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Manhattan Serenade

Chapter Text

May 1, 2014

"Jesus, you're a sight for sore eyes," he said with a wolfish grin, sliding a glass of whiskey over the tabletop while she settled into the booth across from him.

"So are you, you Walter White looking motherfucker."

They laughed together, easily, raised their glasses and tipped them towards one another, a sign of respect, before he tossed his back in one long swallow.

"How's it going, Elliot?" she asked him. While he gestured to the passing waitress, pointed to his empty glass and silently asked for another, he pondered his answer.

He'd spent the last few months living in a busted RV under a bridge, watching the river rushing by him, the sparkling lights of the city untouchable in the distance, feeling very much as if life itself had moved on, and left him frozen in place. He'd shaved his head and grown out a beard for the first time in his entire goddamn life - he was seventeen when he joined the Marines, and no beard allowed there, and after he got out it took some time for him to relax, readjust to civilian life, and about the time he did he was off to the academy, and no beards there, either. Unis weren't allowed to wear beards, and the rules were a little more lenient for detectives but Cragen had been somewhat old fashioned, and Elliot was, too, and here he sat, forty-six years old, and wearing his first beard. It had come in flecked with grey, and there was something grim about that he didn't like to think about.

The last few months he'd been living someone else's life. Wearing someone else's clothes, using someone else's name, doing someone else's job. The last few months, he'd buried Elliot Stabler, like he'd been trying to do for the last seven years. The last few months he'd been in danger, lying, brawling, starting fires, causing mayhem, carousing with evil sons of bitches, and he hadn't seen his daughters' faces in so long he was starting to ache with missing them. After everything he'd been through, over the last few months, when Ayanna asked him how's it going, his answer should have been pretty fucking bad.

But it wasn't, and that scared him.

"It's good," he said. "I'm in this now. Kosta's put me in charge of his security."

"That's good," his Sergeant answered. "But that's not what I meant. We'll talk about the job in a minute. How are you doing? You talked to your kids?"

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "Yeah, talked to Maureen last week. She's getting married."

"That's great," Ayanna said, and it sounded like she meant it. All Elliot could muster in response was a weak yeah.

It was supposed to be great. Maureen was his oldest, his first, a beautiful girl he loved with his whole heart, and she was happy, or at least she'd sounded happy when she told him her news, and all he ever wanted was for her to be happy. But she was getting married. Leaving her father's house - well, technically, she'd done that at eighteen, gone off to college and lived in the dorms and started working as a waitress and got an apartment with friends and never, ever looked back - and making a new one for herself. She was getting married, and leaving her old life behind. She was getting married, and her mother wasn't alive to see it.

"The rest of them?" Ayanna prompted him.

"Yeah, yeah, they're good."

Maureen had told him that her siblings were good, but it had been ages since he'd talked to any of them. Kathleen, Dickie, Lizzie, they texted the cell he kept locked up at OCCB headquarters, checked in periodically, and he answered them when he could, but the job was too hot, right now. He couldn't see them, couldn't risk calling them from a phone Kosta could trace. The best thing for them right now was to be far, far away from him. Maybe that had always been for the best.

"Can we talk about the job now?" he asked ruefully.

"Yeah."

The waitress was approaching, so they sat quietly for a moment, waited for her to drop off Elliot's glass before picking up where they left off.

"What've you got for me?"

"Like I said, Kosta's put me in charge of his security. He's going out tomorrow, he wants me with him."

"Going where?"

Adrenaline rushed through Elliot's veins at the very thought of it, heady and thick and dulling the lonesomeness to a distant pang. His family was falling apart but he still had the job, and he clung to it with both hands.

"Got an invitation," he said. "From Manfredi Sinatra."

He was watching Ayanna's face carefully as he delivered this news, and he was pleased to see her surprise. Things were really happening now, the case moving forward at light speed, and he was eager to get into the fight.

"What do the Italians want with the Albanians?"

"Yeah, historically those two camps don't exactly see eye-to-eye."

"Elliot," she warned him, impatient. Probably itching to get out of this dive and get home to her pretty wife, her soft bed, she didn't seem to appreciate his theatrics, so he decided to dive right in.

"No one knows what Sinatra wants," he said. The Italians had been running their protection gambit longer than anyone else, and Sinatra had killed and stolen and cheated his way to the throne at the head of all the Italian families. To a guy like that the Albanians would be no more than a minor inconvenience; they were running drugs, running girls, extorting businesses, all the usual racketeering shit, but they were small timers, their sphere of influence limited, contained, and no real threat to the Italians. But Sinatra was getting old, and rumor had it there was already a battle for the succession underway. Maybe he just wanted to make some new alliances, maybe he was just trying to mitigate the damage when the other families started picking over the corpse of his empire like vultures.

"Is it a trap?"

"I don't think so," Elliot shook his head. "Sinatra requested a meet in neutral territory. He picked a real no man's land. Honestly, Sarge, if you'd asked me yesterday I'd have told you this place didn't exist, and now it's been dropped in our lap. This is a big get."

They were getting to the meat of it now; this was big. Bigger than the Albanians, this was a chance to kill three birds with one stone. Take out three of the most notorious criminal enterprises in the city in one fell swoop. This was it, the big one, that case that was gonna justify everything else, all the grief and all the struggle and all the pain. Nothing could wipe out the losses Elliot had suffered, but this…this could give them meaning. If Bell let him have his head.

"Would you just-"

"Meet's at Oak House."

"That supposed to mean something to me?" she asked blankly. The little balloon of excitement that had been slowly growing in Elliot's belly deflated somewhat, then; he thought she'd know, right off the bat, exactly how big this was. He hadn't counted on having to explain it all.

"Shit," he grumbled. "Can tell you never worked Vice."

"Elliot-"

"All right," he said. "All right. Oak House is a legend. Like an actual legend. You go to Vice or SVU, everybody's gonna know what it is and everybody's gonna tell you it isn't real." The whole city, he thought, was made of myths like this one.

"Story goes like this. In the old days, we're talking like, pre-Revolution, there were a couple of brothels in the city that started to work together."

"Like a whore's union."

"Yeah." Ayanna sure knew how to paint a picture, he thought. "Each house had like a…specialty. If you went to one and they didn't have what you were looking for, they'd send you to one of the other houses. Customers got exactly what they wanted every time, the houses shared business, everybody was happy. They were all named after trees. Dogwood House, Birch House -"

"Oak House."

"Right. So, Oak House was the top dog. Their girls were sophisticated, classy. They catered to the elite. The real elite. Talking founding fathers, Vanderbilts, royalty, that sort of thing. The parties they threw were the social events of the season. The kingmakers, the guys who built this city, they did it from Oak House. But the houses collapsed like a hundred years ago. Government started cracking down on prostitution, and the newspapers were taking off, made it too risky. The brothels had to go small, went cheap and mobile. Started sending the girls to the customers instead of the other way around."

Elliot had heard the story a thousand times while he was with SVU. Some of the old timers talked about Oak House like it was a poison, a prison, and some of them talked about it with wonder, with reverence, like it was some fucking paradise of ethical prostitution. Yeah, right, Elliot had always thought. It didn't matter how well educated the girls were or how well they were paid or how powerful their clients were; prostitution was still servitude, and he wasn't gonna forgive some pimp for running girls just because the guy had class.

"But the place is still in operation?"

Elliot shrugged.

"There's a brothel that calls itself Oak House. No way it's the same one, but whoever's running this place, he's trading on the name. I talked to Kosta about it yesterday; apparently the only way to get in is to get an invitation from the pimp or from a current member. Kosta's too small time to get in on his own, Sinatra's doing him a favor. Treating him like an equal."

"I don't like the way you're looking at me," Ayanna grumbled. "You gotta stay on task here, Stabler. We aren't here to bust the Italians or some pimp. We're going after Kosta."

"Yeah, but Sarge, come on," he said eagerly, leaning across the table, "just think about it. These guys think they're untouchable. They're gonna be sitting in this house, talking about their operations. The intel we get here, we can bring all three of 'em down."

Kosta, and Sinatra, and the pimp. If Elliot played his cards right, if he was quiet and watchful, he could gather enough intelligence to arrest all three of them, and completely reshape the criminal underbelly of the city. He could make a difference. Nothing he did was gonna bring Kathy back - Kathy and the baby had bled out in the backseat of a taxi because Elliot had been too focused on the job to take care of her when she needed him most, and he was never, ever gonna be clean of that sin - but he could help someone else, and maybe if he helped enough people, maybe one day Kathy's ghost would forgive him.

"You can take the cop out of SVU but you can't take SVU out of the cop," Ayanna said wryly. "I need you focused on Kosta-"

"Sarge-"

"But whatever intel you get on this pimp, when we're done you can send it to Cragen, ok? Let SVU bust this guy for trafficking. You keep your eyes on the prize."

It was a compromise, but it was one he could live with. If someone else was gonna get the glory for busting one of the oldest, most infamous brothels in the city, at least it would be Cragen. The old man deserved it; he'd been like a father to Elliot, and he was one of the best, most decent people Elliot had ever known. Cragen was coming up on the end of his career, and this would be a good note to end on. Elliot could take a step back, for Cragen's sake.

"You got it, Sarge," Elliot said, and then he reached at last for his drink, and threw it back smoothly.

Game on, he thought.

Chapter Text

May 2, 2014

When they reached the front door Kosta actually laughed out loud; there was a brass knocker in the center of the door in the shape of a lion's head. Real old school, big money shit, like everything else they'd seen tonight. The neighborhood was quiet and scrupulously clean, and there were flowers everywhere, and Oak House itself sat in the middle of a row of multi-million dollar townhomes, all white stone and wrought iron gates, security cameras winking in the darkness. The cameras made Elliot uneasy; he felt their presence like an itch between his shoulder blades. Surely, he thought, if the clientele at this place were as important as everybody said they were the customers would balk at all that surveillance. Something was going on here, something he didn't understand, and he felt himself on the back foot, walking into danger with no clear exit strategy in place.

But Kosta was in high spirits and unconcerned with the cameras, so Elliot reached out, and banged the knocker against the door three times.

The door swung open at once, and revealed a huge, hulking behemoth of a man. Shaved head, heavy muscles, grim expression, the man towered in front of them, blocking their view of the house beyond, and when he moved his arm Elliot could see the gun holstered at his hip beneath his fine black blazer.

"Name," the man barked, eyeing the street beyond them warily.

"John Kosta," Elliot said. "Here at Manfredi Sinatra's invitation."

Elliot was playing security guard tonight, standing between Kosta and the doorman, a gun tucked into the waistband of his pants. He'd procured a suit for the occasion, but he was supposed to be Eddie Wagner and since Eddie didn't have much in the way of style or money the suit he'd purchased was secondhand, and a little worse for wear. Kosta looked like a million bucks, though, in a fancy black suit with his hair slicked back, rocking on his heels on the townhouse steps.

"You're expected," the big man said. "Come."

Elliot went through the doorway first, eyes roving endlessly, but all he saw was a wide, marble-floored foyer, with a chandelier overhead and a vase of roses on an antique table. There was no one else milling around, just an empty staircase off to the left, a corridor that disappeared into shadow directly in front, and a series of blank doors to the right. No sound of cheery conversation or tinkling silverware reached them; the place was deathly quiet, and something in Elliot's gut urged him to flee.

He couldn't, though. He just walked along, keeping himself between Kosta and the big man. They went to the right, the big man throwing open one of the doors, and ushering them inside. The room looked out of place amidst the grandeur of the house; there was a single, polished wood desk on the far wall, and on the right wall there stood a row of lockers, like the ones that might be found in a gym.

"Wait here," the big man said. "The boss wants to talk to you first."

And then he summarily closed the door, and Elliot swallowed hard when he heard the lock click into place.

Shit, he thought.

"A lot of smoke and mirrors for some whores," Kosta said, looking around curiously.

"They take security seriously," Elliot agreed. He hated hearing Kosta call the girls whores, but he wasn't Elliot Stabler tonight. Tonight he was Eddie Wagner, and Eddie wasn't supposed to give a shit about things like decency. Eddie did give a shit about danger, though, and so his concerns weren't out of place. It was his job to keep Kosta alive, and he'd just allowed them both to be locked in a windowless room in an unfamiliar house.

"It's a good sign, right?" Kosta said. "At least we know Sinatra isn't gonna try to kill me."

Elliot didn't know that, actually. In his experience, pimps didn't balk at murder, and a place like this, they'd know how to keep it quiet. They'd do it right, and no one would ever know what had become of Kosta or his arsonist bodyguard. The insurance payout if he died might help pay for Mo's wedding, though.

For five minutes they waited alone in that strange little office; the walls must have been soundproofed, Elliot thought, because no sound reached them there. He tried the door, even though he'd heard it lock, just to make sure they were trapped - which they were. He paced the perimeter of the room, wishing for a window, cursing himself for walking into this trap. He should have known better, he should have been more suspicious; if he hadn't been so eager to see Oak House for himself maybe he would've talked Kosta out of this meet. Then again, maybe a part of him had been craving the danger; he'd been punishing himself for the last seven years, leaving SVU for OCCB, taking these undercover assignments, throwing himself headlong into catastrophe. It was a miracle he was still breathing; a miracle, or maybe a curse.

It was too late to run now, though, and the door was swinging slowly open, and Elliot stepped forward, sidled between Kosta and the newcomers, and studied them closely, wondering.

It was a man and a woman, moving together. The man wore a tailored black suit, just like the guy at the front door, but he was rangy, lean and hungry looking. His hair was close cropped and his blue eyes were bright, and he was carrying, too. The boots he wore gave Elliot pause; cop's shoes, on a bodyguard in a brothel. That didn't bode well.

The woman, she didn't bode well, either. She was tall, thin but curvy; she wore a black silk evening dress that swept the floor, and showed off the kind of hips, the kind of tits, the kind of ass men would kill to touch. The dress was gathered in a collar around her neck, covering all of her back, leaving her arms bare, a keyhole cut in the front to show off the generous swell of her cleavage, and it whispered softly around her ankles as she moved. Her hair was soft and dark, thick and long and full, and her eyes were black as night, and her mouth…Jesus, no woman should have a mouth that pretty. Everything about her was pretty, sinfully gorgeous. If he had to guess he'd reckon she was past forty - there were little crows' feet at the corners of her eyes, though it was hard to imagine her smiling, as stern as she seemed in this moment - but there was a timelessness to her that seemed to defy any attempt to age her. She simply was, and she was beautiful.

"Evening, gentlemen," she said, and her voice was rich and warm and deep. The man closed the door behind them, and a thought occurred to Elliot then, the thought that perhaps he had been wrong.

The pimp wasn't a man at all. This house was run by a madam, and he was looking at her.

"Welcome," she said. "It's your first time, so we'll just go over the ground rules before I take you back. Strip, please."

"Excuse me?" Elliot barked, suddenly nervous. He wasn't wearing a wire, but Jet had placed a mic in his tie pin and a camera in his cufflinks, and he felt exposed, suddenly, vulnerable.

"Mr. Kosta is our guest, and Mr. Sinatra has vouched for him," the woman said, and though she was perfectly polite there was the sound of steel in her voice. She would not bend, not for anyone. "But discretion is what keeps my house in business. We aren't suggesting that either of you are working with the cops, but you might have been bugged without knowing it. Strip, please. You can keep your underwear on."

"Weapons on the desk," the man with her added. "Any jewelry, rings, cufflinks, whatever, that goes on the desk, too."

Elliot looked at Kosta once, seeking instruction, but the man was already unbuttoning his shirt, too invested to turn back now, so Elliot just did as he was told.

The woman was watching him, blinking slowly like some great, lazy cat; shit, if she had a tail, it would've been twitching. She was safe, with her man there to protect her, a queen in her fucking castle, and there was something almost victorious in her smile when she watched Elliot place his gun carefully on the desk.

"Your belongings will go in a locker, and you will be given a key," she said. "You can have your things back at the end of the evening."

All the time and effort Jet had poured into her bugs would be for naught; the bugs would spend the night locked away, far from the action. If Elliot was going to bring these guys down, he'd have to do it without tapes.

"We'll be in the parlor for the first hour tonight," she said. "Talk, eat, drink as much as you want. Except for you," she added, looking at Elliot.

"No booze for the help?" he asked, tossing his jacket down on the desk.

"We find it helps keep things calm," she answered smoothly. "At the end of the hour," she continued, unbothered by Elliot's interruption, "you can pick any girl you want. But it's ladies' choice in this house, Mr. Kosta. You choose your girl, you ask her, and she can tell you no, if she wants. No means no here, am I understood?"

"Of course," Kosta said. He'd already stripped down to his trousers, and was working on his belt. Elliot had to catch up, so he started moving a little faster, and he didn't miss the way the woman's gaze roved over his chest as he tugged his undershirt up over his head. Something like surprise flickered in her eyes as she caught sight of his tattoos, but if she had questions she did not ask them.

"No one goes upstairs without talking to me," she said. "Pick your girl, bring her to me, and then you're welcome to spend as much time with her as you like. Mr. Sinatra has paid for you this evening, the entire house is open to you."

"I'm grateful to Mr. Sinatra for his kindness," Kosta said, kicking off his pants.

"I'm sure," the lady murmured. She seemed unimpressed by Kosta in his underwear, and her eyes snapped back to Elliot, watching as he tugged at his own belt. "Violence is not tolerated here. You've seen two of my security guards this evening, and I can assure you there are many more, and they are all armed. Behave like a gentleman, and we'll have no problems tonight. If you cause problems, you will be thrown out, and you will not be welcomed back. Neither will Mr. Sinatra, since he's the one who vouched for you."

Tread carefully, that's what she was saying. If Kosta acted up, if he got not only himself but Sinatra thrown out, the Italians would be livid. It would mean bloodshed, Elliot was certain, would mean a war between the families as Sinatra sought to restore his honor and his place in the social hierarchy. It was a clever move, on the lady's part; she'd let her customers police themselves.

When he and Kosta were both stripped down to their underwear the guard stepped forward, gathered up the gun and their accessories and carried them to the lockers, tucked them away and returned with a key for Kosta.

"Any questions?" the lady asked.

Kosta shook his head, no doubt ready to step back into his clothes and head out into the house for night of debauchery.

"I got one," Elliot said. "What's your name?"

The lady smiled at him, a smile that was all teeth.

"Olivia," she said. "Now get dressed, gentleman, and I'll take you to the party."

Chapter Text

May 2, 2014

The parlor at Oak House was like nothing Elliot had ever seen before.

He'd been inside his fair share - more than his fair share - of brothels over the years he'd worked with SVU. Pop-up shops, mostly, in seedy hotels or rundown apartment buildings, no names on the leases, fake names at the front desks, easily abandoned, curtains hung to create a warren of "rooms" to squeeze in as many patrons as possible. Warehouses or lofts where the rich and entitled came to pal around, drinking cheap liquor and talking about the stock market while half-dressed girls in pleather and machine lace knelt at their feet, the girls hard at work while the men hardly acknowledged them. Red knees, that's what he remembered most about the girls in the brothels he'd busted over the years. Red knees, and hollow eyes, every one of them too skinny from too little food and antsy in the presence of a man, cop or otherwise.

This, though; this was something else.

The madam and her brooding bodyguard had led Elliot and Kosta to the parlor, a high-ceilinged, marble-floored room with bright, clean windows that looked out onto a terraced courtyard. Plush chairs and sofas - antiques, if Elliot had to guess - were scattered around in conversational groupings, and pretty girls in evening dresses swept through the room carrying silver trays of hors d'oeuvres. There was a bar - a real bar, with a wall of bottles behind it, and kegs, and real glasses - where a young man with a pleasant face was doling out drinks as fast as guests could order them. Fresh flowers were scattered in crystal vases across the room, and music was playing softly from somewhere, not the heady, techno beat of a dance club but the soft lilting sound of strings. It looked, more than anything, like a scene from one of those Regency dramas Kathy used to love so much.

It wasn't hard to find Sinatra, sprawled on a sofa with his arms spread out comfortably like he owned the place, and Kosta had gone to him at once, sat down beside him and begun to talk business while Elliot stood behind them with Sinatra's security, half listening to the conversation and half trying to get his bearings.

There were, as near as he could figure it, about fifteen gentlemen guests this evening. Several of them had brought attendants, same as Sinatra and Kosta had done; the bodyguards were easy to spot, because none of them were drinking, and none of their suits were tailored. The guests gave Elliot pause because apart from Sinatra he didn't recognize a single one of them. He'd thought maybe he'd find Congressmen, or judges, or members of the brass, but there were no familiar faces here. And not a one of them under forty, either. Elliot didn't know much about this world, but one thing he did know was that the real old money, the real movers and shakers, didn't get their pictures in the papers much. The clientele here wasn't nouveau riche tech bros and broke public servants trading on their political power; these guys, they had real class.

And Jesus, so did the girls.

There were no sequins, no platform heels, no fake fur or tube tops or anything of the sort in sight. They were all wearing dresses like Olivia's, understated, elegant, expensive. Every single one of them - and there were about twenty - had taken care to style her hair, her makeup, just so, each of them looking like she'd just stepped off the pages of a magazine. They seemed to be taking turns, alternating between running the food and chatting with the guests, the hum of conversation and the sparkling sound of laughter filling the air. Ladies' choice, the madam had said, and this was surely part of it; the gentlemen could pick any girl they wanted, but the girl could say no, and there was an artifice of wooing to the conversation around him, the customers keenly aware of the fact that they needed to give the girls a reason to say yes. Some of the men seemed genuinely charmed, as if they were actually enjoying the ladies' company, which perhaps they were; a house like this would have regulars, he thought, and if a man took a shine to a particular girl he might be able to strike up a quasi-affair with her. No different than being a sugar daddy, really, except here he'd have to deal with the middleman.

And that middleman was the madam, who was at present standing on the outskirts of the party, her bodyguard standing watch by her shoulder as she talked cozily with a distinguished looking gentleman. Though he was actually listening to Kosta and Sinatra's conversation - Sinatra was offering Kosta a small piece of his drug manufacturing enterprise in exchange for Kosta's word that the Albanians wouldn't go rogue, start trying to chip away at his business themselves, the promise of intense violence the stick Sinatra intended to use to enforce this agreement - his gaze kept flickering back to her.

He'd been so sure Oak House was run by a man. He wasn't so naive as to think women couldn't be pimps - he'd arrested plenty of them, and it hadn't been so very long since that fiasco with Delia Wilson had been plastered all over the news - but he'd gotten fixated on one theory, and hadn't taken any other alternatives into account. Which he should have, he thought now, because an operation like this, one that protected its girls so fiercely, one that traded on domesticity and entertaining, was more like the women-run shops he'd seen in the past than those helmed by men. It was an oversimplification, of course, a bad case of stereotyping, but still. I should have known, he thought.

Even if he'd imagined a female pimp, though, he never would have come up with someone like her. She was commanding, and graceful, and arresting to look at, and clearly clever, given how she had shrouded her business in secrecy, how she had bagged all these big money clients, how she had set her operation up to protect the house first and foremost. A woman that age, that pretty, that clever, surely, he thought, surely she would have other options in life. But that way madness lay; women found themselves in this business for a whole host of reasons, and every why was different, and he'd never get an answer that satisfied him.

The music cut out abruptly while he was staring at Olivia, and when it did every man but Kosta went silent at once. The Albanian boss recognized the sudden change in the atmosphere and closed his mouth a beat after everyone else, looked, as they all were, at Olivia, who was walking - gliding, really, floating almost in her long, slinky dress - to the center of the room.

"Gentlemen," she called. "Thank you all for joining us this evening. I trust you've been enjoying yourselves."

There was a general murmur of assent, and those guests holding glasses raised them to her in toast.

"It's time to take your pick," she said. "Ladies," she added, clapping her hands once, delicately.

The girls had taken the opportunity to dispose of any trays or glasses they were holding, and made their way to her at once, lining up in a neat row, ten on either side of Olivia.

"Gentlemen," she said.

The fellas went to work, then; Elliot hung back, watched as the men more accustomed to the way things were done in the house made a beeline for their chosen girls. There were hushed conversations, and hands extended, and one by one they paired off, stopping to receive Olivia's blessing before disappearing out of the parlor, presumably up the staircase Elliot had spotted when he'd first arrived.

"What's the play here, boss?" he asked Kosta in a low voice as the mobsters in front of him rose to their feet.

"I usually have my man stand outside the door," Sinatra advised Kosta.

"I don't give a shit what you do, Eddie," Kosta said, blowing right past the offer of assistance from Sinatra. "I got my eyes on that redhead over there. I'll meet you in here when she's tired me out."

And just like that Kosta was gone, fixed on a pretty girl in a lavender dress.

"He's…single-minded, isn't he?" Sinatra observed wryly.

There were a lot of things Elliot Stabler had to say about John Kosta, but Eddie Ashes wouldn't have said any of them to Manfredi Sinatra, so he just kept his mouth closed, and waited for the room to empty out.

It didn't take long.

Not long at all, actually, until all the guests were gone and their details with them, Elliot suddenly finding himself alone with the madam and her employees. The boy behind the bar was already cleaning up, and the five remaining girls were milling around their mistress, waiting for instructions.

"Don't worry about the mess," Olivia said to them. "You've got the night off, you should enjoy it." There was no accusation in her, no warnings for the girls who had, for whatever reason, not been chosen, and they didn't seem too bothered about it, were instead already walking away when Olivia called out, very softly, "Lucy?"

A dark haired girl in a peach colored dress spun back around to face her, awaiting instruction.

"Will you look in on Noah for me?"

"Of course," the girl said, and then she was gone, just like the rest of them.

What is that about? Elliot wondered, but then Olivia's dark eyes had fallen on him, and the question vanished from his mind as quickly as it had arrived.

"You're Kosta's man, aren't you?" she called to him, already making her way towards him with her bodyguard hot on her heels. The man hadn't been more than two paces away from her the whole fucking night, and his eyes were watchful, even now that Elliot was the only stranger in the room.

"I'm my own man," he said bluntly. "But yeah, I'm here with him."

"He doesn't want you upstairs?"

He basically told me to get lost, Elliot thought.

"Nah," he said. "Don't think he wants me to hear him getting his rocks off. Not too much risk of that though, is there? That room you had us in, it was soundproofed."

"And so are all the bedrooms upstairs," she agreed, something approving in her gaze, like she liked the fact he'd been smart enough to suss that out. "Discretion is our business."

"Right."

There were a million things Elliot wanted to say to her, questions he wanted to ask her, but he wasn't Elliot tonight; tonight he was Eddie Ashes, an arsonist and a thief with a rap sheet a mile long and no particular scruples, apart from his dogged belief in loyalty. It was Kosta he was supposed to be loyal to, Kosta's family he was supposed to protect, and no other, and whatever Elliot's personal curiosity, Eddie wouldn't be too interested in the operation here. But Eddie might just be interested in a beautiful woman his own age, a beautiful woman who ran a house where everything was for sale.

"Tell me something," he said. "You put on this little dog and pony show when a man says he wants one of your girls. What happens if a man says he wants a night with you?"

The bodyguard stepped forward, an expression on his face like he wanted to put his fist through Elliot's teeth, but Olivia stopped him with a soft wave of her hand.

"What's your name?" she asked Elliot, sidestepping his question for the moment.

"Eddie," he said. "Eddie Wagner. My friends call me Ashes."

"Well, Mr. Wagner," she said, "if a man wants a night with me, all he has to do is ask."

