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Her head hurts.

That’s all she can think of as she awakens; the throbbing at the back of her neck, echoing through her skull. She feels sick. Dizzy even though she’s ninety-nine percent certain she’s lying down.

It’s dark, she realises when repeated blinking doesn’t improve her vision. Pitch black. What?

She can’t see a damn thing and she starts to panic. Have I… is there something wrong with me?

Thinking furiously, her head pounds even harder as she thinks back, tries to remember what happened before…

Before she woke up in the dark.

It was a normal day as far as she can remember; she woke up, had an early meeting so Lucy came over to pick up Noah and walk him to school. She remembers that, remembers kissing her son goodbye despite his protests, sneaking in a quick hug at the door to her apartment to yet more protests and Lucy’s laughter before waving the pair of them off, watching them round the corner towards the elevators in her building before heading back into her apartment, finishing getting ready for work.

So what the hell happened after that? She asks herself.

She thinks harder. Remembers getting herself a second cup of coffee - early morning meetings with McGrath require them, she’s found - and putting the mug in her kitchen sink just as a knock sounded on her apartment door - of course, she had a visitor this morning didn’t she?

Opening her apartment door to Angela Wheatley, standing there perfectly fine, no cane in sight was… interesting to put it mildly. She’d found herself on guard within a split second; cop instincts in overdrive as she’d asked a) what Angela was doing at her apartment, b) how did she know where her apartment even was and c) where the fuck was her cane?

Only, as she’s remembering now, she’d never gotten any answers to those three questions, having stepped into her hallway, wanting to prevent Angela from getting inside her apartment. Her gun was on her hip, and she’d briefly considered drawing it but…

Why hadn’t she?

She frowns; unable to recall.

Then it hits.

The prick in her neck. Quick, sudden. She’d flung her hand up, grabbing at her neck on instinct as she’d whirled around, her eyes seeing the grinning face of Richard Wheatley before everything started to spin and-

She’d woken up here.

Wherever here is. 

It’s dark, but she’s not blindfolded. She feels at her face to confirm, but nope. No cloth, no tape over her eyes (or her mouth). There’s no noise either. Everything is still. She’s not moving…

So where the hell am I?

Tentatively, she reaches out. She’s lying on wood, she realises as her fingers scrape across it, away from her sides. Lying on her back, and entirely unrestrained. Her heartbeat quickens, beating even faster as her fingers encounter a wall, more wood at her right side. Okay, she thinks. I’m in a corner. 

But she’s not; as she soon discovers when her left hand discovers wood close to her left side. What the fuck? She thinks.

Reaching up, she finds more wood, mere inches above her.

Breath stuttering in her chest, she kicks her feet out, hearing thuds, feeling resistance. Panicking now, she turns to the one direction she hasn’t yet checked; behind her head. 

There’s wood there too.

She’s surrounded by it; wood wood and more wood, inches from her on every side. I’m in a wooden box, she realises. I’m in… a wooden box.

It’s dark. Silent…

It’s not a box, her brain tells her as she presses her hands up to the lid, pushing, punching, pounding on it. It’s a goddamn coffin.

It’s too much; emotions bubbling up and over, they pour from her mouth in the form of a long, terrified scream. 

“HELP!” She yells out.

“HELP ME!!!!!”

***

Elliot checks his phone again as the elevator doors ding open, frowning at the still blank notification screen as he walks up the hallway in the one-six, headed for the SVU squadroom.

Fin’s at his desk as Elliot rounds the corner, and he makes a beeline straight for him. “You seen Liv?” He asks, phone gripped in his hand, pressed against his hip as he looks at the Sergeant questioningly. “I texted her earlier, but she hasn’t replied and it’s not like her. Not in the daytime anyway.” A thought occurs to him. “Unless you guys were here half the night?” He asks, knowing all too well that SVU often works incredibly long hours. Maybe she’s home, sleeping off a late night. 

“No,” Fin looks up from his laptop, shattering that idea. “We actually got out of here on time last night.” He looks surprised as he says it, seemingly unable to believe he’s actually saying it. Once again, Elliot can relate. “She had an early meeting though,” he continues. “McGrath.” He says the name with disdain, his upper lip curling and Elliot forces himself not to laugh. He’s heard the stories, not from Liv directly but on the grapevine. Guy sounds like a backwards, old-school hard-ass. He does not envy Liv having to report to him one little bit, and from some of what he’s heard, hasn’t got a clue how the guy landed overseeing SVU.

Well. He can; the good-old-boys club. He rolls his eyes. “Any idea when she’ll be in?” He asks. “Haven’t seen her in a few, was hoping to catch up.”

