Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Countless Hatreds Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 1. Countless Hatreds Chapter 2: Mother's Milk Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 2. Mother's Milk Chapter 3: Creep Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 3. Creep Chapter 4: Exit Light, Enter Night Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 4. Exit Light, Enter Night Chapter 5: A Wartime Novelty Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 5. A Wartime Novelty Chapter 6: Run Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 6. Run Chapter 7: Bespoke Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 7. Bespoke Chapter 8: Make America Great Again Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 8. Make America Great Again Chapter 9: Prayers to St. Jude Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 9. Prayers to St. Jude Chapter 10: The Weight of the Soul Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 10. The Weight of the Soul Chapter 11: Watcher Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 11. Watcher Chapter 12: The Jackal Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 12. The Jackal Chapter 13: Tilt Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 12b. Tilt Chapter 14: F5 Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 14. F5 Chapter 15: Funny Games Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 15. Funny Games Chapter 16: Once Upon a Dream Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 16. Once Upon a Dream Chapter 17: Hello From the Other Side Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 17. Hello From the Other Side Chapter 18: The Sixth Man Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 18. The Sixth Man Chapter 19: Karma Is a Cat Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 19. Karma Is a Cat Chapter 20: This Woman's Work Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 20. This Woman's Work Chapter 21: Talking to Ghosts Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 21. Talking to Ghosts Chapter 22: Autopsy of the Living Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 22. Autopsy of the Living Chapter 23: Come Little Children Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 23. Come Little Children Chapter 24: All the Pretty Little Horses Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 24. All the Pretty Little Horses Chapter 25: Mother of a Monster Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 25. Mother of a Monster Chapter 26: The Arc of the Moral Universe Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 26. The Arc of the Moral Universe Chapter 27: Ouroboros Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 27. Ouroboros Chapter 28: Blood Moon Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 28. Blood Moon Chapter 29: The Killer in Me Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 29. The Killer in Me Chapter 30: Labyrinth Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 30. Labyrinth Chapter 31: The Body Electric Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 31. The Body Electric Chapter 32: Refrain Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 32. Refrain Chapter 33: Slow Dying Flower Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 33. Slow Dying Flower Chapter 34: Two Lies and a Truth Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 34. Two Lies and a Truth Chapter 35: A Fine Line Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 35. A Fine Line Chapter 36: Lyin' Eyes Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 36. Lyin' Eyes Chapter 37: Wayward Heart Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 37. Wayward Heart Chapter 38: Sad Love Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 38. Sad Love Chapter 39: The Rose Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 39. The Rose Chapter 40: Served Cold Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 40. Served Cold Chapter 41: Operation Fix Mommy Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 41. Operation Fix Mommy Chapter 42: Between the Crosses Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 42. Between the Crosses Chapter 43: Cat & Mouse Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 43. Cat & Mouse Chapter 44: Death in Small Doses Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 44. Death in Small Doses Chapter 45: The Prison of My Mind Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 45. The Prison of My Mind Chapter 46: Sins of the Mother Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 46. Sins of the Mother Chapter 47: Tinderbox Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 47. Tinderbox Chapter 48: An Ocean of Noise Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 48. An Ocean of Noise Chapter 49: Devil Inside Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 49. Devil Inside Chapter 50: Kiss from a Rose Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 50. Kiss from a Rose Chapter 51: Solace Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 51. Solace Chapter 52: Green Light Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 52. Green Light Chapter 53: Sweet Nothing Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 53. Sweet Nothing Chapter 54: Pink Clouds Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 54. Pink Clouds Chapter 55: The Devil's Belt Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 55. The Devil's Belt Chapter 56: A Time to Heal Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 56. A Time to Heal Chapter 57: Church Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 57. Church Chapter 58: The End of the World Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 58. The End of the World Chapter 59: Penny Lane Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 59. Penny Lane Chapter 60: What Was I Made For? Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 60. What Was I Made For? Chapter 61: My Heart, a Gun Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 61. My Heart, a Gun Chapter 62: Captain's Requiem Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 62. Captain's Requiem Chapter 63: Say Anything Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 63. Say Anything A Hell Hath No Fury Playlist Chapter 64: Bittersweet Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 64. Bittersweet Chapter 65: Peace Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 65. Peace Chapter 66: Epilogue: No Less Days Notes: Chapter Text Epilogue. No Less Days

