48 hours

Once again: I don't own anything related to these great shows LO:SVU and CI as well as CSI:NY. I just like to mess with the wonderful characters Mr. Wolf has created. Thanks for all the Law and Orders.

A/N: Thank you for your reviews, all of them. I didn't plan to do what I did with this chapter, but it turned out to be the best solution. So the 48th chapter will be the last chapter. Sorry for the wait, but I wanted to do the story justice with its final chapter. It's quite long, actually, because I didn't want to split it as that would have meant to have 49 chapters. LOL 48 chapters, though, doesn't that fit nice with the title? (especially as it happened completely unintentionally) LOL This story's development was surprising, even for me, and I love all your responses. Thanks again to all of you. Enjoy.

Special thanks to my beta-reader JO who was such a big help through about the good second half of the story. I think that the best sentence of this chapter is from her from when we were discussing it on messenger, but it broke my writer's block, so I owe one more thanks to her. :D Thanks, love! This chapter's for you.


O'Hara residence


As it had for the past several days, the morning started without the annoying beeps of an alarm clock. Kathy and Elliot were still on sick leave given recent events, so both awoke a little after eight to the whine of a child. Turning to the sound they found Lizzie squeezing in between them. She lay on top of the covers and was shivering even though it was not cold.

"Hey, sweetie," Kathy purred, nudging her daughter's shoulder. "Wake up, honey."

With dread Elliot noticed that Lizzie had been crying in her sleep. Seeing his kids cry always made his heart ache. He believed that he should protect them, keep them from harm, and he wanted them to be happy and safe. His stomach rumbled as he realized that he had failed her. He saw Lizzie sob softly in Kathy's arms now and slid out of the bed, feeling misplaced.

Elliot retreated to the bathroom and relieved himself. Astonished he noticed how sore he was. His ankle was just one example. When he got up he forgot his crutches beside the bed and halfway to the bathroom he did not want to return for them because he almost had reached his goal. Now he regretted it and had to sit down for a moment when he was done.

Well, this is embarrassing. I go from rocksolid cop to hobbling around like a cripple in two days and all it took was some prick with a gun and a grudge. I'm a mess.

After a moment he tried to collect himself and finish his morning toilet. Luckily he was not disturbed by anyone. He could hear steps and voices. Maybe they were using Rebecca and Jarod's bathroom at the other end of the hall. Taking a deep breath he tried to get finished. Shaving proved to be difficult as he could not look in the mirror. Each attempt took his breath away anew. It was mortifying.

Once more he raised his head to try and hold his gaze. The man staring at him out of the reflection was a stranger. Elliot did not recognize himself in this mirror image, but still this was the man he was now.

The man modeled by Barry.

Elliot loathed Mendoza. Whenever he thought of him he felt vulnerable and humiliated and furious with himself and with the bastard who did this to him. How did Mendoza get so much control over him? How could he allow it? Why did he not fight?

Kathy! The kids! I had to keep them safe! I could not fight!

He almost choked on that thought.

I'm not his toy anymore, he told himself. They are safe now. I can disobey him and I can find him. I can take him down and bring him to justice.

Steeling himself he put his toothbrush aside and left the bathroom. Elliot found the bedroom to be deserted. So he got dressed and went to go and search for his family, this time taking the crutches with him.

Hope I won't need them for too long. I wasn't under the impression that it was that bad, but then again it wouldn't hurt that much. Dammit.

From the stairs Elliot hobbled down the corridor and into the big kitchen. There they all gathered around the table which was laden with all kinds of food. Elliot saw toast, cream cheese and bagels, milk, cereals, orange juice, a bowl with scrambled eggs, honey, maple syrup, and Rebecca was at the stove, making pancakes.

"Who's supposed to eat all that?" Elliot said, surprised.

"You and your family, son," Jarod replied. "Come on, sit down. Have breakfast. Do you want some scrambled egg? I'm sure Reba could also make bacon."

"Thanks, Jarod, but I'm not hungry."

"You need to eat, Elliot," his father-in-law told him gently.

"Maybe later," Elliot said, trying to escape to the living room, but Jarod reached out and placed a hand on his arm. Before he knew what he was doing, Elliot jerked out of his grasp and pulled back his hand in a fist. Then seeing Jarod's shocked expression he looked around and saw looks of fear and concern on the faces of his wife and children. Unclenching his fist and flexing his fingers, he apologized.

"I... I'm sorry," he stammered, "just please... don't touch me. I never did like to be touched."

There was a tremor in his voice.

They all heard it, but only Kathy and Jarod reacted to it, throwing nervous glances at each other. Kathy certainly was the only one who could judge his actual distress over unwanted contact. She knew that Elliot was forced to obey Barry during the last two days and she knew that the men mistreated him both mentally and physically.

From the very first moment on, she realized. He came down for breakfast and was pushed to the ground at gunpoint. They were all over him, holding him, binding him. She had to swallow a sob and quickly got up to go and fry some bacon. She would make sure that Elliot would eat. She managed to get food into their kids, now she would do the same for her husband.

"Hey, that's mine!" Lizzie whined, reaching out for the bowl of cereal. There was only a little left and she already had taken the milk carton to pour it over the Fruit Loops. Now both Lizzie and her brother had grabbed the bowl from two sides.

"You didn't say that!" Dickie shouted, pulling on the bowl.

"I'm saying it now! Let go!"

"No. I want it!"

"I have the milk! Now give it to me!"