That surprised him, just a little; it was bad for business, really, a madam being for sale. She was supposed to be the boss, but the power balance shifted if she was still fucking men for money. Put her lower on the hierarchy that the customers, really, made her no better than any of the other girls.

"But before you ask," she continued, her voice as sharp as a knife. "You can't afford me."

"And neither can your boss," her bodyguard said grimly.

That, Elliot figured, was probably true. A woman like that, she'd cost a fortune. She was worth a fortune.

"Don't leave the parlor, Mr. Wagner," Olivia told him with a tight little smile. "If one of my men catches you wandering it won't go well for you, or your boss. Have a good evening."

And just like that she turned away from him, gliding silently out of the hall with her man behind her, leaving behind the soft scent of oranges, and a churning in Elliot's gut.

Chapter Text

May 2, 2014

"You're tense," he murmured softly, a worried expression on his face as they swept along through deserted corridors en route to her office.

No shit, she wanted to say, but Brian didn't deserve her ire, just now, however frustrated, however alarmed she might be.

"Just thinking," Olivia told him.

"Thinking about Perkins's offer?"

There were a lot of people in the world who, if asked, would've said that Brian Cassidy was stupid, and every last one of them would've been wrong. Impulsive, naive, short-sighted, loyal to a fault; he was all of those things and more, but he wasn't stupid. And he had spent every day of the last year hovering over Olivia's shoulder, guarding her steps, listening to her conversations, and there were a good many things he knew, and a good many things he saw, and a good many things he heard, and he understood them all.

"Considering it," she allowed.

"Come on, Liv," Brian groused, keeping his voice down, because he might not have known when to shut up but he did at least know when not to shout. "You don't need his fucking money."

"You know how much it costs to keep the lights on around here?"

Twenty girls - twenty expensive girls - brought in plenty of cash, but some of that cash went to the girls themselves, and then there were property taxes to be paid and an equity line on the townhouse, food to buy and a chef to cook it, cleaning staff, security staff, booze, the kids who served the booze, kickbacks to cops. The list of expenses went on and on, and yeah, she wasn't exactly hurting, but she had the future to think about, too. Her future, and Noah's.

"I do, actually," Brian said with one of those lopsided, little-boy grins of his. "I've seen the ledgers. But seriously, Liv, how much money did you make tonight?"

"Fifty k, give or take."

Brian whistled appreciatively. "Fifty k, in one night. You don't need a fucking loan from a shark like Perkins. Business partner, my ass. That guy wants to screw you. And I don't just mean in the sheets. Probably wants that, too, though."

Fitzwilliam Perkins, the billionaire hedgefund manager son of a billion hedgefund manager, had taken up most of Olivia's time tonight. Smooth and dignified in his tailored suit, with his elegant silver hair and perfect diction, the man tried to make himself appear reasonable and sympathetic to Olivia's quest to remain solvent, had offered her a healthy loan that would keep her business afloat for years and let her retire in style, provided she gave him a share of her profits and a marginal vote on business matters. One foot in the door, that's what he wanted, and as soon as he got his hooks in her he'd twist and twist and twist until he twisted her right out of a job, she was sure of it.

But she could use the money. Business wasn't exactly booming, not like it had in the old days, fifty k or no.

"We're not as young as we used to be," she mused.

They had been young once, Olivia and Brian. She'd met him when she was still just a working girl and he was still just a uni, fifteen years before. Back then, Brian had been walking the beat, and Olivia's madam had given his Sergeant a night with one of her girls on the house, in exchange for the Sergeant looking the other way on their business. The next few months Olivia and Brian had crossed paths over and over, struck up a quasi-friendship - and fucked, a couple of times, just for the fun of it - until Brian got moved to a different precinct. At the time she'd thought that would be the end of it, thought she'd never see that bright-eyed kid with a spring in his step and a joke on his lips ever again, but Brian had turned back up when the job spat him out, turned up this time last year when Olivia was still in the hospital, turned up and told her he was hurting for a job and she was hurting for a bodyguard, and maybe they could help each other out. How he'd remembered her, how she'd made such an impression on him, she couldn't say, but she was grateful for it, just the same. He'd been a comfort to her, from the moment he joined her staff, and had quickly become her closest confidante. Her friend. Her only friend, really.

"Speak for yourself," Brian said, like his hair wasn't going grey, like she didn't know his right knee pained him in bad weather. "You're gonna be all right, Liv. You always are."

Maybe that was true; she'd been through more than her fair share of shit, and she was still standing. Running the house that had once held her prisoner, giving her girls the support, the safety, that she'd never had when she was coming up, raising her son, tucking her cash away for one day, one day when she was finally ready, one day when she could break free from this life, once and for all. One day when she'd be all right, even if she wasn't yet.


The madam had told him to stay put; yeah right, he'd thought. He gave her a ten minute head start and then slipped quietly from the parlor. There was no one there to watch him go, and no one lurking in the corridor outside, so he moved along on silent feet. Just a little recon, he told himself; if he got caught he'd just say he was looking for the bathroom. The house was narrow but sprawling; there were four levels, and the corridors all seemed to double back on each other, and surely there was a bathroom - or six - in the place but he'd be damned if he could figure out which door led where.

His steps were quick and measured, his eyes and ears open and searching; he went along, hardly breathing, on high alert for any sign that someone else was near. The guests were all cozily tucked away with their girls, though, and there was no one to bear witness to his passing save for the eyes of the figures in the gilt-framed portraits on the walls, following him as he moved.

On the third floor the whispering sound of silk on marble caught his attention, and he pressed himself back against the wall, his eyes darting to the far end of the corridor just in time to see the trailing black fabric of the madam's dress disappear around a corner.

He wanted, very much, to understand how this house operated, who the players were, where the madam's allegiance lay, and who better to tell him than the lady herself?

He took off after her, slowly, easing his way around the corner, freezing at the sight of the madam and her bodyguard walking a few paces ahead. They were deep in conversation; the man said something that made Olivia laugh, and then they had turned again, and were lost to Elliot.

Darting through the corridors had gotten him all turned around in his head, but he didn't think there were that many corners for them to turn, was pretty sure they were running out of house to meander through, so he moved even slower as he approached that last corner, peeking carefully around it.

The corridor dead-ended on a single room, the door flung wide as Olivia and her man made themselves comfortable inside it. The wall was lined with monitors showing live feeds from the many security cams in the house, and a desk sat opposite those monitors, laden with notebooks and pens, a single laptop - closed - on its surface. The man leaned up against that desk while the madam paced, looking somehow agitated.

"Jesus, I'm tired," Elliot heard her say.

"Would you just sit down, Liv?" the bodyguard responded, and he sounded tired, too.

"You know what it would do to this dress if I sat down?"

"No one cares what you look like, babe."

Babe? Elliot wondered. Was the madam fucking her bodyguard? It would make a certain amount of sense, he thought, if they were in on it together. If Olivia and her man were a couple, running the whole show together, the man protecting her not just because it was his job, but because he cared for her. Because it made them both safer, if everywhere she went he followed. A lot of times, running houses like this, pimps worked in teams. It made sense, but it disappointed him, too, and he didn't want to think about why that was.

"Yes, they do. How many times do I have to tell you? This entire business is built on appearances."

"Thought it was built on pussy."

"Ha ha," she muttered sarcastically.

"Listen," the man said, a little softer this time, "why don't you call it a night? Go upstairs, go see Noah. Let me handle things."

Yeah, he thought. Definitely a team.

"No," Olivia answered, sighing. Elliot didn't dare keep looking into that room, couldn't risk her seeing him, and so he remained flattened to the wall around the corner, listening hard. In his mind he could picture her, though, in that beautiful dress, with all that hair, those dark eyes closing as she sought some measure of respite for herself.

"They're my girls," she said. "It's my job to keep them safe. I'll stay up until the men leave. You know I can't sleep with customers in the house, anyway."

There was an intimacy to their conversation, a casual understanding, an affection, a trust, that Elliot hadn't been expecting. Prostitution was a cutthroat business, and the people in charge tended to be hard. Had to be hard, to put the young women in their care up to this work, to keep them at it, no matter the cost, to see the damage done and not walk away. Olivia talked about keeping her girls safe, but experience told him that was less about maternal compassion and more about protecting her investment. The line of work she'd chosen had turned people into commodities, and he had been a cop too long to think kindly of a woman in her position. He wanted to hate her, but listening to her talk like this, frankly, fondly, without the formality that had colored her tone while she spoke to the guests, made her seem…human, somehow. Just another person, over forty like him, tired like him, with worries on her mind, having trouble sleeping.

"Yeah, but you know all these guys," the bodyguard pointed out.

"Not Kosta," she answered, and Elliot's heart began to pound.

"What's that about, anyway? Sinatra's never tried to bring a friend in before."

"I don't think Kosta's his friend," she mused. And Elliot liked that, more than he should have, liked how astute she was, how easily she'd read the situation. "I think Sinatra knows his days are numbered. He's looking for allies. There's a war coming."

"Who's gonna win it, do you think?"

"Wheatley."

That was an interesting prospect.

Elliot wasn't looking into the Italians, but he was OCCB, and he'd heard things. Heard about Sinatra's secret son, the one who'd spurned his father and built up his own racketeering business, the touted pharmaceutical giant with a ruthless streak. OCCB overseas was having a hell of a time digging into Richard Wheatley's business, and if this madam's relationship with Sinatra could provide insight into Whealtey's plans…shit, Oak House just kept serving him up leads on a silver platter.

"I hate that fucking guy," the bodyguard muttered.

"Everybody hates that fucking guy."

"You gonna let him in, if he takes over the family?'

"Let's cross that bridge when we come to it. For now we've got Sinatra, and we'll keep an eye on Kosta while he's here."

"If you can keep your eye off his bodyguard," the man said slyly.

Wait, what? Elliot wondered. Had he made that much of an impression?

"Oh, fuck you, Bri," the woman responded, but her tone was light, playful, almost.

"Come on," Bri - Brian, Elliot figured - teased her. "I saw the way you were looking at the guy. He's all beefy and shit. Mean. Just the way you like 'em."

"You don't have any idea what I like."

"Yeah," Brian said quietly. "Yeah, I do."

The pair didn't speak again for a long moment, and Elliot began to debate the merits of a hasty retreat. It felt…it felt weird, hearing them talk about him like that. Hearing them talk about Eddie, who was not Elliot but wore Elliot's face. Weird, to think about her, looking at him, to think about what she liked, to think about whether she liked him. The madam was a beautiful woman and Elliot was only human, but she was a pimp. A mark, a target of his investigation, a criminal. She wasn't a new neighbor or another cop; she was dangerous. What she thought about him shouldn't matter.

But it did, just the same.

"I just don't want to see you lonely," the man said finally, breaking that uneasy silence.

"I'm fine," she told him. "Now come on, help me look at these cameras. I want to make sure everybody's where they need to be."

Chances were good, Elliot thought, that one of those cameras was pointed in this corridor.

Shit.

He did not run, because he knew his heavy boots would make far too much sound, but he moved as quickly as he could, disappearing back down the corridor, sticking to the shadows, his mind working overtime. There were a good many things he'd seen and heard so far that Ayanna would need to know about, and he was trying to gather his thoughts, trying to commit the important parts to memory. Kosta's deal with Sinatra came first, and the madam's tip about Wheatley taking over the Italian families when Sinatra's time was out came second, and everything else - Noah, and Brian, and the little wrinkles at the corners of Olivia's eyes when she smiled - he filed away for later, for himself, questions to mull over late at night in the RV when sleep wouldn't come and his prayers remained unanswered.

The night wasn't over yet, but he'd behave himself. Loiter in the parlor until it was time to leave, find a way to talk to Kosta about his plans without drawing suspicion. And if he asked Kosta whether they'd be back - and if he wanted the answer to be yes - well, it was all just part of the job.

Chapter Text

May 16, 2014

It was two weeks before Elliot got the chance to return to Oak House.

Two long, interminable weeks during which nothing really happened, nothing but the usual sitting around the gym, listening to Albi and Kosta plotting and planning, trying to keep Reggie out of trouble. Elliot liked that kid, against his better judgment, and he knew it hurt Reggie, Kosta choosing Eddie over Reggie for these little field trips, but Reggie was hopeless with the girls, and nowhere near as quick in a fight as Eddie. The job called for Elliot to make himself indispensable to the Albanians, and he'd done that, and there was no point in feeling sorry for Reggie over it. When this thing was through Reggie would go down just like the rest of them. And if that thought kept Elliot up at night, if the guilt of it gnawed away at him like rats in the night, well, that was between him and God.

But Kosta was itching to go back and visit with Olivia's girls. Elliot was formulating a theory, about Kosta's preoccupation with Oak House; Kosta was running girls himself - or Albi was, or Albi's snake of a wife was, Elliot still didn't have all the details on that part - and Kosta had access to all the women he wanted, and he ascribed to a particularly defiant sort of nationalism, so the question became what did Oak House offer him that he did not already have himself? And the answer, Elliot figured, was status. Oh, Kosta was top dog as far as the Albanians were concerned, his word law in the little corner of the city he ruled over with an iron fist, but his reach was not vast, and doors did not open for him beyond his somewhat limited sphere of influence. Out in the world beyond his borders people didn't know a whole hell of a lot about the Albanians, their history, their codes. In Oak House, though, Kosta wasn't an outsider, a stranger, wasn't loitering at the bottom of the ladder of influence. In Oak House, Kosta was one of the big boys. Taking one of those girls to bed because he was rich and powerful, because he'd earned it - at least, that's what he'd be telling himself. In Oak House, Kosta's dreams of spreading the leviathan of his business throughout the city felt as if they were in reach. Olivia had sold him a fantasy, and it didn't have anything to do with sex.

Or, it didn't only have to do with sex.

So Kosta found an excuse to go back, and Elliot went with him. There was no party, this time, and this time they had been given access to the secret back entrance. The first time they'd turned up on the doorstep the cameras from the surrounding homes had made Elliot anxious, but out back there was nothing and no one to watch them. They arrived by taxi, and clambered out a block behind the townhouses, and in the darkness disappeared between a tall row of bushes, ending at last in front of a heavy door no less imposing than the one out front. The big man answered this door, just as he'd done the last time Elliot and Kosta visited, and led them to the same room with the lockers, and ordered them once more to strip - that was wise, Elliot thought; surely Olivia didn't insist that all her patrons strip before every visit, but she had not told them when these searches would stop, and Elliot couldn't feasibly wear a wire until he knew for a fact that they would. He might not ever know for a fact; it might not ever be safe. She was a clever bird, that one.

After the indignity of the strip search, after watching their belongings once more tucked away in a locker, the big man escorted them to the parlor. Elliot took this opportunity to really look at his surroundings. Were the floors real marble, he asked himself; those paintings on the walls, were they originals or reproductions? Were those genuine Tiffany lamps on the side tables; were the roses alive, or made of fabric? In the business of flesh, Elliot knew that few things were what they appeared to be. He wasn't an expert, or anything, but he got the sense this place was legit. It wasn't shiny paint layered over rot; this shit was real gold.

Inside the parlor the girls were loitering; their dresses tonight were less formal than what they'd worn the night of the party, but they looked no less lovely now than they had done before. At the sight of a new customer they perked up, and Elliot took a step back, his jaw clenching as he watched Kosta preen under the girls' attention. Didn't he know, Elliot wondered, that it was all fake, that the girls had no interest in him, that they were just doing their jobs? Did he really think he was special, somehow, just because he'd been invited to this place? Did he think they actually wanted him? Did it matter?

There was no sign of the madam in the parlor, but after a few minutes Kosta picked his girl, and she whisked him away towards the staircase at the back. Elliot was itching to mount those stairs himself, to wade deeper into the house and see what he might find - and if he wanted to find Olivia, well, that was just professional curiosity - but Ayanna told him to tread carefully here. If they ever let him in without making him empty his pockets, then he could start making plans to bug the house. For now he needed to lay low, needed to avoid drawing attention to himself.

But there was nothing for him to do in the parlor while he waited for Kosta. Eddie was the help, and everybody knew it, and the help didn't get food or drink here, and the girls didn't even glance at him. It would've been dangerous if they had, anyway, because Eddie was supposed to be a criminal and a thug and a bit of a bastard, but Elliot was worried about those girls, and he knew himself well enough to know that he'd be reckless with them. Given the chance to talk to one of those girls he'd want to help her, encourage her to get out if she could, but Eddie wasn't supposed to care.

It was May, and summer was coming on, and the weather was nice, even long after the sun had sunk below the horizon, and Elliot could see lights twinkling on the terrace just beyond the parlor. Two broad french doors led outside, and the terrace was bounded by a tall wooden fence, and really, he thought, there wasn't that much difference between sitting alone in the parlor and sitting alone on the terrace. Really, going outside didn't count as wandering. He'd still be visible through the parlor windows, and probably Olivia had cameras pointed on the terrace and could watch him as easily there as if he were in the parlor. No one was really paying attention to him, anyway.

So he went, moving slowly with his hands tucked in his pockets, went and swung the doors open, and stepped out into the tantalizing warmth of the night.

The terrace ran in three broad, sweeping steps down from the doors to a flat courtyard. There were plants everywhere; vines creeping up the fence, some sort of pale purple flowers scaling the white stone of the house, and pots and planters, all neatly tended, stood like sentinels at regular intervals. The courtyard was made of heavy white pavers, but no weeds sprung up between them. A wood lattice formed a sort of roof over the courtyard, Edison bulbs draped over and through the crisscrossing beams. Several benches and comfortable looking chairs were scattered around the courtyard, in companionable groupings around glass-topped tables. It would have been a nice place for a party, if there had been anyone there to share the moment with.

As it was Elliot was alone, however. He ambled aimlessly down the broad terrace steps, walked out into the courtyard. If he smoked, this would've been a good moment for it; there were clean, heavy crystal ashtrays on the tables and everything. But he didn't smoke, had nothing to do with his hands to give him a believable excuse for venturing to this place. All he had was the quiet sound of his own boots on the pavers, the tall fence and the bushes beyond it shielding the courtyard from the sounds of traffic, making it the most strangely quiet corner of the city he'd ever seen. Standing there Elliot felt very much as if he had been transported to another world altogether.

"Thought I told you not to wander," a soft voice called out from behind him, and he spun on his heel, a sheepish expression overtaking his face as he caught sight of the madam.

Olivia was not wearing a silk evening dress tonight; tonight she wore blue jeans, and a breezy white tank top that left her smooth arms bare, though the neckline was as high as her dress had been, and afforded no view of her cleavage. Her long, thick hair had been pulled back into an artfully messy ponytail, and she was smiling at him, indulgently almost, as if she were not angry at finding him out of bounds, as if it amused her. Most remarkable of all, however, was that she appeared without her ever present bodyguard behind her.

" 's a nice night," Elliot said with a shrug. "Didn't feel like being cooped up."

That much was true; quarters inside the RV were cramped, and every room with an Albanian in it felt too small, and he found himself longing, these days, for the outdoors, for the sky above him, for the backyard of the house in Queens he'd sold when the twins left for college. Some days he regretted that, but he had to come up with tuition somehow, and that house held too many memories. Ghosts stalked its halls, and he found no respite there. He'd moved himself into an apartment in Long Island City, and the place was nice enough, though it sat vacant while he was undercover.

"Neither did I," she said. Her legs were long and strong and carried her easily down from the parlor doors to the courtyard. There she meandered slowly around the perimeter, just as Elliot had done, while he remained rooted to the center of it, watching her. He knew what dark thoughts sent him in search of wide open spaces and made him want to stretch his legs; did she feel trapped, too, he wondered, and if she did, what force had so ensnared her?

"No Brian tonight?" he asked. The question was intentionally antagonizing; Olivia had not told him the bodyguard's name, but he'd learned it himself, and he wanted her to be curious about him, wanted to know how she'd react upon learning that he'd gleaned some details about her without her help.

In the darkness the white of her teeth flashed at him in a bright, not altogether friendly smile.

"He's taking care of some business for me," she said coolly. "He'll be back."

"I'm sure. Seems like your boyfriend doesn't want to let you out of his sight. Not that I can blame him."

It was Elliot's turn to smile, toothy and almost leering, giving her the best Eddie Ashes impersonation he could manage.

"He's not my boyfriend," she answered shortly.

How about that, Elliot thought. The pair had seemed close - he'd heard Brian call her babe - and he'd thought surely they were together, but maybe he'd been wrong. Then again, maybe she was lying to him. He couldn't say for sure, but he knew what he wanted the answer to be.

"Guess girls like you don't really have boyfriends," Elliot mused, scuffing the toe of his shoe against the pavers.

"You don't have any idea what kind of girl I am," she told him.

She was right about that. There were conclusions Elliot had drawn about her based on her position, and conclusions he'd drawn about her based on the words he'd heard her speak, and there were conclusions he'd drawn based on nothing more than flights of fancy, but he didn't know, really. Didn't know who she was, how she'd ended up here, what she was capable of. He wanted to know, though. Needed to know, if he was gonna take her down, but wanted to know, because there was something compelling about her. More than the graceful shape of her body, more than the heartbreaking beauty of her face, there was something strong and proud and interesting about her, something that whispered to a deeply hidden part of Elliot's own soul.

While he tried to come up with some sort of response he watched her, and as she rounded a corner of the courtyard he caught the barest flash of a tattoo inked in black on the back of her neck. Her ponytail swayed softly as she moved, and he trained his gaze there, desperately trying to make out the shape of the lines tattooed on her tan skin, but the darkness and the swing of her hair obscured it, made it impossible for him to identify it as she walked slowly around him.

"You've got ink," he said. Eddie Ashes didn't give a shit about courtesy, and didn't hesitate to speak his mind, and if the tattoo would not reveal itself he saw no reason not to ask.

"So do you," she said, not pausing for a moment in her pacing, though her face turned towards him as she went, something curious in her eyes.

"You've seen mine," Elliot said, remembering that first night, remembering stripping out of his clothes in front of her, remembering the weight of her gaze on his naked body, following the lines of his tattoos. "Show me yours?"

"No," she said, something strangely hard in the word. It was a warning, he thought; whatever marks she bore, she wasn't about to talk about them, let alone show them to him.

"Will you stop walking, at least? You're making me dizzy."

She didn't stop, not for a second, and he liked that about her.

"You make a lot of demands for a bodyguard," she said, almost coyly. "You this bossy with Kosta?"

"No, ma'am. I take orders from him, and no one else."

"Like a junkyard dog."

"If I'm a dog, what does that make you?"

He regretted the question the second it left his lips, and he steeled himself for the fallout, for her anger, as she came suddenly to a halt about five feet away from him, crossing her arms over her chest, her face unreadable in the darkness.

"Better than you," she told him. "This is my house, Mr. Wagner. I snap my fingers, and you and your boss will be out on the street. What do you think Kosta will say if he gets kicked out because you couldn't watch your mouth?"

"I'm sorry," Elliot said at once, because he was, because he didn't want to offend her and he really, really didn't want to lose this chance to investigate Oak House. "I'm just…trying to get the lay of the land here. But you're right. You're a lady."

She was a lady, classy and sophisticated, well spoken and clever, beautiful, damn near regal. But there was something of the junkyard dog in her, too, something fierce, something angry, something he'd caught only the slightest glimpse of tonight, something he wanted to see more of. There had always been a part of Elliot that was angry, a part of his heart that had been filled with rage, first on account of his father's brutality, then on account of the horrors he'd seen working SVU, then on account of the savage way he'd lost his wife and unborn child. Elliot knew what made him angry, knew that injustice made his blood boil, made him want to fight. He wanted to know what she had to be so angry about. Wanted to know if she had scars that looked like his.

"The lay of the land is pretty simple," Olivia said, still unmoving, her arms still crossed. "This is my house. If you remember that, we'll get along just fine."

That proved another of his theories wrong; Olivia's insistence on her own power in this place left no room for Brian. So much for them being partners; they weren't fucking, and he wasn't an equal player in the business. It really was just Olivia, alone at the top.

"Yes, ma'am," Elliot said. "Your house."

She seemed to like that; she nodded once, shortly, and then began to walk again.

" 's pretty impressive," Elliot continued. "This business you got here. You've done well for yourself. How'd you make that happen, anyway?"

That was the question that bothered him more than any other. How exactly had Olivia ended up at Oak House? Had she been a girl once, used and abused? Had she worked her way up through the ranks, or had she inherited the place from a family member? Was this really the Oak House, or had Olivia come up with the idea to call it that herself? Was this whole place really a storied antique of debauchery, or was it a more recent invention, styling itself Oak House but not really able to lay claim to that legacy?

"What makes you think you deserve to know?" she fired back.

Shit, Elliot thought. He'd overstepped. He'd forgotten, just for a second, that he wasn't supposed to be a cop, that this wasn't an interrogation, that they weren't sparring over a case. Well, they were, but Olivia didn't know that, and he'd overplayed his hand. Been too invested too soon, asked too many questions, roused her suspicions. He needed to de-escalate, and fast, but before he got the chance the parlor doors swung open, and Brian was stepping through them, frowning.

"Everything all right, Liv?" he called, eyeing Elliot disapprovingly.

"All good here," she answered him. "Actually, I'm done. Have a good evening, Mr. Wagner."

She did not spare him another glance, simply turned and walked away, back up the steps, towards the house, towards her bodyguard. And though she was wearing jeans, she still somehow managed to give the impression of moving in a ballgown, the sound of it sweeping across the pavers almost audible in the stillness she left behind. As she went the mark of her tattoo taunted Elliot, fluid lines in the darkness washing up from above the back of her blouse, a question as yet unanswered.

It's a start, he told himself.

Chapter Text

May 28, 2014

"Prayer for a lost soul, Sister?" he asked, brooding at her from beneath the hood of his jacket, the rain sluicing off his shoulders while he stood with the bedraggled crowd beside the cart where the nuns were passing out coffee and sandwiches.

"Of cou- Detective Stabler?"

He relaxed the second she recognized him, and would have hugged her, then, so grateful was he to see her kind face, had she not been a Sister.

"How's it going?" he asked, shooting her a toothy grin.

"I ought to be asking you that," Sister Peg answered wryly. "You look terrible."

"It's intentional," he said. "Listen, can we talk somewhere private?"

Sister Peg just nodded, flagged down one of her compatriots to take over her spot at the cart and then commandeered two cups of coffee, leading Elliot to the scant shelter of a cluster of trees at the edge of the park.

"Haven't seen you for a while," she said, passing him one of the cups, which he took gratefully.

A while was seven years, but nuns always seemed to reckon time differently than normal folks did. Elliot had learned that in Catholic school as a child.

"I been working a different beat."

"Good," Sister Peg said decisively. "Sex crimes was no good for you."

Elliot frowned. As near as it could figure it, the last time he'd been happy was working SVU. He looked back on those days now with a wistful sort of fondness; the work had made more sense, then, and justice had felt more tangible, and his family had been whole, and his wife had been alive. Sister Peg didn't need to know all that, though.

"Maybe," he said easily. "But listen, I've run into something, and I'm hoping maybe you can help me out."

For nearly a month now he'd been pondering the subject, scrolling through the mental Rolodex of contacts and informants every cop cultivated for themselves, wondering who would be best situated to shed some light on the question at hand. In the end he'd landed on Sister Peg, because she ministered to the working girls of Manhattan, because she was sworn not to lie, because she was a friend, and he longed to see a friendly face. He'd had to bide his time, wait until he had a chance to slip away from Kosta, wait for a day when he hadn't already promised to use his free time to check in with Bell, but now the time had come, and he'd schlepped down here, and found his mark.

