out Manny and Hector didn’t waste you like they said they’d done.  Then he started blaming me, then fucking hitting me…kept hitting me just like he always done when he was pissed.  He said I brung poison into our family, so it was my responsibility to get rid of it.”  He dropped the gun down again, just slightly.  “He kept saying it was you that was poison, but then I started thinking, you know, that it wasn’t you.  It was him.”
Olivia nodded once, through another step forward that was pursued by Elliot.  “Then what happened?”
“Stupid fucker put his piece down when Hector showed up.  He was pushing Hector around, screaming at him, saying he was gonna make me waste him before I wasted you.”  His stare connected with Olivia’s, a faint, victorious smile detectable within the tears that still filled his eyes.  “Dominic always said you hadda be smart and make your own opportunities, you don’t wait for ‘em to happen.  So that’s what I done.  I made my own fucking opportunity.”
“You shot Dominic to save Hector…” Olivia whispered.
“I done him ‘cause the poison needed to finally be gone,” Derio corrected, his grip loosening on the pistol, the barrel gliding downward until its target was the debris-littered floor.  “If I wasted you and Hector, that wouldn’t make nothing better.  Only thing that’d make it better was if Dominic was gone.”  His right arm fell limp, the pistol bouncing against the side of his plump thigh.  “I didn’t mean for Hector to get hurt, I swear it.  Vato just got in the way when everything was going down.”
Olivia felt the front of Elliot’s shoulder connect with the back of hers, and she leaned into him for a strengthening second.  “Okay,” she responded simply, through a vague nod.  “You have to make another opportunity now.  Come outside with us so this really can be over.”
“I do that and fucking maranos are gonna lock me away forever.  Just like they done to my padre, and they tried to do to Raymond.”
“No,” Olivia disagreed, catching the supportive shake of Elliot’s head through her peripheral vision.  “I came in here because I trust you, Derio, and now you have to trust me.  We made promises to each other, right, that we’d help each other?  And you kept yours to me, so now help me keep mine to you.”
He leaned into the wall, tapping the gun contemplatively against his leg.  Once.  Twice.  Before his eyes once again connected with the pleading-filled ones across the room.  “Only reason I stuck around after Hector left was ‘cause I figured the best thing to do was go out like Raymond did.  Be a man, you know, and die by my own fucking rules.  But I…” He sniffed as a fresh set of tears assailed his eyes, overpowering them quickly and toppling onto his flushed cheeks.  “Guess all them fuckers were right, I ain’t no man.  ‘Cause every time I tried to pull the trigger, I couldn’t do it.”
“Then you are a man,” Olivia said, stepping away from Elliot’s protective closeness.  “Because a real man doesn’t run away from his problems, Derio.  He faces them.”  She stopped in front of him, extending a bandaged hand between them.  “Give me the gun and let’s go outside.”
Derio glanced up quickly, fear and uncertainty mingling with his boyish features and once again unfairly aging him.  He lifted his right arm, his finger poised over the trigger and stare not breaking from Olivia’s as Elliot hurried toward them, his weapon steadied and aimed in preparation.
“Please,” Olivia whispered, moving her hand closer.  
“Do what she said, son,” Elliot added.  “Let’s end this now before anyone else gets hurt.”
Derio pressed the pad of his finger against the trigger, his eyes narrowing as he studied the gun.  The power it promised, the strength it offered, the assurance it provided.  The pain it consistently caused.  Hesitantly, with a noticeable tremor, he inched his hand forward, his finger falling away from the trigger as Olivia’s hand closed around the barrel.  Relinquishing his hold, he watched as she slid her arm swiftly behind her and passed off the last of his control to Elliot.
Elliot holstered the pistol in the waistband of his jeans before depressing the side button on the radio clipped to the shoulder of his vest.  “Suspect’s been disarmed.  We’re coming out, all three of us.”