Chapter 1: Countless Hatreds

Notes:

Hello, all. So, here it is, three years in the making: the long fic I've been talking about for, well, the past three years. I fully intended to start posting it on Petska's anniversary, but that got bumped to Labor Day, then that got bumped to Labor Day week, and now we're here on Sep. 11, which is kinda weird.. but I've finally got some free time. I was waiting for it to feel momentous when I started posting; now I think I just need to dive right in, because no perfect moment is magically going to appear.

Anyway. It's impossible to sum up this amount of work in a single author's note, so here's a quick rundown: the grand total is 424,966 words (give or take as I edit—shout out to myself for being my own beta!). 966 words longer than the longest Game of Thrones novel, for comparison purposes. That's about 792 pages in Google Docs, and it's such a large chunk of writing, I haven't even attempted to split it all into parts and/or chapters, let alone titles and stuff, yet. I'm going to have to work as I go on that, which also means I have no idea what the posting schedule will be like, but I will try really hard to keep updates coming steadily.

I got a little crazy on the cover art and made four. I guess you could say the one I'm including at the top here is the "official" cover; however, I love the other three a lot and they're included at the bottom of this chapter, for your viewing pleasure. Also, here's your fair warning—this story has trigger warnings out the wazoo. It gets dark, people. Darker than any of my other Devilishverse fics. And it's graphic. If you can't handle brutal depictions of rape/violence/torture, I'd advise you to turn back now. It's not going to be in every chapter, and I will include individual warnings as I post, so you can skip if you need to, but just know it's coming. There is plenty of hurt/comfort, though, if you're into that. Oh, and there's multiple points-of-view throughout, too. Don't worry, I always come back to our girls.

Okay, I think I've said all I can say at this point, except... hold onto your butts, it's about to get wild.

P.S. It's good to know your SVU series' lore for this one. Several past characters, including ones we haven't seen or heard from on the show in a while, will be making appearances. And keep in mind that I started writing this three years ago, so characters who were on the show then will be mentioned in the early chapters, but I tried to reflect some of the changes to the cast as I went.

Chapter Text

Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (1)

Chapter 1.

Countless Hatreds

. . .

Two pictures were what kept her going. They were allowed more, up to fifteen as long as each arrived individually and was not p*rnographic in nature, and most women in this sh*thole used every inch of the twelve-by-twenty wall space allotted them for personal decoration.

Some of the lifers had weaseled more square footage from the guards, constructing wall to wall collages on the scuzzy white brick alongside their bunks, as if they were goddamn Martha Stewart. As if any of the people in those photographs, or any of the children who sent those ill-proportioned drawings and scribbled coloring book pages, actually still cared.

Her old celly hadn't received a single letter or school photo the entire time she was incarcerated, and when she made the mistake of commenting on the blonde in the newspaper clipping ("So, which one's your ho? The snow bunny or the MILF?"), it was her final query. Sondra Vaughn got an extra three years tacked onto her twelve-year sentence for that assault, but it had been worth it, to see the fat, pasty bitch's eyes bug out when the shiv entered her spare-tire abdomen, smooth as butter.

What she didn't enjoy was the mess. It might sound cliché, but she didn't like getting blood on her hands—until this place, until Sealview Women's Correctional Facility, she had almost exclusively gotten others to do her dirty work for her. Anton had called her his curly-haired jackal, a sly comparison to the scavengers that waited for larger, stronger predators to make a kill before claiming the prey for themselves. He'd meant it as a compliment, murmuring the nickname the way most men called their lovers "sweetheart" or "dearest," lips stretched into one of his rare, simpering smiles that looked too tight for his gaunt face. No doubt he had a few more choice names for her after she turned state's evidence against him eight years ago, in exchange for a reduced sentence.