"Hey!" Elliot barked, silencing both twins. "Does anybody want cereal? Kathleen? Maureen?" He saw Kathleen nod tentatively. "Three, two, one… sold to Kathleen. Let go. And, Elizabeth, give her the milk."

Grumbling something under her breath and glaring at her brother Lizzie did as she was told. Her sister took the bowl a little hesitantly, but then she poured the milk and started to munch on the colorful wheat loops.

Kathy smiled to herself as the bacon sizzled in the pan. So the dad-mode still seems to work. I guess that's a good sign. For another moment she concentrated on the strips of meat on the stove before she heaved a sigh, switched the burner off and shoveled the bacon on an empty plate.

"Here, El," she said as she put it down in front of him. When he looked up at her to protest she gave him one of her best don't mess with me looks and he closed his mouth again before he could say anything.

Maureen chuckled.

Thankfully the others don't seem to have noticed anything, Elliot thought, but then a tiny smile played around his lips. Only Kathy can do that to me, he softly laughed inwardly.

"Dad? When do we have to be at the doctor's office?" Kathleen asked.

Shaken out of his thoughts Elliot was caught by surprise and had no idea what to reply. Once more Kathy saved him.

"We have our appointment at two p.m.," she said.

"Could we go into the city for a bit before?" Kathleen wanted to know. "Just stroll around a bit, go window shopping."

"Hmmm, what do you say, Maureen, Lizzie?" She also looked at Dickie, but knew that he would not fancy window shopping. Maybe she would be able to talk someone, preferably Elliot, into staying with the boy at a computer shop.

"Sounds good," Lizzie agreed and turned to her sister, giving her puppy dog eyes. "Maureen?"

"If you want to, sweetie," Maureen mumbled. Her gaze drifted to her father again. He did not look happy. Maureen did not really want to be among people and she imagined that the same applied to her dad. "But I'd rather stay home until we have to leave."

Her dad met her gaze, and she wasn't sure what she read there. Gratitude? Maybe mixed with a little fear?

"Me, too," Elliot said.

"Oh, Dad," Kathleen started to whine.

"Don't whine, Kat," Kathy interrupted her. "Your dad and sister don't have to go if they don't want to. We can all meet up at the doctor's office at two. Dickie, what do you want to do? Come into the city with us, or hang around here until you have to leave?"

"Well, since it's all girls, I guess I'll stay home," Dickie grumbled. "I don't want to spend my time looking at shoes and dresses."

"How about if I go along, sport?" Jarod offered. "We can hang out at a Best Buy or go to a video arcade or something while the girls do their thing."

Elliot hung his head miserably. He recognized Jarod's offer for exactly what it was, an attempt to fill in for him because he was too weak and afraid to be a good father to his son.

Feeling a little awkward because he could not judge his father's reaction but being excited with the thought of spending time alone with his grandpa Dickie told Jarod, "I'd like to go to a video arcade. And you'll buy us lunch, right? Big cheesy cheeseburgers and fries. Will you?"

Jarod just had to smirk when he heard his grandson's excitement.

"I think I know where we'll get some whoppers," he said.

"No whoppers," Dickie complained. "Wanna go to Mickey D's!"

"Okay, okay!" Defensively Jarod raised his hands and laughed.

During the whole exchange Elliot just sat there and stared at the tabletop. His stomach was rolling unpleasantly and he was acutely conscious of how miserable a dad he was.

Trying to save the situation Kathy asked, "So, is everybody finished?" She looked around and shooed the kids out, "Then you better get ready to leave. You'll stay, El."

Obediently he remained in place. His breakfast still sat untouched in front of him.

"You've got to eat," Kathy scolded gently as soon as their kids were out the door. "I know it's hard, but you can't heal if you don't get some proper nutrition. C'mon…"

"But I'm really not hungry," Elliot protested meekly.

"Tell that to your stomach," she remarked dryly, hearing it grumble audibly.

So Elliot reluctantly took some bacon. Without being asked Kathy put also scrambled egg and toast on his plate. Jarod passed him the butter and jelly. Once he got started he ate almost readily. He was hungry, he just felt too agitated to give in to his need.

"I still don't think that it's such a good idea to take the kids to town for a shopping trip," he grumbled between bites.

"You'd rather have them scared, sitting in their rooms, too afraid to come out?" Kathy asked. "I'm glad they asked. I'm not sure if I'll make it through the trip myself, but we have to do it. For them."

Elliot just sat there, shaking his head. The gesture could have been meant to indicate that he did not want to hear her or that he did not agree, but somehow, deep down, Kathy knew that he was still trying to deny that this whole horrible situation had actually come to pass. She looked over his head at her father and bit her lower lip.

"Kids are resilient, Elliot," Jarod said. "They need to move on. You can't keep them all locked up in the house all the time just because you're still afraid."

As soon as the words were out, Jarod wished he could call them back. He could tell by the way Elliot bowed his head that he interpreted them to mean Jarod thought he was a coward, not that he had a legitimate reason to still be fearful. Knowing there was no way to make things better, he still felt compelled to try.

"You need time," he said, gently clasping the younger man's shoulder, but he made no move to restore the contact when Elliot wound out of his grasp. "Just like the body, the older you are, the longer it takes your heart to recover from a beating. You will get through this, but only if you can let the people you love help you, and let go of your guilt about needing them."

Elliot snorted, but it did not sound amused.

Kathy's dad could easily take over Skoda's job, he thought miserably. It's mortifying to still have to see the doctor. He heaved a sigh. As embarrassing as it is… I still need him.

If it would not be for the kids' sake and his appointment later Elliot could have crawled back in bed. He was tired of it all, physically and mentally.