Fin checks his watch, but not before giving Elliot a knowing look. “A catch up, huh?” He smirks. “She should’ve been back by now,” the smirk turns to a frown. “Hmm. Maybe it ran over.” He leans to the side, catching Rollins’ eye where she’s sitting at her desk behind Elliot. “‘Manda, you heard from Liv this morning?”

“No…” The blonde shakes her head slowly. “She had that meeting… should I have?”

“Nah, but she hasn’t replied to Stabler’s text, and she should have been back from seeing McGrath by now.” Fin eyes the clock, grimaces. “I’ll give her ten, if she’s not back I’ll call her.”

Elliot’s brows furrow. Seems a little overprotective, he muses. That said, Rollins, who he’s only had limited (very limited) interactions with and so doesn’t know all that well, isn’t arguing. In fact, she’s nodding along with Fin and it doesn’t seem like it’s a simple ‘agree with the senior officer’ nod.

Did I miss something? He wonders, sitting down in the chair by Fin’s desk and checking his phone again. 

Still nothing. He frowns. 

***

Her hands are wet; with blood or tears she doesn’t know, can’t see.

Doesn’t care as she continues to hit the sides of her prison, her coffin in a valiant, frantic attempt to escape, to break it down, to get the hell out of here somehow.

It’s hot.

Too hot.

The flashbacks are something else she’s having to fight; they come thick and fast, the memories of another time, another prison. 

Tightly wrapped in sheets in a car trunk.

The basement, the baton rattling on the bars.

At least she could run in the basement. The trunk… the sheets, the tape, the handcuffs… she couldn’t move much.

It was hot then too; the metal box under the May sunshine had left her sweltering in the heat, the drugs coursing through her system only making it worse.

It’s no good; the wood won’t break. It should; arguably. She’s far from unfit; she still sees her personal trainer when she can, moreso after the car accident when trying to regain full fitness and she’d felt it, it’s planks of wood, it’s not solid. She should be able to break through, especially given how hard she’s kicking and punching at it.

But it won’t. Because, as she’s quickly coming to realise, there’s something on the other side stopping it.

I’ve been buried alive. Oh my God… I’ve been buried alive.

She presses her closed fist to her chest, over her heart, trying trying trying trying to swallow the panic down, to force the flashbacks away, to steady her breathing.

It’s no good; she screams again, tears soaking her cheeks as she punches the wood harder.

***

Fin’s ten minutes are almost up when McGrath comes striding into the squadroom, his face like thunder. “Where is Captain Benson?” He demands, voice loud. “When I tell her to meet with me to discuss recent cases, I expect her to show up or have a damn good reason not to.”

Elliot and Fin exchange glances, concern spiking into worry in Elliot’s gut. “She’s not here Chief,” Fin tells him. “She told me last night she was going straight from home to your meeting, then she’d be in. She’s not here, I thought she was with you.”

McGrath falters, a heavy sigh escaping him as his shoulders slump, all his bluster gone when he hasn’t got any reason to yell. Elliot can see exactly why Liv, why everyone hates the guy so much. Puffed up little prick, he thinks to himself. “Well then where the hell is she?” McGrath snaps, eyes angry. “Because she sure as hell never showed up to 1PP.”

Fin’s already on the phone. “No answer on her cell,” he says. “Straight to voicemail, so it’s switched off. Calling her sitter, see if she’s seen her today.” A beat. “Hey Lucy,” he says in a deceptively calm voice. “You seen Liv today?” He asks. “Yeah?” A pause. “Was she okay?” A beat. “What time was that?” Another pause. “Nah, it’s nothing, probably screwed up with her schedule or somethin’. Okay, thanks.” He hangs up. “Sitter says she collected Noah at seven, took him for breakfast and dropped him at school. Liv was getting ready for work when she got there, everything was fine, Liv was fine.”

“I called her doorman,” Rollins cuts in then, coming to stand next to Fin’s desk. “Got him to check, and her SUV is still in it’s parking spot. He told me that she usually says hi on her way past, but he hasn’t seen her this morning.”

Fin rubs his forehead. “Okay,” he says. “Grab Velasco, wherever he is, get over to Liv’s place and check it.”

Swallowing thickly, Elliot watches, worry turning into fear, and suspicion tickling his brain as Rollins leaves the room at speed, dialling Bell on his own cell and putting it to his ear. “Sarge?” He greets as she answers. “I think we’ve got a problem.”

***

She’s calmed down. Mainly through exhaustion, but she’s calmed down.

Forcing herself to breathe slowly, she checks her pockets.

Nothing. 

No cell, no keys, no gun (fantastic, the paperwork for losing that is going to be horrendous).

She finds herself laughing hysterically at that. I’ve been buried alive and I’m thinking about paperwork. Seriously?

Her badge is on her belt still; she can feel the metal of it, the ridges and dips, the lettering. But that’s all she does have. 

