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Take Me to the River

Chapter Text

The van was his idea. Something mobile - sort of. Something seedy, that did not require him to live cheek by jowl with innocent people who didn't deserve to get caught up in his mess. Somewhere quiet, in the noisiest city in the whole fucking world. Somewhere he could be alone. Bell agreed to let him have it because it was a hell of a lot cheaper than the city dishing out rent on an apartment every month, and she let him park it wherever he wanted. It took a little while to find the perfect spot, but when he did he laughed out loud, thinking about that old Saturday Night Live sketch. The late, great Chris Farley. All the good comedians were dead, Elliot thought.

So he parked the van down by the river, filled it with the bare essentials. Some bottles of water, some clean underwear. It didn't really matter that there was no plumbing; he could piss in the river, shower at the homeless shelter that used to be Sister Peg's and was now Sister Martha's. Sister Martha who remembered him, from before. Sister Martha with her sad eyes and her hair going grey. We're all getting old, he thought, when he looked at her.

He bought a tarp and a couple of poles and an igloo cooler and two plastic chairs from a home repair store, and set to work. It was a little harder than he wanted to admit, but in the end he had an awning, and a place to sit and look out at the water, and he walked himself down to the closest bodega - which wasn't really close at all - and bought a bag of ice and a twelve pack and lugged them all the way back, the ice slowly melting and leaving a sad, wet trail behind him the whole way. It was good, though. It was good because he poured the ice into the cooler and sunk the beer inside it and then plopped down in one of those chairs, and looked out at the water, and for the first time since Kathy died he took a breath.

It was almost peaceful, here. Some lights would have been nice. Some of those Eddison bulbs like the kind they used to decorate hipster restaurants that charged $18 for a burger. Or Christmas lights, but he didn't know where he'd find them in June. It didn't matter, anyway, because there was no way to plug them up; his only source of power was the van's battery, and he couldn't afford to waste the juice on ambiance. Maybe some tiki torches, to keep the fucking mosquitoes away. That might not be too bad.

The sound of the river was all the music he needed; it made him think of Van Morrison, made him think of Into the Mystic, made the song start playing in his head, good as any radio, while he looked out at the lights of the city sparkling over the water, the bridge soaring overhead. There was something deceptively attractive about all this. Just for a moment he could imagine this was his life, hardly any possessions, no responsibilities, just sitting, watching the river rush by, thinking about time, drinking a beer with no one telling him what to do. Just for a moment he could imagine this was his life, and that he liked it this way.

It wasn't his life, though. His life was a fucking shambles, and yeah, maybe he'd run like hell just to get away from it, but he knew, better than most, that it didn't matter how far or how fast or how hard he ran. He'd never outrun himself; you take yourself with you wherever you go, he thought. The ghost of Elliot Stabler hung in the air just over his shoulder, whispering in his ear. What about Eli, what about your children, what about the Wheatley trial, what about your dead wife, dead on account of you going back to the job you promised her once you'd left behind for good, what about Bell who needs you to get this right, what about the morning when you have to go back to work, what about Olivia?

Jesus, Olivia.

He hadn't called her.

He had her number written on a piece of paper stuffed inside a sock beneath his mattress. Technically, he shouldn't have had it on him at all; what if Kosta's boys decided to ransack his van, pick apart his life? What if they had the means to trace a phone number? They had dirty cops on side, nothing was beyond them, and if they found out that Eddie Ashes had been in contact with an NYPD Captain, god only knew what would happen next. Whatever it was, it wouldn't be good, and Liv had Noah to worry about now, that sweet little boy who was her whole world. It was a risk he couldn't afford to take, getting her mixed up in his shit. He'd never forgive himself, if something happened to her just because he cared about her. There were people out there, people who wanted to hurt him, people who'd have no qualms about using her to do it, and he couldn't put her in the middle of all that. He'd already lost one woman that way, he would be damned if he'd lose another.

Still, though, he hadn't been able to cut himself off from her completely. He kept that phone number close, kept it in the same place where he slept, just in case he ever worked up the nerve to call her. He didn't, but he thought about her often. Maybe he ought to have warned her that he was going under, that it would be a while before he saw her again, but he'd balked at the prospect because he knew, he knew, that she'd tell him not to do it. That she'd tell him his family needed him, that she'd say his head still wasn't right and going under would only make things worse. He knew she'd look at him with those big eyes, dark and sad, look at him like he was broken, somehow, helpless, somehow, like he was just another victim she needed to save, and that was the last goddamn thing he wanted. He didn't want to be another burden she had to carry, he didn't want her fucking pity. It was easier just to go. Easier just to imagine that he was doing her a favor, letting her get on with her life.