It wasn't personal. Sondra had needed to ensure she'd be out of prison in time to raise their little girl, their Nessa. The baby who had been taken from her arms minutes after she was born, never getting to nurse at her mother's breast, nor be rocked to sleep with the lullabies Sondra knew by heart and sang quite well. Her first weeks in Sealview were spent cradling her pillow like an infant as she wetted it with tears and hummed "Hush, Little Baby."

Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird . . .

She'd been luckier than most. When they got out, half the women in here would be battling the courts, and siphoning thousands of dollars straight into their lawyers' pockets, to regain custody of their children. Baby Vanessa had gone to Sondra's brother out in Long Island, instead of getting lost and abused in the foster system. There were regular updates on her progress, during visiting days and over the phone; Sondra had missed her daughter's first words, first steps, first day of school, but she'd spoken to the child often, written to her with even more frequency.

On Nessa's sixth birthday, Sondra snuck her contraband cell phone into a bathroom stall and feigned the stomach flu, giggling between retches as she scrolled the photos her big brother texted from the princess-themed party. Pink everything. Nessa dressed as her very favorite princess, Moana. Uncle Royce the perfect Maui with his lion's mane of dark curls that rivaled even Sondra's itself. Other than Sondra's absence, it had been the best party a mother could wish for her child.

Two weeks later, Nessa and Royce were dead. A drunk driver, Sondra's sister-in-law relayed over the direct connect phone, her sobs and tearful voice disjointed from the crying woman on the other side of the glass partition. Sondra never much liked Denise, and she hated the sniveling cow even more after listening to her whine about her dead husband and sweet baby girl.

"It should have been you," Sondra told her quietly, before hanging up the handset and walking away.

She had stabbed her cell mate later that evening and gotten transferred to D Block ("Wonder how many of 'em actually like the 'D,'" an A-blocker had once commented, apropos of nothing, when the segregated group filed by on the opposite side of the barbed wire fence), with the other inmates too dangerous for gen pop. That was where the two photos resided by her bunk. And that was where she decided that Detective Amanda Rollins needed to suffer.

The little trailer trash slu*t was going to burn.

Declan Murphy, the man Sondra had hired and known as O'Rourke, was just as much to blame as the Rollins bitch, but no matter how far Sondra's feelers stretched beyond the prison walls, she could not locate the Mick bastard. One day he would return from dicking around with other people's lives undercover, and when he did, she would be waiting for him.

Until then, she was content to focus all her energy and her resources—which were considerable, despite (and, in some ways, because of) her location—on the blond whor* who once pointed a gun at her pregnant belly. Sondra had been good to the detective, acting as a mentor of sorts and going along with that female camaraderie bullsh*t, partly because Amanda had shown real promise. And how did the stringy-haired, skinny-ass bitch repay her? By threatening what Sondra held most dear. By ripping it away from her. And now Vanessa was dead; little Nessa, whose first laugh Sondra never got to hear, whose wedding she would never get to attend. Amanda might as well have pulled the trigger that day, eight years ago. She had killed Nessa all the same.

As Sondra finished giving Parker his complimentary handjob, she gazed over his hunched shoulder at the pictures on the wall: one of Nessa shortly before her death, wearing a felt cowgirl hat, red rain boots, and a tutu, and showing off her missing bottom tooth; the other a wedding announcement clipped from the newspaper, two women embracing in the grainy image above the legend Rollins-Benson.

She had the article memorized, from the names of the brides' parents (Captain Olivia Benson must have sprung immaculately from the womb like Jesus Christ himself, because no father was mentioned) to the church, Convent Avenue Baptist, where Reverend Lynn Bishop officiated.

That had struck Sondra as funny—a Baptist church named Convent, with a reverend named Bishop—but only the first few times she read it. Throw in a yarmulke, make sure you were facing Mecca, and you had yourself one helluva holy mulligan stew at the Rollins-Benson wedding.