Dr. Emil Skoda's office


It would be so easy. The last days passed like in a haze. None of us felt like doing much but sleeping far into the late morning, just hanging around the house in our pajamas, watching movies, and playing video games. Could stay like that forever…

"So what are you trying to tell me, Elliot?" the psychiatrist asked, shaking him out of his reverie.

"I… don't even know," Elliot sighed and dropped heavily back in the chair making the leather creak. "It… it's just so… hard."

Skoda was glad that the detective had finally had stopped his pacing. At least for now.

"What do you mean with it, Elliot?"

Surprised Elliot frowned at his doctor. "You know what I mean."

"No, Elliot, I don't. Help me understand."

"Look, Doc, I don't know what you want from me."

"I want you to start talking, Elliot."

"But we're already talking." Elliot rubbed his temples. He started to get a headache.

"No, Elliot. We're both forming sentences but we're not talking with each other," Skoda said. For a moment he just sat and watched Elliot, but then he realized that waiting would not get him closer to getting his answers. "Please tell me about your family. How are your wife and children coping?"

Thoughtful silence filled the space between them. Elliot's face wrinkled up to an anxious expression when he remembered the morning's events.

"Better than I am, obviously," he grumbled.

"What gives you that impression?"

"The kids asked to go window shopping before their appointment with Dr. Olivet." Now he massaged his forehead. His headache became worse.

"What's wrong with that?" Skoda queried innocently.

Elliot's head shot up. He stared at the doctor with pure incredulity. How can he not know? Elliot wondered. Isn't it obvious what is wrong with that?

"They can't just… I mean… Shouldn't they…?" Elliot stumbled over his words.

"Shouldn't they what, Elliot?" Skoda pushed, keeping his voice low and unthreatening.

Biting his lower lip Elliot thought about that question.

"Shouldn't they be scared?"

"Yes!" it burst out of Elliot. "Yes, they should be freaked out of their minds! I can't believe that, that, that…"

In his agitation he tried to jump out of his chair, but slumped back down. He was breathing hard, gasping for air as his lungs were squeezed tight by anxiety.

"You think that they should be too afraid to go to town?"


"Too scared to go on with their lives?"


"Like you are?"


Too late Elliot realized what he had just said. He just had admitted that he was too fucking scared to go to town with his family. Too scared to even think about strolling through the crowds.

"How does that make you feel?" Skoda wanted to know.

"How do you think that makes me feel?" Elliot spat. He had not even noticed that his voice rose with every yes he threw at Skoda. Now he realized how loud and harsh he sounded.

"You tell me."

"Angry," Elliot said.


"Yes, angry."


"Yeah, angry!"

"It makes you furious."

"Mad as hell!"

"That's good." Skoda smiled. He had gotten Elliot out of his shell and that was a good sign.


"Yes, Elliot. It proves that you care. You want to protect your family, but you can't do that when you're not with them. And when you think of the reason why you can't be with them, it makes you angry."


Elliot's blue eyes sparkled with excitement. Actually he was surprised that he reacted so passionately.

"What would you like to do now, Elliot?"


Skoda had to suppress his chuckles. This was not the right time.

"You want to work?"

"Yes! We need to find those bastards. As long as their leader's not caught we simply can't feel safe! He could be back anytime! We can't let our guard down! I can't let my guard down. I have to make sure that he can't harm them!"

"What about your colleagues?"

"What about them?"

"Isn't it their job to catch the bad guy?" Skoda asked, innocence incarnate.

"It's my job to protect my family! I'm responsible for them!"

"You did protect them."

"No!" Elliot spat with such venom in his voice that Skoda was momentarily startled. "I failed them! I couldn't keep them safe! I let those men overpower me and hurt them! I'm useless! I'm a failure!"

We've been there before, Skoda thought, but did not reply at once.

"No, Elliot. You are not a failure."

"Yes, I am," he mumbled tonelessly. He slumped in the chair like a boneless heap of flesh. "I didn't do them any good."


Hesitantly he looked up at the psychiatrist.

"Elliot, what is the worst that could have happened?"

That was a hard question. Elliot needed a moment to collect his thoughts before he tried and forced the answer over his trembling lips.

"They'd be dead… k-killed by them."

"But that isn't what happened, right?"

Almost unnoticeable he nodded.

"Because you did what you did. You did what you did to make sure that you all survived. And it was the right thing to do. You have no reason to think so low of yourself."

"I was so damned scared."

Yes! Skoda's heart skipped a beat. He had not actually expected Elliot to admit to that.

"Is there any reason not to be scared when you're threatened with a gun?"

The way Skoda asked that question it sounded almost ridiculous and suddenly Elliot understood where he was going with their conversation.


Skoda smiled. This was an important admission.

A long way lay ahead of them and both knew that they had only taken the first step.


Slow progress was made from that day on. The whole Stabler family was in counseling and one day after the other it became better for all of them. The kids went back to school and Kathy and Elliot returned to work. Life became a daily routine again.

They were still living with Kathy's parents. Rebecca and Jarod tried to spoil them but more and more Kathy made clear that they should stop it. They had to settle back into their lives and could not do it if they were constantly cuddled by their relatives.

One thing that bothered them, but kept Elliot edgy, was that Enrique Mendoza was still free. While his colleagues quietly agreed that Mendoza had returned to Columbia Elliot was convinced that he still was close. His captor would not hide right in Manhattan, but he would not be too far away either.

Elliot could feel it.