She'd done pretty well for herself, while he was gone. Made Captain, had a child, built a squad that revered and adored her, cultivated a reputation she could be proud of. All the anger and the violence and the fear and the grief that had been their life together, she'd put it behind her, and he didn't want to drag her under, didn't want her drowning right beside him. Surely she'd be happier, he thought, without him. Surely she'd be better off. Surely he owed her this.

You owe her a fucking phone call, the ghost of his conscience whispered to him. He'd walked out on her without a word, once, and he knew how deeply that had hurt her and he knew what he was risking, doing it again. There was every chance that by the time this thing was through she'd be through with him. Every chance she'd never want to see him again.

Maybe he deserved that.

The days turned into weeks turned into months, and Reggie - who was actually kind of an okay guy - started to trust Eddie Ashes, and things were going good. Too good; one night in August he came home and found Kosta and several of his boys tearing the van apart, the way he'd always feared they would. Shoulda seen this coming, he thought as he walked slowly towards his temporary refuge, watched them tossing his dirty laundry out into the grass, flipping over his cooler. Eddie and Reggie, they'd started the ball rolling on a chain of events that were gonna change the course of history for the Kosta organization, and Kosta, he'd been suspicious, and it was no wonder he wanted to know who he was dealing with. Just be calm, Elliot told himself. Breathe.

His hands were starting to shake, so he tucked them in his pockets.

"Evening, gentlemen!" he called out, not wanting to sneak up on a bunch of Albanian mobsters he knew would be armed to the teeth.

Kosta himself came walking out of the van, and two of his boys flanked him while two more continued to tear apart Eddie's life, searching for something, anything, that would make them believe he wasn't who he said he was.

"Eddie," Kosta said coolly. "It's about time. I don't like to be kept waiting."

"Sorry, boss," Elliot said, making a show of contrition. "Had to get something to eat."

"That's good," Kosta told him. "A man's gotta eat, gotta keep his strength up."

The way this guy talked made Elliot's skin crawl, but he tried to keep his eyes downcast like he'd been taught, and tried not to stare at the men wreaking havoc on his van. Chances were good that he was gonna get through this unscathed; in the jumble of possessions inside the van there was only one piece of Elliot Stabler there to give him away. Just that phone number, tucked away under his bed. But surely, he thought, they wouldn't find it. All they'd find was a sock, and they wouldn't look too closely at it.

Would they?

"Can I help you find something there, boss?" Elliot asked, trying to play it cool.

Kosta frowned. Maybe he thought Eddie was being glib. Maybe he thought Eddie wasn't showing him the proper respect, the proper fear. Maybe he was thinking about shooting him right there.

This is going well, Elliot thought grimly.

"Hey, boss!" one of the men called from inside the van. "Got something!"

There's no way, Elliot tried to tell himself. There's no way-

The man emerged, holding a slip of paper in his hand, and Elliot's heart sank. Reggie's mother said his grounds were full of misfortune and Elliot was starting to think she'd been right about that.

"Found it in a sock, under the mattress."

"A strange place to keep a phone number," Kosta mused darkly, taking the slip of paper and examining it closely. "Why keep it there, unless you don't want it to be found?"

Elliot didn't answer; he couldn't.

"Who would be so important to you? So important you gotta have their number but you gotta keep it hidden?" Kosta continued. "Another boss, maybe? A cop? You informing on us, Eddie?" In the darkness his eyes were black and flat, like a shark, circling his prey.

"No, sir," Elliot said as evenly as he could manage. He had to come up with an explanation, and fast. Something they'd believe, something he could remember, something that would stop them looking up that number for themselves, and finding out just who it belonged to. If they connected him to Liv...shit, everything would go up in flames.

"It's my girl," he said. "Well, she used to be my girl, before I went upstate. She didn't wait for me. I been meaning to call her since I got back, but…"

Reggie's mother had seen the truth in the grounds. She wants to know why you don't tell her how you feel...the person that you love. Reggie's mother had told him that there was something he didn't know about his friend Eddie, about Eddie's heart. Maybe, Elliot thought, maybe Reggie had mentioned it to Kosta. Maybe Kosta knew that Eddie Ashes had a woman out there somewhere. Maybe he'd believe what he'd been told, about the phone number. Then again, maybe Elliot was fucked.

"Maybe you should call her," Kosta said. "Maybe you should have her come meet your new friends for a drink. Maybe you should do it on speaker, so we can all hear." This last he had added with a grim smile, and the boys behind him tightened their grips on their guns, watching. There was no maybe about it; Kosta had just delivered an order, and Elliot had no choice but to do as he'd been told.