Sondra recited the lines of the announcement silently to herself as CO Parker ejacul*ted in her hands. His come reminded her of bird sh*t, always warm and runny and distributed with total impunity. Didn't smell much better, either. She kept a towel handy for these very encounters, and she swiped her palms against it now, in full view of her jailhouse lothario. There wasn't a sensitive bone in his big, Neanderthal body, unless you counted his brain—and that was just weak, not in tune with his or anyone else's emotional state.

That was fine with Sondra. She didn't have a heart left to involve, let alone damage. They had buried her heart in the ground two years ago. "So much for being discreet," she said, corkscrewing the gunk from between her fingers with the towel, as if she were polishing the inside of a wine glass. Strange the things you missed in prison. She would have gotten on her knees for Matthew Parker just for the chance to unload a dishwasher, to sip a Chardonnay. "Warden catches you in here, you'll be out on your ass. Then we'll both be f*cked."

"Nah. Warden Young loves me." Parker flashed his sleazy grin that always looked like he was chewing gum with his mouth open—something banal and flavorless, Doublemint or Dentyne—even when he wasn't. Jesus, even the way he zipped his sh*t-brown pants and rebuckled his belt was disgusting. "He'll turn a blind eye. It was Barron I had to watch out for. She had a great big woody for me, Old Battleaxe Barron did. I could barely get any product past that tight-ass bitch, let alone a good beat off from one of my girls. She cracked down real hard after that business with my buddy Harris. Glad she retired before you came along, sweet thing."

Sondra was glad about that too, actually. Young was the laziest, most inept warden Sondra could imagine, and all of the guards had him in their back pockets. He was almost as corrupt as they were, though not smart enough to carry out any large operations on his own. Parker didn't have the brains for that, either, but he was a good errand boy and occasional lay, when they found an empty, unlocked closet where she could pull down her DayGlo orange pants and bend over.

It had been rape the first time. Back when Sondra still cared enough to fight him. Before she realized he could be of use to her. Now she controlled him, not the other way around. He'd been dumbfounded the first time she came onto him, eager as a little boy the next. She had loved Anton Nadari in her own way, but that relationship started out much like this one—as a means to an end. Once you had a man by the dick, you could lead him anywhere, just like a dog on a leash; Matthew Parker was a very good boy.

"All the same. I'd hate to risk losing our time together. Even Young would have to put us on bad report if one of the Pollyannas caught us." Sondra made a small, fearful gesture to the wide world outside her cell door, or at least here in D block.

She wasn't too concerned about getting caught. In her time among the more dangerous sector of women housed at Sealview, she had established herself as the alpha female. Not because of her size or physical strength—she was modest on both counts—but because of the power she'd wielded on the outside. The money.

Even in prison, wealth got you preferential treatment and lots of friends. Most of them just wanted to secure a handout once her stretch was over, but that was okay: people were more loyal when they thought something was in it for them. The rest recognized that the connections which had made it possible for her to snap her fingers and visit pain, suffering, rape, and sometimes even death on those who crossed her hadn't simply vanished while she was locked up. Those women avoided her altogether.

The guards—the Dirty Johns, not the Pollyannas—liked her because those same connections fueled their drug trade inside Sealview. A few dealt on the outside too, but nothing opened a junkie inmate's legs faster than the promise of a bump of cocaine or some oxy. Man supplied woman, woman serviced man, and they all had Sondra Ann Vaughn to thank for their little barter system.

But she still played up to Parker once in a while, just to ensure he didn't lose interest. "I can't go to the hole again. I'll go crazy, especially if I don't get to see you every day, Park," she concluded, all wide brown eyes and batting eyelashes. He ate that sh*t up, and she had the face for it.

He studied her closely, as if debating whether or not she was being sincere. Luckily he never spent too much time thinking about anything other than sex. "Aww, you know I can't resist that face." He pouted his bottom lip, feigning sympathy, then descended for a sloppy kiss, which consisted mainly of tongue. "Okay, I'll be a regular Boy Scout from now on. A Boy Scout who only f*cks you in the broom closet. And that's not a euphemism for the ass, although I'm down for that too."