“You’re doing the right thing,” Olivia said, offering a small smile to the child who suddenly appeared to be just that.  Impressionable.  Vulnerable.  Weak.  Frightened.  She reached toward him, giving a gentle touch to his arm that wasn’t met by a flinch or reaction of fear, but accepted with the trust that she had begged him to have in her.
“Why do you think he done it?” Derio asked, naivety touching his features as misunderstanding filled his eyes.  “Raymond?  Why you think he decided to go out like that after he fucking promised he’d never leave me behind?”
She smiled softly, sadly, understanding Derio’s confusion but not the selfishness that had caused it.  “I don’t know.  I don’t think he meant to break his promise, he just wasn’t strong enough to keep it.”
“They’re waiting for us, we need to go,” Elliot interrupted, reaching around Olivia.  He latched his hand around Derio’s arm, covering the spot that Olivia had lightly touched and causing the boy to recoil suddenly.
“El, I’ve got it,” she said, nodding as she slid between them and gently knocked Elliot’s arm away.  She directed Derio’s widened stare toward the doorway, nudging him forward through another, more forceful nod as she whispered, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
As they crossed the room, gravel snapping beneath each of their steps, she heard Elliot whisper to the child who he had fought to convince her deserved only their anger and none of their forgiveness, “When we get outside, don’t say anything else.  You understand?  Don’t answer any more questions until you’ve talked to a lawyer.”
Olivia heard Derio’s mumbled agreement and saw his dark eyes shift in her direction, in questioning but even more with trust.  She nodded her agreement with Elliot’s instructions, stopping behind him as Elliot yanked open the rickety door.  The rusted hinges once again cried out squeakily, causing a reminiscent shiver to rush through her.
“How long are we going to be here?” 
“Forever, bitch.  This is it.  You ain’t never leaving.”
She had been assured the first time she’d entered through the doorway that her freedom and life would end behind it.  And so obediently, maybe even more foolishly, she had placed her trust in fear instead of handing it over to fate.  Because she hadn’t known then—hadn’t known how to believe—that fate could actually have a different plan than fear had settled on.  
“Stay close,” Elliot said, stepping through the doorway first.  “Don’t make any sudden moves.  Everyone’s a little on edge right now.”
Olivia leaned her head next to Derio’s, instructing as he dropped down onto the first concrete step, “Keep your hands in sight and do what you’re told.  You won’t get hurt.”
“You gonna be with me?” Derio whined, obediently raising his hands as shouts and commands lifted into the dusty air outside.
Olivia latched a hand over his shoulder, following him onto the second concrete block.  “I’m not going anywhere.  I’ll stay with you as long as they’ll let me.”
Fate’s methods to win her over had been confusing, maybe even excessive, but also necessary.  And finally, she thought she understood what it had been trying to teach her. 
To focus on beginnings, not remain obsessed with endings.
Because only loss haunted endings, but through beginnings was where everything could be gained.
+++
March 28, 10:15 P.M.
The last time she had gone to her mother’s house had been two weeks after Serena’s funeral.  She had taken an entire weekend to clean out closets and drawers, sift through mementos and pack away into impersonal boxes a life that had had far more potential than it had ever been allowed to achieve.  During that weekend, she had given her mother a parting gift, the final gift that Serena had asked for.  
Her time.  
She hadn’t unearthed any secrets in the dark corners of the old house.  The photographs she’d found were ones she remembered seeing before, the classics accumulated on the dusty bookshelves in her mother’s study were the ones she’d known Serena had read and re-read time and time again, and the food that stocked the cupboards in the kitchen were the same brands that had always been there.  Effortlessly, she had found the liquor bottles hidden in all of the old spots… One buried at the bottom of the clothes hamper, another wedged between folded sheets in the linen closet, still another hidden on the bookshelf behind a weathered copy of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and a few rolled haphazardly beneath her mother’s bed. There had been no surprises, no great mysteries she had been left to try and unravel.
Other than the one mystery that had always consumed both her mother and her.  
Her.