Kosta held out the slip of paper to him, and Elliot took it, his heart pounding like mad in his chest.

Most of the time when Liv answered the phone, she said Benson. Identified herself by her last name, the old habit of a long-time cop. If she did that now, they'd be suspicious. Who else but a cop would answer the phone that way? What if she called him Elliot? He'd have to find some way to clue her in, and fast, some code that wouldn't alert the five men currently staring at him with guns in their hands. There was no fucking time; Kosta was watching him expectantly, and the seconds were slipping by. If he tried to make a run for it they'd shoot him. If Liv called him Elliot they'd shoot him. If he didn't do this, they'd shoot him.


He pulled the burner phone from his pocket, dialed the number on the slip of paper, and hit the speaker button, and the sound of the phone ringing filled the still air.

Don't pick up, he prayed. She'd ignored his calls enough times for him to know her voicemail off by heart; you've reached Olivia Benson, please leave a message. Short and sweet, nothing to identify her as a cop. But shit, if that happened, all they'd have to do was google her name, and they'd find out exactly who she was, and that would be worse, wouldn't it? If they knew who she was they could go after her, and -


The sound of her voice made him jump. Throaty and warm and just a little bit harried, she hadn't given her last name, and he thanked god for small mercies. The corner of Kosta's mouth lifted into an ugly smile.

"Hey, baby," he said into the phone. "It's me."

Maybe that would be enough. Hearing his voice for the first time in three months, hearing him call her baby, maybe she'd know. Realize that he was in trouble, that he couldn't talk freely. Jesus, he thought, please let her hear-

"Where the fuck have you been?" she asked after a long pause, and Elliot breathed a sigh of relief. Good girl, he thought. She was asking for herself, he knew, asking why he'd just up and left her without a word, why he was calling her now, what kinda mess he was in, but she'd done it in just the right way. She sounded like a put-upon ex-wife, and Kosta was looking at the phone thoughtfully, like maybe he was buying it. It's a good start, Elliot thought. We just gotta keep this going.

"Listen, I'm sorry, I been working," he said. "But I miss you. I wanna see you."

"Do you know what time it is?" she fired back. It was late, late enough that she was probably at home, with Noah, with no one else to watch him while she went gallivanting off into the night to save Elliot's ass. He wouldn't blame her if she didn't come; he'd walked away from her too many times now and he couldn't expect her to just show up every time he called. Not any more.

"It's not too late for a drink," he said. "Come out with me, meet some of the boys."

That ought to be enough. Enough to tell her that he wasn't alone, that something was going down, that he needed her. Just hear me, he thought. Please. If he could have seen her face it would have been easier; if he could only look into her eyes he was certain he would have been able to tell her everything she needed to know. It had always been like that, with her. One look and he knew, and she knew, and they'd be solid, good, moving forward together, but he couldn't see her eyes, just now, couldn't do anything but offer her these words and pray she'd hear the meaning underneath.

"What if I don't wanna meet your boys?" He couldn't tell if she was playing with him or not. Maybe she was just asking him if he really did need her to do this; maybe she was just trying to figure out how desperate he was.

"Come on, baby," he said, letting his tone take on a wheedling note, hoping she'd hear the desperation there. "Please?"

"Fine," she said. Message received; she knew this was serious, knew he needed his partner, and she was willing to step once more into the fray for his sake. Relief flooded through him; they'd made it over the first hurdle.

"Maybe I'll bring some of my girlfriends," she added. It sounded almost teasing, but Elliot knew better. That light tone was a piece of performance art for the sake of the men listening in, but her words were her way of asking him if they'd need back up, if she ought to bring a few of her people along, if this was gonna turn into a shootout.

"No, just you. I'll take care of you, baby." And he would, he swore to god he would; whatever happened tonight, he wasn't gonna let anybody hurt her. As long as he drew breath, he'd never let anybody hurt her again. This was just a meet, a chance to convince Kosta that Eddie Ashes was legit, and if they played their cards right there'd be no need for guns and backup. Just the two of them, working together, that ought to be enough.

"Wear something nice for me," he continued. She couldn't turn up in a suit; that would only raise questions. He wasn't sure if Liv owned any clothes that would make her look like a mobster's pissed off exbut surely she still had a leather jacket hanging in the back of her closet.

"You're a son of a bitch, you know that?" she grumbled, but it was half-hearted at best. She'd heard him. She knew what was coming. She was willing to do it anyway. Why, he couldn't say; he didn't deserve it, not after all the shit he'd put her through. When he needed her she was willing to show up for him; how many times had she needed him, and he was nowhere to be found?