As part of his therapy Elliot had visited their captors at Rikers. He had sat in the visiting room waiting for the first man to be brought in and was shivering, hard. But he shook only partly from cold, and he was also fidgeting, scooting in his chair from one side to the other, almost making it topple over. He felt a little nauseous, his chest tight with anxiety, struggling to breathe. Then when the guy had been brought in he stared at him with wonder. With his brown eyes, curly hair, and soft features, he looked more like a bewildered boy than a boogey man out of somebody's nightmare s. Once they ceased to be faceless enemies, they gradually faded from his dreams.

Alex Cabot prepared the trials and Elliot was relieved when she told him that they had enough evidence and that any testimony he, Kathy or the kids could give would just be the icing on the cake.

Elliot knew that he would be at court during all the trials. He had to witness them being sentenced and locked away for good. The only problem was that Pablo Mendoza was called as witness of the defense. So Elliot would have to face him at court and he had a strange feeling whenever he thought of that session.

And then on the day that Pablo was supposed to testify his transport from Rikers to court was ambushed. Heavily armed men freed the Columbian and vanished like phantoms.


O'Hara residence


Kathy did not know how often over the past few weeks she woke to hear someone crying or screaming. Since their rescue from Barry's men, she and Elliot could hardly sleep themselves, because their kids were startled out of nightmares and they had to go to comfort them.

They all had already had several sessions with Skoda and Olivet respectively and would continue to see them.

Kathy sighed. She was not fully awake and so she did not realize at once that this time the suppressed sobs and whimpers that had woken her were issued by the man right beside her.

"Elliot?" she asked, stunned.

She gently laid her hand on his shoulder and felt it quiver. His shirt was soaked with sweat.

"Elliot?" she queried more urgently, shaking him quite cautiously.

"Nooo…" he whined. "I… I'll do… d-don't…" His unconscious plea was drowned by sobs.

It broke Kathy's heart. Yes, Skoda had confirmed her suspicions that he would not recover from the events as fast as he seemed to do and that they would eventually catch up with him. He also had warned her that it might become quite ugly once Elliot's mind started to work things out. Still, it shook her to the core to hear him wail like that.

Shaking him just a little more she tried to wake him.


Still she could not wake him.

"Please, don't hurt them," he mumbled in his sleep, obviously trapped in a nightmare. "Please, I'll do…" Once more sobs extinguished his words.

"Oh, c'mon, Elliot," she urged him, prodding him as much as she dared to. "Please, honey, wake up."

But he was still fast asleep. Instead of waking he started to squirm, turning from his side on his back, tossing his head from side to side.

"No, don't!" he pleaded. "Please… no. No!"

His fist came up, accidentally punching her shoulder, when he tried to fend off an attacker.

"Elliot!" she insisted, now raising her voice, hoping that she would not wake the kids instead.

Suddenly his eyes flew open. His body froze. Staring right at the ceiling there was no recognition in the dark blue eyes. All Kathy could see in them was utter terror.

"Elliot! Sh… it's me, Kathy." She rubbed his shoulder and upper arm. With her other hand she stroked his hair, knowing that this gesture usually made him relax easily.

This time it did not work.

As suddenly as he had woken up, he screamed.

"Nooooo!" He started to wriggle away from her touch. "Not the kids! Please, not the kids! Please, please…. Nooooo."

His voice broke. Even as he stared right up to Kathy, he did not seem to recognize her.

"Easy, Elliot. Sh…" she murmured, grabbing for his flailing arms to gently bring them down beside his head on the pillow. "It's okay. We're safe, we're all safe… please talk with…"

She was taken aback as he started to cry, tears running like waterfalls over his cheeks and sobbing heartbreakingly. He grabbed her gown, staring at her pleadingly.

"I do… you know I will… please, don't hurt them… I know I'm pathetic… a pathetic failure… don't…"

Sobs shook his body.

Oh my God! Kathy tried consciously not to back off, as she realized that he took her for the man who had been holding them hostage. The man who terrorized him for two days… the guy who called himself Barry.

Her heart broke all over for him again. She had been so damned scared during those two days. Now she had to realize that he did not go through hell unscathed either. Of course she had seen his injuries. She had seen the pill bottles of the meds Skoda had prescribed him. But she realized only now how badly he actually was hurt.

Over the past few weeks, he had been what his kids expected him to be: steady as a rock. Yes, Kathy had wondered how much of his confidence was just a façade, but until now she could deceive herself. The sudden crash was even more frightening.

Even though, she thought fleetingly, it might be triggered by the escape of the other Mendoza.

Even as she had discussed with Skoda what she would have to do, she was at a loss.

Elliot let go of her and dropped back on the pillows. His face was contorted with mental agony and whimpers escaped him that got on her nerves. Still recovering herself she did not know if she could bear that but she was the only one who could right now.

"Elliot?" she gently asked. Tentatively she reached out to caress his cheek. "Elliot."

He leaned into her touch, but the agonized sounds did not cease. She had to think of something else to calm him down. Before she could consciously make a decision her mother instinct took over and she found herself cradling him in her arms where he wept inexorably to the sound of her voice humming a lullaby.


Special Victims Unit


It was getting late when Olivia returned to the squad room, but she had just one call to make and then she could go home. At least that was what she had thought right up until she entered the almost deserted bullpen. In shock she stared at the figure slumped over the desk opposite of hers.

"Elliot!" All thoughts of her case and her call flew from her mind as she gently took his shoulders and shook lightly. "Elliot, wake up."