She had dug through her mother’s desk, emptying it, filling trash sacks with loose papers and crinkled napkins with notes jotted on them and Post-It’s whose sticky adhesive time had worn away.  On everything was written a thought, a remembrance, quotes from authors and poets whose work Serena had admired.  She had found Tennessee Williams’ words transcribed, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s, Emily Dickinson’s, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s.  Just portions of poems, a few lines that had for one reason or another struck a chord with her mother.
In the bottom drawer of the old oak desk, Olivia had found a notebook.  A sapphire-colored binder with scratches and dents marring its cover, indicating years of use.  Inside had been more of the same, pieces of paper decorated with her mother’s duplications of other’s creations.  But the lines she had transcribed to be saved had been different, verses from poems whose subject matter was children and love.  They were inspirational pieces, uplifting, each conveying optimism and even belief, but none hinting at doubt.
At the bottom of the stack, wedged crookedly into the book with each of its four corners wrinkled and frayed, was a yellowed piece of paper with the name Wislawa Szymborska carefully scripted at the top.  And beneath the moniker, just as delicately written, was the heading True Love.
Olivia had flattened the sheet across the top of the desk, smoothing away the wrinkles and unbending the corners.  She popped on the lamp that sat on the structure, the light from the bulb raining down on and highlighting the words that—for a reason that would forever remain a second mystery in Olivia’s life—her mother had found worthy of remembering.
True love.  Is it necessary?
Tact and common sense tell us to pass over it in silence,
like a scandal in life’s highest circles.
Perfectly good children are born without its help…
Let the people who never find true love
keep saying there’s no such thing.
Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.
She hadn’t saved many of her mother’s things.  A few pieces of jewelry, a couple of Serena’s favorite books, some photographs that had managed to capture moments of happiness and sobriety, and the aged, wrinkled piece of paper that had given Olivia more insight into who her mother had actually been than Serena herself had ever been willing to do.
Maybe her mother really had been a believer.  She had believed that children—good children—could be born without the existence of love, she’d just never been able to convince herself that love could exist without fear.  And it had been her fear that had been her downfall.  It had been her fear that had allowed loneliness to remain the only constant in her life.  
It had been her fear that she had passed on to her daughter, and that Olivia had obligatorily accepted as her own.  
But she didn’t want to keep her mother’s fear alive anymore, and she didn’t want to keep repeating her mistakes. 
Not after she had learned so much from them.
“You still awake?”
Olivia answered with a softly mumbled, “Mmm,” settling against the broad chest behind her as Elliot’s arm slipped across her waist.  His body was warm against hers, his stomach rising and pressing against her lower back through sleepy breaths, his legs tangled around hers.  She liked the feel of his body against hers, even with disbelief over having him so close still lingering at the outer edges of her mind.
“Other than hitting you with a three week suspension, you never told me what all Cragen said to you this morning.”
She chuckled lowly, nestling the side of her face further into her pillow.  “You didn’t really give me a chance,” she returned dryly.  “You were half-undressed by the time you knocked on my door, Elliot, and had me in bed thirty seconds after I let you inside.”
“Pleasure before business,” he grumbled, nuzzling her neck with his face.
“You want to tell me what you did with the Elliot Stabler I’ve always known and tried like hell to tolerate?” she teased, lacing her fingers through his over her stomach.  
“I don’t know,” he answered, his voice deepening thoughtfully, knowing hinted at but not explained in its resonance.
Olivia nodded, understanding his hesitance to trust fate, still battling it within herself.  It had been different when Elliot had shown up at her door three hours earlier.  They had been different.  Finally apart from the hysteria and out from beneath the weight of guilt, it had been just them again.  Exposed.  Vulnerable.  Stripped of every emotion except honesty.  And she had worried when he’d first looked into her eyes that the not so distant past that was still a blur in her memory had already been forgotten—or even worse, begun to be regretted—by him.  There had been no time for thinking or reasoning throughout the past four days; there had only been time to react to the fear and panic.  But now the safety of excuses had been taken from them, leaving behind only the truth.
And she worried that neither of them would be brave enough to believe in it.