"You like that about me," he said.

"I really don't. Where am I meeting you?"

Elliot looked to Kosta, who quietly told him the name of a bar, and he relayed that information to Liv.

"I'll be there in an hour," she said. "Think you can stay sober that long?"

"Yeah, that's perfect. I'll see you then."

"You will," she said, and then he disconnected the call. All he could do now was hope that Kosta bought the lies he'd just been sold. All he could do was pray that he and Liv could keep this ruse up just long enough to save both their lives.

"It's been an hour, Eddie," Kosta said as they stood together outside the shitty bar, waiting for Olivia to turn up.

"She'll be here," Elliot said. She would be. He knew she would be. Olivia would come to him when he needed her, nevermind the danger, nevermind the cost, because she was his partner, and no matter how many times he forgot that, no matter how many times he did her wrong, she had always been a better person than him, and she'd never leave him behind.

"Reggie's mother, she says your grounds were full of misfortune," Kosta said.

"You believe that stuff?"

Kosta scoffed. "The superstitions of old women," he said. "The grime at the bottom of a coffee cup can't tell you shit about what's in a man's heart. His eyes can, though. You were afraid, when you were talking to your woman. You worried we're gonna hurt her, Eddie?"

"No, boss," Elliot said. "I don't think you'd do that to a woman. It's not you I'm afraid of. It's her."

That made Kosta laugh. "I wanna meet the woman who scares Eddie Ashes," he said.

And in a moment he got his wish; a yellow cab pulled up to the curb, and then she was stepping out of it, and Elliot's heart rocketed up into his throat. It was smart, taking a cab; if she'd brought her own car maybe they'd run the plates, find out who she was. Maybe they'd put a tracker on it while she was inside drinking. A cab was anonymous, and harder to trace. But Jesus, he'd told her to wear something nice, and she had taken the brief and run with it. She hadn't chosen something Liv would think was nice, some expensive black dress, high heels, hair pulled back. She'd heard the rough tone he was using, heard the name of the bar where he wanted to meet, and made up her mind about what his boys would think was nice.

Tight, dark jeans, tucked into a pair of black boots, showing off the line of her thighs, the swell of her ass, the curve of her hip, in a way that made his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth. A black blouse, silky and loose, cut low, too low, over her breasts, showing off more of her cleavage than he'd ever seen in his life - with the exception of that night when he'd been undercover and she'd come prancing out of the bathroom in just her bra and he'd damn near swallowed his tongue - a golden necklace with a sparkling pendant hanging low, nestled right in the soft crevice between her tits, drawing the eye there. Her dark hair loose, hanging in soft waves around her face, framing it so well he couldn't help but stare. She looked good, like this. She looked confident, and a little hard, and sexy as hell, and it took him a second to remember what he was doing there, standing on that sidewalk. Just a second, though, because then her dark eyes caught his, and she raised her eyebrow at him, and he was moving at once, reminded of their purpose in that place.

"There's my girl," he said, stepping up to meet her. He slid one arm low around her waist, drew her in close and leaned in to press his lips to hers, but she turned her head, let his mouth settle on her cheek, the perfect picture of a resentful former lover, willing to meet him but not willing to give him all of herself. It came to her too easy, and he tried not to let that get to him, tried not to think about how he'd wronged her, again. They had a job to do, tonight. The rest could wait.

"You gonna introduce me to your friend?" she asked him, and he swung around to her side, kept his arm around her, his hand curled around her hip. Maybe that would look possessive, to Kosta. It was only desperation, though; he was drowning, and he needed something to hold on to, and there was nothing in his world steadier than her.

"I'm Joe," Kosta introduced himself glibly, holding out his hand to her. "I wanted to meet this woman Eddie's been telling me so much about."

Thank God for that, Elliot thought, because now Liv would know what to call him, and that made one less thing for him to have to worry about.

"You been talking about me, Eddie?" she said to him coolly. She wanted to know. How much he'd told them, how much backstory he'd already built, what part she was gonna have to play.

"Only good things," he said. "Joe, this is Lorraine," Elliot continued, supplying a name for Liv before Kosta had the chance to ask. "My wife."

"Ex-wife," she corrected him, and he couldn't help but grin. She'd known. Somehow, she'd known already exactly how he wanted to play this. She always knew; one look, and she knew, and she was always perfect, and Jesus, he didn't deserve her.

"Come inside, Lorraine. Let's have a drink and get to know each other better, yeah?" Kosta gestured towards the bar, and Liv smiled, and Elliot tried to remind himself to breathe as they all went in together.