He moaned and tried to turn away from her, almost slipping out of the chair. Olivia's heart ached for him. He had been back for a few days now, but for a while there, when he was on desk duty in the squad room, it was almost harder than if she would have lost him. It was like having a ghost sitting across from her. There was no spark, no fire. He almost seemed content to be her gofer, looking up addresses and chasing down files.

Regular office hours were over. He should not be here now.


Suddenly he bolted upright, his eyes wide, kicking, pushing… desperately trying to get away from her.

"Elliot, no! It's me, Olivia. Elliot, c'mon, calm down. Everything's okay."

For him that was idle talk. That she tried to grab him brought up memories of men, holding him down and tying him up or down to the floor. So he tried to defend himself against her and accidentally hit her chin, which made her back off.

Just slowly his breathing settled down and as he came back to his senses he recognized his partner.

"Oh, my God, Olivia. What have I done? I'm sorry, Liv. I'm so sorry."

"Don't worry, Elliot," she mumbled, rubbing her chin. "You didn't hit me too hard. It was more the shock of being hit. I'm alright."

"You're sure?"

He bent forward to her, trying to take a closer look while she sat on the edge of his desk. With both his hands he cupped her cheeks lightly, his thumbs brushing over the sensitive skin.

"I'm really sorry, Liv. Please forgive me." He could not stop apologizing to her. Over and over again he mumbled pleas that left her speechless and uncomfortable.

"Stop it, El!" Looking deep into his blue eyes she realized that he was still halfway trapped in his dream. It made him edgy and vulnerable and she was not sure how to react to him. "Stop!"

And he did stop. Her authoritative voice finally reached him, but she was not sure if she wanted to know what she did to him by handling him like this.

He calmed down a fraction, but it was enough for him to clearly see where he was and that it was his partner standing in front of him, not demanding anything from him.

"God, Liv, I'm sorry..."

"Stop apologizing!" she pleaded, hoping that she could transport her caring for him with her tone. "You don't have to apologize to me. You don't owe me anything..."

"That's not true," he whined. "You saved them. You did... when I couldn't." A tear ran down his cheek.

Is he still trapped in his memories? she wondered. Or is he convinced that I want to hear that... have to hear that?

"I just did what I was trained for, I did my job." Olivia put all the strength she could muster into her voice. The sight of him made her stomach knot. "You did so much more than that. You protected your family. You went through hell for them and came..."

"I failed you..." he mumbled barely audible. "I lied at court. I'm a damned failure. I failed..."

"Stop that!" Olivia insisted. "Stop, El! You didn't fail anybody. You did the only thing that actually counted. No one can be mad at you because you lied to keep your family from being harmed." He remained silent and she took that as small victory. "Speaking of your family... why are you here and not with them?"

He let go of her and sank back in his chair. It rolled a bit backwards. For a while he just stared at her, then he lowered his gaze.

"I had an appointment with Skoda. When we were finished I came back and filled out some forms for Cragen," he finally answered. "And then I got... kind of... stuck here."

"You got stuck?" Olivia had to suppress a chuckle, but could not keep the smile from her lips.

"You were asleep when I came back... did nobody get you up when the others left?"

He bit his lower lip, thoughtfully but also a bit embarrassed. "I went to the restroom when Cragen was about to leave."


"And then I came back here..."

"Okay... Why?"

He swallowed. Then he grimaced, bit his lip again. "I... I couldn't..."

Couldn't what? she thought, but did not dare to ask. She was afraid to possibly push too much. He looked tired, exhausted to be exact. She could imagine that he was on the edge. He had not only himself to deal with but also his wife and kids. She doubted any of them were sleeping very well.

She waited patiently for him to continue.

"I couldn't drive back," he whispered. "I just... could not..."

This time she had to ask, "Why?"

His breathing became strained. His eyes were downcast, his lip quivering. Then she noticed that his hands were slightly shaking, too. Maybe he meant it just like he said it.

"I... could have taken the meds Skoda prescribed for me, but... I believe they're just a last resort. They help but… they leave me too… wiped out to function." He struggled for words to express his feelings. "I… don't want that. I need to… to be alert. So I… I thought I would... try to control it on my own..."

Obviously that didn't work, Olivia thought. Her heart broke for him as she recognized that he just was not able to drive home.

"You can hardly see straight, right?" she gently asked. "Did you sleep at all?"

"Not very much," he mumbled, actually sounding meek. "The kids don't sleep either, and when they are sleeping I have nightmares..."

He fell silent and Olivia was surprised that he had already told her so much. "Did you talk with Skoda about it?"

"Yeah," he snorted. "I did... that's why he gave me these pills." Once more he was chewing on his lower lip. "I managed to get here but I couldn't drive back once I finished the forms... I just..."

"Couldn't," she finished for him. "Why didn't you lay down in the crib?" Olivia saw fresh tears brim in his eyes. "What? What's wrong?"

"I wanted to go home."

Yeah, sure you do. Olivia swallowed dryly. The simple statement was painful to hear.

"It's okay that her parents offered us their house. I'm glad that we can stay there. It's good for the kids and Kathy and..."

"For you, too?"

"Hmm... maybe. I can't sleep anywhere. Not after Pablo Mendoza is out, too." He snorted. "Not that I slept well before, but… I just... I..." He could not put in words what bothered him. "Before I came here I was at the house," he said.

Olivia's heart began to beat faster. Did he just say that he had been at home? She waited, not wanting to interrupt.

"It's so... I don't know... it's... empty. None of us has been there since. Kathy's Mom got us our things." Once more he had to stop. It was emotionally exhausting to talk, but he wanted and had to talk now. Maybe something would happen now... during his talk with Skoda certainly nothing had happened. "I was in the living room."