As I well remember, she thought, but didn't let it show in her expression. She couldn't suppress an impatient sigh, though. He was stalling, and if he kept it up, she would get called to the mess hall without hearing the latest news he'd been dying to give her when he arrived at her open cell door with a giant smile and a giant hard-on. Quid pro quo, Parksy.

"Okay, okay." Parker put his hands up, as if warding off an attack. He thought he was so cute. "Don't shoot the messenger. I just came to tell you they had it. Week ago. I didn't find out till this morning. Turns out lesbo babies ain't the hottest buzz on the law enforcement wire."

Well, if you f*cking watched them like you were supposed to, those things wouldn't slip by you. Sondra bit her lip to keep from saying it out loud. So far he'd proven himself to be a wealth of information on the Rollins-Benson duo—particularly the Benson half—and continued to keep close tabs on them, at her behest. Plus, she was too excited to bitch at him. "What did they have? Boy or girl?"

"Girl. They named her Samantha, but they're calling her Sammie." Parker rolled his eyes. It was an unflattering look on him, too much white. More seizure victim than sarcasm. "Figures they'd give their kid a guy name. Probably grow up to be a feminist lesbian bitch just like them. Waste of good puss*, if you ask me."

Sondra barely heard anything pastSammie. She was trying to picture what the infant must look like. Probably still as scrunch-faced and splotchy as a newborn, and impossibly light in her mothers' arms. Amanda was very pretty, Sondra would give her that. If the child resembled her at all, it would be a beauty. Vanessa had been one of the prettiest babies Sondra had ever seen. "Can you get me a picture?" she blurted, unable to stop herself.

"All's I did was grab her ass a little—" Yet again, Parker was in the middle of soliloquizing about Amanda's cop wife (of course all those assholes stuck together), but he cut it short to blink at her, dazedly. "You want a picture of her ass? 'Cause I could probably arrange—"

"Of the baby," she said sharply, in no mood to deal with his lame jokes or his insufferable stupidity at the moment. In her life before, she used to joke with her girlfriends that she wanted a dumb pretty-boy for meaningless, no-strings sex. Well, she'd gotten her wish. (Except Parker came with plenty of strings). "Samantha."

She liked the name. But none of that Sammie nonsense. When Royce took to calling Vanessa "Van," it had annoyed Sondra wholeheartedly. Now, she would give anything to hear it again, and to hear her brother's big, booming laugh at her sharp-tongued response: "If I wanted my child to be called after some old white guy, I would've named her Charlton Heston."

That had been the only old white guy whose name she could remember at the time. So boisterous was Royce's amusem*nt, one of the guards had sauntered over and asked him to tone it down, as if everyone didn't already overhear everyone else's business in the cramped visiting area. "Since when do you even listen to The Doors?" she'd asked, partly to ignore the snot-nosed little Barney Fife who issued the order, partly because she wanted to keep Royce's humor going. She had loved making him laugh.

"Huh?" He stared at her in utter confusion for a moment, then burst into another raucous fit of mirth. He pretended to lock his lips with an invisible key when the guard started their way again, but he leaned forward and spoke to Sondra in a confidential voice tinged with affection and hints of a smile. "That'sJimMorrison, sis. Van Morrison is a different old white dude musician."

"Whatever, they all look the same." And more seismic, eardrum-rattling laughter.

God, she missed him.

"I dunno, Vaughn." Parker scrubbed a palm over the bristly, graying hair he would no doubt cling to far longer than was advisable. It was already the color and texture of a used Brillo pad. "Those two bitches keep a pretty tight leash on their brats. Not a good idea to go nosing around and chance them catching on. I thought you said the kids were part of phase two, anyway. What do you care what one of them looks like?"

She had said that, it was true. But perhaps she'd spoken in haste. (In all likelihood she had; their conversations were always rushed, communicated partially in code—hence, "phase two"—in case someone else was listening. Supposedly the cells weren't bugged, but Sondra had her doubts.) She didn't care about the older children. They would go to the highest bidders, and whatever happened to them after that, Sondra would likely never know. That kind of life chewed kids up and spat them out fast, though. Most didn't survive it.