"I can try."

Peg was a pragmatic woman. A woman of faith, and principle, who nonetheless understood the harsh reality of the world, and did not judge people for how they chose to reconcile themselves to that reality. An idealist, perhaps, but not so much of an idealist that she lost sight of the dangers that surrounded her. It was in her nature to want to help, but she wasn't going to get herself or anyone else killed in the process, and sometimes to do her work she chose to protect the women she looked after rather than help the cops. Elliot couldn't really blame her for that, but there was no such thing as nun-prostitute confidentiality, and it rankled, sometimes, the fact that she knew so much, and yet could sometimes offer so little.

"Wondering what you can tell me about Oak House."

Sister Peg laughed, and Elliot frowned.

"That place," she said, shaking her head. "The girls all think it's heaven."

For the first time Elliot had encountered someone besides himself or one of the customers who was even willing to admit that Oak House existed, someone who seemed to actually know something about it, and his blood sang in his veins, his investigative instincts going into overdrive. He felt himself close, so close, to the truth, and he wanted all of it, every last bit.

"Why's that?"

"She takes care of her girls," Sister Peg said with a shrug. Peg didn't elaborate on who she was, but she didn't need to. Elliot knew already. "Look, pimps on the street, they take most of the money the girls make. The traffickers take all of it. They say the girls owe them for a roof over their heads, or for food, or clothes, or drugs, or all of it, and the girls never make enough to get their feet under them and get out from under the pimps. The girls at Oak House, they get a bigger share of the profit. A girl works there a year or two, she can have enough money to get out of the life for good."

"So it's money?"

"It's not just money," Sister Peg disagreed at once. "She runs a clean house. If a girl comes in addicted to something, the madam gets her straight, and if the girl wants to make money she stays that way. I've heard stories about her getting girls into classes, job training, helping them find apartments. If one of her girls wants out, she helps them go."

"Gotta be a high rate of turnover," Elliot mused. There had to be; why would a girl stay in the job if she was clean, if she had money, if she had someone in her corner willing to help her start a different life for herself?

"Not as high as you'd think," Sister Peg said. "The girls are comfortable. The house is nice. Once they've been there for a while, they may only have to work one or two nights a week. They go to school, take their money and go shopping, whatever. One of them is a painter. She used to be out here on the corner and now she's going to have an exhibit at a gallery next month."

And probably, Elliot thought, the madam had used her connections to make that happen; every success came with a catch.

"They're still hooking," Elliot said bluntly. "You can't possibly be ok with that."

"I'd rather a girl work somewhere safe, and clean, where she has access to medical care and education if she wants it, than be out here trading blow jobs for drugs in an alley. I'm not saying it's good, Detective. I'm saying it's better."

It was a thin distinction, but one Elliot understood. Sometimes good was too much to hope for. Sometimes better was all a person got, and better was a step up from bad.

"Where does she get the girls?"

"Oh, they come to her," Sister Peg said. "Everybody knows about that place, and everybody knows when one of her girls leaves. They line up for the chance."

"Pimps can't be happy about her poaching their best girls." That kind of thing, in Elliot's experience, led to bloodshed.

"Of course they aren't. But she's untouchable. Especially after what happened with Johnny D last year."

"Who's Johnny D?"

For every question Peg answered, a dozen more sprang up to take its place, and Elliot's head was spinning, just a little.

"The worst of the worst," Sister Peg said darkly. "He was a trafficker. Brutal to his girls. One of them broke away, went to Oak House, and Johnny D had her killed. The madam at Oak House…retaliated. SVU busted him, and he ended up dead at the courthouse. He killed a cop and took her gun and the rest of them put him down like a dog. And everybody knows who put him there in the first place. The madam's too connected. No one is gonna be stupid enough to pick a fight with her. She always wins."

That figured, Elliot thought, because Olivia's clients were a who's who of New York power players, and her pockets were deep, and her security was top-notch. A rueful sort of appreciation for her was growing in his heart; she wasn't a killer - it wasn't her fault Johnny D had ended up dead, she'd just tried to send the guy to prison and his own aggression had taken him down - and she did seem to actually care for the young women under her wing. She was not good - as long as she was selling girls for profit he could not call her good - but then he'd done things that made him feel like he wasn't too good, either. Maybe better was all either of them could hope to be, and maybe they'd found it, albeit using very different methods.

"Where did she come from, anyway?" he asked. That was what he really wanted to know. With money, and connections, and a heart in the right place, he couldn't see why Olivia was doing this work, how she'd ended up there, why she hadn't left, when surely she'd had plenty of opportunities to do so. If she really wanted to help the girls, wouldn't she turn her house into a shelter, run a charity to help the girls get themselves straight without selling their bodies on the side?

"That," Sister Peg said, "is a long, sad story. Why do you care, anyway? Are you going to bust her?"

"Not me," Elliot said. It was not exactly a lie, but it was not the whole truth; when the time finally came he was going to bring Oak House down and its madam with it, but Elliot Stabler was not the cop who'd receive the accolades for that work. Still, though. A lie by omission was still a lie, and he was talking to a nun. It didn't sit well with him. Another sin to atone for later, perhaps.

"I'm working Organized Crime," he explained. "I'm looking at mob bosses, that sort of thing. It's her clients I want, not her. I'm not gonna bust 'em for paying for sex. They've got bigger crimes to answer for."

"Then why all the questions about her?"

Sister Peg was too smart; he should have remembered that. She always seemed to see straight through him.

"I've talked to her a few times," Elliot confessed. "I'm just…I'm just trying to figure out who I'm dealing with here."

"She's a survivor," Peg said. "That's the one thing you need to know about her. She came up under the old madam. That's a little before my time but I've heard stories. Oak House used to be a lot…harder than it is now. Everything I've told you, that's how she's been running things since she's been in charge, but when she was working, she had it tough. But she survived that. She was attacked last year, and she survived that, too. Whatever you think you're gonna get out of her, you gotta remember her goal is always going to be saving her own skin. You can't trust her, Elliot."

"What do you mean attacked?"

"Thought you were the police," Sister Peg raised her eyebrow at him. "You haven't even looked her up?"

Elliot hung his head, feeling a little sheepish. No, he hadn't pulled the file, firstly because he didn't even know Olivia's last name, and secondly because records requests were public. There was no way for him to look at her rap sheet without somebody somewhere taking notice, and he didn't want word to get around. What if she had a plant with the NYPD? What if she found out a cop she'd never heard of was looking into her? If she got suspicious, if she discovered that Elliot Stabler and Eddie Wagner were the same person, he'd be fucked.

"Why do I get the feeling there's something you're not telling me?"

"Nun's intuition," Elliot muttered. "Listen, just one more question. You know her last name?"

"Yeah. It's Benson."

That was enough, Elliot thought. Maybe it was too soon to pull her official records, but he could google her, at least. As private as she seemed, as much as her business relied on discretion, there probably wouldn't be a lot to find on the internet, but he could look, at least, and see what might be out there.

"Thanks," he said. "Listen, I owe you, Sister."

"I'll remember that, Detective. Now, enjoy your coffee. I gotta get back to work."

"May the Lord be with you," Elliot murmured.

"And with your spirit," Sister Peg answered, and then she walked away, left him slightly damp and nursing his rapidly cooling cup of coffee, thinking hard about everything she'd told him, about right and wrong, and all the shades of grey in between.

Chapter Text

June 3, 2014

The day Liz handed the keys to Oak House over to Olivia, the contents of the house - and its tenants - became hers. Her possessions, her responsibilities, to do with as she pleased. It would be a lie to say she'd never thought about giving it up; the house was worth a fortune, and even after the bank took its share there would have been more than enough left over for her to start over fresh, and if she sold the artwork and the fucking Tiffany lamps and the furniture, there'd be even more. Sure, she'd thought about giving it up, but she'd never done it, because Oak House was the one thing she'd always dreamed about, the one thing she'd always thought she'd never get to have. Oak House was her home.

She was at home, this morning, lying in her plush, four-poster bed in the master suite on the fourth floor, still dressed in her pajamas, with Noah sitting on her lap. Olivia was reclining against the intricately carved headboard, her knees bent behind Noah's back so he could rest against them, his little hands caught in hers. His blue eyes were bright and joyful, and his chubby little cheeks were rosy and lifted in a wide smile, and when she clapped his hands together he laughed, and her heart swelled with love.

"My sweet boy," she crooned to him softly.

This, too, was something she'd always dreamed of, a dream she'd thought beyond her reach. A child of her own, not born of her body but hers, still. It had taken a great deal of fast talking - and more than a few lies - on Trevor Langan's part, but he'd helped secure the adoption, and it had been official for a few months now. Noah was like her, a child conceived in violence, a child on his own, a child who needed two arms to hold him and a heart to love him, and those things she could give to him, was determined to give to him. She'd failed to keep Ellie safe; she would not fail Ellie's son. Her son, now.

"One day, sweet boy," she told him, drawing his hands up so she could press kisses to the backs of his little knuckles. "One day, we're going to go far, far away from here."

It was easier to think about leaving as something that might happen in the distant future than as an immediate course of action. It was easy to lie there in bed, the warm sunlight slanting across her silk sheets, and think dreamy thoughts of a house with a proper yard for him to romp through, rather than the stonework terrace outside. It was easy, to tell herself she'd have to make a break from this life before he started school; easy to see the logic in it, but hard, still, to follow through on it.

It might not have been a good life, might not have been a happy, upstanding life, might not have been a life someone else would have been proud of, but it was her life, and she had known no other, and the uncertainty of the world beyond the doors of Oak House made her hesitant to walk away. Olivia had lived and worked in this house since she was sixteen years old, and she was now forty-six. What work could she do, with no resume to present prospective employers? She might not have to work at all, depending on how much money she managed to squeeze out of the sale of the house when she departed, but if she didn't work, what would she do all day? And what would become of her girls? Some of them would be ready to move on from this chapter in their lives, but some would not, and if she sold this house, where would they go? What darkness would claim them, if they found themselves cast out? If she didn't sell the house, if she passed it on to Lucy just as Liz had passed it on to her, she would need to work, and that just sent her right back to the beginning, catching her bottom lip between her teeth as she worried, and wondered.

"We've still got some time," she said, half to Noah and half to herself. He was only a year old; it would be a few more years before he started kindergarten. Plenty of time for her to work out a plan.

There came a knock upon her bedroom door then, and she looked up sharply. One of the first things Brian had done when he came on board was revamp the security on her personal suite of rooms. He saw to it that the door was equipped with a mechanical lock, a push button installed next to Olivia's bed so she could open it without having to rise, and a camera had been fixed in the corridor right outside. The feed from that camera was sent to a monitor mounted on the wall opposite Olivia's bed that she could turn on and off at will; usually she turned it off at bedtime, and turned it on when she woke. It was on now, and when she looked she could see Lucy standing in the corridor outside her door, and she relaxed, reaching over to push the button and open the door at once.

"Good morning," Lucy called cheerily as she bounced through the door, the lock clicking into place as it swung closed behind her.

Lucy was another problem; she was Olivia's favorite, insofar as she had favorites, a bright and beautiful girl with a good head for numbers, and a natural successor when Olivia's time as madam was through. But Lucy was also taking classes to become a school teacher, a career that Olivia thought would suit her well, a career that would free her from this life, once and for all. What would become of Lucy, if Olivia passed her the keys to Oak House? Would Lucy end up trapped, as Olivia was now? Was giving Lucy a chance to make a clean break worth the fate the other girls would suffer when the doors of Oak House were shuttered?

"Good morning," Olivia answered, hoping that none of her melancholy showed on her face.

Lucy crossed the room on light, graceful feet, and eased herself onto the bed beside Olivia, reaching out to run her hand over Noah's dark curls while the boy babbled happily, delighted to be faced with his two favorite people in the world.

"How did you sleep?" Lucy asked warmly.

"We slept great," Olivia answered. What she meant was that Noah had slept all the way through the night; she'd not had a full night of sleep in years, and wasn't sure she ever would again. But Noah was happy, and that was all that mattered to her.

The suite of rooms she occupied boasted two bedrooms, a sitting room, and a bathroom, all tucked away behind that heavy locked door. For the first few months Noah had slept in a crib in this bedroom with Olivia, who was loath to let him out of her sight, but he was getting bigger, now, and she had moved him into the second bedroom back in April. He seemed to be doing well there, and she was glad of it.

"It's a beautiful day," Lucy said. "I was thinking maybe we could go to the park this afternoon."

"I think that's a good idea. I'll ask Brian."

Olivia did not ever venture beyond the walls of Oak House without her bodyguard. Not any more. She could hold her own in a fight, but Oak House had always possessed a certain veneer of gentility, and she'd not often had to defend herself physically, and she'd certainly never carried a gun. Brian knew how to use one, though, and the years he'd spent working for the police left him vigilant and quick to react. She trusted him to keep them safe, not just her but Lucy and Noah, too; he loved them, just as she did. This place had become his home just as much as it was hers, and that was another worry. Brian had a maudlin streak in him, and he hadn't left the NYPD on the best of terms, and she didn't know what he'd do if he wasn't shadowing her steps all day. The curse of being the boss, she'd realized, was the duty of care she owed to all these people, a duty a less scrupulous woman might not have felt so keenly but which weighed heavily on Olivia's shoulders.

"Brian's on the phone," Lucy said, wrinkling her nose in a way that made Noah laugh. "Sinatra called."

"Sinatra?" Olivia repeated, concerns about her future suddenly engulfed by concerns over the present. "What does he want?"

Lucy shrugged. "I dunno," she said. "It sounded like-"

Movement on the monitor caught both their attention, and they looked up at almost precisely the same moment that Brian knocked on the door, his brooding face clearly visible on the feed from the camera outside. Once again Olivia opened the door remotely, and once again one of her charges came walking through it, although Brian's steps were heavier than Lucy's had been. If he'd been one of the other guards she'd have covered herself up before she let him in because the lightweight black camisole she wore did little to hide her figure, but Brian had seen her naked enough times for the novelty to have worn off, and they were comfortable with one another now.

"Hey," he said, coming to sit on the side of the bed next to Olivia, reaching out to touch Noah's head the same way Lucy had done. In response Noah crooned a soft sound that was as close an approximation to Brian's name as he could manage, and Olivia smiled at the pair of them indulgently, sadly. Noah had no father to speak of, but Brian had been watching over him for very nearly as long as he'd been watching over Olivia, and Brian cared for the boy. Would they ever see each other again after Olivia left this place?

"Just got off the phone with Sinatra," he said.

So I heard, Olivia thought but did not say; she didn't want to draw attention to Lucy's eavesdropping, however innocent it might have been.

"He wants to do a drop. Told him it'd cost him. That ok with you?"

The lockers downstairs provided a convenient place for the clandestine exchange of various goods and documents; for a fee any customer could leave something there, to be picked up later, so long as both parties involved had been cleared by the house. It was a very old practice, and one Lucy would need to learn to navigate, if Olivia did ultimately decide to turn Oak House over to her.

"Who's it for?"

"Kosta."

Olivia frowned. She didn't like this new relationship between the Albanians and the Italians. She didn't know the Albanians, for one thing, and what little she'd heard about them gave her pause. Of course the Italians were ruthless, too, but they'd been a part of the fabric of the city from the very start. The devil you know, she thought.

"He tell you what it was?"

"Nothing that goes boom," Brian answered with a grim sort of smile. "He wants to have one of his boys drop it off tonight, then Kosta can send one of his goons to pick it up tomorrow."

"Fine," she said. The house existed to make money, after all, and Sinatra would pay for the service. "But either Kosta comes himself or he sends Wagner. No strangers."

There was a look in Brian's eyes like he wanted to say something about that, but his gaze flickered to Lucy, and for once he held his tongue. There was no point in him speaking, anyway; Olivia knew already what he was going to say. That she'd allowed Wagner too much liberty, letting him walk through the terrace, speaking to him alone. That she looked at Wagner a little too often and for a little too long, that she was a little too comfortable with him already.

The thing was that Brian was right. There was something about Eddie Wagner, about the softness of his eyes above his bushy beard, about his warm smile, about his quick tongue, that intrigued her. His tattoos proclaimed him a man of faith and a man of service, but he was also a criminal, consorting with mafia bosses, his past littered with charges. Brian had gone through one of his old buddies on the force to find out about Eddie Wagner - Eddie Ashes, they called him - an arsonist and a brawler and a thief, a man whose rap sheet was at odds with the calm way he comported himself. Eddie was tough and plain spoken in a way none of her clients were, and he was curious and quick-witted in a way none of their goons were, and that made him the most interesting man she'd met in quite a while. It also made him dangerous, because he called her ma'am to her face but his hands were made to bruise. She shouldn't want to see him, but she found herself looking forward to the prospect, anyway. She'd always had a taste for danger.

"I'll make the call," Brian said, acquiescing to her, even if he didn't want to.

"Good," she said. "I've got some things to do this morning, but we were thinking about going to the park this afternoon. You up for it?"

" 'course," Brian said. "Always happy to go out with my best girls. And boy," he added, reaching out to brush his finger gently against the tip of Noah's nose. Olivia's son laughed, delighted, reaching for Brian's hand with his pudgy little fingers, and she watched them both, a sense of unease swirling through her belly. Things were changing, she thought. The question remained, were they changing for the better?

Chapter Text

June 4, 2014

It was getting to be too easy, walking into Oak House. Too easy to take a taxi to a bar a block away, order a drink and throw it back before trudging through the darkness to the fence at the back of the property, too easy to walk between the fence and the hedges and disappear into shadow, too easy to knock upon the door and step through it into the marble-floored corridor at the back of the house, to easy to flash a smile at the big, mean security guard. Too easy, too comfortable; Oak House was starting to feel like a place he knew, and not a place he should fear. Tonight he should have been wary, on alert, because Sinatra had arranged a drop and he was the lucky - or unlucky, depending on which way you looked at it - son of a bitch who'd get to go to the brothel and pick it up. Sinatra's package could have been anything, but Kosta had given nothing away, and whatever it was chances were good Elliot wouldn't be able to peek at it without Kosta finding out. The curiosity was getting too easy, too; the questions consumed him, and he found himself slipping, just a little, growing just a little careless in pursuit of the answers. He need to rein himself in, but then he'd been needing to do that for the last seven years.

Inside the house the big man led him to the locker room, and left him there, locked the door behind him and left Elliot all alone, pacing the perimeter, more at ease now than he had been the first time he'd come to this place. The first time he hadn't known what waited for him, but he'd learned, since then. Learned about Olivia, and her expectations, and the decorum of her house. She wasn't gonna kill him, not tonight.

And part of him didn't care if she was gonna, anyway, because it should've been him who died in that car crash, not Kathy and the baby. He'd been living on borrowed time, with their blood on his hands, for all these years, and his life didn't mean so much, really. The kids didn't need him anymore and he hadn't talked to mama since Christmas and the world had moved on, no longer had a place for Elliot Stabler in it. The questions were keeping him alive, and right now a lot of those questions had to do with her. Olivia Benson. Questions of where she'd come from, how she'd gotten into this work, just how tough she'd had it when she was an up and coming working girl, before the ballgowns and the personal bodyguard. Questions about what motivated her, what made her tick, what secrets she was keeping. The madam was one big question, and Elliot meant to find the answer, before this job was through.

Maybe five minutes after he arrived the door opened again, and Olivia and her security guard stepped through it, closing it smartly behind them, trapping the three of them together in that tiny soundproofed room. The bodyguard was wearing a black suit, sans tie, and Olivia was wearing a black dress that skimmed her knees and covered her chest and back, her hair down to obscure the lines of that tattoo Elliot still didn't understand at the back of her neck. The cut of the dress might have been dowdy if the fabric hadn't been so expensive, if her tits, even covered, hadn't been so appealing, if the curve of her hip hadn't been so fucking pretty, but the way it hung on her frame made his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth.

"Mr. Wagner," she said in her rich warm voice.

"Miss Benson," he answered. Too late he remembered she hadn't told him her last name; he'd learned it from Sister Peg, and he damn sure didn't want Olivia to start asking questions about what he knew and how he knew it, so he spoke again, quickly, hoping to distract her while her bodyguard watched, silent and frowning.

"You look nice tonight," he said, leering just a little to sell it.

"And you look like you could use a shower," she answered coolly. "Let's get this over with, shall we?"

"Weapons on the desk," the bodyguard drawled, and Elliot did as he was told, dug the gun out of the waistband of his pants and set it on the desk and then held his arms out, spinning slowly so the bodyguard could see he held no other weapons. That seemed to satisfy the pair of them; the bodyguard sidled between Elliot and the desk - between Elliot and the gun - and Olivia crossed the room, produced a key from somewhere and opened one of the lockers.

"From Mr. Sinatra, to Mr. Kosta," she said, gliding across the room to Elliot with a manila envelope in her hands. "As you can see we sealed it when it was dropped off-" she showed him the back of the envelope and a strip of gold tape running lengthwise down it, holding it closed - "so Mr. Kosta can see it hasn't been tampered with."

And, Elliot thought, so Elliot himself couldn't tamper with it. They really did think of everything in this place.

"Thanks," Elliot said. "So, is that it? Do I owe you anything?"

Olivia's dark eyes roamed slowly over him, something almost teasing in her expression, as if she were considering playing with him just for the fun of it, but ultimately decided against it.

"No," she said. "Mr. Sinatra has paid for the service. You can leave now."

"Just a sec," the bodyguard said, leaning back against the desk and crossing his arms over his chest, leveling a baleful stare at Elliot.

"Brian," Olivia murmured, confused.

Shit, Elliot thought. Shit. Shit. What is this?

What could the bodyguard have to say to him that Olivia wouldn't know about? All he was meant to be doing was picking up a package; he had no further instructions, didn't even really know what this was about. Was it Kosta who made the bodyguard's visage sour, or was it Eddie? Was Elliot about to be held to answer for some nebulous crime his supposed boss had committed, or was it something he had done himself, some offense he had given without even knowing it? The bodyguard was armed, Elliot knew that from past experience, and he was leaning in front of the desk, blocking Elliot's access to his own weapon. Whatever this was, it couldn't possibly be good.

"What's the color of the day?" Brian asked.

Holy Mary mother of God.

Brian had made him. Somehow, some way, Brian knew he was a cop. Olivia's gaze was darting back and forth between them, her brow furrowed like she didn't really understand what was going on, didn't recognize the significance of the question, but Brian's eyes were trained on Elliot unblinking. Elliot only had a split second to decide how to answer, to try to save his own skin. Was Brian a cop himself, undercover for Vice or somebody, with Olivia's knowledge, trying to bring Elliot in on the game? Or did Brian just know; he was the personal bodyguard to the most influential madam in the city, it would behoove him to understand how the police operated, to learn how to spot them. Would Brian kill him, for being a cop, for threatening the house? Would Olivia let him? Were they trying to help him, or end him?

"What?" Elliot asked, trying to play dumb, trying to sound just angry enough, just confused enough, to make them think he really didn't have any idea what the question meant.

Brian rolled his eyes, and drew his gun, and Elliot's heart sank.

"Brian," Olivia hissed. "What the fuck are you doing?"

"What's the color of the day, Eddie?" Brian repeated, leveling the gun at him with steady hands. "Answer me, or I'll shoot you."

You'll probably shoot me either way, you prick.

"I don't know what the fuck you're talking about," Elliot said, backing away from the gun as best he could. The room was small, though, and there really wasn't anywhere for him to go.

"You got to the count of three," Brian said, with an unnerving sort of calm, a smile tugging up the corner of his lips. "One-"

"Bri-"

"Two-"

"Brian stop-"

"Three-"

"Yellow," Elliot said.

In the few seconds it had taken Brian to count, Elliot had done some fast thinking. The man had made him, knew he was a cop, was just playing with him, trying to make him say it. Maybe he'd kill Elliot tonight, but if he had any brains at all he'd have to know that Elliot's handler knew exactly where he was, and that if Elliot didn't check in at the arranged time the police would descend on this house. Killing Elliot, in that moment, would've been a monumentally stupid thing to do. And there was no point in lying, anyway; if he didn't confess the truth Brian still wouldn't trust him, and he might not ever be allowed back in this house. If he told the truth there was still a chance, however small, that he might be able to convince them that since he wasn't after Oak House they didn't have to worry about him. His whole life hinged on that chance, and he took it.

"I fucking knew it," Brian said, triumphant.

"Will somebody tell me what the fuck is going on?" Olivia demanded, anger flashing in her eyes.

"He's a cop, Liv," Brian told her. "He's a fucking cop."

The strangest thing was when she looked at Elliot in the wake of that revelation her expression was hurt. She looked hurt, disappointed, betrayed; she looked like it had wounded her, him lying to her, like she'd wanted to believe he was showing her his true face, like it made her sad, somehow, to know that he wasn't. Anger, he'd expected. Boiling rage, bloodthirst, even, a swift and vengeful attack to defend her home and her livelihood, that would have been in keeping with what he knew about her, but hurt? No, he hadn't been expecting hurt.

"Meet Elliot Stabler," Brian said.

That was both reassuring and terrifying; it seemed Elliot had made the right choice, in telling Brian the truth, because Brian already knew his name, but how the fuck did he know it? And how much did he know, exactly? Did he know where Elliot Stabler lived, did he know about the kids? Would he hurt them, or use the threat of hurting them to try to blackmail Elliot into doing whatever he wanted.

"Look, I don't give a shit about the girls," Elliot said quickly. "I'm not here to investigate prostitution. I'm going after Kosta. What you're doing here doesn't concern me at all."

He needed to act fast, needed to convince them that they didn't have to kill him, that he wasn't a threat to them.

"And when you bring Kosta down," Olivia said slowly, "everyone is gonna know there was a rat in my house."

"Maybe not," he answered. "Depending on how things shake out, people might not ever find out Eddie was the rat. And even if they do, you just remind them that no one brought charges against the house, and that Kosta's the one who brought me in here. Maybe you have to close ranks for a while, not let in any new customers, but the old ones should keep you afloat."

For a second she was quiet, studying him, the wheels turning in her head almost audible. Believe me, Elliot thought. Please, just believe me. There was no part of him that wanted to keep the promise he'd just made, and he didn't really intend to, was just saying whatever he could think of to keep himself alive. But Brian knew his name, and in order to protect his family he might have to let the prospect of taking down the house go. He'd cross that bridge when he came to it; in the moment, he had to face the threat that was in front of him, had to play on what he knew about Olivia, use his knowledge to his advantage.

In her business, everything was for sale, and nothing came for free. If she spared him his life now, if she gave him the courtesy of protecting his secret, she'd expect something else in return. If she was smart, and he knew that she was, she'd know she could ask for just about anything and he'd give it to her, to save his life, to save his operation. The question wasn't if she would have a price, but what it would be, and whether he would be able to pay it.

"Take his gun, Bri," she said slowly, and the man did as she asked, took Elliot's gun and tucked it in the waistband of his trousers.

"We're gonna have a conversation," she told Elliot. "And then we're gonna decide what to do with you. You stay here."

She jerked her finger at Brian and the man went at once to her side, and together they marched out of the room, slamming the door in Elliot's face, the click of the lock loud as a gunshot behind them.

There was no escape from that room; only one way in, only one way out. He wasn't armed, and there was nothing lying around he could use to defend himself. The only thing he could do was wait, and see what Olivia's judgment might be.

Chapter Text

June 4, 2014

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" she hissed as the office door slammed closed, barricading the pair of them in with the glow of the monitors and the quiet hum of the electronics.