She tries to think. That meeting this morning, she considers. I never got there… McGrath will be pissed, and he’ll probably show up to the precinct looking for me, and then they’ll realise something’s wrong. Maybe they already have… I don’t know how long I’ve been here.

They’ll be looking for me, she tells herself. They will. They’ll find me.

Elliot… she thinks, relief sparking in her. He’ll find me. He won’t stop looking until he does… that said…

How the hell is he going to know where to look?

***

Half an hour after Rollins tore out of the place, the formerly quiet SVU squadroom is now buzzing with activity; uniformed officers everywhere, phones ringing, a full scale search being organised.

Rollins and Velasco had found Liv’s apartment dark; locked up like she’d left for work. Nothing amiss, nothing missing except Liv herself; her SUV in it’s designated parking space just like her doorman had said. At that point, McGrath had sounded the alarm. Noah had been collected from school, currently stationed with Lucy in Liv’s office with his headphones firmly on his head and the door securely shut, blinds closed to block out the hive of activity in the squadroom beyond.

Elliot doesn’t know what lies the eight-year-old had been fed, where he thinks his mother is exactly but he’s here and he’s safe surrounded by a lot of very protective cops and that’s all Elliot needs to know right now.

His own children, all five of them are stationed at his apartment in Long Island City, with his mother and a detail parked right outside. He doesn’t know for certain yet that it’s Wheatley, that the slippery, murderous bastard has anything to do with Liv’s sudden disappearance but he’s pretty damn sure. Noah is safe, his family is safe but Liv is not and Wheatley, Wheatley who has gone after Liv twice now is out and free to do whatever he wants and that’s all he can think about, all he can focus on. 

Wheatley has got something to do with this, he knows it in his heart but Liv’s a cop, a decorated NYPD Captain who’s made more than her fair share of enemies over the years, something that is being looked into right now, recent threats, recent prisoner releases, anything that could lead to who took her. He know’s it’s Wheatley, but until he can prove that without a doubt…

He won’t get the manpower he needs to hunt the bastard down and get Liv back. Ayanna is on the same page as him, making calls, trying to track Wheatley down but she’s only one person, and there’s a truly alarming amount of potential threats being looked into in the SVU squadroom right now.

With any luck, Jet, who has taken over the SVU conference room with her computer, will be able to help with that any second. “You got anything?” He asks her, closing the door - and most of the noise - behind himself.

“Her phone’s dead,” Jet reports, eyes not moving from her screen, fingers not pausing on her keyboard. “Wherever it is, it’s somewhere I can’t track it and before you say it, I’ve tried everything.”

Elliot purses his lips. “Okay,” he acquiesces. “Security cameras in her building?”

“Down for maintenance this morning,” Jet gives him a look. “Conveniently.”

Elliot sighs. “So we got nothing.”

“I didn’t say that,” Jet murmurs, typing fast before removing her fingers from the keyboard with a whoop of delight. “Gotcha!”

“What’ve you got?” He’s by her side in seconds, leaning over behind her but careful not to actually touch her.

“They took out the building’s security cameras,” she tells him with a proud grin. “But they didn’t get the one that I put in the hallway outside Captain Benson’s apartment.”

“You did what?” He asks her, incredulous.

She raises her hands in a who me? gesture. “Hey, I was just looking out for Captain Benson’s safety after the text thing and the car thing. Figured it couldn’t hurt having a bit more security.”

“Without telling anyone?”

She shrugs. “The less people who know…”

“What did you find?” He asks.

She clicks a few buttons and a still image appears. “Richard Wheatley,” she tells him. “Along with what looks like Angela Wheatley.”

She presses play, and Elliot watches as Angela, no cane in sight (he knew she was lying, dammit) knocks on Liv’s apartment door. Liv answers a moment later, and Elliot, even at this distance can see Liv tense up, on guard as she clocks that Angela is looking suspiciously well and mobile. Liv is so distracted by the apparent miracle in front of her that she doesn’t see Richard sidling up behind her, and Elliot watches, mouth open in horror, wanting to scream at Liv to turn, to notice as Wheatley jabs something into the back of Liv’s neck. Liv spins around finally to face Wheatley, barely managing that before she staggers to the side, reaching out for the wall and sliding down, collapsing in a heap on the floor. “He drugged her,” he says quietly, eyes not moving from the screen. “Whatever that was… it worked fast.” Terrifyingly fast. He swallows thickly. She’s not dead, he tells himself. If Wheatley wanted her dead he’d have left her there. She’s not there, which means he has other plans. I just gotta figure out what those plans are before it’s too late.

“Yep.” Jet agrees, popping the ‘p’.