“I’m glad you came over tonight,” she whispered, her voice swirling through the wrinkles of the white pillowcase.  
Elliot dragged his fingers out from between hers, sliding his hand onto her hip.  “Tell me what Cragen and you talked about,” he persisted, placing a soft kiss in the crook of her neck.
She lifted her shoulder lazily, combating the tickles left by his lips.  “He told me all the reasons why he should probably fire me instead of just suspend me.  It was the same old lecture about his ass being on the line, the same questions about why I’d been so willing to throw away my career and pension.”  She breathed out heavily, ruffling the cotton fabric of the case.  “And he, uh, he asked about Friday night.  Thank God he didn’t want details, but he did want to know why it happened.”
“Mmm,” Elliot growled behind her.  “So, what’d you tell him?”
She laughed softly, through a small shake of her head.  “The truth.  That I wasn’t really sure.”  She glanced back at him, a hint of a smile still on her lips.  “But I didn’t apologize, not for any of it.”
“That probably pissed him off.  Considering I never apologized, either.”
She studied him for a moment; the sleepiness on his face and what she hoped was contentment in his eyes.  He hadn’t apologized, either.  So maybe they were both braver than she had originally feared they were—than they could be.  
At least she hoped they were.  
“He’s going to split us up,” she said.  
“We knew he would.”
“He said he’s going to be watching us, that he’s not sure anymore if either of us…” She bit down tenderly on her lip, her eyelids fluttering as Elliot brushed a fallen strand of hair away from her eyes.  “He doesn’t think we can put our jobs ahead of each other, and if we prove him right…”
Elliot tangled his fingers loosely in her hair, coiling the strands.  “I already told him I’d leave the unit, Liv.  If one of us has to—”
“Maybe it should be me,” she interrupted, leaning her head into his as he gave a gentle tug to her hair.  “I’m not sure I can keep doing this, El.  The cases, the victims, it’s just…I’m tired.  Tired of closing a case and still feeling like we lost.  But maybe, I don’t know.  If I worked with kids, either in Juvenile or even outside the force, I could make a difference with them.  I mean, if I’d met Derio sooner, things might’ve ended differently for him.”
“I’ve always said you’re good with kids, and you did make a difference with Derio.”
“Not enough of one and not soon enough,” she disagreed, turning her back to him again.  “Cragen also told me that he’d talked to Garcia.  They’re going to offer Derio a deal.  He’ll get six years, the entire sentence to be served in a juvenile facility, and in exchange he’ll give them any information he knows about del Torres’s drug activity and the boys that were murdered.”
“Sounds fair,” Elliot mumbled.  “It’s what you wanted, right?”
“He’s losing what’s left of his childhood,” Olivia returned, resituating as she unburied her legs from beneath his.  “And that’s the worst thing that can happen, to have your childhood taken away from you.”
“But it’s what happened to you, isn’t it?” he asked, tracing the curve of her eyebrow with his thumb and clearing a curtain of hair away from her face.  “And it’s what all of this has been about—you and your mom.”
“My mom didn’t steal my childhood, she just drank her way through it.”
“But she was like Derio’s mom, always making her addiction more important than you.”
She rolled slightly, propping her shoulder in the center of his chest.  Tilting her face to look into his, she found him waiting.  His stare absent of accusation and assumption, tinted only by understanding.  “She never traded me to some son of a bitch for a drink, Elliot.”
He skimmed over her eyebrow again, nodding once.  “Then tell me what she did.”
Olivia sighed, rolling further, flattening onto her back.  She shook her head, pulling her stare away from Elliot’s inquisitive one and lifting it to the blackened ceiling.  What had her mother done to her?  Some might say that Serena ruined her, forcing her to be too independent, too cautious, and too afraid of emotions—both her own and everyone else’s—to ever fully release her hold on suspicion.  And maybe she had done all of that.  Maybe.  But she’d also instilled in her daughter a love for music and an appreciation for poetry.  She taught her how to find comfort within herself, because outside sources couldn’t always be relied on to give her exactly what she needed, when she needed it.  She taught her how to find solace even when immersed in craziness and chaos, and in an unconventional way, how to trust.