"Liv-" Brian started to say, not sheepish but self-righteous. She didn't give him the chance to finish that thought.

"How fucking stupid are you?"

"The guy's a cop," he reminded her bluntly. "He's a fucking cop, and that makes him a threat, and I'm not gonna just-"

"You find out there's a cop in here you tell me, and we figure it out together! You just showed him our hand, and now he's holding all the cards. He's got all the power here, and we've got nothing. Less than nothing. We're fucked."

"He's the one that's fucked," Brian insisted, crossing his arms over his chest, still refusing to see reason. "We-"

"What exactly do you think is gonna happen now?" she demanded. "Lemme work the possibilities out for you. One, we let him keep working Kosta, and when that's finished, he fucks us. Two, we tell Kosta he's got a rat, and Kosta kills him. Three, you kill him, and the entire NYPD shows up at our doorstep."

"Four," Brian snapped stubbornly. "We let him keep working Kosta, and when that job is done he leaves us alone because he knows we're the only reason he's alive."

"In what universe, Bri? In what fucking world is he gonna leave us alone? Why should he? Once he's done with Kosta he won't need us any more, and once we've been arrested there's not a whole hell of a lot we can do to him. Unless he's got family, or something. Is that your plan, Bri? You gonna threaten his kids? You gonna kill a cop?"

Brian Cassidy was a lot of things, but he wasn't a cold blooded killer. Especially not a cop killer; however resentful he might have been over the way his career with the NYPD had imploded he was still one of them, in many ways, and he had a good heart, just wasn't the type to go executing people. He definitely wasn't the type to threaten a kid.

"Look, you got connections," Brian said. "You've beaten the rap before, Liv. I say we let him work, squeeze him for as much as we can get out of him, and then when it's done you call in some of your chips and let someone else clean up this mess."

That could work. The Chief of D's, the Commissioner of the NYPD, those guys were vulnerable. Historically Oak House hadn't done much business with public servants, had instead focused on the old money families with real funds to spend, but she could cast a net, capture a few of the higher ups on the force and maybe protect herself. It could work, but it might not, and she was cursing the situation she found herself in. Brian was too blinded by his own desire to see the guy twist to realize there wasn't shit they could get out of him; sure, maybe they could use Eddie's - Elliot's, whoever's - pull on the force to run plates or other small favors, but anything he did for them he'd probably run through his bosses first, and it would just add to the pile of crimes Olivia would be charged with later. A cop was no fucking use to her, was in fact a danger to her house, but she wouldn't kill him, and she couldn't just let him go.

"How did you even find out who he was?" she asked, the wheels still turning in her mind, trying to find a way out of this mess.

"When Kosta first turned up I had a buddy at DOC dig up Eddie Wagner's file."

That much Olivia knew already; she'd looked over the rap sheet with Brian after that first visit.

"Then I noticed something. Eddie Wagner doesn't have any fucking tattoos."

Shit. How had she missed that? The DOC file contained information about identifying features, she should have seen it. Brian had seen it, and it had made him suspicious, and she figured that explained why he'd been so surly about Eddie's presence in the house, but it didn't explain how he'd made Eddie for a cop. The guy could've just as easily gotten the tats after he was paroled; just because he didn't have them when he went in didn't mean he couldn't have gotten them once he was out.

"And the way he talks, the way he holds himself…look, I was a cop, Liv. I knew what I was looking at. So I called a different buddy on the job. Told him an off-duty officer had helped me out of a jam and I wanted to thank the guy but I didn't know his name. I described him, and yesterday my guy called me back with a name."

"You didn't even know for sure it was the same guy-"

"But it is the same guy! He just told us himself, Liv!"

There was no arguing with that; if the guy in the locker room downstairs wasn't Elliot Stabler he had no reason to pretend to be, unless he had a fucking death wish. And besides, there was something in his eyes, in the way he spoke, that was too sincere to be a lie. The man she'd thought was Eddie Wagner, the man she'd thought was handsome, and interesting, and maybe somebody she could look forward to talking to, was really Elliot Stabler, a cop, a question mark.

"What do you know about this guy? Stabler?"

Brian shrugged. "Nothing, yet. My contact told me he used to be SVU."

SVU. Olivia knew what that meant, remembered the SVU cops from her own days as a working girl. Sister Peg had been friends with some of them, had told Olivia more than once that SVU wasn't interested in busting girls for selling themselves, that those guys were safe. As angry as she was, as much as she wanted to hate Elliot Stabler for lying to her and putting her livelihood, her freedom, in jeopardy, she was glad to know he'd been SVU. That he'd been one of the good ones, once. That maybe he still was.

"What are we gonna-"

"Just let me think," she said, waving her hand to ask for silence, beginning to pace.

There was a fifth option on the table. One that didn't involve Elliot Stabler's untimely demise or Olivia's own incarceration, one that was more realistic than Brian's pie-in-the-sky dreams about Stabler just letting them go. If Stabler was investigating Kosta he was probably working a racketeering angle, and those cases took years to build. There was no telling how long he'd been under, but probably his case wasn't gonna wrap up in the next few months. That meant Olivia had time to plan, and maybe this was just the sign she'd been waiting for. For ages now she'd been thinking about the future, about where she'd go after Oak House, about how she was going to extricate herself from it before Noah started school. Stabler's presence downstairs might have been the death knell for the business, but maybe that was ok. She had money squirreled away, she could start slowly, carefully, making plans to run.

It wouldn't be that hard. She'd need a little bit more cash, just a little bit more to make sure she'd be taken care of, to buy new identities for herself and Noah, but she could do it. Get them new names, and a new address, somewhere else, somewhere far from the city, somewhere Noah could grow up looking at trees, somewhere they could be safe. Maybe take Brian with her, not because she needed him but because they'd both be lonesome without each other, and where the hell else was he gonna go, anyway? The girls would find other places to work. Elliot Stabler might be the end of Oak House, but he didn't have to be the end of her. All she had to do was run before he had a chance to clap her in handcuffs.

"All right," she said. "Here's what we're gonna do."


It took a long, long time, that conversation Olivia and Brian were having. That conversation about whether or not to shoot him in the head and dump his body in a ditch somewhere. Strangely he wasn't too nervous about it; whatever they'd decided, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot he could do to stop it. His fate was in God's hands now, so he just sat on the edge of the desk and waited, calm and quiet, to see if his number had finally been called.

When the door opened he half expected Brian to shoot him on the spot, but the man's gun was tucked safely under his jacket. There was murder in Olivia's eyes, though, and that gave Elliot pause. Hurt no more, she looked angry, now, like now that the news had been given a chance to sink in she was furious with him for putting her business at risk. Like she hated him.

"Mr. Stabler," she said coolly.

"It's Detective, actually."

The look she shot him was pure venom, and if there'd been anywhere for him to go he would've backed away, then.

"You're a problem for me," she told him bluntly. "You've compromised the security of my house, and you pose an imminent threat to one of my customers."

"You don't even like Kosta-"

"That's not the point," she snapped. "But maybe we can work out a deal here."

"Keep your money," he told her. "I'm not taking a bribe, and you don't want to add bribing an officer to the list of charges."

That was probably a stupid fucking thing to say, but Elliot Stabler couldn't be bought, and he didn't really want her to try. He wanted her to be better than that.

"Who said anything about money?" she asked. "Your life is in my hands, Detective. One word from me and Kosta finds out what you've been up to. How long do you think he'll let you live, once he finds out you're a rat?"

So that's how it's gonna be, he thought. She wasn't willing to kill him herself, wouldn't stoop to getting her own hands dirty, but she was holding his life over his head nonetheless. If she let him walk out of this room a good cop would've gone straight to his boss, told them he'd been made, and get reassigned somewhere else, let the case drop, let it cool off, before a new UC was set loose on Kosta. Elliot was a good cop, but he wasn't ready to watch his case go up in smoke. He wanted Kosta, and Sinatra, too, didn't want all the time and resources OCCB had already poured into this operation to go to waste. And stupid as it might have been, he didn't want this to be the last time he saw her. He wanted to see her smile at him again.

"What're you offering?" he asked.

"We let you live," she said simply. "We'll let you live, we'll let you keep working Kosta. We'll even let you back in the house. In return, you do a couple favors for us, and give us a head's up before Kosta goes down."

"What good will that do you?"

"Damage control," she shrugged. "We'll need time to prepare, people are going to have questions. Do we have a deal?"

He should've said yes and then run straight to Ayanna, but he knew in his heart he wasn't gonna. He needed this too bad. This operation had become something of a crusade to him. He'd put in his twenty, he could collect his pension after this. One last case, and he could take out three of the most notorious criminal enterprises in the city. One last case, and he could find the answers to all his questions, and maybe, just maybe, bring the ledger into balance. And if there was a part of him that craved the danger, that wanted the adrenaline rush of knowing he was walking a tightrope, if there was a part of him that wanted her to like him, well. Nobody else needed to know about that.

"Deal," he said, holding out his hand for a shake.

She took it, her hand soft and warm in his own, and as they shook he seemed to hear the distant sound of a lock clicking into place, shackling him, and his fate, to this woman.

Chapter Text

June 13, 2014

"Nice night," he called out softly from somewhere over her shoulder, and in the darkness Olivia scowled.

"Don't you have somewhere better to be?" she asked coolly, keeping her back resolutely turned towards him, refusing to let him see her face. The last thing she wanted was to stand out here in the warmth of an almost-summer night and speak to that man, and she had half a mind to tell him so. But the last time Kosta had come to the house his guard dog had come out onto the terrace, and there had been no reason for Olivia to suspect that he wouldn't again; maybe she'd known from the moment she stepped outside that Elliot Stabler would find her here. Maybe she'd wanted him to. She'd rather die than admit it, though.

"Nah," he said easily. Behind her she could hear the steady sound of his footfalls drawing ever nearer to her, his boots thud thud thudding on the concrete steps of the terrace, and really, really she should have seen this coming. "Kosta's busy talking shop with Sinatra. Told me to get lost."

"Sounds like Kosta had the right idea," Olivia grumbled.

It was a warm night, a clear night, the kind of night she'd love to spend playing with Noah or sitting with her girls, laughing, but it was a Friday, and Friday meant business. No party, tonight, no fifteen thousand dollars in her pocket before the first drink was served payday, but there were guests, still, including Sinatra and Kosta conspiring together in the corner in a way she did not like, but could not stop. The men had every right to use her couch to plan their war, and she had left them to it, left Brian drifting through the parlor, keeping an eye on things while she got some fresh air. The second she'd stepped outside he'd leveled a look at her like he knew exactly what she was doing and he didn't approve of it, but it wasn't like she needed his permission. It was her fucking house, she'd go where she pleased.

"You're angry," Stabler said, and she almost gasped; he was suddenly, unexpectedly very, very close to her, standing right behind her shoulder, closer now than she ever let any other man get, apart from Brian. If he'd been anyone else she'd have snapped at him, told him to back up, reminded him that entry to the house was reliant upon a certain decorum in the guests, but she didn't want to show vulnerability to this man, didn't want him to think for one second that she was afraid of him.

"Wow, no wonder you're a detective," she answered mockingly. "Intuition like that-"

"You were never the target, Olivia," he said.

She didn't believe him, not for one second.

"But as soon as you walked through that door I got caught in the crosshairs," she pointed out. On reflex she turned her head towards him, only remembering at just the last second that she didn't want to look at him, her gaze slanting off his face as she spoke over her shoulder. He really did have a nice face, even with the beard. The beard just made his eyes seem warmer, softer somehow, made up for the lack of hair on his head, made him seem strong in a way she liked. None of the other men who frequented her house wore beards; his was something of a novelty.

"We're both just doing our jobs," he said, not unkindly.

He had a point.

It wasn't that she hated his job. That was just the way the world worked; good guys, bad guys, and the innocents caught in the crossfire. Someone had to go after people like Kosta, like Sinatra - like her - but it was a fight that would never end. For every bad guy taken down a new one would assume his place, and some new lawman would come for him, and on and on it would go into eternity. There was no good without bad, no law without crime, no light without dark. The duality of nature called for both of them, Elliot and Olivia, to play the parts that had been written for them. She didn't hate him for being a cop.

But oh, she wanted to hate him for lying. When he'd talked to her that night a few weeks ago when they'd first stood out on the terrace together, he'd told her he was impressed with her, asked her how she'd got into the business, and she'd thought…she'd let herself think that maybe, just maybe, he actually meant it. That he was actually interested in her, that he did actually want to know, that for the first time in a decade she'd found someone besides Brian and Noah who looked at her and saw a person, and not just the madam. But it was all a lie; he'd been interrogating her, without her even knowing it, had only been asking because he was a cop, because when this job was through he was going to take her down, whatever assurances he tried to give her now.

"I still want to know, by the way," he said, and as he spoke he began to circle slowly around her, coming to a stop right in front of her. The only way to avoid his gaze now would be to actually turn around, but that felt too childish, no matter how petulant her heart was at present. If he wanted to see her face that damn bad, let him look; he'd see the anger in her eyes, and maybe if he was smart he would relent.

"Know what?" she asked.

"About your tat."

The answer threw her and she stared at him for a moment, caught off guard. She'd expected him to ask about the business, to ask once again how she'd ended up here, how she'd managed to build her empire and protect it, all the questions a cop would need to ask about a criminal enterprise before he knocked it down, but he hadn't. In deference to the warmth of the night she'd pulled her long hair up into a loose ponytail, and he must have glimpsed the lines of ink on her skin beneath it while he'd stood behind her, and it had made him curious, made him want to know what it was. That thought didn't sit too well with her; she didn't want him fixated on it, didn't want him to keep asking about something she had no intention of sharing with him. The mark was too personal, and no one got to see it, no one but Brian, who had glimpsed it first fifteen years ago, when it was still a work in progress, who had known all along what it was, what it meant, how much it cost.

"It's a long story," she said. Don't hold your breath, she thought, but as he stood there in front of her, hands tucked in his pockets and a thoughtful expression on his face, she found some of her anger fading. She couldn't trust this man, but she couldn't afford to piss him off; there was no point in being angry, now. The pair of them, they'd need to be careful with one another, each of them holding the other's life in their hands. No, she'd need to tread lightly, with him, and continuing to antagonize him tonight would do her no favors in the end.

"Something to do with how you got here?"

"Why do you want to know?" she answered, careful not to sound too pugnacious. "What good does it do your case, knowing where I came from?"

"Not building a case against you," he replied. "I'm just asking 'cause I wanna know. For me. I'm curious."

"Nothing good comes of a cop getting curious about a whore."

"Hey, don't call yourself that."

The funny thing was, she thought, he seemed sincere in his defense of her. Like he really didn't like it, her saying whore, like he really thought she deserved better.

"It means something different here than it does out there," Olivia told him, waving her hand towards the fence, towards the world beyond the walls of the house that had become her home, and her prison. "In here it's more of a job title than an insult."

Oak House had always been an old-fashioned sort of place, and the language used there had always been old-fashioned, too. At least, it had been when Olivia was young, when she first came to this place, hungry and scared, when Liz had been in charge, and everyone deferred to her like she was the fucking queen. Olivia had let a lot of the old traditions - like the mark - die off when she took over, but she could still see the evidence of the old madam's hand on her life, on her soul, in so many ways.

"Still," he said. "It's not like that's really your job anymore, anyway."

"You think I'm not for sale, Detective?"

His eyes widened, slightly, as if he sensed that he'd walked into a trap and didn't quite know how to find his way out of it.

"You told me once you have a price," he said slowly. "You telling me there's guys who pay it?"

"Nobody recently," she answered. It had been about five years since she'd last taken a customer, but somehow she didn't want to tell Elliot that, didn't want to get into specifics. "But, yeah."

"How much?" he asked curiously.

"Seriously?"

"Yeah, seriously. How much?"

"Fifty thousand."

"Dollars?" he choked, alarmed, and she couldn't help but laugh.

"Told you you couldn't afford me," she reminded him smugly. "If somebody wants the top prize he's gotta be willing to pay top dollar."

The amount was important. It had to be egregious, astronomical, more than any other woman in the city could command for a single evening. It had to be preposterous, but finite. An amount that could be paid, if a gentleman was so inclined. An amount that made customers fantasize, in idle moments, about what sort of woman could be worth so much, and what it might be like to spend a night in her bed. It kept the balance of power swung in her favor, and the old timers knew that it had been paid, at least once, and so could pass that information along, could give the new blood something to aspire to, even if none of them were ever brave or reckless enough to pay it themselves. It made her a dream.

"Jesus," Elliot said faintly.

"Which part of it makes you uncomfortable?" she asked him. "The amount, or the thought of me taking a customer upstairs?"

"I dunno. Both," he answered.

Just standing there, looking at him, thinking about the last man who'd bought her for a night, thinking about the possibility of someone doing it again, made her a little antsy, and she began to pace, then. She didn't go too far or too fast, just started to walk, to get her limbs moving, get her blood flowing, give her something to do besides stare into his eyes, and see the sorrow there.

"A man could do a lot with fifty k. Seems…wrong to blow it all on one night."

"Maybe I'm worth it."

"I'm sure you are," he murmured, and she shouldn't have liked the way his rough voice offering that reassurance made her feel, but god she did.

"But you deserve to fuck for free. 'Cause you want to, not 'cause you have to."

The word fuck fell from his lips so easily, and it threw her off balance, a little. So far tonight, when he was just Elliot and not Eddie, he'd been almost gentlemanly. Hadn't leered, or tried to pick a fight, had spoken to her with respect. She'd thought he might use a softer word for sex, but he didn't, and she couldn't decide how she felt about it.

"Maybe I already do," she said softly. Maybe she was toying with him, insinuating that she had a sex life outside the job, and maybe that wasn't wise, but she couldn't help it, the words just slipped out, some part of her wanting to defend herself.

"Brian," Elliot said, like that was the only possible explanation, like it was a foregone conclusion.

"I told you he's not my boyfriend."

"That doesn't really mean anything."

He was right about that, too, because Brian had never been her boyfriend, but that had never stopped them having sex in the past.

"I'm not sleeping with anyone, right now."

She wanted him to stop talking about Brian and she didn't want him to think that Brian had any claim over her and she didn't want to explain her motivations for any of those desires too closely. And besides, it was true; she hadn't sex with anyone in over a year. Not since Lewis.

"That's good to know," Elliot said, his teeth flashing at her in the darkness as he grinned. He was being almost playful, but the turn of the conversation had just brought memories of Lewis washing over her, and her skin began to crawl. She stopped pacing, planted her feet firmly on the concrete and tried to focus on her breathing, tried to draw herself back to the present, and away from the clutching darkness that threatened to drag her under.

"Hey," Elliot said, moving suddenly towards her. "You ok?"

"Fine," she answered.

"You wanna talk about something else?"

God, yes, please.

"I should probably go back inside."

She'd feel better under the lights, would feel more in control back in her parlor, her domain, with customers around and Brian to guard her steps.

"Can I ask one last question?"

"You can ask. Doesn't mean I'll answer."

"Who's Noah?"

Chapter Text

June 13, 2014

Who's Noah?

"Where did you hear that name?" she asked him sharply, her eyes narrowing at him in the darkness, her body gone suddenly tight and rigid with tension. He'd been right to ask, then, right to think that whoever Noah was he mattered to her, a lot, was someone worth asking about.

"I heard you asking one of the girls to check on him," he said with a shrug.

Elliot had of course also heard Brian telling her to go upstairs, go see Noah on that very same night, but she didn't need to know that he'd followed her, that he'd been listening on that private conversation. Words he'd overheard in the parlor were fair game, though.

"So, who is he?"

"My dog," she said, too quickly and too humorlessly for him to believe her.

Secrets upon secrets, that seemed to be the way of things in this place. The quiet machinations of the city's power players, and Olivia's own story, and the story of the girls under her care, and the story of the blood and bones that had built this house, all of it was secret, and Olivia herself the keeper of the keys, the warden who kept those secrets locked away behind impenetrable walls, and herself with them.

"You're a hard nut to crack, aren't you," Elliot mused ruefully. "You don't give anything away."

"Neither do you, Eddie," she said pointedly.

He had to give it to her; she was right on that score. Elliot hadn't told her anything about his own life, wasn't in the habit of talking about himself to anyone. He'd worked with Ayanna for years before she ever found out his children's names, and she'd still never heard him speak Kathy's name out loud. Where he'd come from, where he'd been, where he intended to go, all these things he kept to himself, even from those people closest to him, those people he'd call friends.

"I'll show you mine if you show me yours?" he asked, offering her a crooked little. He didn't expect her to accept the offer, not for one second.

"That's the second time you've said that," she grumbled. "What do you think this is, quid pro quo? You been watching Silence of the Lambs?"

"Hey, that's a good movie."

"When's the last time you saw a movie?"

"When's the last time you did?"

She raised her hands in a gesture of defeat, but she was smiling, again. It was just a moment, a single beat in time when they'd been teasing one another, but it was enough to make her smile, however briefly, and he treasured that smile. That smile was the prettiest goddamn thing he'd ever seen.

"Ran into a friend of yours not too long ago," he told her then. It was a gamble; maybe she didn't want to play a game of quid pro quo but he did, and maybe if he disguised his intentions she'd give him something without even realizing it.

"Oh, yeah?" she asked, arching an eyebrow at him curiously.

"Sister Peg."

"Oh." She smiled again, a different sort of smile, soft and sad, vulnerable, almost. "Saint Peg."

"She is that."

"What made you look her up?"

"Unrelated case," Elliot lied easily. "I've known her a long time, I used to be SVU."

"So I've heard."

One of these days he was gonna dig into that. Was gonna find out where her bodyguard got his information, how he'd found out Elliot's name, how he'd known the color of the day system, how he'd known what the color even was, when it changed every morning at roll call. There was a leak, somewhere in the NYPD, and if the madam could get that intel, anybody could.

"I did ask her about you, though. She didn't have much to say. But what she did say was kind."

She's a survivor, Sister Peg had said, and that was still bothering Elliot, still scratching at the back of his brain like the spindly branch of a tree against a window pane in the dead of night. What exactly had Olivia survived, and how had she done it? Peg had told him to dig up her file, and he had her full name, now, could go back through the records with a fine toothed comb, but Peg had told him Olivia had been attacked, and somehow he couldn't bring himself to find out what that meant. How she had been attacked, and why, and by who, and how much she had suffered; he felt as if he needed to know, but he couldn't stomach the thought of seeing Olivia's pretty face battered in evidence photos. The Olivia he was coming to know was strong, untouchable, and he wanted to keep her that way, at least a little while longer.

"I wish Peg had been around when I was coming up," Olivia confessed. "Things might have been different."

"You think you'd have left the life, if you had a chance?"

"Who says I didn't have a chance?" There was a note of warning in her tone and Elliot heeded it, kept his mouth closed and gave her the opportunity to keep talking. "Things were different here when I was young. It's not that way any more. But in the old days…yeah, maybe I would've run, if I'd had somewhere to run to."

"Couldn't go home?"

"You're like a dog with a bone, you know that?" she grumbled.

"Yeah, I've heard that before you."

"What about you, huh? Where'd you come from, Detective Stabler?"

It had to mean something, he thought, that she was even entertaining this conversation. That she hadn't walked away already, that she was still standing out on the white pavers with him in the glow of the lights strung through the lattice overhead. It had to means something that she'd made it sound like she wasn't interested in going tit for tat with him, but the first chance she got she asked about his own story. Maybe it was just a deflection, intended to draw his attention away from her past. Maybe it was for her own purposes, her own way of gathering intel, finding out who she was dealing with. Maybe she actually cared. He didn't know, and Sister Peg had told him not to trust her, but part of him wanted to. He found himself drawn to her as a moth to a flame, but he did not want to burn alone.

"Queens," he said, grinning.

"Let's see." Olivia started to pace in a slow circle around him. "Stabler. That's Irish, right? And that tattoo, you're Catholic? And a Marine? How about this. Working class boy from a big family, parents had too many mouths to feed, smart but not book smart, no money for college and grades weren't good enough so you enlisted to make some money, maybe start a family, but by the time the kids come along the thought of dying in the desert doesn't sound too appealing so you muster out, and now you're just a grunt with a gun and no degree, gotta find some way to keep food on the table, and cop's the next best thing to a soldier, isn't it? How am I doing?"

"Could use someone like you on the job," he said, rubbing his hand uncomfortably across the back of his neck. She'd read him well, too well. Had she seen his file already, or had she really just put all that together from two tattoos and a last name?

"How many kids?"

"Four."

"Jesus."

Everybody always seemed to react like that, when they found out how many children he had, and most of the time he took it with good grace, and some of the time he grieved, because the answer should have been five.

"They're all grown now, though. We got started early."

"You really are Catholic. What's your wife's name?"

"Kathy. She died seven years ago."

Olivia stopped in her pacing, just beside him, and while he looked straight ahead, sucking on the inside of his cheek to keep any emotion from showing on his face, she reached out and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. She wasn't looking at him anymore than he was looking at her, was instead staring at the fence behind him, but her hand was warm, and soft, and somehow reassuring, like she really did grieve for him, like she really did want to offer him solace. Condolences from a madam, who'd have thought?

"I'm sorry, Elliot."

There was no response to I'm sorry that ever felt appropriate. It's ok was a lie, because it wasn't, it wasn't ok that his wife was dead, it was never gonna be. It's not your fault was hollow because they both knew it wasn't that kind of sorry. It is what it is lacked any kind of emotional honesty.

"Me, too," he said. "Now, what about you?"

"You gonna tell me my life story?" she asked, beginning to pace again, her hand drifting slowly, regretfully away from him.

"You said you came here young," he started, taking a wild shot in the dark. "And you couldn't go home. You ran away. You were what, sixteen, seventeen? Young enough that if you'd gone somewhere legit you might have been picked up by social services and sent back. But you didn't want to go back. Daddy was abusive. The madam took you in, made you feel safe, but by the time you figured out you weren't safe it was too late. There was nowhere else for you to go. But you're pretty, and you're smart, and you know how to keep yourself alive, and you became her favorite. She passed the place down to you when she was ready to go. How'd I do?"

"I never knew my father," was all she said. That was the only piece of the story she corrected, and he figured the rest of it had to be true, or close enough to true that the differences didn't matter.

What a pair we make, he thought. Growing up too fast, too tough, making the hard choices, the big choices, that changed the trajectory of their whole lives, sent them down such wildly different paths, and yet ultimately led them both to the same place, to this glittering white house so full of secrets, so full of pain.

"We're not so different, you and me," she mused, like she'd read his fucking mind.

"No," he agreed.

"But you're the cop, and I'm the outlaw. This story only ends one way, Elliot."

There was a note of sorrow in her voice, as if she were mourning for what could have been, what they could have been, if only things were different. Maybe in another life, some parallel universe, they could've been friends. Maybe they could have been more. Maybe he was just lonesome, and maybe she was, too. It had to be lonely, he thought, in that big house, behind all those locked doors, because whatever Sister Peg no way any of those girls stayed on more than a few years, a revolving door of faces, people Olivia maybe got close to and then lost, again and again, and all of them working for her, anyway, so no matter how much they liked her they always saw her as a boss, and no matter how much she liked them she could only keep them in her life as long as they were willing to trade their bodies for cash. Her whole life was a wisp of smoke, a piece of art she sold to the highest bidder, and how many people ever knew her well enough to see through to the heart of her? Would he ever be allowed such grace?