But the youngest girl, Matilda . . . Sondra had an eye on her. She'd only seen a handful of blurry pictures of the little redhead, swiped through hurriedly on Parker's cell phone when she should have been working in the wood shop, but there was one clear shot of the three-year-old, fiery curls springing from her head in every direction as she frolicked on the playground. Though the coloring was the exact opposite of Vanessa, the toddler reminded Sondra so much of her daughter—especially those wild, bouncing curls—her eyes had teared.

Irrational though it might be, she wanted the child. Decided to keep her options open. The men in charge of the operation were just as likely to sell the little girl along with her siblings (pretty as she was, she would make them a mint), but if Sondra promised them a high enough price, they might follow through with the arrangements she had in mind. Matilda would have a few rough and lonely years, but Sondra would be there to make it all better once her time was served.

And now there was a baby. A baby who would only be seven years old by the time Sondra got out. Almost the same age that her Nessa would be now, had she survived the crash. At that age, kids could still adapt to their circ*mstances. If Baby Samantha became part of the plan, instead of being delivered over to certain death, or a life that closely resembled it, she would know no other mother besides Sondra. That was almost too tempting to pass up. But she needed to see the infant first. And they had time. Phase one didn't begin until May.

"Indulge me, Parks. You know how we girls love to fuss over babies." Sondra gave her most radiant smile. Prison life had hardened some of her finer features—sharpening her from delicate silver spoon into slender, whispering blade—but she was still beautiful. Even after one of the fish managed to pocket a pair of scissors and hack off several inches of curl during yard time a couple weeks ago. It had left her unruly ringlets flat on one side, making her look off balance somehow. She'd gotten a couple of her fellow D-blockers, Big Wanda and Derby, to teach the fish a lesson about manners and Sealview's pecking order.

Anything for you, S. The two women, who were as muscular as men, their hair slicked back in Elvis-style pompadours (God only knew what they'd used in place of hair gel), had practically bowed to her as they hustled from the cell to do her bidding. She'd had that effect on people since childhood, her friends always deferring to her to prevent awakening her immense and vindictive anger. Royce had been the only one who wasn't afraid of her, the only one who kept her in check.

Sorry, big brother, she thought into the ether. Those days are long over.

"Besides, it'll give you a chance to get up close and personal with that captain you're still hung up on. Olivia." Sondra rolled the name off her tongue like good caviar, smooth and salty-rich, a delicacy only a select few could partake in. She used to eat the stuff by the tinful, delighting Anton with her sheer, unapologetic decadence.

Parker sniffed at the suggestion, lips curling into an unpleasant sneer. "Hung up, my ass. That c*nt was nothing but trouble from the minute she got here. Flaunting it all over the place, then crying rape as soon as one of us looked at her funny. My buddy Harris didn't even put it in 'er, just gave 'er a little taste, and she got him locked up with a buncha lowlife criminals. Killed him, too. He'd still be here busting heads, if not for that raving bitch."

Sondra could almost recite the spiel about "my buddy Harris" right along with Parker, she'd heard it so many times. Personally, she thought the exiled corrections officer sounded like a disgusting prick who got off on torturing women, and more power to the Benson broad for having him sent up the river. But it was better to keep those feelings to herself in front of Parker. Besides, in her line of work she couldn't afford to pass judgment on someone else's crimes—those who raped for pleasure and those who facilitated it for revenge held no great distinction. And sympathizing with the victim was the worst thing you could do.

She had no sympathy for Olivia Rollins-Benson. The captain was simply phase one. The inciting incident to Sondra's one-woman tragedy starring Detective Amanda Rollins.