Her mother had taught her that the ride life took you on wasn’t always smooth, but you could survive it if you could manage to hold onto something—someone—tightly enough.
Olivia leaned her head into Elliot’s shoulder, overlapping his arm with hers as his once again draped across her stomach.  “Her best,” she finally answered, her voice soft but certain.  “I think she did her best.”
“That’s what you did, too,” Elliot responded.  “With Derio.  The only reason he has another chance now is because of you.”
“Because of you, too,” she said, her eyes closing as he resituated his arm beneath her breasts.  “A few days ago I thought I was going to have to throw you in a holding cell just to stop you from going after those kids.  So, what changed?  Why’d you help Derio yesterday?”
“I didn’t,” he answered honestly, without hesitation.  “I helped you.”
She turned into him as he cupped a hand over her breast, his fingers caressing her nipple slowly and playfully.  Her brows flattened, questioning him, as he brushed his lips over hers and left behind a soft kiss.
“You told me that you couldn’t be in two places at once,” he said, his confession echoing between her parted lips.  “I can’t get you out of Sealview, Liv.  As much as I wish that I could, it’s something only you’re going to be able to do.  And I know you will, sooner or later you’ll find your way out.  But yesterday morning I finally realized there were only two things keeping you stuck in that junkyard—Derio and me.”  He caressed her lips with a second, gentler kiss, her nipple hardening with the repetitive pinches from his fingers.  “I screwed up the first time.  I left you behind when I should’ve stayed beside you, and I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.  Because for a while… I made you forget that you can count on me, and I don’t want to do that again.  I don’t want you to ever have a reason to doubt me.  Not as your partner, or anything else.”
As he left a third kiss against her lips, she chased after him.  Nipping at his mouth, stealing a taste of him as she wetted his lips with her tongue.  “Then tell me what I can believe in,” she whispered.
“This,” he answered simply.  “You can believe in this.”
She tilted her head back as Elliot sucked her nipple into his mouth, his tongue circling the hard knob.  Sliding her leg over the top of his, she felt his dick harden and heard his impatience begin to rumble in his throat.  She wanted to ask him what he meant—what ‘this’ meant.  She wanted to know if it meant right now or forever, or did it mean the difference between loving and being in love?  But she didn’t ask, because she wasn’t sure if Elliot knew the answer anymore than she did, or if he’d simply decided to take a chance and place his faith in fate.  
She closed her eyes, forcing her breathing to fall into sync with Elliot’s as he rolled on top of her and pushed inside of her.  Her body instantly conformed to accommodate his, and she felt the disbelief lift completely from her mind with his first, gentle thrust.
Let the people who never find true love keep saying there’s no such thing.
Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.
Maybe she didn’t need to know what Elliot believed, only what she did.  And she did know, finally.  Maybe she had always known, but she had allowed her fear—her mother’s fear—to keep those beliefs out of reach.  
She believed that her mother had loved her; it had been herself who Serena had never been able to love.
She believed that her mother’s problems had been far bigger than Olivia could have ever fixed, no matter how amenable or understanding or repentant she had been or continued to be.
She believed that the victims whom she made her responsibility weren’t really her responsibility at all.  They were responsible for their own healing—for the fruition of their own lives—just as she was for hers.
She believed that not everyone could be saved, but it was still okay to try and save as many as she could.
And she believed in Elliot.  
She believed in Elliot.
She believed in loving him and letting him love her, but she knew that neither of those could save her.  Like the victims whom she had willingly forfeited her past and a portion of her present for, only she could save herself.
But Elliot could make her stronger.  He had made her stronger, through persistence and selflessness and honesty.  
And she loved him; she would always love him.  
Even if the day never came when she fell in love with him, she knew that he would always be her faith.  
He would always be what made living easier and death less regrettable.
+++
The End.