Elliot blows out a breath, watching as Wheatley checks that Liv is unconscious before putting his hands under her arms, pulling her up against him as Angela locks Liv’s apartment up before helping her… whatever the hell Richard is to her these days because she sure as hell isn’t angry with him for trying to kill her (if he even did… just how many lies has he been told by this woman?) by picking up Liv’s feet. Between them, Liv’s slack body is lifted into the air and carried around the corner, out of view of the camera. “Check other cameras, street cams, everything,” he tells Jet. “Anything to find out where the hell they went.”

“Copy.”

Elliot leaves the room and the clacking of the keyboard behind.

***

“Where did he take her!” Elliot yells in the man’s face.

Barba, to his credit, doesn’t even flinch. “I don’t know!” He shouts back. 

They’d dragged him in here, all but arrested him once they’d found out for certain that it was Wheatley who’d taken Liv, but Elliot hasn’t got time for the lawyer. Didn’t have time for him at the trial, and he has even less time now. Liv’s life is on the line; nothing else matters but the pounding of his heart, the fear coursing through him at every tick of the clock. No phone calls, no taunting, no faux concern, no nothing. Liv vanished into thin air and for Wheatley to not even try and wind Elliot up about that…

Is turning the worry, the fear into outright terror.

“Sure you do,” he snaps back, reminding himself that losing his temper and punching something is not going to help, as tempting as it might be. “He’s your client, lawyers hide stuff for their clients all the time.” He clenches his fists, hiding a smirk as the lawyer flinches. He’s not going to hit Barba, he’s learned over the years, grown. But a bit of healthy fear to persuade the man that talking is a good idea won’t hurt.

“He’s NOT my client!” Barba snaps. “And even if he was, I wouldn’t hide THIS.”

Elliot scoffs, shakes his head. “Why should I believe you?” He asks, leaning in close to the other man’s face. “You called yourself Liv’s friend but what you did, defending Wheatley?” He purses his lips. “Wheatley has gone after her twice, tried to have her killed. Now this. You feeling proud of yourself now, counsellor?”

Barba looks at the floor briefly. “No,” he mutters, returning his gaze to Elliot’s face. At least he has the decency to look ashamed of himself, Elliot thinks. “No, I’m not. But I still can’t tell you what I don’t know, but believe me when I say this; if I knew anything I’d tell you, because it’s Liv, and I couldn’t, I would not hide anything when she’s in danger.” He meets Elliot’s gaze, stares him down. “I’d do anything to help her, even if it means destroying my career. I think you can understand that, detective?”

Elliot’s phone rings right then, saving him from having to answer. “Stabler.” He says, putting it to his ear and taking a few steps away.

***

Barba breathes out a sigh of relief as Stabler steps away. Turning to Fin, he watches Stabler carefully out of the corner of his eye. “I think I get it now,” he tells the Sergeant quietly. “Why Liv wanted him when Lewis happened.” He pauses, watching as Elliot huffs into his phone, clearly having no time for whoever is on the other end. “He’s primed to tear the whole city apart looking for her.”

Fin hums in agreement, nods. “He won’t sleep, probably won’t eat until we’ve got her back.” He sighs. “None of us will, but Elliot… he’s protective of her, always was. No-one touches Liv. No-one.” He glances down at his phone, grimaces. 

“This is my fault,” Barba berates himself. “Again.” He sighs. “I lost Lewis at trial, he got out and almost killed her. Now I’ve dismantled what little case there was against Wheatley and here we are again. He’s out, and Liv’s vanished.”

“Don’t blame yourself,” Fin tells him firmly. “Lewis wasn’t on you, neither is this.”

“Isn’t it?” Barba questions. “Sure as hell feels like it from where I’m sitting.” He presses his fingers into the bridge of his nose. 

Stabler comes back then, tucking his phone back into his pocket. “That was the church calling,” he tells Fin. “The cemetery where Kathy was buried, apparently there’s been some vandalism or somethin’. The ground near her grave may have been disturbed and they’re just calling me to let me know that they’ll investigate and any damage will be fixed as soon as…” His eyes widen.

“He wouldn’t…” Fin says slowly, eyes widened too in understanding. Barba looks between them, momentarily confused. 

“To screw with my head?” Elliot says. “Yes he fucking would.” He turns on his heel, breaking into a flat out sprint towards the elevators, shouting as he goes.

The penny dropping, Barba closes his eyes in silent horror before giving chase, joining Stabler in the elevator along with Fin, Rollins, McGrath and Bell. “What are you doing?” Stabler snaps.

“It’s Liv,” Barba says as if that explains it all. If he’s honest, it does. “And if she’s where we’re all thinking… if Wheatley’s done that, then you’re gonna need all the help you can get.”