And? Olivia was on tenterhooks. Whatever he wanted to tell her, it was torturing him. But she did not want to risk that he stopped talking if she tried to push or direct the conversation. He knew the game, he would tell her when he was ready.

"I was in the bedroom, too."

Olivia raised one eyebrow. He actually went up to the bedroom? He's braver than I'd have expected right at this moment. But obviously he doesn't think of himself as brave at all.

"That was when I puked."

Has he really said something? she wondered because it came so low over his lips. Yes, he has. Olivia smiled to herself. She had the strong suspicion that, being in his position, she might have puked before she even got into the house.

"That's alright," she said and suppressed a chuckle when he looked up at her in disbelief. "It's okay that you puked."

"No, it's not," he mumbled meekly. "It's a sign of weakness. I'm weak."

"You're not weak," she contradicted him. "You're not weak at all. You endured two days of physical and emotional abuse and did not break... you're the strongest man I have ever met."

"No, I'm not," he said, sounding absolutely honest. "I'm weak… and I'm a failure."

Olivia was taken aback. She could have smacked him for that comment, but she saw that he already was hurting. She took his hands and felt them shake. They shook from sheer exhaustion. She suspected that it came not only from the two days Mendoza had held him captive but also from the days following. Maybe even memories of his childhood mingled with the latest events… and it just was too much for him. If she could only see a way to convince him…

"Elliot?" Tears glistened in his eyes. He just could not control it anymore.

"I don't know what I should do," he said. "It's… I don't know… it's…"

"It's all crashing down on you?" she tried to help him out. "You were supposed to protect Kathy and the kids and you did. You stepped on the stand and told the truth. You didn't let yourself get broken by constant abuse. And now that you're all home with Kathy's parents, everyone still expects you to be solid as a rock in the wake of what has happened to you and your family because you're a cop. Everyone expects you to be strong… when you need some rest… to heal yourself."

Her voice was gentle, just pushing a little, but she did not know if her words had the desired effect until she saw his expression change just before he hid his face in his hands and slumped in the chair. So Olivia took him by the shoulders and pulled him into her embrace. She felt him shudder as tremor after tremor passed his body.

There was no other choice... somehow she had to get him to the crib. But as he still was shaking uncontrollably in her arms she did not know how to manage that task. That was when the phone on his desk rang. She raised her head and stared at it. Should she answer it or not? She decided to take the call.

"Special Vict... Kathy!" She was honestly surprised for a few seconds until she felt a sting in her back because his arms wrapped so tightly around her. "Yes, Kathy, he's here. He can't drive, he's totally..." Kathy barely left her time to answer anything. "I don't know if that's a good idea," Olivia said when Kathy suggested her to take him home with her. "And I honestly don't know how to get him there, either. I'm lucky if I can get him to the crib."

She listened for a moment. Kathy told her how she had feared that he might do something stupid. She knew that he was under one hell of a lot of stress, but could not reach him to take it away. "I know he's talking with Dr. Skoda," Kathy said. "But I can sense that it doesn't help much. He's slipping away, Olivia. I don't know how to hold him."

Olivia just listened to what Kathy had to tell her. Finally she promised to look out for him and ended the call.

"Elliot?" Olivia backed off a bit and gently took his chin in her left hand, just with the fingertips. Still Elliot flinched back from her. "Hey, it's okay, Elliot. It's just me."

But he looked at her out of frightful widened eyes.

Wow, she thought. If he doesn't have post traumatic stress syndrome I don't know who has. Her heart ached for him. She did not want to put pressure on him, but she needed him to stand up and go to the crib with her. "C'mon, Elliot. Let's go to sleep. Okay?" His skeptical look amused her. "That was Kathy on the phone. She said it's okay if you stay. You should just get some rest."

"She's not angry?" he asked incredulously.

"No, Elliot. She's just worried. She said that she knows how exhausted you are and that you should not drive in this condition. So I can either take you home to her parents or I can get you to the crib here. Your choice."

He thought for a moment, biting his lower lip again. The uncertainty on his face was heartbreaking.

"I just want to sleep... to be able to sleep. No matter where," he finally answered tonelessly.

Olivia nodded her understanding and slid from the edge of the desk. "Okay, let's go." She expected him to follow her, but he remained sitting. When she looked back at him, the blue eyes were burning.

"Thank you, Liv," he said with a passion she would not have suspected. "Will you stay?"

She had not thought about that yet. To weigh the pros and cons did not take long. For his sake she would stay. Well, the beds in the crib were not that bad after all.

"Okay," she agreed.

He swallowed. His features mirrored uncertainty.

"What is it?" she demanded to know and patiently waited for an answer.

When he just remained silent, she walked the few steps back to him and squatted down in front of his chair. When she put her hands on his forearms comfortingly new shudders passed him as memories rose and panic tried to get a hold of him.

"Ssshhh," Olivia tried to soothe him. "It's okay. You're safe here..."

"How I wish I were," he whispered, so low that she almost missed it.

"Of course you're safe. We're at the precinct, remember. Lots of cops here. And I'm here, too. So just let go. You can let go, okay. No one can get to you here."

"He will..."

What? This time Olivia could not catch it.

Elliot held his eyes closed, but she could tell by his breathing and the creased forehead that he became agitated. The pulse in his wrist was thumping against her hand.

"Stay with me..." he pleaded.

"I will, Elliot," she replied. Then she could not withstand. "What did you say earlier?" With strong pounding heart she waited for him to answer.

"He will come back," Elliot said meekly. "He's still on the loose and as long as he's not caught, he can be back anytime."