"Maybe not," he said. Maybe it didn't have to end with him back in Elliot Stabler's shoes and her behind bars. Maybe they could make something here, build some trust. Maybe he could get her to turn evidence against her clients, get her immunity in exchange for some testimony. If he did that, though, maybe she'd end up in Witsec, and he'd never see her again. Jesus, maybe she was right. Maybe this was only ever gonna end with the two of them walking away from each other.

"I don't know how the story ends," he said then. "Honest to God, Olivia, I don't. But I don't think either of us is gonna walk away, are we?"

It wasn't really a question. He had a job to do, and he was gonna do it if it killed him, and this house was her home, her fucking kingdom, and no way was she gonna wash her hands of it. They were like two trains on a track, locked in place, barreling towards each other, and no one to pull the brakes.

"No," she said.

She was in front of him, again, facing him, the pair of them locked in a standoff like a Texas Ranger and an outlaw in an old western, each of them wondering who was gonna draw first.

"But it's nice to meet you, Elliot Stabler."

In the darkness she held out her hand, and he took it.

"It's nice to meet you, Olivia Benson."

He'd known her for over a month now but that moment, standing there shaking her hand in the glittering darkness, that was the first time he saw her, and what he saw made him want to sink to his knees, and weep. For all the lost souls like her, and for him, too, and for the world that had made them both.

Chapter Text

June 28, 2014

You gotta throw me a bone here, Elliot. It's been months and the chief is asking for results. I just got my ass handed to me at COMPSTAT. I mean, be honest with me. What are we really doing here? You haven't brought me anything solid on Kosta in days. So, he's running protection. So, maybe he's running girls, but you keep tying that back to Albi and not the big boss. Nothing you've given me is solid, and you don't have any members of his crew willing to turn on him. You gotta bring me something, Elliot. You gotta bring me something real.

If it had been Ayanna's intention to light a fire under his ass she had succeeded admirably, though perhaps not for the reasons she'd thought. She'd tried to apply pressure from the bureau chief, from the brass, but Elliot didn't give a single solitary shit about any of them. What are we really doing here, that was the question that troubled him, that pressed him. What the fuck was he doing here? Going drinking with Reggie, teasing the girls at the cafe, doing favors for Kosta, it was starting to feel - had always felt, really - less like he was investigating them and more like he was one of them. Like this was his life, now, running through the streets with the worst of the worst, mayhem in his wake. The highlight of any week, the thing he looked forward to most, was maybe getting the chance to go see a madam across town, the relationship he was forging with her - and with Reggie - feeling less like a necessity for the job and more like something he was doing for himself. Everything had gotten all twisted up inside him and he couldn't remember, sometimes, what it was all for.

But Ayanna had passed down an ultimatum, and he meant to do what he could to make her happy. Bell was a good boss, a good woman, she didn't deserve to get chewed out for his fuck ups. For her sake, he'd do better. Try harder. Think clearer.

To that end, then, when he made his way back to Oak House with Kosta on a Saturday evening he did not venture out to the terrace in search of Olivia, no matter how much he wanted to. Maybe it was Eddie who wanted that, the part of his heart that had become Ashes longing for something that belonged only to him, but he could not feed that beast. Instead he waited for a moment when no one was watching him, when no one would notice, and slipped up the stairs on silent feet.

Every wall in this place must have been soundproofed, but maybe the doors weren't. If he could figure out which room the redhead had taken Kosta to, maybe he could talk to Olivia and her bodyguard about planting a bug in there. Kosta did favor the one girl, and that made him curious; was Kosta really infatuated with one girl in particular, or did the girl serve some other purpose? It was Sinatra who'd pointed her out in the first place; what if they were brokering more deals in secret, deep in the soundproofed rooms of Olivia's house? What if it was a sham; would the girl have told her boss that she wasn't fucking Kosta, that she was just giving him a convenient excuse to meet with Sinatra away from prying eyes, or would she just take the pay she'd earned, and rest, and not draw attention to it?

All that was pure speculation, of course. Kosta could just be comfortable with the girl. Could just be she did something he liked. Elliot didn't know, but the first step to finding out would be finding out where the girl took her customers.

The upper floors were a warren of rooms, though. There were four floors in total, the first given over to entertaining space, the next three home to the girls, and Olivia, and Noah, whoever the fuck he was. Not her dog, whatever she might say on the subject, not her man, because she'd told Elliot she wasn't fucking anybody, didn't have a boyfriend. Noah was just another secret he wasn't privy to yet, another question that nagged away at him.

The corridors were deserted; there had been a party tonight, and every room was surely full at present, every girl occupied. Each door had a gold-plated number screwed into its face, but the numbers told Elliot little. Maybe he should have gone outside, and talked to Olivia. Maybe he should have just asked her, but he was hesitant, for some reason. Sister Peg had told him not to trust her, that she was only looking out for herself; would Olivia help him at all, or just give him enough rope to hang himself? Everything in this house was for sale; how much would her assistance cost him? How much would it cost her, if anyone ever found out?

As if thoughts of her had conjured her on the spot she appeared around a bend in the hallway. She was a vision tonight; well, she always was, but tonight was something else. Her dress was satin, a deep, rich purple, something vaguely Grecian in the way it wrapped around her body, wound around her breasts and showed the shape of them off so enticingly, though the neckline rose all the way to her collarbone. For a madam and a former working girl, she seemed to have an aversion to showing off her cleavage - and her back, and the tattoo hidden there. There were secrets lurking beneath her clothes, he thought, but he could not for a moment fathom what they might be.

"You lost, Mr. Wagner?" she called softly when she saw him, giving a haughty toss of her head, her thick, dark hair tumbling back from her shoulders in a shimmering wave. Those teardrop shaped earrings were diamonds, he thought.

"Just looking," he answered with a quick grin.

Olivia was good, he'd give her that. She only called him Elliot on the terrace, when they were utterly alone and unobserved, and everywhere else in the house he was Mr. Wagner, her careful pronunciation of the name an offer of protection beneath her roof.

"You shouldn't be wandering around up here."

"If I ask you which room the redhead is in, will you tell me?"

She frowned as she drew closer, swaying to a stop perhaps a foot away from him.

"The redhead has a name."

"I'm sure she does, but I don't know it."

"Sienna."

"Ok, Sienna. Which one's she?"

"Number four," Olivia said, and then she began to move, gliding down the hallway in the direction Elliot had come, leading him back towards the stairs, and him with no choice but to fall into step beside her.

"Does Sinatra have a favorite?" he asked her quietly, keeping his eyes straight ahead, and not on the proud line of her jaw.

"Ruby. She's number five."

That was interesting.

"Any chance four and five are next door to each other?"

Instead of answering Olivia just pointed; she'd lead him straight to the two rooms, and he could see the numbers on the doors, side-by-side, 4 and 5. Just ahead the corridor turned to the left, led to rooms 1 through 3, and the stairway.

"Come away from the door," she said, her hand brushing against his arm for a moment, and he followed her, spellbound, to the corner on the left, mirrored her posture when she leaned back against the wall, the pair of them standing so close their shoulders were almost touching.

"You think something's happening in those rooms," she observed, almost accusing.

"Something besides sex? Yeah, maybe. What do you think?"

"It's hard to say. I can ask, though."

He had his mouth open to reply, perhaps to tease her about whether her asking would lead to him getting an answer, but just down the corridor the door to number 5 opened. Someone was coming out.

There was no time; he could turn and race for the stairs, but what if someone saw him running, or out of breath, what if Sinatra noticed him entering the parlor just ahead of him, and wondered where he'd been? Sinatra's man usually waited outside the door while the boss was busy, Elliot remembered, but there was no trace of the fellow now; what if he was lurking at the foot of the stairs? But there was nowhere else for Elliot to go. He could only move in two directions, and one would send him running smack into Sinatra, and the other would send him into uncertainty.

While his mind was racing Olivia's must have been, too, and she found the answer before he did.

"Come here," she hissed in a low voice, and then her hands were on him, and he was powerless to resist her.

With one hand on the back of his head, her fingers pressing gently against his scalp, she encouraged him to turn towards her, and with the other she fisted the back of his jacket, tugged him so hard and caught him so off guard that his body all but slammed into hers as she pulled him deeper into the corner, flung herself back against the wall. His own hands moved on reflex, one of them landing palm first against the wall to hold himself steady while the other fell to her hip, anchoring her to him. She wriggled, just a little, and at first he had no idea what she was thinking but then the slit in her dress fell away from her thigh, and she was angling her hips towards him, and a strangled groan left his mouth as he realized she was raising her leg, entreating him to grab hold of it. He did so without second thought, the hand on her hip moving at once to the soft flesh of her bare thigh, helping her to hook her leg around his waist, holding on to him tight. The hand at the back of his head pulled him in, and in, and down, until his nose was pressed hard to the silken skin of her neck.

Jesus Christ.

There would be no doubt in the minds of anyone who happened to pass them by what the couple in the corner were doing. Elliot's back was to the corridor, his face buried in Olivia's neck, her stiletto digging into his ass, her hand cradling his head against her. Such a clinch was not an uncommon sight in a brothel, even one as classy as this one; likely Sinatra wouldn't even give them a second look.

But Elliot wasn't thinking about Sinatra, in that moment. He wasn't thinking about much of anything, couldn't hear his own thoughts above the rushing of blood in his veins, the pounding of his heart.

Olivia smelled like oranges. Light and citrusy, like something he wanted to drink, and her skin was smooth against his cheek. While he struggled to control his own breathing his mouth opened, and he felt his lips brush that soft skin, and arousal shot through him like lightning. Holding her like this, being held like this, tangled up in her arms and her hands and her fucking perfect legs, the bulge of his cock had settled firmly against her center, and with her dress cascading back from her hip there was nothing between them but his worn black trousers and whatever lacy thing she had on underneath that dress, hardly anything at all, certainly not enough to disguise the sheer damning heat radiating out from between her legs. Every fiber of his being longed to rut into that heat, suddenly, wanted to bury himself inside it, wanted to be held by her truly, honestly.

There was nothing honest about this pose, though. She might have been pressing his head against her skin, but it was only to hide his face. She might have canted her hips towards him invitingly, but it was only to give him shelter from his enemies. The soft swells of her breasts might have been pressed hard to the plane of his chest, but he would not be permitted to touch them, to kiss them, to see them, even. Her embrace was a lie, but a tantalizing one, one that was testing his restraint to its very limits.

It had been months since he'd last been to bed with a woman, but he'd found no joy in the act since Kathy died. It had been a lonesome sort of thing, the scratching of an itch, hardly dignified, rarely repeated. Dating didn't suit him; he hardly knew what to say to a woman, when asked about himself, when there was so little about himself worth the telling, and so much about himself that would send a sane woman running for the hills. He abhorred the getting-to-know-you dance, trading pieces of himself away over and over again in the hopes that this time something might stick, feeling foolish, feeling like a fraud. But one-night-stands didn't suit him much either, always left him feeling hollow, somehow.

But Olivia, Olivia lived sex. Olivia knew just what to do, had made the business of sex her life's work. Was comfortable with it, knew how to navigate it with ease. She didn't worry about logistics and pleasantries and commitments; she'd know, he thought. She'd know how to fuck, and every piece of her seemed made to do it, and Jesus if he didn't get ahold of himself all the blood currently rushing to his dick was gonna make itself known, and he didn't want that. Olivia had traded sex for money all her life, had since she was a teenager been used for sex, and the last thing Elliot wanted was for her to think that he was just a man who looked at her and saw only a means to an end. She was so much more than that, and she meant so much more than that to him.

"I'm sorry," he breathed as quietly as he could manage, his lips catching against her neck.

In response the pressure of her fingertips at the back of his head increased, ever so lightly, an acknowledgement that she'd heard him.

They'd been standing that way for what felt like an eternity, the scent of her, the softness of her, dragging him under like a drug, making his thoughts foggy and hard to contemplate. Surely it was enough time for Sinatra to have passed them, but Olivia did not release him. She just held him, tight, until at last she seemed satisfied. Her hips pressed up towards him once, perhaps meaning to urge him to step back but instead drawing a strangled sound from the back of his throat as his half-hard cock settled more firmly against her. His brain caught up quickly, though, and he eased her leg down off his hip, his palm trailing against her bare skin as she slipped away from him.

The hand on his head lingered, for just a moment, and then she turned her face against his, and pressed a kiss to his temple before pushing at his shoulders, pushing him away.

He stumbled back, unbalanced in more ways than one. He'd never felt anything in his life as electric as the warmth of Olivia, and he'd never seen anything as beautiful as her in that purple dress, her eyes wide and dark and sad in the golden glow of the lamps overhead.

"Coast is clear," she said in an unsteady voice. "You'd better go back downstairs, Mr. Wagner."

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

He didn't move though, not right away. For a second he just stood there, looking at her, fixing the vision of her in his mind, the ghostly touch of her leg still heavy at his hip, his heart full of questions. Had she felt it, too, he wondered; while they stood there, holding on to one another, when she'd kissed his temple; had she felt want? Was she even capable of wanting anyone at all, after the life she'd lived, the way the act of sex had been perverted into a business transaction? And even if she was, would she ever, could she ever, want him?

"Good night, Elliot," she whispered, and then she turned away, disappeared back the way she'd come, silent as a ghost.

Chapter Text

July 5, 2014

It was only Brian, so she didn't bother covering herself up before she buzzed him through. There was no point, really; he'd seen it all before, and the display on the monitor showed her that no one else was loitering about the corridor this early in the morning, that there was no risk of anyone else seeing something they shouldn't. Let Brian see; he'd hardly be shocked. It wouldn't be the first time he'd caught her like this.

Like this, fresh from the shower with her hair damp and curling riotously around her shoulders, stark naked and standing in front of the floor length mirror on the far side of her bedroom. At this time of the morning no one else was up and about; Noah had woken early for breakfast but he'd not slept all the way through the night, had just gone back down for a nap, and the girls weren't likely to rise before noon. This time was her time, quiet and peaceful, perfect for contemplation, however maudlin that contemplation might have been.

"See something you like?" Brian called to her softly as he crossed the room, his heavy boots leaving soft indentations in her fine carpet. His eyes were fixed on the vision of her body in the mirror, but he wasn't leering. The expression he wore was more appreciative than anything else, the expression of a tourist wandering through a museum full of fabled artworks he didn't quite understand but nonetheless venerated.

"Couple of things I don't," she said ruefully.

It wasn't the crow's feet that had sprung up at the corners of her eyes that bothered her, or the veins on the backs of her hands, or the single grey hair she'd found in the shower this morning; on the whole there was very little about her appearance she took objection with. A lifetime in the business of selling beauty had given her an eye for it, and she wasn't a fool. She knew what she looked like, and she was proud of it. Her body, her self, she didn't mind, liked, even. It was what had been done to her and the evidence it left behind that she could hardly stand to look at.

"It's not so bad," Brian said, stepping up behind her and resting his hands tenderly on her shoulders, careful not to touch her anywhere else. "You're healing, Liv."

The physical wounds had healed long ago; the deeper wounds had been inflicted on her very soul, and she wasn't sure they were healing, not really. But when she looked in the mirror it was the physical marks she saw, the burns that had turned red and shiny, dotted across her tits, her belly, the outlines of keys on her hip, on her thighs, the long, thin marks of a razor slashed haphazardly across her skin. There weren't so very many of them, not really; one was too many, but it could have been worse. It could have been worse, that's what she kept telling herself, tried to make herself grateful that the dose of horror she'd received was not as much as others had been given, though it was nearly enough to break her in half.

"The fucker's dead," Brian reminded her. "And you're still here. And you're still gorgeous, babe."

Still, she thought, despite. Her body, her face, these things had been her currency for decades now, and Lewis had defiled them, defiled her, on purpose. Added insult to injury by making her damaged goods. No one would want a marked up whore; he'd told her that himself before he burned her the first time.

"They're not so bad," she forced herself to say. "I've been marked worse."

In the clear glass of the mirror she watched it happen, watched Brian's eyes drift away from the reflection of her face to the vision of her back just in front of him. What he saw there she couldn't say, not really; she'd seen drawings of it, and caught glimpses of it in the mirror, and felt every sting of the needle, but she'd never looked at her tattoo head on, as he was doing now, had never seen the whole of it for herself from the angle from which it was intended to be viewed. There was a time when she'd wanted to see it, but no more.

"Sometimes I forget it's even there," she mused.

"Liar," Brian said, giving a quick grin to soothe the sting of his accusation.

"Fine," she conceded. She was never gonna forget about the mark, not really. "There are some days I don't think about it, how's that?"

"Better," he allowed. "I know you hate it -" and god, did she ever hate that fucking tattoo - "but it's…it's kind of beautiful."

Maybe it was. Maybe it had hurt her too badly for Olivia to ever see the beauty in it. The first time she'd seen the drawing of it she'd been only sixteen years old, and she'd nearly puked, thinking about having that thing on her back for the rest of her life. She was older now, and wiser, and the mark had been with her longer than anyone or anything else. It didn't make her sick, anymore; now it only made her sad.

It was a bird - a phoenix, according to Liz - a great black bird in flight, his tail feathers curling over the cheeks of Olivia's ass, his lithe body winding up the length of her spine, his proud head ending at the base of her neck with feathers trailing up it, his wings spread across her ribs up to her shoulders. It was huge, and every inch of it had been paid for in blood and sweat and tears, and it had hurt. But all that pain, all that sorrow, was in the past now, only the memory of it lingering on her skin.

"Sometimes when you breathe it looks like he's flying," Brian told her.

When they'd met all those years ago the bird had been nearly finished, and Brian had seen the progression of it. It was Brian who'd started referring to the bird as he, rather than it, Brian who had with his childlike sense of whimsy made the mark a living creature, instead of just a tat. Sometimes she wanted to hate him for that; sometimes she dreamt of black birds scooping her up in their talons, carrying her away in the night, and she reckoned that was his fault. Brian was the only person in her life now who'd known her before the thing was finished, though, and that made him dear to her, whatever she might blame him for.

"Sometimes I wish he would," she said. "Sometimes I wish he could. Wish he'd just fly away." And take me with him.

"Come on," Brian said with a softness she knew he reserved for her and Noah, never showed to anyone else. "You're bumming me out. Let's talk about something else."

Her black robe was draped over the chair at her dressing table close to hand, and so he reached for it, wrapped it carefully around her shoulders, hid the phoenix from view and let her pull the robe closed in front to cover her scars.

"What do you want to talk about?" she asked as she shook her hair out from underneath the robe, gave her face a final once-over in the mirror. It was too early in the day for makeup; she'd deal with all that later. Brian wouldn't faint at the sight of a wrinkle.

"You really gonna put mics in the girls' rooms?"

So that's what he'd come to talk to her about. She'd been wondering.

"Elliot thinks it's a good idea."

"Oh, well, if Elliot thinks it's a good idea -" Brian pronounced the name like a curse, and Olivia frowned, turned slowly around to face him head on.

"If Sinatra and Kosta are using those rooms to plot something I want to know what it is."

"What happened to this business depends on discretion, huh? What do you think the clients are gonna say when they find out they don't have the privacy you promised them? That you're giving tapes to the cops? Jesus, Liv."

The truth was Olivia didn't plan to be around to witness the fallout from Elliot's investigation herself. What the clients thought when they found out there was a rat in their midst, that the madam had been enabling him, was of very little concern to her, seeing as she fully intended to be several states away when the news broke. But Brian didn't know that part of the plan - not yet, anyway - and she'd have to be a little smoother, have to play her cards just right, to avoid arousing his suspicion further than she already had done.

"Who said I'm gonna give the tapes to him?" she asked archly. "We'll put mics in there, and we'll listen to the tapes, and then we'll decide what to do with them. Sex sells, but information is better. Come on, Bri, you know that."

Oak House dealt in secrets almost as much as in flesh, and whatever secrets Sinatra and Kosta were keeping were surely worth their weight in gold.

"You're smart," he said. "I know that. But just…promise me you won't lose sight of who the real enemy is, ok?"

By that he meant Elliot. He thought Elliot was the enemy, because Elliot was a cop, and a danger to the business. Olivia knew something Brian didn't, though; the real enemy was the business itself, and Elliot was…she didn't know what he was yet, but she knew what she wanted him to be. She knew that when she'd cradled him in the corner, his body pressed hard to hers, his breath soft against her neck, she'd felt something for the first time in years, something that wasn't fear or rage, something she'd thought she'd forgotten how to feel. Elliot had reminded her how to want, and she wasn't ready to let it go, not yet.


Despite their fervent allegiance to the country of their birth the Albanians had thrown a hell of a shindig for the Fourth, and no one was looking for Eddie Ashes come Saturday morning so he carted himself down to the 1-6, stopping along the way to pick up a bagel and a coffee for an old friend.

"Thanks, Munch," he said as John unceremoniously dropped the cardboard evidence box on the table in front of him.

"Dare I ask why you even want to see this?" Munch drawled, taking a long swig from his coffee cup.

"Better not," Elliot said.

"In that case, I'm going to go enjoy my breakfast. Let me know if you need anything. And don't take anything, all right? I checked the inventory sheet before you got here and I'll check it again when you leave."

"Scout's honor," Elliot promised.

Munch grunted, and left him, and Elliot raised the lid on the box, and began to dig through the contents inside.

He didn't want to look; he had to look. Thus far he'd managed to keep his curiosity in check, managed to respect Olivia's privacy and his own desire not to see her as a victim and kept his distance from her official records, but for the last week he'd thought of her more than anything else, and he hoped that maybe if he got some answers, maybe even just one, her face would stop haunting his dreams. The first thing he'd done was try to pull her record, but she'd never been busted for anything. That made a certain amount of sense, he figured; Oak House was supposed to be the best of the best, and there was no way the person in charge of that legacy would let her girls get busted for hooking. Olivia really must have come there young, before she had a chance to get in trouble on her own, and Oak House had protected her ever since.

Except that Sister Peg had told him Olivia had been attacked, and so he'd known that somewhere, lost in the bureaucracy of the NYPD, there had to be a file with her name on it. It hadn't taken him long to find, and he'd been relieved - and a little suspicious - to discover that the squad in charge of investigating that incident was his former unit. Did SVU really not know, he wondered, who their victim was? Had they really brushed so close to Oak House just a year ago, and never realized the powder keg they'd stepped into?

They must not have; the notes on Olivia Benson in the file identified her as a prostitute, but did not give her place of work. Maybe she'd talked too fast for them, told them she worked for herself. The address she'd given them was a fake. He'd wondered, at first, why she'd told them what she did for work at all, but the file had answered that question eventually.

The man, the one who'd hurt her, his name was William Lewis, and he was a demon. A monster in a human suit, unfit to walk the earth, made only for pain. Lewis had left a trail of devastation in his wake, raped and murdered and tortured women in multiple states, always getting away unscathed. He didn't seem to have a type, didn't prey on working girls, but he had chosen Olivia on account of her profession. The victim statement spelled it out; he'd tried to gain entry to her house, and been rebuffed, and he wasn't the sort of man to take no for an answer. He'd waited, patient, methodical, until Olivia stepped out of the house alone, and then he'd struck, taken her, held her for days, tortured her. The only thing that had saved Olivia was Olivia herself; she'd managed to break free, and beat the fucker to death with a metal bar ripped off an old bedframe. With Lewis dead and Olivia bleeding there had been no question of self defense, and SVU had let her go, satisfied that the beast had at last been brought to some kind of justice.

Elliot hadn't slept since he'd read that file, and now he was here, digging through the evidence box. There wasn't much; a gun, a necklace, fingerprint and blood analysis reports, the results of the rape kit. He paged through the results of the kit with his gut churning unpleasantly; if Lewis meant to rape her he hadn't succeeded, but Jesus, he had hurt her. There were pictures, in the file. Of the bruises on her face, her split lip. Her broken wrist, the contusions across her ribs, the burns, the cuts. He looked at those photos for no more than a minute, and then he threw them back in the box as if just holding them had wounded him.

It was no wonder, he thought, that Oak House was a fortress, that Olivia never ventured far without Brian on her heels. How could she ever feel safe enough to step outside, after something like this? But Jesus, how could she go on in this business, surrounded by sex and the casual cruelty of the elite, after what had been done to her? Maybe she didn't have any other choice. Elliot knew what that was like; he didn't have any choices, either.

The paperwork said Olivia had been discharged from the hospital into the care of one Brian Cassidy, and now that Elliot had a last name for the man his next course of action would be to look Brian up, and see what he might find there. That would have to wait, however, because at present Elliot could not move, could only sit with his head in his hands, thinking about Olivia, and the cruel hand that life had dealt her. Thinking about how unfair it was that someone as lovely, as strong, as brave as she was had been done so wrong, so many times. Thinking about how she'd freed herself from the clutches of a monster no one else had been able to stop, thinking about the sheer force of her will, and the light citrus scent of her neck. Thinking about the case, and the promises he'd made to Bell, and cops and outlaws, and the whole sorry business. They were not comforting thoughts.

Chapter Text

July 15, 2014

"You're kidding, right?" Brian asked incredulously, pacing around the perimeter of her office while Olivia sat behind her desk, her eyes fixed on the monitors from the security cams.

"I'm not," she told him. "Come on, it just makes sense. I can't go alone, and I can't take you with me, after what happened last time."

The last time she'd been invited to a party at Fitzwilliam Perkins's residence Olivia had arrived in a beautiful dress with Brian on her arm, and he'd embarrassed both of them by getting in their host's face when Perkins got a little handsy with Olivia after his fourth bourbon. It was Brian's job to protect her, but that party had only been a few months after Lewis, and Brian had been even more overzealous in those days than he was now. After the way he'd behaved, brawling like a pissed off football fan in the middle of a society party, it was a miracle she'd been extended another invitation at all, and she wasn't going to let Brian mess things up for her a second time. She needed Perkins onside, needed his money, needed the veneer of respectability being seen at his party would give her, and she needed to string him along while she considered the offer he'd made to her. Perkins had suggested they become business partners, after a fashion, in exchange for an influx of cash from his coffers, and while the proposition had been unthinkable in May now that she was actively planning to walk away from Oak House it was starting to sound pretty good. It wouldn't matter, a few months from now, if Perkins had his hooks in her business; once Elliot's investigation was complete she'd be long gone before she felt the ill effects of Perkins's involvement.

But she couldn't go to the party without a bodyguard. She needed someone strong, and quiet, someone who would watch her back, someone who would understand what was expected of him and behave accordingly, someone who was not Brian. There was only one person she wanted to ask; there were plenty of strapping boys on her security staff she could have brought with her, but none of them would have looked quite right on her arm, and if she were being honest none of them would have made her feel as safe as the man she had in mind. Maybe Brian was right, maybe she was crazy to even consider it, but she knew what she wanted, and she was tired of denying herself.

"You don't wanna take me, fine, but him? Him, Liv? He's a fucking cop! You could take Luke-"

"Luke looks like a bodyguard," Olivia pointed out. "I need muscle but I don't wanna be too obvious. Some of the guests will know who I am but most of them won't. I need someone who actually looks like he could be my date. I need to be discreet."

"You think he's discreet?"

"I think he could be, if the moment called for it."

Elliot was tall and strong, but he wasn't huge and hulking like Luke. His muscles could be downplayed, in the right suit. That beard made him look fierce, but again, a well cut suit would take some of the edge off him, make him look like he belonged. And besides, Elliot wasn't just a cop; he worked undercover. Elliot knew how to become whatever he needed to be. If she needed him to be quiet and charming she had no doubt that he could live up to those expectations, and she knew that he could be watchful, that he had an eye for danger, and he could protect her. Would have to, if she took him with her; if anything untoward befell her it would echo back on his boss, and land him in a world of hurt. Not to mention, anyone who was out to get Olivia would have their eyes set on her date, too; he'd have to protect her in order to protect himself. And if a part of her hoped he'd want to keep her safe, well, that wasn't any of Brian's business.