***

A high-pitched whine sounds in her throat as the panic bubbles up again.

She’s lying on her side; her left shoulder brushing the lid of her prison - her coffin - with her legs pulled up as far as she can, given the lack of room. Cupping her hands over her mouth and nose, she tries tries tries to force her breathing to slow. I need to calm down, she tells herself. I need to breathe, and if I keep panicking… I’m gonna suffocate before anyone has a chance to find me. 

The mere thought of suffocating, of dying in here is enough to send her into another spiral, and she squeezes her eyes shut, fresh tears on her lashes. She can’t see the walls in the dark, but she’s sure that if she could, they’d be closing in on her.

She’d never been claustrophobic; at least not until that fateful day she’d spent locked in a car trunk. Since then, she’s managed to hide it at work via a combination of avoiding small spaces - rising through the ranks and being able to delegate has some serious upsides - and making sure that when it is unavoidable, she’s not alone. 

She can cope if she has someone she knows, someone she trusts with her, and both Fin and Amanda are aware of her… issues, which makes it a hell of a lot easier to hide them.

It’s hard enough as a woman in NYPD, let alone coming back after… Lewis. She couldn’t risk the brass seeing her as weak, seeing her as a potential liability. 

Not exactly sure I’m gonna be able to hide it now, she thinks. Pushes the thought away. I wanna live, she tells herself, I wanna see Noah, and I wanna see Elliot. I wanna see where whatever it is that’s between us goes. 

Please… let me live.

***

Fin slams on the brakes, parking the SUV as close as he can to where Kathy’s grave is sited. Elliot’s out of the car almost before it’s stopped; breaking into a run across the grass. “She’s only been missing for a couple of hours,” he says, fear making him short of breath as Fin catches him up, Rollins close behind with Barba, and other officers, Bell, McGrath, an assortment of uniforms, pulling up right behind them and spilling out of their own vehicles. “If he buried her here like we think… she’s probably got a few more hours of air, with slow breaths.” He pauses. “Right?”

Fin and Rollins exchange glances. “Yeah, about that,” Fin says with a wince. “Liv’s claustrophobic, and I mean bad. She’s probably panicking, and that means fast breathing, so we’ve got a lot less time than we should have.” He glances around as they run, reading names on the headstones. “We need to work fast.”

They’re halfway between the cars and the gravesite, and Elliot gives Fin a sideways glance. “What do you mean she’s claustrophobic?” He asks, confused as all hell. “She never used to be.”

“Yeah well, things change,” Fin replies, cryptic. “She sure as hell is now, so like I said, we need to work fast.”

Elliot has been hearing a lot of things in the last hour, and all of them have been concerning him more and more. Something clearly happened to Liv while he was gone, and from her words when they talked during Wheatley’s trial, and the little hints he’s been hearing today…

He doesn’t like the connotations. Not one bit.

Breaking into a sprint, he reaches Kathy’s grave first, barely sparing a glance at the headstone before he drops to the ground, knees protesting as he touches the grass. There’s no obvious signs of disturbance, but as he feels around-

“Here!” He yells out, Fin and Rollins at his side quickly. “The ground, it’s softer here,” he pats it for emphasis. “And the turf, look.” He pokes at it. “It’s been relaid. They’ve tried to hide it, but the ground… it’s been dug up.”

Fin stands, cupping his hands around his mouth. “We need shovels!” He yells in the direction of the oncoming officers as Elliot begins to tear at the grass, pulling the recently relaid turf back up again with his bare hands and tossing it to the side. Barba gets down onto his knees too, Rollins and Fin copying his movements as they tear the grass up. McGrath reaches them, talking urgently into his radio, demanding backup, an ambulance, firefighters, anyone and everyone. 

Soon, the grass is stripped away, leaving a bare patch roughly six feet by two feet. Elliot swallows thickly as he looks at it, before grabbing a shovel from a newly arrived uniformed officer.

Taking it in hand, he starts to dig. Liv… I’m coming. I’m coming. Just keep breathing. Keep breathing…

***

She has her arms wrapped around herself, trying to stop herself from shaking. It’s too hot in here, but she’s shivering and she knows that’s not a good sign. Her heart feels like it’s beating out of her chest, she’s gasping for air like she’s woken from a nightmare and…

She just wants out.

Please find me, she begs someone, anyone. Sniffing, she squeezes her eyes shut, tries to focus on slow, steady breathing. Please…

As if by magic, a noise sounds from above her. “Hello?” She whispers, voice scratchy, hoarse.

***

The feeling that Elliot gets when his shovel hits something solid instead of dirt is indescribable. “I hit something!” He shouts. 