Slowly it dawned on Olivia what was really causing the enormous stress. He could not feel safe because Enrique Mendoza had not been arrested. Elliot was afraid that he could gather new men around himself and come back to finish what he had started.

Elliot still was trapped in protector mode, ready to fight for his family. He just could not let go and take the chance to relax.

"Every cop in New York knows Enrique Mendoza," she said, taking his hand. It was wet with cold sweat. "He can't risk showing his face. Getting arrested would be the least of his worries."

No reaction. Elliot just sat and let her talk. He was too busy being scared to really listen to her.

"I'm right here with you. If Mendoza really should manage to walk through a building filled with cops to try and get to you, I'll shoot him personally."

"My family. They're alone at home."

"You know that there's a guard. And a patrol car is passing every thirty minutes."

Hmmmm... maybe he should take one of Skoda's pills, she wondered. Maybe it could help him to relax. On the other hand she mused if it was not better to try again without any drug.

"That's not enough," he whined. "He'll get to them... and I'll lose them."

Olivia did not know what to answer. Obviously he did not buy her relaxed manner.

"He told me on the phone, when he called here..."

Olivia froze, chills shooting over her back. That was days, no, weeks ago. So far no one could get out of Elliot what Mendoza had said that had upset him so much.

"He… he said… he'd come and take my family away from me. He'd kill them and leave me crippled. There wouldn't be anything I could do."

Oh, my God! Olivia shuddered involuntarily and hoped that he would not notice it. She had to be strong for him now. For a moment she just squatted there, rubbing his forearms soothingly and hoping that he would not break down completely.

And that was the moment Huang walked in with the little girl. Fin was behind them.

I forgot to call! Olivia realized. Shit!

For most of the day, she and Fin had been working together on a case of child abuse. About an hour ago, she had returned to the precinct after discussing it with Alex and found Fin watching Huang work with the child.

They had found the little girl abandoned at a bus stop, wearing no socks, shoes, or panties under her thin cotton dress. A medical exam had brought to light evidence of physical and sexual abuse, but she was so withdrawn none of them could get through to her so far. So they had no clue who she was and were still trying to get her to talk.

For all of her warmth and compassion, Olivia could not get a word out of the child. John's straight talk was ignored, and Fin's cool act made her withdraw even more. Cragen's comforting grandfatherly presence made her hide her face in the sofa cushions, and shortly after Liv had come back from briefing Alex, Huang had given up on play and art therapy.

Finally agreeing that they weren't going to get anywhere with the still-nameless child until she had some time to feel safe with a foster family, they decided to call in a social worker who would take her to the emergency shelter where she would stay until they could place her in a real home. Olivia had volunteered to make the call, and that was what she had been intending to do right up until she had been distracted by Elliot.

"Is the social worker on the way?" Huang asked.

"No, I'm sorry. I still need to call…"

"I got it," Fin said obligingly as he warded off her apology with a wave of his hand. He picked up his phone, deliberately ignoring Elliot so that his colleague did not feel watched or, even worse, judged.

"Everything okay?" Huang asked.

"Yeah, thanks," Elliot growled, turning to his desk. You ask just one more time and you can pick up your teeth next.

Momentarily unnoticed by the adults the little girl walked over to the chair at the bottom of the steps that was piled with toys and took out a small soft bear. Carrying it by the ear, she wandered over to the desk where Elliot now sat staring absently into space and presented it to him unceremoniously.

His eyes focused on her, and in that moment something stirred in him. He got lost in her big brown eyes that looked up at him so brokenly and their souls recognized each other. She climbed into his lap with no invitation and Elliot helped her settle herself. Seeing a picture of Dickie on his desk, she poked a delicate little finger at it and said, "I have a brother. Mommy killed him."

Silence fell over the squad room. Shocked by the girl's words Olivia, Fin and Huang stared at her and Elliot, fighting for their composure, while the girl snuggled up to Elliot and buried her head in the crook of his neck. Wordlessly the detective wrapped his arms around her and got up, carrying her up the stairs to the lounge where he sat down on the sofa. For a while she sat there on his lap before she started to talk again. Their conversation went on for hours, the little girl cuddling in Elliot's lap and recounting a horror-tale of physical abuse at the hands of her mother and sexual abuse from her mother's many boyfriends. Up in the lounge they did not notice that other detectives arrived at the bullpen, the usual buzzing setting in again as they came and went. Olivia just sat in an easy chair, taking notes as the girl talked quietly to her partner. Several times she saw the glint of tears in Elliot's eyes, but he never shied from the questions he knew he had to ask. Except for one.

"Wh-Where's your daddy?" he asked, stammering only slightly.

"In jail."

"Do you know why?"

"He tried to take me from Mommy when the judge said I had to live with her."

"D-do you ever hear from him?"

"No. Mommy says he forgot about me, but I think she's lying."

"Why's that?"

"'Cause he promised he'd always keep me safe."

Olivia felt her heart constrict when she looked at her partner's face. She wasn't sure what emotion she read there, and before she could think of what to say or do, Elliot had asked another, horrifying question.

"I guess it hurts that he let you down, huh?"

"Not really," Tricia said sweetly. "I know he did his best. I know he loves me. He'll come save me as soon as he can."

Of course, that was the end of the interview for a while. Tricia just cuddled up against Elliot's chest and fell asleep. The detective sat there, smiling sweetly, tears streaming down his face unheeded. Her simple, guileless answer had given him the absolution he had been needing. From that moment on he could feel it again, the confidence and determination he needed not only for his job but also, and especially, for caring for his family.