"I don't like this," Brian said seriously. "You don't know the guy, Liv. You don't know what he's capable of."

"I know he's not gonna let anything get in the way of him doing his job," she told him. "That can work in our favor, Bri."

"And this has nothing to do with you wanting to spend time alone with him?"

"Fuck off."

"That doesn't answer my question."

It had everything to do with her wanting to spend time alone with Elliot, but she had no intention of admitting that to Brian.

"I've made my decision," she said instead. I'm calling Kosta this morning."

If she was going to borrow Kosta's muscle she'd need the boss's approval first, that was just good business sense. She figured Kosta would give it, though. It would make him look good, doing a favor for her, being able to brag about it. And it would make him feel good, too, she thought, to know that she had noticed him, that she had thought of him and his bodyguard at all. If everything went according to plan, everyone would walk away happy. Well, everyone except for Brian, whose face was like a thundercloud at present, his disapproval all too plain.

He'll get over it, she told herself.


"Hey, Wagner! Boss wants to see you!" Albi called from the doorway of the office where he'd been closeted with Kosta for most of the morning.

Elliot threw one last punch, catching Reggie off guard and nearly sending him flying, and then he was ducking out of the ring, peeling off his gloves as he went, Reggie cursing him good-naturedly all the while. So far today they'd all just been hanging out at the gym, but he and Reggie were supposed to do a job for Kosta later tonight, and Elliot was buzzing with a nervous sort of energy, wondering what sort of laws he'd have to break this time, wondering if this job would bring him any closer to taking Kosta down, or if he'd be stuck here another week, another month, falling deeper into the life with every breath he took. Part of him wasn't ready for the job to be over, wasn't ready to leave the Albanians behind; part of him felt at ease, here, looked forward to whatever the future held in store for Eddie Ashes, and that worried him, more than a little. Not as much as it worried Ayanna, though.

"Boss," Elliot said as he ducked through the doorway.

Kosta was sitting behind his desk, gestured for Elliot to sit down while Albi closed the door behind him. That didn't bode well, Elliot thought; Albi and Kosta almost never talked to him alone, and he didn't like the thought of being asked to keep secrets from Reggie.

"Just got a call," Kosta said. "From the lady at the whorehouse."

A tiny ember of anger flickered to life deep in Elliot's chest; he didn't like hearing Kosta talk about Olivia and her girls that way. He fought it back, though; Eddie wasn't supposed to care that much about a bunch of prostitutes, and besides, the fact that Olivia had reached out to Kosta directly seemed to be cause for alarm. Olivia knew who and what Elliot was; Jesus, had she given him up already? He'd thought things were going good, he'd thought they'd reached an understanding with one another, but what if he'd been wrong? Was he about to die in this room?

"You got plans on Friday?"

The question threw Elliot off; it didn't sound like Kosta was angry, didn't sound like he'd just found out there was a rat in his house, and surely Kosta didn't plan to kill him if he expected Elliot to be alive by the weekend.

"No, boss," Elliot answered. It would be nice, he thought, to go to Oak House on Friday night. Maybe see Olivia again, maybe get a chance to talk to her alone, maybe find out what Kosta and Sinatra were up to in those adjoining rooms. Maybe if Olivia was having another one of her parties she'd be wearing another one of those long, slinky dresses.

"You got a decent suit?"

"Yeah, I can find something."

"Good." Kosta leaned forward, grinning. "The madam asked for you. She's going to some fancy party, and she needs a bodyguard and her usual guy can't make it. Think you're up for it?"

Up for going to a party with Olivia? Elliot swallowed hard. If she was going to a party that meant she'd be leaving her house. Leaving behind the fortress she had built for herself, and leaving Brian behind, too, apparently. Knowing what he knew now about Lewis and the way Olivia had been attacked, Elliot couldn't help but wonder if that would be difficult for Olivia, stepping outside of the protection she'd grown accustomed to, and he couldn't help but wonder why she'd chosen himHe wanted it to be because he made her feel safe, wanted to believe that she wanted him, specifically, wanted Elliot with her, but he didn't know her well enough to say for certain what her intentions were. There was no telling where this party was or who was throwing it or what sort of debauchery Elliot might witness, whether he would glean useful information there or whether there was enough time for OCCB to stake the place out and set up precautions, but he knew before he spoke what his answer would be. There was only one answer to such a request, only one response he could give; Eddie was Kosta's man, and he would do whatever Kosta said, and Elliot wanted to see Olivia. To see her away from Oak House, to see her without Brian lurking over her shoulder, to simply talk to her, without having to worry about Kosta or Sinatra or anything else.

"I am," he said. "If you're good with it, I'll do it."

"Yeah, I want you to do it," Kosta said. "I like the idea of that broad owing me a favor. She gave me this number," he passed a slip of paper across the desk to Elliot, "says you're supposed to call her for details. Don't fuck this up, Eddie. Mind your p's and q's. If she likes you, that'll be good news for me. We clear?"

"Yes, boss."

That was the end of the meeting; Kosta turned back to his papers and Albi opened the door and Elliot showed himself out, the little piece of paper burning a hole in his pocket. Kosta hadn't said when Elliot was supposed to call her, but he was going to be occupied tonight, and he didn't want to make her wait too long, so he slipped out the back door of the gym, glanced around to make sure he was alone, and then dialed her number on the burner phone Jet had given him.

"Yeah?" a man's voice answered, not one Elliot immediately recognized.

"It's Eddie Wagner," Elliot said. "Calling for Ms. Benson. She's expecting me."

There was quiet for a moment, like he'd been put on hold, and then Olivia's voice was echoing in his ear.

"Mr. Wagner," she said, and he smiled as if on reflex, unable to stop it, charmed by just the sound of her voice.

"Ms. Benson," he said. "Heard you need a date for Friday."

"You up for the job?"

"Yes, ma'am. What do you need from me?"

"I need you at my door at 8:00 p.m. on Friday. Brian will drive us there, and he'll wait outside in the car. You'll need a nice suit. Not the one you've been wearing to my house."

Elliot grinned; so far every time he'd visited Oak House he'd worn the same somewhat shabby black suit, but evidently that wasn't good enough for Olivia. He could find something she'd like, though, something out of his own closet rather than Eddie Wagner's, something that made him look like he belonged at some fancy party with her on his arm.

"I can manage," he said. "Anything else?"

"I need you on your best behavior," she said. "I need you to keep your hands to yourself, and to be nice to a bunch of rich assholes, and I need you to keep your eye out for trouble. Think you can manage that?"

"Shouldn't be too hard," he answered. "What kinda party are we talking?"

Was it the kind of party he'd busted one too many times when he was SVU, he wondered, girls in pleather and too-short skirts, men getting BJs out in the open while they talked real estate with their buddies? Or would it be more like her kind of party, evening dresses and fancy cocktails and everyone pretending there was nothing at all salacious about their intentions?

"You know Fitzwilliam Perkins?"

"The hedgefund manager? The billionaire? Jesus."

"We'll be his guests," Olivia said. "Waiters in white shirts passing out hors d'oeuvres and champagne and the richest guys in town. And no sex for sale."

What was the point of inviting a madam to a party where there was no sex for sale? Elliot wasn't stupid enough to ask, but he was curious.

"Doesn't sound too bad," he mused. "So, nice suit, keep my head down, keep you out of trouble, that about sum it up?"

"There's one more thing," she said, and funny, he thought, but she sounded almost coy.

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah. Can you dance, Mr. Wagner?"

Dancing at a billionaire's house with a madam. How had this become his life?

"You better believe it, sweetheart."

"Good. I'll see you Friday, Eddie."

"It's a date," he said, and then she'd hung up the phone, and he was left alone in the alley with a smile on his face he couldn't shake. Probably this was insane; probably this was the stupidest thing he'd ever done. Probably this was gonna end in disaster. But before it did he'd get the chance to dance with Olivia, and he couldn't wait.

Chapter Text

July 18, 2014

"I don't like you," Brian said grimly. "And I don't trust you. I don't want you anywhere near her."

There were a number of things Elliot wanted to say in response; he wanted, very much, to point out that it sure was funny how much Brian hated cops, considering he used to be one. Revealing that he knew Brian's history would raise questions about how Elliot had learned the man's last name, though, and since he'd only gleaned that information from the notes in the Lewis file he kept his mouth shut for the time being. Elliot knew what Brian Cassidy was, what he once had been, and Elliot would use that information for his own purposes when the moment called for it.

"I'm not going to let anything happen to her," he said instead. "If you wanna be all cynical about it, you gotta know that if she gets hurt, I'm gonna end up in the shit. You can trust I'm gonna save my own ass, and that means making sure she gets home in one piece. But it's not just that. I want her safe, man. I want it just as much as you."

The expression on Brian's face told Elliot all too plainly that the man didn't believe him, not for one second. It was gonna take more than words of assurance for Brian to come around; Elliot was gonna have to prove himself to this man. He meant to, starting tonight.

He'd taken care, getting ready for this party. Pulled out his best three piece suit, a deep rich navy in color, tailored and perfectly fitted. Grabbed the silk tie with the matching pocket square, made sure that every article of his clothing was pressed to perfection. He'd shined his shoes, and trimmed his beard; he couldn't shave the whole thing off - though he'd considered it - because the beard served as an extra level of protection, made it that much harder for people to look at him and see Elliot Stabler. He was hiding behind that beard, but he wanted to look good enough to make Olivia happy, so he'd neatened it up for her. He was clean and groomed and ready, for whatever this night might send his way, though Brian had taken his gun when he arrived at Oak House's door, and didn't seem too keen to give it back.

"I doubt that," Brian said. Brian was the one who'd taken Olivia home after Lewis; probably Brian thought there was no one alive who cared about her safety as much as he did, but Elliot meant to give him a run for his money. That woman, she deserved to be treated with care, and Elliot had been entrusted with her protection. He wasn't gonna let her down.

"Ground rules," Brian said. "There's a metal detector at the door, you can forget about bringing your piece with you. I'll give it back to you at the end of the night." That answered the question about the gun, at least. "I'm gonna be chauffeur. I'll drive you there, and I'll be waiting right outside the whole time. If things get dicey you get her out of there, I'll get us home. And don't wait around, all right? These richie-riches look harmless but they're a bunch of entitled sons of bitches and they don't take no for an answer."

That tracked with what Elliot knew of these people, wasn't anything he hadn't thought about already. Rich guys whose money opened doors didn't react well to seeing those doors closed, and Olivia's price might have been high but a billionaire like Perkins - and the millionaires who would be his guests - probably wouldn't balk at it. Probably at least one asshole in the mix would look at Olivia, and think that she ought to be available to him, no questions asked.

"Why's she bothering with this anyway?" Elliot asked, half to himself. "She makes plenty of cash right here at home, why go schmooze?"

"That," Brian said grimly, "is none of your fucking business. You're here to be the muscle, ok? That's it. Got it?"

"Got it," Elliot said.

There couldn't have been much more to Brian's lecture, Elliot figured; the guy had met him at the door, taken his gun, and then dragged him upstairs into the office, bared his teeth and flexed his muscle, staked his fucking claim as the one person who cared most about Olivia while they waited for her to finish getting ready. She'd told him to be there at 8:00, and he had been, and now he'd been locked in the office with Brian for a little while, and surely, he thought, surely she was almost done, and surely Brian was, too.

"One last thing," Brian said. "You're there to keep her safe, and that means keeping her safe from you, too."

"Excuse me?"

"She likes you. God only knows why, but she does. And all you're gonna do is hurt her. Be honest, Stabler. If not with me then with yourself. This isn't fucking Pretty Woman, all right? Don't sell her a fairytale that's never gonna come true. She's been through enough. Don't make things worse than they already are."

It was a shockingly insightful take; Elliot hadn't expected such clarity from the madam's goon. Was that what he was doing, he wondered, selling Olivia, selling himself, a fairytale? Chasing after her, taking any excuse to see her, when there was no way their story had a happy ending? Brian said she liked him, and he wanted that, Christ he really did, but what good would come of it, her liking a cop? Even if he didn't turn this case over to Cragen when he was done, even if he did let her slip away unscathed, it wasn't like he could come back here. He couldn't spend time with her once this job was through. They'd never see each other again. Was getting close to her now just going to cause them both more grief in the long run?

"I'll take care of her," was all he said. All he could say; he couldn't make promises about a future he couldn't predict. But for now, right now, he could promise to look after her. To treat her well, and to keep her safe from outside threats. Whether he could protect her from his own heart remained to be seen; maybe Brian just knew what Elliot hadn't fully admitted to himself. Maybe Brian could see the writing on the wall. Definitely Brian knew that whatever happened he'd be the one left picking up the pieces. It suddenly made a lot more sense to Elliot, Brian's resentment of him. Brian didn't hate him for being a cop - or not only for that - Brian hated him because he knew that Elliot was gonna break Olivia's heart, and Brian didn't want to see her hurt.

"Come on," Brian said. "She must be done by now."

He stomped across the office, threw open the door, waited for Elliot to step out in the hall before locking it behind them. The office was at the end of a long and winding corridor that ended in a stairway, and as they approached those stairs Elliot froze, for a moment, spellbound by the sight in front of him.

Olivia was making her way down those stairs, dressed for the party, and the sight of her was enough to make him stop breathing. All that thick, dark hair had been perfectly curled, hung in loose, alluring waves around her gorgeous face, her makeup not overpowering but enough to accentuate her big dark eyes, her soft pouty lips to their fullest effect. The dress she wore was red silk - hardly subtle, for a madam - with a plunging neckline that showed off more of her soft tits than he'd ever seen before. The way it draped around the curve of her hip, highlighted the swell of her perfect ass, would be enough to make any man fall to his knees, but when she moved Elliot saw that it was split at the side, almost all the way to her hip, her long, tanned legs bared with every step she took. She must not have been wearing a bra under that damn thing, he could clearly see the points of her nipples, and he jerked his eyes back up to her face as quick as he could, not wanting to be caught staring. Jesus, she was pretty. Stunning. Worth every penny of that fifty thousand dollars; worth ten times as much. A hundred. Worth everything.

"Mr. Wagner," she said when she saw him, smiling as her eyes roved over his figure appreciatively. "You do clean up nice."

"So do you," he managed to choke out.

Get a hold of yourself, he thought grimly. He was gonna have to spend the whole night standing beside her, while she looked like that, and for the first time he was beginning to wonder if he was actually up for the task. It was gonna be hard as hell to look at anything that wasn't her.

Her grin was nothing short of triumphant, and those soft lips parted, perhaps about tease them, when a new voice echoed from the stairs behind her.

"Mommy mommy mommy," Elliot clearly heard the call of a child, and Olivia whipped around at once, disappeared from view as she followed after it.

Elliot moved on instinct, curious now, and when he reached the foot of the stairs he found her standing about halfway up them, cradling a little boy on her hip. The kid looked to be maybe a year old, maybe a eighteen months, with curly dark hair and big blue eyes, chubby little cheeks in a sweet little face. He was clinging tight to Olivia, babbling happily with his face turned up towards her, while she ran her hand soothingly over his back.

"Mommy has to go out for a little while," Elliot heard her say. "But you can play with Lucy, and I'll be here when you wake up."

"Lemme take him back up, Liv, you're gonna break your neck in those shoes if you try to carry him," Brian said, already making his way towards her while Elliot just watched, unblinking.

Mommy? He thought faintly.

"No no no, Mommy stay," the little boy said firmly, burying his face in Olivia's neck while she looked at Brian helplessly.

"It's ok, sweet boy," Olivia murmured. "Mommy will be back soon, you'll see."

At the top of the stairs Lucy came skidding into view, rushing down towards them with apologies falling from her lips.

"I'm so sorry, Liv," she said. "I was using the bathroom, I thought the door was closed-"

"It's ok," Olivia said earnestly. "I can't leave without a goodbye kiss for my sweet boy, can I?"

She pressed her lips gently to the child's cheek, and then carefully disentangled herself from him, passing him to Lucy while he reached for her, chubby little hands outstretched, his eyes pleading.

"Night night, Noah," she said. "Be good for Lucy."

"Say night night, Mommy," Lucy said to the boy, waving one of his little hands at Olivia, and then she was retreating, carrying the boy away while Olivia and Brian and Elliot remained frozen in place, watching him go.

So that was Noah. Elliot had been right, then, to suspect that Olivia was lying when she told him Noah was a dog. But he'd never, not for one second, imagined that Noah was a kid. Her kid. It just didn't track with what he knew about her, the ruthless madam hellbent on her own survival; babies were bad for business in a brothel, weren't they? How could she live here, with her child, raise him up in this place knowing what went on beneath this roof? Where had he come from, anyway? Olivia was the madam, and whatever she said Elliot got the feeling she didn't entertain guests too often, and even if she did, she'd been in this business so long, surely she was smart enough to avoid getting into trouble after a tumble with a customer. Wasn't she? Had she cared about Noah's father; what if he wasn't a customer at all, but a lover, a proper one? What if Noah was Brian's kid? And shit, that little boy, he was so young, and it had only been about a year since Lewis had taken Olivia; had she had an infant at home when she'd been kidnapped? How much worse did this fucking story get?

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone about what you just saw, Mr. Wagner," Olivia said, descending the stairs with an apprehensive expression on her face.

Whatever else she was, Olivia was a mother, and Elliot was a father, and he understood her concerns now. She wanted to keep her baby safe, and he would do that for her, without question, would protect her son as he would his own. That sweet little boy, he hadn't asked for any of this, and Elliot wouldn't put him in danger by being reckless with this secret.

"I won't," he promised. "You have my word."

He wasn't proud of it, but it made him see her in a whole new light, knowing that she had a child. As beautiful as she was, as dangerous as she was, she was just a person; a little tired, a little sad, trying to raise her kid as best she could in an uncertain world. Elliot could understand that, and while he had a million questions he kept them to himself, for now. Tonight was not about pushing her boundaries, or demanding an accounting from her; tonight he was meant to protect her, and he would, no matter what.

"Ready to go, darlin'?" He drawled at her, offering her his arm and a smile at the same time.

"Let's do it," she said, and then she slipped her soft, warm hand in the crook of his elbow, and let him lead her down the stairs and out into the night, out into uncertainty, the soft, citrusy scent of her perfume filling his senses, drowning him in her.

Chapter Text

July 18, 2014

"It's a beautiful house," Elliot murmured as they lingered in a corner of the ballroom nursing glasses of champagne.

The house was a palatial townhome, a monstrous ode to wealth, if not to taste. Olivia much preferred the treatment of the home under its previous owner, Fitzwilliam Perkins, Sr., but she kept her opinions to herself. The younger Fitzwilliam was their host this evening, and he did not appreciate being compared to his father. He also had no idea just how much time Olivia had spent in this house in her youth, when his father was in residence, and she intended to keep it that way. Those days were long gone; Fitz Sr. had been dead for a decade, and Olivia wasn't seventeen any more, and she did not intend to become Fitz Jr.'s favorite girl, as she had been his father's. She could be more selective, now.

"It is," she answered.

Under different circumstances, she might even have enjoyed it, attending a party full of the glittering elite, surrounded by interesting conversation and Michelin star food. As it was, however, she felt herself forced into attending, and found no joy in it; she had to keep Perkins sweet, and that meant not slighting him or his friends, and she needed to continue to conduct her business as if nothing were amiss, as if she wasn't planning to pull up stakes and run in a few months' time. She had to be here, had to be seen here, and she had to look the part. The dress had been chosen with care, that deep red dress that revealed so much of her body, though a bit of lace around the back and her long hair disguised her tattoo, the one piece of herself she most wanted to hide. On any other night she would have thought nothing at all of going out in a dress cut so low, with a slit so high, her nipples clearly visible through the fabric, but she had felt a moment's hesitation when she first saw Elliot's face. Had wondered, for the first time in a very long while, what someone else might think of her. If he would like it, or if he would be disappointed in her, somehow. The expression he wore when he first laid eyes on her quieted those fears, however; evidently, Elliot liked the dress. Evidently, he liked it very much.

And so far he had been the perfect companion for the evening; he had remained a pace behind her, his hands caught behind his back, a soldier at ease, not touching her or demanding her attention. He had been quiet, all but invisible when Perkins greeted them upon their arrival, and he made no attempts to steer her one way or another, and he did not pepper her with questions, though she was certain he must have had plenty. About the guests, about the purpose of this party where men in fine suits and ladies in evening dresses were discussing the business of the city, about Noah. Christ, she hadn't meant for him to find out about Noah, and now that he knew she had no idea what he'd do with that information. Elliot was a father, though, and he'd sworn to keep her secret. Perhaps she would simply have to trust him, as impossible as that seemed.

"No one is paying any attention to you," Elliot observed after a moment. He was standing beside her and slightly back, affording her an unobscured view of the room, affording the room an unobscured view of her. He was keeping his voice down, his lips hardly moving; if anyone glanced at them, it would appear as if he hadn't spoken at all, but he had, and his words stirred up something petulant inside her.

"Should they be?" she asked, a little tartly.

"You're the prettiest woman here," he said, and that petulance turned to something soft and preening in an instant. Damn him. "And Perkins invited you. Figure he must have had a reason for that."

"He wants them to think he owns me," she explained. "Most of these people don't know who I am. The ones that do, though, they see me, and they know that he has enough clout to bring me here. It's like that painting over there," she gestured discreetly with her glass, "it doesn't look like much."

It really didn't, was just a few splashes of color on a large canvas, more blank space than anything else.

"But people who know what it is know that it cost millions of dollars. It communicates his wealth but only to people who've been initiated into this world."

The language these people spoke was loaded with symbols, and Olivia was a symbol herself, and she knew it. She didn't resent it though, not really. She'd spent too long in this business to pretend she was anything other than a commodity.

"Sounds like a bunch of bullshit posturing from people who have more money than sense," Elliot grumbled.

"Be nice," she chided him gently. "One of those people is coming this way."

While they'd been talking she'd been surveying the ballroom, her eyes constantly on the move, searching out familiar faces, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and drop it had. From across the room one of the guests had spotted her, and he was approaching lazily now, a smile tugging at his lips, a look in his eye like a lion who had just spied a gazelle.

Behind her Elliot drew in a sharp breath.

"Is that-"

He didn't have enough time to finish his question, and rather than answer him directly Olivia simply held out her hand to the newcomer.

"Mr. Wheatley," she said, trying not to recoil when the smug son of a bitch took her hand and kissed it.

"Miss Benson," Richard Wheatley said. "I was beginning to think this party would be a waste of my time. I can't tell you how happy I am to see you here. You're the only person in this room worth talking to."

Privately Olivia agreed; he certainly wasn't worth talking to. It made her nervous, being seen in public with him; Wheatley was a front runner to take over his father's empire when Sinatra finally died, but father and son had fallen out years before, and Richard was not welcome in her house so long as his father was a customer. Until the line of succession was set in stone she needed to remain neutral where he was concerned; offering him her favor now might have disastrous results if someone else took over for Sinatra and felt slighted by Olivia's treatment of his rival. There were all sorts of rumors about Wheatley, about his business affairs, about his ruthlessness, and that made her nervous, too. The man had taken pains to present himself as a legit businessman, even changed his name to avoid being connected to his father's unsavory legacy, but everyone who mattered knew what Wheatley was. A monster in a suit.

"It is nice to see a familiar face," Olivia allowed carefully.

"I was hoping you'd be here. There's something I'd like to discuss with you," he added conspiratorially, leaning towards her as if he were letting her in on a secret, but then his eyes flickered over Olivia's shoulder, landed on Elliot, and fear gripped her. Whatever Wheatley wanted to talk about Olivia wanted no part of it, but him taking note of Elliot was somehow worse. What if he recognized her date? What if he stored this encounter away in his memory, what if it came back to bite her later?

"I don't believe we've met," Wheatley said, extending his hand to Elliot. "Richard Wheatley."

"Eddie Wagner," Elliot said smoothly, stepping up a little closer to Olivia as he took Wheatley's hand and shook it, squeezing just a little harder than was necessary.

"And you are?" Wheatley prompted him. There was an insult in the question, his way of saying that he had no idea who Eddie Wagner was, his way of asking what made Eddie think he belonged in this place.

"My escort for the evening," Olivia said quickly. "A friend."

"Ah."

Wheatley's eyes roved over Elliot, taking in every inch of his appearance, calculating his wealth, his worth, in just a glance. He really was one of those people, the ones who wrote the rules of engagement, and he could read the language of status and class better than anyone.

"My compliments to your tailor," he said with an air of appreciation. "I like a man who knows how to dress."

Elliot's suit was nice, and he filled it out well, but Olivia didn't dare hope that Wheatley was being sincere, and in a moment he proved her right.

"I have the name of a good cobbler, though, if you're in the market for a new pair of shoes."

Of course he had chosen to follow his compliment with an insult, however passively couched the phrasing might have been. The suit was fine, but Elliot's shoes weren't handmade, or designer like everyone else's. They were clean, and recently polished, but terribly ordinary, and Wheatley, a man of details and observations, had taken note of it at once, and used that information like a weapon to remind Elliot of his place.

"I've always preferred comfort over style," Elliot said easily. "A real man decides his preferences for himself, he doesn't wait for someone else to tell him what he should wear."

Point, Stabler, Olivia thought. For a working class boy from Queens Elliot was holding his own, undaunted by Wheatley's arrogance, by his power or wealth or worldly experience. Elliot had heard the insult, and returned one of his own in kind, but she really, really wished he hadn't. The last thing she needed was for him to get into a pissing contest with Wheatley; the only reason she'd brought him instead of Brian was because she thought he'd behave like a gentleman. She didn't want to be proven wrong.

Wheatley laughed, deflecting the barb with grace.

"Good man," he said. "I like a man who can think for himself. I'm a self-made man myself, and I respect it. But as I said, I have some business to discuss with your lovely date. You don't mind if I steal her for a dance, do you?"

The words might as well have been a gauntlet thrown down on the marble floor, the way they echoed through Olivia's heart. It was a challenge, plain and simple, Wheatley once more asserting himself over Elliot. The rules of the evening were clear; whatever appearances might have been Elliot was there as her bodyguard, not her date. It wasn't in his purview to stop her dancing, and he certainly didn't get a say in who she chose to spend her time with. A good bodyguard, a smart one, would have ignored the insult and demurred, allowed Olivia to conduct herself as she saw fit. But Elliot was only playing a role tonight, a role he was unaccustomed to, and it was clear he and Wheatley disliked one another already. As much as Olivia loathed the prospect of Wheatley's hands on her, she really ought to dance with him. She ought to soothe his pride, not wound it, and she was just a little bit curious about the business he seemed so intent to discuss with her. If he wanted something from her, she needed to know what that something was before she could decide her next move.

All Elliot had to say was that the choice wasn't up to him. All he had to do was step back, and allow Olivia to take Wheatley's hand or not as she saw fit. All he had to do was be quiet.

He couldn't fucking do it.

"Actually," he said, reaching out to take Olivia's elbow, touching her for the first time all evening. "We were just about to dance before you came by. I'm afraid I'm first up on her dance card."