He, Fin and Barba are in the actual hole; Rollins, Bell, Velasco and a whole lot of uniformed officers are around the sides, clearing away the soil as it’s dug up. Abandoning his shovel, Elliot starts pushing the dirt to the side with his hands, exposing the wooden slats that make up the box that he’s hoping to find Liv inside. “Liv?” He calls out. “Are you in there? Can you hear me?”

He presses his ear to the wood, everyone pausing in their actions, the world going deathly silent as he desperately listens for any noise from inside the box, the coffin that he’s uncovered.

For a few long, terrifyingly long seconds he hears nothing. Then-

A faint noise, followed by a scratching sound.

“Liv?” He repeats. “Hold on! I’m coming, I’m coming!”

With Fin and Barba’s help, he manages to clear enough dirt from the top of the box to find an edge, seeing that the lid has been nailed down. “Crowbar!” He yells up, reaching his hand out blindly, feeling the metal a split second later as it’s pressed firmly into his grip. Digging the tool into the gap, he manages to break the wood, causing it to splinter in his haste to get the damn lid off. 

Then, then then then-

There’s a hole, and he’s reaching in and his hand is clasping around fingers that, despite the two of them being able to count the number of times they’ve held hands in single figures he’d know them anywhere, and he’s grasping her hand oh so tightly as Fin and Barba work to make the hole bigger, big enough to get her out. 

Then… she’s in his arms. He pulls her, drags her through the hole they’ve made, her bloodied hands grabbing, tearing into the mud covered fabric of his coat, his dirt coated hands clenched on her shoulder, around her back and to her side, pulling her up and tight against him as he collapses back into the dirt, still in the hole he dug almost solo, the hole he would have dug completely alone if he’d had to.

Anything, anything to get to her.

She’s lying in his arms, his legs splayed out either side of her, her shoulder digging into his clavicle, her hot breath on his neck as she gasps for air. “Shh,” he murmurs, his cheek coming to rest on top of her head. “I gotcha. You’re safe now. I gotcha.”

She’s covered in mud; they both are. Glancing up, he sees both Fin and Barba are too; Barba’s once very smart, very expensive suit absolutely ruined but the lawyer doesn’t look like he gives a shit, smiling as he is while trying to catch his breath. Glancing up, to the top of the very deep hole they’d dug, Elliot sees a lot more relieved, but exhausted faces peering down at them; the frantic rush to dig the hole having taken it out of everyone present.

Liv moves slightly in his arms then, tilting her head to look up at him, to catch his gaze. She blinks at him, watching him quietly, an awe, a grateful relief in her eyes and he can’t wait any longer. 

Following his instincts, refusing to let this whatever has been happening between them go on for even a second longer than it has to, he presses his lips to hers.

It’s a closed mouth kiss; not exactly romantic, more life-affirming than anything else but it’s Liv and he’s kissing her and he can’t imagine doing anything else right now. 

It lasts both a lifetime and only a few seconds, forever and not long enough as they break apart, Liv giving him a tired smile as she leans into him, her hair finding it’s way into Elliot’s still open mouth as she tucks her head back under his chin.

***

After the paramedics climbed down into the hole to check her over, deeming her okay for now but needing to be checked out properly at the hospital, she’s helped out of the muddy pit that Elliot, Fin and Barba had dug.

Elliot had climbed out first, before lying down on his stomach to reach his arms down, helping to pull her out (God the hole was deep) with Fin and Barba pushing her upwards and into Elliot’s safe arms.

Once clear, he helps her to her feet and wraps his arms around her, helping her to hide her brief unsteadiness while she adjusts to being upright, blinking in the still a little too bright daylight that surrounds her.

“You okay?” Elliot murmurs in her ear, feeling her nod against him quickly before he releases her, taking a small step back but still well within reach should she stumble.

Ordinarily it would annoy her, him hovering like that but right now? She likes that he’s right there. Solid, safe, sturdy.

She won’t hit the ground while he’s in the vicinity, that’s for sure.

She’s a mess; she discovers when she looks down at herself. Streaked with mud, blood and God knows what else, she likely looks like something out of a horror movie to her colleagues that surround her, but right now?

She’s too relieved at being alive, at being out of that box, out of that hole to even give a damn about what she looks like.

“Look who I found!” The shout echoes, and she looks up, scans around for the voice, for Ayanna’s voice before seeing the OC Sergeant, walking towards them all with two uniforms and Richard Wheatley between them, handcuffed and grinning to himself.

Beside her, she feels Elliot bristle.

“Found him over there,” Ayanna points at the tree line in the near distance. “Watching us like he’s at the goddamn theatre to see a show.”

Wheatley shrugs. “What can I say?” He puts on an innocent expression. “This good, law-abiding citizen thing… it’s a bit boring.”

Elliot growls, deep and low in his throat.