Suddenly Elliot yawned widely. The adrenaline that started to shoot into his body when Tricia told him about her brother Nicholas wore off and his overfatigue caught up with him. Still holding the girl in his arms he settled back in the sofa and a moment later he was fast asleep.

Olivia smiled at the scene warmly. She could see her partner like this with his own kids.

I think he's ready to come back, she thought. I've seen it in his eyes. Now Skoda has to clear him.

She put her notepad and pen on the table and leaned back, watching Elliot and Tricia sleep. It was such a peaceful sight that it made her doze off, too.


In the night a CSU team had searched the streets around Patricia McMillan's apartment. As Tricia had told Elliot they found Nicholas in a dumpster, carelessly thrown away like a broken toy. In the morning the ME called to inform SVU that the latter was not totally wrong. The boy also had a long history of physical abuse.

Now Elliot and Olivia, accompanied by uniformed officers, went to the apartment where Tricia had been living with her mother and brother. They rang the door bell and waited.

"Patricia McMillan?" Elliot asked when a tall brunette in a light satin robe, black with Asian style print, opened the door.

"Yes… And you are?"

"Detective Elliot Stabler, my partner, Detective Benson," he introduced them.

"Did you find her, Detectives?" Mrs. McMillan said excitedly. "Did you find Tricia?

"You could stand back," Elliot suggested, stepping forward and urging her to step aside and let everyone pass.

"I don't understand!" she protested. "You have no right to just barge into my apartment and…!"

"We have every right, Ma'am," Elliot replied and produced two folded papers. "Search and arrest warrant."

"You're kidding, right?"

"No, I'm not kidding," Elliot growled. "Patricia McMillan, you are under arrest for the murder of Nicholas McMillan. You have the right to remain silent. If you give up this right, anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney present during questioning. If you can't afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand these rights as I have given them to you?"

"I want to call my lawyer."

"Sure. At the precinct you'll have the opportunity to call. Please turn around."

Olivia eyed Elliot furtively. Is that a glint of satisfaction in his eyes? Her heart beat faster. This looked like Elliot. This felt like Elliot. This was her partner being back on the job.

The tiniest of smiles ghosted over his features as he snapped his handcuffs around Patricia McMillan's wrists. Then two officers took her away.

Together with CSU they searched the apartment. Both SVU detectives had often seen bad living conditions at the homes of abuse victims. They had seen tidy apartments with children's rooms that were nothing but a dirty cell with just a bare mattress as the only furniture. The most disturbing were the cases when they encountered seemingly perfect families, and the lack of neglect displayed here at Patricia McMillan's home made the horror of what this woman did to her own daughter even worse.

After the search Elliot and Olivia were about to return to the precinct and went to get their car.

"It may sound weird right now, given the circumstances, but I missed that," Elliot said as they strolled down the pavement.

"I know what you mean, Elliot, and it doesn't sound weird to me." Olivia smiled at him and added in thoughts, And I missed you, partner. It was so good to have him back at her side.

"It felt so… good to shove her aside, to put her in her place. It was… hm, I don't know, it was…"

"Satisfactory," Olivia offered readily.

"Yeah," he admitted. It sounded a little insecure and the look on his face when she glanced at him testified to his discomfort at feeling like he did.

"The princess on the pea looked as if she wanted to pout because we took away her favorite toy," Olivia said and held her breath, waiting for his reaction.

"She'll have enough time to pout when she's grounded for the next… let's say twenty years in a prison cell."

Elliot grinned and Olivia thought her heart would explode with joy.

"How about Chinese?" Elliot suddenly asked. "I'll pay."

"Sounds wonderful. Egg roll, duck Szechuan and baked bananas with honey. Yummy!"

Her sudden excitement made him laugh and his blue eyes sparkle.

Oh, how long it's been since I've seen them sparkle like that, Olivia thought. It makes me so happy to see him that relaxed. I just want to hug him.

"I didn't say anything about spending a week's worth of my salary on your meal alone," Elliot teased.

"You need to talk, Mr. Glutton. Together with your order you'll spend more than a month's worth."

Both were laughing good-naturedly about their banter. It felt so natural joking around after a successful arrest. Walking around the next corner Elliot froze. His gaze was fixed on their dark Crown Victoria and his breath caught in his chest.

Olivia could see the terror written on his face. His eyes were wide, his lips trembling with anxiety and fine beads of sweat formed on his forehead. One hand automatically went up to massage the spot on his chest where his neck started. A vein was pulsing visibly in his neck and Olivia was certain that his blood pressure went through the roof.

Then he tumbled aside toward a dumpster and was sick. Olivia followed him and gently rubbed his back until he collected himself.

Unsteadily his gaze returned to his car, taking in again the sight that had shaken him so badly.

On the driver's side something was sprawled over the hood, something light brown and bloody at the thicker end, on the thinner end a cloven hoof. The hairs on the skin were short and bristly, but soft when you let your hand run over it in the right direction.

But what had upset Elliot, as Olivia knew for sure, was the dark mark on the thick end of the calf's leg: the Mendoza family brand.

The End

A/N: There it is, The End. Still feels odd. The End. Hmmm… Anyway, it IS the end of this story. I'm so glad that you stuck with the story through all those chapters. Now that we have reached the end I would love to get your feedback. C'mon! LOL At least 1 review for 48 chapters… I know you can do it if you want to. :D LOL Thanks to all of you who reviewed, put the story or me on your alert or favorites list and had as much fun reading as I had writing. And special thanks to my faithful beta reader JO.