Motherfucker, she thought. Wheatley's eyes had narrowed, and Elliot was holding tight to her elbow, and tension was simmering between the pair of them. It would be up to her to choose who to spurn. Whether to embarrass Elliot by turning him down and taking Wheatley's hand, or to deliver a blow to Wheatley's pride by accepting Elliot and walking away from Wheatley.

It would be good business sense to go with Wheatley. He was a powerful enemy to have, and she needed to get a feel for how the winds might be blowing in Sinatra's operation. But she also didn't want to be seen dancing with him, and she really, really didn't want him to hold her. For so long, too long, she'd been accepting the touch of men she didn't want, and a dance wasn't a fuck but still she just…she just wanted to choose. Wanted to choose what was best for her, and not for the business. She just wanted to be a woman, out with a man who interested her, who didn't look at her like she was nothing more than a means to an end.

"Maybe next time," she said to Wheatley, and then she gently covered Elliot's hand with her own, and let him lead her away, out towards the middle of the ballroom where several other couples were dancing sedately to the strains of a string quartet while her heart pounded in her chest, adrenaline coursing through her as if she had just survived a fight to the death, and not a simple conversation.

For a cop Elliot moved surprisingly gracefully; someone had taught him to dance, she thought as he slid in front of her, one of his hands dropping to her waist while with the other he threaded their fingers together. He pulled her in close but not too close, kept his hips a respectful distance from hers, and the grip of his fingers was gentle, not possessive, despite his display with Wheatley. The thought of someone teaching him to dance conjured images of teenage Elliot in the rec hall of his parish church, trying not to grind on his date where the priest could see, and Olivia smiled despite herself. Even with her stilettos Elliot was still a little taller than her, and she looked up into his face, saw his jaw tight with tension beneath his beard though his blue eyes softened when they landed on her.

"You've just made yourself a very powerful enemy," she told him softly as they began to sway together.

"I don't really care," Elliot said bluntly. "I didn't like the way he was looking at you. He doesn't get to touch you just 'cause he's rich."

Elliot didn't think Wheatley deserved to touch her, but Elliot had touched her himself without hesitation, and the thought sent a frisson of something like need coursing through her. Elliot wanted to touch her, and she wanted him to want it. Wanted to be someone he could want. For most of her life now she had been in the business of making men want her, not because she felt any particular attraction to them but because she desperately needed their money. With Elliot everything was different. With Elliot, she just wanted him. His strength, his sly humor, his soft smile. Christ, she wanted him to touch her. With no ulterior motives, with no strategy, compelled by nothing more than his own heart, she wanted him to touch her.

And he was, now, touching her, holding her, and so she allowed herself to sink against him, allowed herself to feel the warmth of him, to enjoy it for its own sake. There was no doubt Wheatley was angry, and he might cause trouble later, but for now, just for this one moment, Olivia didn't want to be the madam. She just wanted to be a woman, in the arms of a man, dancing in a beautiful room, and so she gave in. Just this once, she gave in, and chose.

Chapter Text

July 18, 2014

He wanted to dance with her again.

He really, really wanted to dance with her again. Once was not enough; just a bare two minutes making a slow waltzy box on the dancefloor with Olivia in his arms, the silk of her dress sliding enticingly beneath his palms, the soft orangey scent of her perfume invading his senses, was not sufficient to quiet his desire for her. There had been a moment, out there on the dancefloor, when she'd looked up at him with those big dark eyes that seemed almost to be begging, pleading with him to treat her gently, a moment when he'd felt her relax, lean into his embrace as if she wanted to be there, and he wanted to feel that again. He wanted to feel the tension leave her, wanted to feel the evidence of her trust in him, wanted to take that trust and use it to shelter her. Christ, he just wanted to hold her. Somehow he got the feeling it had been a long, long time since she'd last let anyone just hold her, and somehow he thought it might do them both some good.

But Olivia only allowed him that one dance, and then she was leading him away, her head held high, her jawline proud, her legs - tanned and muscular and graceful and gorgeous - slicing beneath the salacious slit of her dress, her ass swaying tantalizing in front of him, and he had resumed his place, a pace behind her, following where she led.

It didn't come naturally to him, following, but the role he was meant to play tonight was clear, and he didn't want to embarrass or upset her - more than he might have done already, with that little spat he'd had with Wheatley - so he didn't act on his instincts, even when his hands were itching to touch her. He just followed, watched her drift around the perimeter of the room, greeting the guests who knew her already, making the rounds. He just followed, his gaze roving endlessly around the room, over the guests, but returning, always, to the vision of her back in front of him.

Between the dim, atmospheric lighting and the sway of her thick hair and the swirling patterns of red lace against her tan skin, the lines of her tattoo taunted him. He couldn't say for certain what was ink and what was shadow, not with the lengths she'd taken to hide her art from view. It felt like a riddle, the answer just out of reach; it felt like the strains of a song playing from another room, too faint for him to make it out but maddeningly familiar, as if should he only listen a little harder, look a little closer, the truth would reveal itself. Did the tattoo extend all the way down her neck, out to her shoulders, across her back? He didn't think it possibly could, didn't imagine for one moment that she was the sort of girl who'd get a piece that big, but every now and then when his eyes drifted over her it seemed as if a new line was waiting for him to discover. But then she'd move, and the lace and her hair would move with her, and then he wasn't sure of anything any more.

Not that it mattered, he tried to tell himself. It didn't matter, because he wasn't here tonight to look at her tattoo. He was here tonight to take care of her, and he'd thought he'd done a pretty good job of that so far. That Wheatley was a snake, Elliot thought, and a presumptuous one, and Olivia might not have appreciated the way Elliot had stepped between them, but he'd only been trying to look out for her. If she really did want to dance with Wheatley she could have, no matter what Elliot said, but she'd taken his arm instead, like it wasn't Wheatley she wanted at all. The thought that she'd wanted to dance with Elliot filled him with a smug sort of pride, but he tried to tamp that down, too. Maybe she'd only used him as an out, a means to escape an unpleasant conversation; she'd made no attempt to linger with him when the song they were dancing to was finished. Maybe to a girl like her a dance didn't signify much, but Elliot had only ever danced with Kathy. Kathy, and her, now. It meant something, to him.

As they made their way around the room Perkins peeled off from the folks he'd been entertaining, his sights set on Olivia, and Elliot had only a moment to warn her of the man's approach before Perkins was stepping smoothly between them, reaching out to take hold of Olivia's hand.

"So glad you could make it, Olivia," he said. "You look ravishing this evening."

Who the fuck says "ravishing"? Elliot thought to himself, grumpy now.

"Thank you," Olivia purred in response. Elliot hadn't really ever heard that tone of voice from her before and he looked at her face sharply, found her wearing an unfamiliar, damn near coquettish expression as she batted her eyelashes at Perkins. The prick.

"I was hoping you'd had a chance to think over my offer," Perkins said, still holding her hand.

"I did," Olivia told him in that same husky, breathy tone, that tone that was doing things to Elliot's vascular system he didn't want to think about too much. "You're too generous, Fitz. Oak House owes a great debt to your family already."

Elliot frowned. He didn't know what offer Perkins had made, but Olivia had told him once that a man could pay fifty thousand dollars for the pleasure of fucking her, and he was pretty sure a guy like Perkins wouldn't even blink at spending that amount of money. Just the thought of it, Olivia soft and naked under a bastard like Perkins, made Elliot's hands curl into fists.

"But we have our traditions at Oak House," Olivia continued. "It's my job to keep to them. I'm sorry, Fitz, but I can't accept it."

Thank God, Elliot thought.

"Maybe a dance will change your mind," Perkins suggested. Brian had warned Elliot that these guys didn't take no for an answer, and it was starting to look like he'd been right about that. It would be easy for Elliot to step in, to pull Olivia away just like he'd done with Wheatley, but Perkins was a different animal. Wheatley wasn't a current customer, as far as Elliot knew; it was Wheatley's father Olivia had to keep sweet, and the old man didn't care too much for his son. Perkins, though, Perkins was big money, and he had been at every party Elliot had attended at Oak House. It would be easy to snub him, but it might come back to bite Olivia in the ass, and Elliot didn't want to cause trouble for her.

"You're welcome to try," Olivia said, accepting the offer with good grace, and there was nothing for Elliot to do then but watch them walking away, his jaw set tight. Olivia had been given a choice, and she had made it.

It irritated him, though, watching Perkins walking to the dancefloor, leading Olivia by the hand, arrogant and self-assured. It irritated him to see another man put his hands on Olivia, to see someone else standing where he'd stood himself just a short while before. It irritated him to watch Olivia follow that man's lead, to allow him the same intimacy Elliot himself had enjoyed earlier in the evening. There was nothing rational about his irritation, no justification for the possessiveness he felt as he watched Olivia's lithe body moving beneath her silky dress, as he watched Perkins's hand drift over her ass, as he watched Olivia do nothing at all to stop it. Olivia was a madam, and she'd been a working girl before that, and no one man got to lay claim to her. Certainly not a man who'd never fucked her. Olivia didn't owe him a goddamn thing, Elliot knew that. There was absolutely nothing he could expect from her, nothing he could ask of her, not while he was a cop and she was a madam and the lines between them were so clearly drawn.

All that and more he knew in his head, but his heart would not listen. His heart watched her dancing with Perkins, and seethed, and he didn't take an easy breath until Olivia returned to his side. Where she belonged.


"Walk you up?" Elliot asked as they loitered by the car.

Over his shoulder she saw Brian frown, and she looked away quickly, feeling embarrassed, somehow.

The night had gone better than she'd ever imagined; apart from Wheatley insulting Elliot and Perkins's wandering hands on the dancefloor the guests had been nothing but polite, and Elliot had been good company. Quiet when he needed to be, protective when he needed to be, charming and safe. She'd enjoyed the brief conversations they'd shared, and Jesus, she'd enjoyed dancing with him, and she wasn't quite ready for the night to end and apparently neither was he. Still, though, he had to have known there was no reason for him to come inside the house. Brian was with her, Brian could ferry her safely through the doors and up the stairs. Having played his part to perfection there was nothing left for Elliot to do, but he'd asked to come inside, and she wanted to let him.

"Why not?" she said, and then she turned for the door before Brian had a chance to catch her eye.

"I'll go park the car," Brian muttered. Usually he saw her to her room before dealing with the car - he never, ever left it on the street overnight - but someone else had taken on that task this evening, and Brian was no doubt feeling sore over it, and he always retreated when his feelings were hurt. Olivia would have to deal with it in the morning.

Right now, though, she was too distracted by the steady, solid presence of Elliot at her back to worry about much of anything at all. Why had he asked, she wondered; why did he want to come inside? What could he have to say to her alone that he couldn't have said in the backseat of the car? Why did the thought of walking through the corridors of her home in the dead of night with Elliot beside her excite her so, when she had thought herself so long past the point of excitement? She wasn't sure, really, not about anything, but she'd always had a penchant for playing with fire, and this was no different. Elliot was dangerous, but she was willing to risk it, for the adrenaline rush it gave her if nothing else.

In silence they moved through the house, and she led him up and up, all the way to her own bedroom door. It was a Friday night, but she'd left Lucy in charge, and between Lucy and the security guards Olivia knew her girls were safe. If there had been trouble someone would have called her, but her phone had not rung even once, and the house was still and silent, now.

At her door she stopped, leaned back against it and considered the man in front of her. What a contradiction he seemed, she thought, the Catholic boy with the rock hard body, the cop with an uncanny affinity for playing the part of a criminal. A gentleman to his core, and yet possessive enough, bold enough, cocky enough to stand up to Richard fucking Wheatley. The bald head and the beard made him look so fierce, but his blue eyes were warm and gentle, and those hands of his that could so easily be formed into fists had only ever touched her tenderly.

He was watching her, now, breathing slowly, deeply in the darkness, his eyes drifting over her. The way she was leaning, with her hip cocked out and her head thrown back, it was all but impossible for him to ignore the swell of her breast, the slope of her bare thigh. He didn't even try to pretend like he wasn't looking; she would've been disappointed if he had.

"Thank you," she said, surprised at the breathless quality of her own voice.

"My pleasure," he answered. "You ever need anything like that again, you call me."

"I will."

It would look good, if after a successful night she asked for him again. Kosta would be happy. It was hardly a business decision but at least she could hide behind that thin excuse.

"You deserve better than them," he said suddenly, intensely, and those blue eyes fixed on her face, found her gaze and held it, pinned her in place. There was something like anger burning in those eyes, but it was not anger with her. She knew that, instinctively. If Elliot was angry, it was only with the other men who'd presumed to touch her. Of course he'd be possessive; he was a cop, and he'd been married to one woman for years, had four children with her, mourned her still, Olivia thought, because he told her his wife had been dead for seven years, and he'd not taken another. And of course he'd try to tell her she was too good for the life she lived; he'd been SVU once. All those guys had a fucking savior complex.

"They take care of me," Olivia said.

"Bullshit." The word came out hard, and she frowned.

"You don't-"

"Those guys pay you, but they don't take care of you. Who takes care of you, huh? Who makes sure you have what you need? When's the last time someone did something for you without expecting something in return?"

Brian did. Brian looked after her, tried to make her eat, tried to make her go to sleep on time, tried to shoulder some of her burdens, tried to be there for her when she needed someone to listen. Brian tried, hard, and yeah he was on her payroll but he didn't do it for the money. He hadn't shown up at the hospital the day she freed herself from Lewis's clutches because he wanted something from her. Brian did care. But she wasn't fooling herself; Brian was here, in her house, because he was lost. She gave him a place to sleep, gave him a purpose, gave him stability, and he was in love with her, and she'd never love him back and they both knew it. Brian was only there because he didn't have anywhere better to be, because she hadn't sent him away, and there were things she never told him. There were so many secrets she kept from him, so much of her heart she held in reserve. Brian tried to take care of her but there had never been any doubt that she was the one in control in their relationship, and he could only do what she allowed him.

No one had ever taken care of her for her own sake, not really. Not ever.

"Nothing comes free," Olivia said, a little sadly. "Everyone has their price."

"Olivia-"

"Will you unzip me, please?"

She didn't want to talk about it anymore. The little bubble of contentment she'd cocooned herself in while they rode in the car had distinctly burst; whether he'd meant to or not, Elliot had only reminded her of the rules of the game. In the game of life nothing was free, and no one was safe, and the only person she could ever really trust was herself. No matter how much she might wish for things to be different.

Very slowly she turned her back on him, gathered her hair over one shoulder so he could find the zipper disguised in a fold of lace running down the middle of her back. Sorrow had settled in her heart, but there was still a pulse of excitement buried beneath it when Elliot stepped up close, when she felt the brush of his hands against her back. Did he want to take care of her, she wondered, and if he did what would his care look like? How would it feel, to be cared for by such a man?

Time seemed to crawl to a stop as Elliot dragged the zipper down her back to where it stopped just above the rise of her ass. With every inch the zipper descended she felt the dress loosen around her body, and she pressed one hand to her chest, holding the dress in place so that her tits didn't spill completely out of it. When he'd finished she waited, holding her breath, wondering what he might do, whether he might touch her, whether he might kiss her, whether he might -

"Jesus," Elliot breathed softly.

Oh, shit.

She'd turned her back on him, given him a task to distract him from the maudlin turn their conversation had taken, and Brian unzipped her dress for her all the time, and she'd thought nothing of turning her back on Elliot at all, but she realized her mistake, now. With the dress unzipped and her hair cascading over her shoulder, Elliot could see the mark. Not all of it, while folds of silk and lace still covered her shoulders, her sides, her ass, but he could see enough. Enough to realize the scope of it, enough perhaps to recognize the face of the phoenix etched into her skin.

The only people besides Brian who had ever seen her mark in full were the men who got to fuck her, and there hadn't so very many of them since the mark was finished. She'd never talked about it to any of those men, had only explained to Brian what it meant one time, when it was still in progress. She didn't want to tell Elliot now, didn't want him to know what the mark symbolized, what it had taken from her, didn't want him to see, but it was too late to pretend the thing didn't exist.

She startled, just a little, when she felt his fingertips brush against the center of her back, trailing along the lines of the tattoo. She could almost feel the question hovering in the air, the tension that Elliot was carrying. She could not allow him to speak, because if he did she might break, and tell him, and this night had gone so well that she didn't want to spoil it with regret.

"Good night, Elliot," she said, and then she pressed her clutch against the electronic lock of her door, let the little card attached to the back of her phone unlock the door, and slipped inside it, closed the door behind her without turning to look at him. She didn't know what expression he wore, what his face might tell her, but she didn't want to know. Alone in her room she leaned back against the door, shivered when it touched her bare skin, and for a moment even through the bulk of that reinforced door she could have sworn she felt the weight of his eyes on her still.

Chapter Text

August 1, 2014

It was the dream that drove him to it, in the end.

Two weeks he'd gone not seeing her, two weeks spent in the company of the Albanians and the Albanians alone. Kosta was pleased with his performance at Perkins's party - and pleased with the payment the madam had seen fit to deliver to him, compensation for the use of his bodyguard for the evening - but he wasn't in a hurry to get back to Oak House. That worried Elliot, because Kosta had been fixated on the place and the status it offered him, fixated on Sinatra and whatever deal they were cooking up, so fixated he hadn't been causing that much trouble in his own business endeavors, had just been sending Reggie to do the protection shakedowns and giving Albi his head, and since Elliot was tailing Kosta now he'd not been there for any of it, and so had been unable to gather any further evidence against Elliot's target. It worried him, Kosta's sudden disinterest in Oak House, but it irritated him, too, because Elliot desperately wanted to see Olivia again, and he couldn't, not without Kosta for cover.

That was where the dream came in. Every night for the last five nights Elliot had dreamed the same dream. Dreamed himself floating on a great blue sea, lost and tired and hungry, dreamed of a great black bird, a bird who wore the face of the creature tattooed on Olivia's back, descending upon him. Each time he saw the bird he felt a wild rush of hope, but each time the bird brought him no comfort. The bird had not come to save him; in the dream the bird attacked him, drowned him or ripped him limb from limb. The details varied but the end result was always the same. The bird spelled his doom.

And Elliot would never have described himself as a superstitious man, but he was Catholic, and what was religion, really, if not superstition given structure? He believed in God, and he believed in the devil, and mama believed in guardian angels, and the prophetic qualities of dreams. Was there any difference, really? If he was right about God why couldn't mama be right about dreams, and if mama was right about dreams, what did this one have to tell him? That Olivia would bring about his undoing? That idea wasn't terribly far-fetched; his future seemed to be cradled in her hands, his survival dependent on her whims, and even if she never gave him up Brian had warned him that no good could come from their acquaintance. Maybe Brian had been having dreams, too.

On Friday night, two weeks after the party, Kosta told Eddie to get lost. Wouldn't say where he was going or what he was doing, just said he didn't need a keeper for the night. That left Elliot free as a bird and what he should have done with the sudden vacancy on his dance card was call Reggie. He should have called his friend, and gone out for beers, and subtly attempted to pry some information out of him. Barring that he should have called Bell, give her a long overdue briefing on the Albanians' comings and goings. Hell, he probably should've called Kathleen, should've snuck away for a few hours and seen his fucking kids. He didn't do any of those things.

Instead he went to Oak House, and scaled the back fence, dropped to his feet on the hard ground at the edge of the terrace and loitered there, waiting in shadows.

Since Elliot didn't know where Kosta had gone, he couldn't rule out the possibility that Kosta had come to the brothel. If Kosta caught him there, in a house he had not been invited to, filled with women he couldn't afford, there would have been questions; Kosta might be pissed as hell at the intrusion. So Elliot couldn't afford to walk up to the door, to knock, to slip in the same way all the other guests did, to roam the corridors. The security at Oak House was top notch, though, and Elliot had seen the feeds from the security cameras on the monitors in Olivia's office. He knew there was a camera trained on the terrace, knew that his arrival would be observed, knew that when someone - Brian, most likely - saw him dropping over the fence they'd tell Olivia, and then she could decide for herself what to do with him. Speak to him, or send him away. He hoped she'd want to speak to him. After the way they'd parted, in the corridor outside her bedroom door, her dress unzipped, her skin warm beneath his fingertips, he was hoping she'd want to see him, but he couldn't say for sure. He'd been away for a while, and the sight of the tattoo had left a strange tension hovering between them. Maybe she wouldn't want to see him at all. Maybe the whole idea was fucking stupid.

It was somewhat more than five minutes but somewhat less than ten before the doors to the terrace opened, and Elliot watched from his vantage point by the fence as Olivia glided into view. She was wearing blue jeans this evening, an unusual choice for her on a Friday, and an oversized white t-shirt that fell elegantly off one of her shoulders, left her collarbones and a swath of her chest bare, a dainty gold necklace sparkling around her throat.

"I could have Brian shoot you, you know," she called to him softly.

"That'd make too much noise," he answered. "You don't like to draw attention."

"Neither do you."

Slowly she picked her way down the broad terrace steps, came to a stop on the stone patio beneath the twinkling lights strung across the pergola. She was still a good twenty feet away from him, and it seemed she did not intend to come any closer.

"Kosta's not here," she told him, "if that's why you're sneaking around like a thief."

"Just trying not to make waves, darlin'."

If Kosta wasn't there, and she didn't intend to move, it would fall to Elliot to close the space between them, and so he did, his movements measured and reserved, designed not to startle her.

"I wanted to talk to you," he explained as he approached.

"I do have a phone."

Yes, she did, and he had the number now, but he'd not thought of calling her, not even once. He'd said he wanted to talk to her but that wasn't entirely true; he wanted to see her. As he was seeing her now, her beautiful face glowing in the golden light, her dark hair wild around her shoulders, her bright eyes watching him, thoughtfully, warily.

"This is more fun, don't you think?"

"What do you want, Elliot?"

"I wanna know what it is."

It. That thing inked in black on her skin. Monstrous, almost, not only account of its size but on account of the ferocity of the beast's face, the confrontational nature of it. The piece was not delicate, not by any stretch; the lines were stark and thick, and spread out across so much of her body he'd not seen all of it, even with her dress unzipped to the curve of her ass. A piece like that would've taken time, would've taken a couple of sittings, would've been intentional, but he couldn't for the life of him figure out why she'd done it. It didn't seem like something she'd want, and that troubled him a very great deal. If she'd been forced into it whose idea had it been? Why had they done it? Why had she allowed it? Just what the fuck did it mean, and why did Elliot keep dreaming about it?

"That's none of your concern," she told him coolly.

"The hell it's not."

"What makes you think I owe you anything?"

He looked up at her in silence for a moment, thrown by the question. She was right, of course; he was behaving as if he were entitled to an answer, as if he had earned the right to care about her, about her story, about where she'd been, about what had been done to her. But who was she to him, really? A sort-of ally, perhaps, in that she had so far been helping him in his operation and he relied on her for her discretion, but it wasn't as if they were friends. They weren't working the job together, didn't go out for drinks after a long day, didn't call just to chat. When the operation was through they'd never see each other again. Why, then, did he feel so connected to her? Why did she matter so much? Why couldn't he stop this longing he felt for her?

"No," he said, "I know you don't owe me shit." She didn't, she really didn't. "But it's…it's killing me, Olivia. It's driving me crazy. You're…you're driving me crazy."

She took a step back from him, then. Heard his words and stepped away, as she had probably been doing all her life, putting distance between herself and men who sought too much from her, knowing how dangerous a man could be when he'd decided he owned something she'd never agreed to give him. She looked at him, and saw a threat, and she was probably right about that but Jesus, the last thing he wanted to do was hurt her.

Don't you feel it, too? He wanted to shout. Didn't she remember, that night in the corridor when they'd been hiding from Sinatra, hadn't she felt how right it was when they held on to one another? Hadn't she kissed his temple, gently, when she had no reason to at all, no reason but that she wanted to? When they were dancing at Perkins's house, hadn't she relaxed in his embrace, hadn't she been comfortable there? Didn't she know he'd keep her safe? She really was driving him mad, he realized then, driving him absolutely out of his mind because she made him want things he couldn't have, because she hid her thoughts from him so completely that no matter what they had done together he still couldn't be sure what the fuck was going on in that pretty head.

"You should leave," she said.

"Do you want me to?"

He didn't crowd her, didn't push in closer; he stayed right where he was, five, six feet away, tucked his hands in his pockets so she could see he didn't mean to put them on her. If she said yes, if she told him to go, he would, because he was not the sort of man who would press his advances where they were not wanted, but he prayed, fervently, desperately, that she would say no. That she would not send him away. That she would just tell him the truth, for once, when it seemed like she never told the truth to anyone.

"No," she confessed in a small voice, and his heart sang out in his chest, relieved and smug at the same time. "No. But that scares the shit out of me, Elliot. You're no good for me."

"Maybe I could be, if you let me."

"What are you offering?"

That was the question, wasn't it? Elliot didn't even know himself. Didn't even know what he was asking for, not really, didn't know what he could possibly give her in return that would be worth the value of her trust. He didn't know what he'd meant, really, when he said maybe I could be; the words just came spilling out of him, born of the intense desire he felt to take care of her, to protect her. Olivia was brash and strong and brave, rich and well-guarded, and on paper she had no need of his protection, but when he looked at her he saw something fragile, still, something that needed saving from the life that had ensnared her. Maybe it was just his cop instincts taking over, telling him she was trapped, caged; hadn't she chosen this life herself? Didn't she have the means to leave it whenever she wanted? Who was he to say what was good for her?

"I think you need a friend," he said finally. "I wanna be that for you, if you'll let me."

"Friends with a cop?" she scoffed.

"No," he answered at once. "Fuck the badge, I'm not wearing it. I'm not here as a cop. I'm just…I'm here as me. For you."

Even with the lights overhead her eyes seemed almost black, huge and dark and sad.

"No one's here for me," she told him wisely, something in her voice that sounded almost like pity, like she felt sorry for him, the big dumb cop too stupid to understand how the world worked. "I make other people's dreams come true."

"What about your dreams, huh? What about you? God damn it, Olivia, I'm not trying to fuck you. I'm trying to talk to you."

"You don't wanna fuck me?"

He recognized that low, salacious tone of voice at once; he'd heard her use it at Perkins's house, and hearing it now made his blood run hot with anger.

"Don't pull that shit with me," he said sharply. "Don't deflect."

"Fuck you," she snapped. "You don't have any idea-"

"So tell me, then!" he fired back. "Tell me. Tell me something, Olivia. Tell me something true."

As his temper rose he'd moved, almost without realizing it, pacing closer and closer to her, and Olivia, she'd stood her ground, and now he was right in front of her, close enough to reach out and touch her, if he dared. Christ, he wanted to dare. Wanted to be daring enough, bold enough, to take hold of her with both hands, to shake her, to kiss her, to do anything to break them out of the unbearable detente they found themselves in, locked together, neither of them willing to take the risk, and break them both free. Up close like this she was blindingly, painfully beautiful, the loveliest thing he'd ever seen in his entire life, and the saddest.

Like a bird caught in a cage, he thought, and very nearly laughed aloud at the sheer hysterical unfairness of it all.

"It's a phoenix," she said in an unsteady voice.

It's a start, he thought.

Chapter Text

August 1, 2014

"A phoenix?" Elliot repeatedly, feeling foolish. A phoenix. How the fuck was he supposed to know that, anyway? Phoenixes - phoenixi? Whatever - weren't real. As far as he was aware there wasn't a single agreed upon image of a phoenix, a set standard of facial features or morphology. The tattoo just looked like a bird, but evidently it was a very special type of bird, and evidently just talking about it upset Olivia.

"It's sort of like…the symbol of the house," she explained.

"Like a mascot?"