Wheatley pulls a face. “Guess the big bad cop is gonna hit me now, huh?” He guesses, watching Elliot. “Defending the love of your life’s honour? So predictable.

She sees red.

Next thing she knows, she’s standing right in front of Wheatley, the knuckles on her right hand are throbbing and Wheatley is staggering, cuffed hands raised up to his jaw.

She blows out a breath, turning her head towards a smirking, proud as hell Elliot. “I don’t need to,” he says to Wheatley, chuckling. “She’s more than capable of doing that herself.”

Wheatley flexes his jaw experimentally, whining. “I think she broke my jaw!” He says. Or, she thinks that’s what he says; his voice is muffled, his jaw clearly not moving correctly. Oops.

Realising that she punched a cuffed perp in the face in front of not only her entire squad, Elliot’s entire squad, half of the cops in the near neighbourhood and her Chief, she swallows, turning to face McGrath and his ire.

He surprises her; blowing out a long whistle. “You should be more careful Mr. Wheatley,” he says. “Tripping like that? Can do a lot of damage.” He gives Liv a look. “You two,” he points at the two uni’s that are holding Wheatley. “Get him to central booking, make sure he doesn’t injure himself further.” Watching the two uni’s do as they’re ordered, Ayanna giving Liv a proud grin herself before following after them, McGrath turns to her. “Benson, hospital now,” he tells her. “Make sure you didn’t break your damn hand on top of everything else.”

Turning on his heel, he strides back towards the mess of dirt, shouting orders at officers, at CSU who have just turned up on scene. The paramedics reappear, making tracks towards her as Elliot, Fin and Amanda appear at her side.

“You okay Liv?” Amanda asks her.

She nods. “Where’s Noah?” She asks, suddenly frantic. “Wheatley, he-”

“Noah’s at the station,” Amanda is quick to reassure her. “We got him from school when we realised something was up with you just in case. He’s holed up in your office with Lucy, there’s officers on the door. You want me to go keep him company, bring him by the hospital when you’re ready?”

Liv nods, relief flooding through her. “Please.”

Amanda smiles, giving her arm a gentle squeeze before heading off in the direction of the parked cars in the distance.

Fin sidles up to her next. “Nice right hook,” he tells her with a grin. “Think you might’ve actually broken the bastard’s jaw.”

She groans. “McGrath…”

“Seems a little intimidated,” Fin grins. “He won’t be a problem. Wouldn’t have covered up for you just now if he was gonna be. Don’t worry about him, but we do need to get you to the hospital.”

The paramedics have almost reached them, and Elliot echoes Fin’s sentiment. “Fin’s right,” he says. “You need to get checked out, we don’t know what you were dosed with, you need your hand checking too and those cuts need cleaned.”

She eyes the ambulance, parked a short distance away. “At the risk of sounding really pathetic,” she swallows, eyeing the big metal box on wheels. “I really don’t want to get in there.” She sighs. “Can we walk?” She’s not entirely joking.

Elliot wraps an arm around her shoulders, tugs her into his side. “Liv, I’d carry you to the hospital myself if you needed me to, but I gotta admit, it’s not exactly close. It’d be a lot faster on wheels, and I’ll be right there with you the whole time.”

“You will?” She looks up at him, hopeful.

“If you think I’m letting you out of my sight anytime soon then you’re very much mistaken,” he replies, a warm feeling settling in her heart at his vow. “C’mon, let’s get you seen to.”

He gently nudges her into a walk, leading her to the waiting paramedics. Sparing a quick glance back, she spots Barba, standing alone and mud streaked, over by the hole.

***

A few hours later and she’s sitting on the side of a hospital bed in a room off the ER when there’s a quiet knock at the door. Barba pokes his head around a moment later. “Can I come in?” He asks. 

She nods. “Sure.”

He enters the room, closing the door behind him with a soft click. “No Stabler?” He asks.

“Checking up on the Wheatley’s,” she tells him. “They arrested Angela, he got a text so he’s called Bell to find out what’s going to happen next.” She sighs. “He only left because Fin’s guarding the door, along with who knows how many other cops in the hospital right now. He won’t be long though, a few minutes maybe.”

Barba nods, pursing his lips as he leans against the wall. “I’m surprised he left you alone for even that long,” he says. “Y’know… I didn’t get it, all those years ago.”

She frowns. “Didn’t get what?”

“Why you wanted him, when Lewis happened.”

Oh. “But you get it now?”

Barba nods. “Earlier… I saw a glimpse of the lengths he’d go to to protect you, to find you. Lewis… if he’d been around back then, would anything have even happened to you?”

A question she’s asked herself a thousand times over the years. “I don’t know,” she says honestly. “Maybe? Maybe not. Lewis was…” She sighs. “The only thing I do know for certain is it wouldn’t have been two days before anyone noticed.”