She shot him a look that plainly said no.

"It's stupid," she said. "But Oak House was revived - reborn - so. Phoenix."

That part made sense. He could understand the significance of the symbol, but he still couldn't understand why the fuck she had a massive tattoo of it on her back.

"And you got the tat because you're the madam now?" he asked slowly, trying to work his way through it. Maybe the tattoo was her way of saying she was Oak House. That they were inseparable, that they had both been born anew, Oak House brought to life after a century of neglect, and Olivia restored from…what, exactly? The aftermath of Lewis, maybe, that seemed to him a likely explanation, but she proved him wrong in a moment.

Olivia snorted once, derisively, and began to pace, putting distance between them, wrapping her arms around herself as if she were cold, despite the fact that it was a balmy night in the height of summer and Elliot was beginning to sweat.

"It wasn't a choice," she told him grimly. "Things worked differently, in the old days."

Sister Peg had told him as much, but he still didn't know what that meant, and he was hanging on Olivia's every word, desperate for some explanation.

"You worked sex crimes-"

"How did you know that?" he demanded sharply, caught off guard by the realization that while he'd been running recognizance on her, she'd been doing the same thing to him.

"I know," she said coolly. "And so I know that you know how the traffickers work. They take a girl in, then they tell her she owes them for food, clothes, housing. They make her work off her debt. All the money she makes goes straight to them, and she never sees a penny."

And in most cases, the "debt" was never paid, was instead a constantly increasing balance, a fiction that served to keep the girls in indentured servitude until they died or bolted or got sold to someone else. Yeah, Elliot knew how that story went.

"It was the same way here," Olivia said. "The madam would take a girl on, but that girl would start off in debt to the madam. Every girl started at Oak House with a ledger in the red."

It was a depressing fucking concept and Elliot would've expected her to sound sad as she explained how she'd started her tenure in this place, but there was no sorrow in her. Instead her voice was level, detached, somehow, as if she were telling him a story, a story that had happened to someone else.

"The mark was how the madam kept track of how much of the debt had been paid. For every ten grand a girl earned, another section of the tat would be filled in. Most marks only came in five or six parts."

Why do it piecemeal, he wondered; why bother with the tattoos at all, when a book and a pen would work just as well?

"And if a girl tried to leave before her mark was finished…everyone would know. Everyone would know what she was, and everyone would know she still owed a debt to Oak House. And everyone was terrified of the madam. No one would touch a girl with an unfinished mark. If a drug dealer or another pimp found her, he'd take her back to the madam. She usually paid a finder's fee to anybody who brought a girl back."

Jesus Christ.

"It's not a tattoo, Elliot. It's a brand."

It was something he'd seen before, many times, while he was SVU. Pimps tattooing special marks on their girls, so everyone would know which girl belonged to which operation. Most of the marks were small - hell, he'd even seen barcodes, a time or two - designed not to damage the girl's beauty or appeal in anyway, but this…the tattoo on Olivia's back was huge. It would be hard for her, for anyone, to hide a mark like that all the time. Even now he could see a piece of it, curling over her shoulder when she turned her back to him in her pacing. With a mark that big, a girl would never really be free of this place; even if she left the life, it would follow her wherever she went, for all the rest of her life.

"How many?" Elliot started to ask, but he choked on the question, had to clear his throat and try again. "How many sections did it take to finish yours?"

There was no doubt in his mind that Olivia's mark was complete. The house and its legacy had been entrusted to her, and if the old madam was as hard as everyone said, he doubt the woman would've gifted her house to a girl who had not paid her debts in full.

"Ten," she said softly.

Ten. Ten sections, ten grand apiece. Olivia had earned a hundred thousand dollars on her back, and never seen a penny of it. Elliot's hands curled into fists, his nails digging into his palms as he fought back the urge to hit something, to throw something, to find some outlet for the rage that simmered low in his belly. Sure, Olivia could command half that price for a single night now, but the girls under her purview only cost a fraction as much, and some of that money went to the house. How much of what she'd earned had gone towards her debt, and how much had simply vanished into the madam's coffers? How many men had it taken, to pay so great a sum?

"I was sixteen when I came here," she explained. "I was broke, I was starving, I was out of options. I'd…I'd run away from home to be with a man who promised to marry me. He didn't, though. He got bored with me. He got mean. But I couldn't go home. My mother told me if I left she'd never let me come back. I needed a warm place to sleep and I needed someone to protect me. Liz offered me that. At a price."

The price of her freedom, her future. Only sixteen, when she should have been thinking about college and careers and shopping with her friends Olivia had been alone, had traded her body and everything she could have been for the means to survive. How different might her life have been, if she'd never left home, if someone else had found her before the madam did? Where could she have gone, what could she have accomplished? A surge of grief filled him, then, for the girl she had been, the woman she was now, and the woman she'd never had a chance to be.

"By the time the mark was finished Liz was thinking about stepping down. I had a GED, but I'd never had a straight job. I couldn't fill out a resume, and the jobs that would hire me wouldn't pay a tenth of what I'd make if I took over for Liz. So, yeah, I stayed."

She stilled in her pacing, looking at him across the courtyard, small and lost and defiant somehow, still, despite everything.

"This is all I've ever been, Elliot. This is all I'm ever gonna be. You want the truth? That's it, right there. I'm a whore."

"No," Elliot said harshly, his self control snapping in an instant. It was breaking his heart, listening to her recounting the horrors of her life, and he couldn't bear to hear her reduce herself to a whore. Yeah, she'd traded sex for money all her life and yeah, that's where she made her living now, and yeah, maybe that fit the textbook definition of the word, but he would not hear it. He couldn't accept it, the ugliness of it, the thought that Olivia, who was good and strong and beautiful and brave, thought so little of her own worth. Maybe it was naive, his dogged instance that she just not fucking call herself a whore, maybe he was being fucking stupid, but he couldn't stop.

In three long strides he crossed the space between them, and did something he had not ever done, something he had thought before now he would not ever be able to do. He slipped his hand beneath the fall of her dark hair, let his palm settle against the nape of her neck, holding her to him while he looked into her eyes, tumbled into them, huge and dark and so fucking sad it shattered his heart to see it.

"You're not a whore, Olivia," he told her fiercely. "I know what you are and what you've done. I'm not fucking stupid. But Jesus, you're…you're more than that. You're everything."

A friend, a mother, a woman. A savvy business owner, a fierce protector of the unfortunate souls who found themselves in need of her care. A person, whole and complete, defined by so much more than the act of sex and how she went about it.

"You can't say shit like that to me," she breathed in an unsteady voice. "It isn't fair."

"What's not fair?" he asked, increasing the pressure of his hand against her neck just a little, just enough to urge her to look up at him, and not down at her shoes like she was trying to do. "It's not fair to tell you that you're more than this?"

"It's not fair to make me hope."

The desolation in her voice was nearly enough to bring him to his knees.

"Girls like me…we don't get the things we hope for, Elliot."

"What if you did, huh?"

What if she left? Hadn't she already begun to break away from the curse of Oak House? He knew without asking she didn't mark her girls the way she'd been marked; he'd seen some of their backs, but it was more than that. In his gut, in his soul, he knew that the mark had wounded her, imprisoned her, and he knew that she would not inflict the same hurt on anyone else. He knew it, when he had no reason to know it; looking into her eyes, he felt as if he knew her, as if he always had, as if despite the fact that they'd only met a bare few months before, only spent so brief a time in one another's company, he knew her. The way she thought, the way she moved, the way she believed. What she believed in, and why, and what her heart longed for.

"What if just once you got what you wanted, Olivia? What would that look like?"

The humid heat of summer lay heavy as a blanket on their shoulders, the fence and the shrubs and the house behind them muffling any noise from the street, cocooning them in warmth and solitude. Her skin burned his fingers like fire, and her eyes cut him to the bone. There was an electricity crackling in the air between them, adrenaline coursing through his veins, as if he held not a woman, beautiful and sad, but a fucking grenade, unpredictable and deadly. He did not release his grip, however, did not even dare draw a breath, as he waited for her to answer, as he prayed with all his might that she would just tell him what she wanted, that it would be something he could give to her.

"I want to be free," she whispered.

Free of the house, free of this life, free of the brand on her back and the memories it carried with it; Olivia wanted to be free, and if he could have Elliot would have lifted her clean off her feet, then, and carried her away. She wouldn't have gone, though, and he knew it. Her son was in that house, and all the money she'd ever earned, and every person she knew, and every piece of her past. That kind of freedom he couldn't give to her.

But she was looking up at him with longing in her eyes, her soft lips parted, soft breasts rising and falling in time to her unsteady breaths. There was another kind of freedom. The freedom to choose. To choose where she went and who she saw and whose hands she let touch her body. At the party she'd let Perkins touch her, and she was letting Elliot touch her now, but he wasn't stupid. It was different, and he knew it. Everything about this was different. The way she was looking at him, the fierce desire he felt in his own heart, the way she seemed to sway towards him, seeking, hoping, even after she'd told him she couldn't allow herself the luxury of hope…he could give her a choice. He could give her a piece of freedom.

Slowly, giving her every opportunity to push him away, with eyes wide open and no breath in his lungs he bowed his head, and she raised herself up on her toes, just a little, just enough to close the space between them, and let his lips brush against hers.

Chapter Text

August 1, 2014

One kiss gave way to another, and another; it was as if, having begun, having been blessed with that first sweet, intoxicating taste of her, he could not stop, could not bear to be parted from her. The skin of his cheek burned from the soft panting breaths she exhaled against him, his beard no doubt burning her lips as he opened his mouth to her, entreated her to join him in this moment of madness. Her mouth was warm and wet and glorious, and the first tentative brush of her tongue against his own left his head spinning. His hands rose up, sank into the heavy weight of her hair, cradling her skull, holding her close to him, and when his teeth caught against her pouty lower lip she sighed and pressed herself that much more firmly into the bulk of his body. All that hair; it tumbled around them, filled the air with the scent of oranges, that soft perfume he had come to associate with her and her alone, curtained them off from the world around them, gave to them a sense of privacy they had not earned.

For her part Olivia wasn't still, wasn't just standing there accepting the onslaught of his kisses; her hands reached for him, one fisted in the back of his shirt and the other clutching at his open collar, dragging him still closer while her lean thighs parted, gave him room to press his own leg between them. What he wouldn't give for a wall to press her back against, the leverage to hold her upright and let her grind down against his thigh, the chance to feel her want, as dire and electric as his own. As it was there was no such grace waiting for him on the terrace; the closest wall was the side of the townhouse, and to drag her there he'd have to stumble across the courtyard and up the steps in full view of the windows. They were risking too much already, their position not entirely shielded from the view of the parlor, and he didn't dare press for more. Besides he wasn't sure his legs would hold him, would safely cross that distance, anyway; Olivia was melting him down like gold in a forge, shattering every piece of him.

When was the last time she'd kissed a man? Kissed him for love, for want, and not for money? Did she ever kiss her customers? Some girls didn't, but Olivia's business was expensive and exclusive; the list of things her girls wouldn't do was likely very short. And she had been one of them, one of the girls, earned her living on her back and on her knees, and in the daylight that thought might have bothered him, but in the darkness he was safe from recrimination and guilt and inhibition. In the darkness, all he felt was her.

Beautiful, and warm, and soft, and here, nestled in his arms, holding on to him, the neat line of her teeth nipping at his lip just as he had done to her, nuzzling against him as if she liked the way his beard felt, searing her tender skin. If he had freed himself from restraint so, too, had she; in his arms she was alive, vibrant, and demanding, her hips swaying tantalizingly into him, a seductive sort of promise in the movement. Jesus, he'd fuck her right there if she let him. The thought drove a bolt of lightning straight to his cock and he groaned into her kiss, dragged one of his hands away from her hair and down the elegant slope of her back, eased his way between her skin and her jeans so that he could clutch at her lace-clad ass, encouraging her to rock against the strong muscle of his thigh locked in place at her core.

Had it ever been like this? He would ask himself that later. Had one kiss, one first kiss, ever been so consuming as this one, ever made him want to rush from the soft molding of lips to the furious fever of fucking without hesitation? Or was it just Olivia, just her, the sinful lushness of her body and the comforting way she seemed to know him, to understand him, his undoing? Anything, he'd give anything to bury himself inside her, to look down on her beautiful face contorted in pleasure and hear her cries of rapture, to feel her embracing him. The hold of his hands, one at the back of her head and one tight around the swell of her ass, locked her in place, and she made no move to part from him, only arched into him, only let her tongue surge into his mouth and whimpered when she felt him answer her in kind.

He would have this woman. He would take her, bring her into himself, make her his, protect her, save her, hold her; he would have her, if only she would let him, if only-

If only. If only the house were not full of guests, if only every second that passed did not increase the risk that they would be discovered, and ruined. If only she would let him, and he wasn't entirely sure she would, and he'd told her he wasn't trying to fuck her - had meant he wasn't only trying to fuck her - had promised himself he would show her that she was meant for more than sex and how the fuck was he going to keep any of those promises, how the fuck was he going to be her friend, if all he concerned himself with in this moment was the dire need he felt to bury his cock inside her?

It was a miracle, really, that any thoughts permeated the haze of lust in his mind at all, but they did, and he eased up on his grip slowly, dragged his mouth away from the glory of her kiss and planted his lips on the side of her neck, gasping, gave them both a chance to think, and not wound one another by moving too fast, asking for too much. She'd only just finished recounting the tale of her own enslavement in this house; what sort of man would he be, if he heard how sex had been used to trap her and steal her future, and immediately demanded more of the same from her?

"I think it would really be something," he murmured breathlessly against her perfect skin, "to see you happy, Olivia Benson."

She hummed and smoothed her hand down his back, lingered for a moment before stepping away from him, running her fingers through her hair, the mask she wore, the mask of the untouchable madam, sliding slowly back into place.

"Who says I'm not happy?" she asked him coolly.

"You're not," he said before he could think better of it. Of course she wasn't; how could she be, when she was still living in this house, still trading her body for money, still doing the same thing to her girls that had been done to her, if a bit more gently?

"You think you know so much," she grumbled, turning petulant.

"I'm learning," he insisted, standing his ground in the face of her rapidly shifting mood.

"What about you, huh? You want to stand there and say you'll be my friend? That goes two ways. Quid pro quo, Elliot."

"What do you want to know?"

The shift in the air, the way the tenor of their interaction had gone from angry to mournful to hopeful to horny right back to fucking angry, left his head spinning. He still hadn't fully recovered his breath, his heart was still pounding, his cock was still half-hard, and she was standing there with accusation flashing in her eyes like she hadn't let him shove his hand down her pants just a minute before.

"What happened to your wife?"

Elliot blanched, spun away from her, reeling as if she'd struck him. When he'd come here tonight he'd wanted to talk about her, about the tattoo and where she'd come from and why she was still in this place that seemed to hurt her so, and he hadn't been counting on talking about himself. Hadn't really thought she'd want to, because no one ever seemed to want to ask about him, and she was the interesting one, anyway. But he could see it, now; he had offended her. Asking his questions, hearing her answers, she felt he had taken something from her, and she wanted to be paid back in kind. Maybe she deserved that much.

"She died."

"I swear to God, Elliot-"

"She was pregnant," he said, and horror stole slowly over Olivia's face. The story he was about to tell her was a sad one, a tragic one, but her story had been tragic, too. They had that in common, the tragedy.

"We'd split up but it didn't really stick. We fell back into old habits, and she got pregnant again. Our two oldest were in college but the twins were still at home, and I couldn't just leave her alone with a newborn. I came back home. We were trying to make it work, but I was still working too much, still wasn't really present when she needed me to be. There was….there was a bad case, and I got caught up in it. She had an appointment, and I was supposed to take her, but I was too busy and she took a cab instead. They got t-boned by a drunk driver. The air bag deployed and she went into labor, and by the time the paramedics got them out…I lost them both."

Did Olivia understand, he wondered; did she understand the full scope of his sins? Did she hear what he was telling her now, that he had been too selfish to let Kathy go when she wanted to and too selfish to prioritize her over the job, that his selfishness had killed her and the baby both? It wasn't a story he liked to tell, but then he imagined Olivia probably didn't like talking about the mark on her back too much, either. Quid pro quo, she'd said. I'll show you mine if you show me yours. If they were reckoning with one another's sins this evening he thought he came off worst, and he wondered if she thought the same.

"Elliot-"

"I was a crap husband. I tried to be a good dad but the job made me overprotective, you know? The shit I saw, it made me so scared for my kids, and it made me scary to them. And then their mother died because I couldn't be bothered…I as good as killed her, Olivia."

"You didn't," she said softly, approaching him slowly, warily, and when he didn't bark or snap at her she reached out and laid her hand gently on his forearm in a quiet, comforting sort of way.

"I did," he repeated stubbornly. And for a while there he'd been trying to kill himself, too. Not suicide, because the church said that was a sin and he wanted to be buried next to Kathy when he went, but close enough. The most dangerous assignments, the undercover work, he'd thrown himself headlong into it, dedicated himself to the same job that had kept him away from Kathy when she needed him most.

"So," he said, running his hand over his face, mortified to find that there were tears in his eyes, "are we square now?"

She bristled, pulled her hand away and retreated a step. Apparently she didn't like him talking as if this conversation was a transaction.

"You tell me, detective," she said. "Did you get what you came for?"

Did he? Had he? Why had he come, anyway? To sate his curiosity about the tattoo, yes, but that wasn't it. That wasn't it by half. He'd come to see her face, to hear her voice, to be close to her, to feel the way he'd felt that night after the party with her bare skin beneath his fingertips. He'd come to beg her to be honest with him, and he'd come because he wanted to. Because he wanted her. She'd let him kiss her but then she'd torn him open and now he was bleeding, and confused, hurt by her and desperate not to be parted from her at the same time.

"I don't know," he said.

Olivia nodded, once, and then looked away, catching her bottom lip between her teeth, and he could feel it; she was getting ready to tell him to leave. To send him away from her, to give them both an out, to put this night behind them, and he couldn't bear it. Not yet, not now; he was too raw to be left to his own devices, and he didn't want to watch her walking away from him again. But what could he say to her? What more could he offer her, what more could he take from her? She'd let him kiss her, and he'd crawl over broken glass for the chance to do it again, but why would she ever let him, after what he'd just told her, after the strange and maudlin turn their conversation had taken?

There were other things he wanted to know, and other confessions he wanted to make, but they all seemed dangerous, just now. They were teetering on the edge of ruin, the entire future of their relationship hanging in the balance, the whole world holding its breath, waiting to see what choice he might make, and whether it was the right one.

"Will you tell me about Noah?" he asked her softly.

Chapter Text

August 1, 2014

"Will you tell me about Noah?"

"Please don't ask me that, Elliot," she said softly, sadly, turning away, her face so beautiful in profile it made his heart ache.

"Why not?"

Why wouldn't she want to talk about her son? He wondered. He'd never yet met a mother who wasn't eager to talk about her children. Bragging or bitching, they all had something to say. It was plain to him that Olivia loved her son, cherished him; she treated him gently and kissed him sweetly and sought to protect him, as much as she could while she was raising him in a brothel surrounded by untrustworthy characters. Elliot's thoughts had drifted to the child more than once, in the weeks since he'd first seen him. The boy had a cherubic little face and dark hair like his mother's, and he'd seemed happy enough, despite the strange circumstances of his upbringing, seemed well cared for and healthy, and Elliot kept wondering how. How had Olivia ended up with a child, how was she managing to bring him up, how the fuck did she think things were gonna go once that kid was old enough to start asking questions about their unorthodox living situation? He kept wondering who, too, wondering who mattered enough to Olivia that she would have his child, wondering who had been lucky enough to bind himself to her in such a way, wondering who could have left her - left them both - behind. Maybe it was Cassidy, and maybe that was why he lingered in the house, because it was the only way to be close to the woman he loved and their child, even if Olivia wasn't fucking him anymore.

"He's my son," she said. "That's all you need to know. He's my son."

"I have a son," Elliot told her. He should have had two sons, but the second had not drawn breath in this world. "He's a little older than yours, though." Dickie was twenty-one, about to start his senior year of college, and it looked like Olivia's boy was still getting the hang of walking.

"You said you got started early," Olivia mused.

Honestly, Elliot was a little surprised she remembered that.

"Yeah, our oldest, she's about to turn thirty."

He wouldn't say his children's names. Despite all the reasons why he shouldn't, Elliot trusted Olivia - or, he wanted to - but he couldn't bring the kids into this. He could use the kids to form a rapport with people while he was undercover, he could be honest about their existence, but he had to protect them, in some small measure. It didn't sit easy with him, though. He wanted to tell her their names. He wanted to show her their pictures. He wanted to be her friend, and he wanted to believe that nothing bad could come of talking about his children with her, but the world was a dark and unpredictable place. There were hidden threats lurking in every shadow, even in the sanctuary of the courtyard.

"Our oldest," Olivia said, and it took him a second to catch up, to understand why she'd felt that was worth repeating. He'd told her Kathy was gone, had been gone for years, but when he spoke of the kids he still said ours. Not mine. Dead or not, Kathy was their mother, had been his wife, was still, would always be, a part of him, and of his story.

"Yeah."

"Noah's just mine," she confessed. "I'm never gonna be able to say ours."

Maybe that was true, and his father had never been in the picture and never would be, but the kid hadn't just sprung fully formed out of the ground. He had to have come from somewhere, and Elliot couldn't figure out why she wouldn't just tell him the truth, why she seemed so determined to avoid it. Unless, of course, the story of Noah's origins hurt her. He didn't want that, for her. He didn't want her to hurt.

"I bet you're a good mom."

Elliot had seen Olivia with her boy exactly once, and then not for long, but he believed it, still. Believed that she was a good mom, that she took care of her son, that she loved him. He was certain about that, dead fucking certain; he had no reason not to doubt her, but reason didn't seem to factor into the bargain when it came to her. He just knew.

"Trying to be," she said.

"It's the best any of us can do. Try."

Elliot tried. He tried so fucking hard, for those kids. Tried to be there for them, tried to listen to them, tried to help them. There had been moments when he felt like he succeeded and moments when he felt like he failed and all he could do was hope that the good outweighed the bad. The kids had all made it out of their teens, had grown into good people, people he liked spending time with - even though sometimes it just made him sad - and that had to count for something.

A gentle, melancholic sort of silence fell over them, as they both considered their children, and their own paths as parents, as they sank into the peculiar kind of grief that came from watching a child grow, knowing that with each breath time was passing, and their child was changing, never again to be what they once had been, every moment relegated to memory almost before they had a chance to savor it. It had been a long, long time since Dickie was as small as Noah was now; those days were gone, and there would be no going back. Olivia would know that sorrow, was probably already discovering it for herself as Noah began to walk, to talk, to change.

"You're bumming me out, Stabler," she said suddenly, shooting him a grin. It was hard to tell if that smile was sincere or not, if she really had forgiven him for his transgressions and was trying to soothe him, or if she was just acting, putting on a show, deflecting from the hard conversations the way she'd been taught to do.

"Sorry," he said. She was looking at him, now, and a lock of her hair had fallen over her eyes, and without thinking he reached out and brushed it back, felt her breath hitch when his fingertips danced lightly over her skin. Found himself wondering, yet again, when was the last time she'd been touched, who she'd let her touch her, if she wanted him to touch her again.

"I don't think you are sorry," she told him. "Not for any of it."

The thing was, she was right. He wasn't sorry for coming here tonight, and he wasn't sorry for kissing her, and he wasn't sorry for asking his questions, and he wasn't sorry for telling her the truth. There was not one single piece of regret in him, not really. He felt sorrow, on account of some of the things she'd told him, some of the things he'd confessed to her, but he wasn't sorry. Their stories weren't the happiest, but there was no changing that. They were who they were, Elliot and Olivia, and their griefs and their hurts had shaped them just as much as their victories and their joys. One could not be separated from the other.

"I'm not," he said.

"What do you want, Elliot?" she asked him then, dark eyes watching him warily.

That was the million dollar question. What did he want, really? Why had he come here? Why were his thoughts so consumed by her, and what did he want from her? What did he want to give to her? If it were up to him to decide the outcome of this acquaintance, what did he want?

"I want to kiss you again."

She was so close, and so beautiful, and his hands itched to reach for her, and his heart ached to hold her, and they had traveled so much ground together tonight but he wanted more. He wanted to taste her, one more time. He wanted to feel, just for a moment, like there was a chance for them. A chance for them to jump the tracks, to reroute the collision course their professions and their stations in society had set them on, and forge a different path. He wanted to hope.

"So do it, then," she said breathlessly, eyes flashing in the darkness, soft lips parting. The words were a challenge, there was no doubt about that; everything about her was a challenge. It was one he would take on without hesitation.

He reached for her, caught her face in his hands, and she wrapped her hands around his wrists, held him to her while he bowed his head, and captured her lips once more. This kiss was as sweet as the first had been, but he had been hesitant, at first, and he wasn't now. She'd told him to kiss her, and when he did her mouth had opened beneath his, and her fingers burned like fire against his skin, and she surged into him, holding nothing back. The life she'd lived had made a liar of her, but there was truth in that kiss, and he drank it down like wine.


The lights were on in the RV when he got home.

Olivia had sent him away, just like he'd always known she would, but she had been smiling when he left, and his heart had been lighter for having seen her, having talked to her, having broken down some of the walls between them. He'd been feeling almost happy, but when he came walking down the path to the RV and saw the lights his heart sank. Nothing good could come of that, and he knew it. Someone was there, or had been there, going through his things, maybe, waiting for him, maybe, and danger floated on the air, sharp and bitter.

He'd gone to Olivia's with a gun tucked in the back of his pants, and he pulled it as he approached the place he called home. There was no car sitting outside it, but that didn't mean much; it was a pain in the ass to drive down here. He'd taken the train back from Olivia's and finished the journey on foot; whoever had paid him a visit, they could have done the same, or taken a taxi, or parked their car a safe distance away.

As Elliot approached the door didn't swing open, no enemies spilling out, so he darted up the metal steps and swung the door open fast, entered the RV gun first, and found himself quite suddenly face to face with Reggie Bogdani.

"Jesus, Eddie!" Reggie yelped, holding his hands up and stumbling back from the door in alarm.

"What the fuck, Reggie?" Elliot grumbled, dropping his gun at once. "I coulda shot you."

" 's not my fault you weren't here," Reggie said. "I didn't wanna wait outside so I made myself at home."

There was a dent in the lumpy mattress like Reggie had been sitting there, and a can of beer was sweating on the countertop.

"I can see that. What's going on?"

"You weren't answering your phone. Where you been, man?"

"Out," Elliot said shortly. Sometimes the fact that Eddie Ashes was a bit of an asshole worked in his favor. "What's going on?" he asked again.

"Kosta called a meet. We gotta get down to the gym."

"What, now?"

A shiver of fear raced down his spine. It was late, and Kosta was supposed to be busy tonight. What would make him call in the boys on a Friday night when everybody was supposed to be enjoying themselves? Shit, what if he'd made Elliot for a cop?

"Some shit's about to go down," Reggie said darkly. "Manfredi Sinatra is dead."

In an instant all thoughts of Olivia and her kiss were forgotten. With Sinatra gone Richard Wheatley was the most likely to take over the Italian families, and there was every possibility that Wheatley had no intention of honoring his father's deal - whatever it was - with the Albanians. Kosta and Sinatra had been conspiring for months, and if Wheatley spurned them, it would be war.

And Elliot would be caught in the middle of it.