“And I wouldn’t have had to put the bastard on trial?”

She snorts. “No, you wouldn’t have had to do that either.” Elliot would’ve killed Lewis, that she knows in her very soul. He wouldn’t question himself after what you’ve done. He would kick your teeth in. Break your legs, break your arms, break your back, break your face…

“Does he know?” Barba asks suddenly, tearing Liv from her memories.

“Huh?”

“Does Stabler know, about Lewis?”

She shakes her head. “I haven’t told him,” she says. “I think he’d have mentioned it by now if he knew, so no, he doesn’t know.” She sighs. “Paramedics had to check my heart in the ambulance,” she admits. “Had to take my shirt off. He saw the scars.”

“He say anything?” Barba asks.

She shakes her head no. “No, he didn’t. But I saw the look on his face, I know he has questions, a lot of them.”

“You gonna give him the answers?”

She sighs heavily. “Not today.” She sinks deeper into the mattress. “I haven’t got the energy for that conversation today.”

Barba nods. “How you doing?” He asks.

“Didn’t break my hand,” she says brightly. “So that’s something. They cleaned my cuts up, did blood tests. Whatever he dosed me with was some sort of fast acting sedative and it’s worn off, so no ill effects, so they say.” She eyes Barba. “Just got a whole new set of nightmares to look forward to.” The sarcasm drips heavily.

“You booked an appointment with Lindstrom?”

She waves her newly reacquired cell phone, retrieved from Wheatley’s car. “Already done.”

“I’m sorry Liv,” Barba says then, voice thick, emotional. “This is on me.”

She blinks. “How?

“I got him out,” Barba explains while she looks at him confused. “If I hadn’t…” He trails off.

“He’d probably still be out, having gotten a different lawyer to tear the case apart, and I’d probably be out of a job.” She replies.

“I was-”

“Trying to protect me?” She cuts him off. “I know. And I get why, even if I still don’t like that you did it.”

“You forgive me?” He sounds so small, so unsure of himself, so unlike himself that she finds a tear in her eye.

“You know I couldn’t stay angry at you forever,” she tells him. “Plus, you ruined one of your best suits for me, so that’s gotta count for something.”

He snorts, closing the gap between them and pulling her into his arms, pressing his lips to her forehead. “I don’t like it when you’re mad at me.” He confesses. 

She brings her arms up around him, hugging him back. “I don’t like being mad at you either.”

***

“Barba just left,” Elliot says when he comes back. “Just saw him. You two make up?”

Liv nods, leaning into Elliot’s side when he joins her on the bed. “We did.”

“Good. I’m glad.”

“You don’t even like the guy.”

She feels him shrug one shoulder. “Eh. He’s not that bad. For a lawyer.”

She snorts, shakes her head. Feels him tense next to her, knows he has questions, ones she can’t face giving the entire answer to but she wants to give him something. “I know you saw,” she murmurs. “In the ambulance.”

He nods. “I did.”

“You gonna ask?”

“They have somethin’ to do with what you meant when you said about what happened to you while I was gone, outside the courthouse that night?”

She nods. “Mmhmm.”

She feels him swallow. “I do wanna know,” he tells her. “But you don’t have to tell me, not if you don’t want to.”

“I do want to,” she replies. “Just… I haven’t got the energy, the mental capacity to deal with that conversation today.”

He nods again. “I get that. You gotta know… if I’d known that something happened to you… no force on this earth would’ve stopped me from getting to you. You know that, right?”

She looks up at him then, a soft smile on her face. “I know. I will tell you El… just not today.”

“Whenever you’re ready,” he tugs her closer, his arm around her waist. “I’m here. All on your terms, you tell me where and when and I’ll be there.”

She smiles, lets herself slump into his embrace.

“Can I ask one thing?” He murmurs, just as she’s starting to doze. 

“What?” She lifts her head, looks at him.

“Whoever did that to you…” He pauses. “They dead?” The fierce look in his eyes, the silent promise that if they aren’t, they soon will be is right there, reinforcing her own belief, the words she’d spoken almost nine years ago ringing true. 

She nods in response. “He is.”

“Good.” His thumb strokes her shoulder absently, and she starts to fall asleep again, only waking as he chuckles. “You’re falling asleep on me Benson,” he jokes. “C’mon. You need to lie down, the doctors want to keep you here for a bit.”

She grumbles sleepily. “Don’t leave.” She murmurs.

“Never doin’ that again,” he replies, helping her shuffle onto the bed.

“Promise?” She looks at him, tugging on his hand until he’s lying down next to her, the both of them barely fitting on the bed, him lying on his back, her on her side tucked along the length of him, his heartbeat in her ear.

“Promise.”