"Okay, yeah." Parker nodded decisively. A malicious little twinkle brightened his ashy gray eyes to their natural reptilian green, as if his lizard brain had activated and with it the scrim of color—and Sondra knew then that she had him. Hook, line, sinker. "I'll get you that picture, Vaughny. I'll do anything you want, if it means making that bitch pay."

Three months later, when it was time to roll out phase one, Sondra had added a third image to her wall: alongside Nessa in her cowgirl hat and tutu and the lesbian wedding announcement, a picture captured by telephoto lens from several yards behind the unsuspecting nanny depicted a beautiful infant with an ink blot of hair covering her fragile head, which peeked over the nanny's shoulder. Even Nessa's hair hadn't been that dark or that plentiful at such a young age.

The golden-brown eyes were wide and alert, also unusual in one so young. She was going to be extremely intelligent, this child, who already couldn't wait to take in every sight and sound around her. She was going to take after Sondra, always the most advanced student in class, always the most observant (the slyest, some would say). Sondra fancied that there was even a resemblance between herself and the baby—her baby. The birth mothers must have opted for the ethnically diverse sperm.

"Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird," she whisper-sang to the photograph, trailing her fingertip along the infant's pudgy cheek and smiling to herself. Seven years wasn't that long of a wait. It would go by in a blink, with her daughter out there waiting. Needing her.

But now? Now it was time to teach Rollins a lesson. Sondra pointed a finger gun at the blond woman's smiling face and pulled the trigger. Instantly reloading, she aimed for the dark-haired wife and blew her brains out too. "Nothing personal," she told the taller woman, giving a regretful shrug. The police captain should have chosen a different spouse, that was all. Tragic, really.

"Personal to me." Parker stood in the open doorway of Sondra's cell, arms crossed over his chest in a laughably masculine pose. Probably thought he was sneaky, just showing up like that, but she had heard the ring of keys on his duty belt jingling all the way down the corridor outside D block. (sh*t for Brains better not screw up her carefully laid plan with his ham-handed presence.) "I'd give anything to be one of the guys who finally knocks that carpet-munching slu*t off her high horse."

"Well, you're not going to, so shut the hell up about it," Sondra snapped, rounding on him with a fierceness that made him draw back in surprise. She seldom lost her cool—even in court, when they handed down her sentence, she hadn't flinched—but she was sick of hearing how much he would have enjoyed getting a piece of the blond bitch's wife.

She should probably be grateful he couldn't let bygones be bygones. His grudge against Benson was the exact in that Sondra had needed; if he hadn't spent the day waving that wedding announcement in the face of anyone willing to listen—and many who weren't, Sondra included—while bragging that he'd almost banged the brunette chick "before she turned lesbo," Sondra might never have made the connection between the captain and Rollins. She might not have spent the last year cultivating the perfect retribution for the detective, making sure everything was airtight, everyone understood their role, and no one would back out at the last minute.

Sometime in the past, she couldn't remember when exactly or by whom (probably some arrogant man whose word she'd taken with a grain of salt), but she'd heard it said that you could rule the world from inside a prison cell. There was some truth to that. But Sondra didn't want to rule the world. Just a very small blond-haired, blue-eyed part of it.

"Sorry, Parks. Just on edge, I guess." It wouldn't do to get on Parker's bad side right now. An integral piece of this operation was riding on his shoulders, and if his feelings got hurt, Sondra risked losing her key to the outside world. Her obedient little doggy. "I can't believe it's finally go time. Aren't you excited? I barely even slept last night."

A slow smile began to spread across Matthew Parker's brutish features, the excitement contagious, as Sondra hoped it would be. He had that reptilian gleam in his eye again when he pushed off the barred door with his shoulder, prepared to move on with rounds. "Yeah, babe, I been waiting on this day since I found out Her Highness there was UC. Little narc bitch."

For a moment, Sondra observed the happy women in the smudged print that hung between her daughters' photographs. "Hey," she called to Parker before he sauntered off to the neighboring cell. He stopped short to look at her through the stationary bars the door rolled back on, and she stepped closer, peering at him from the other side. "Her Highness. She as pretty as she looks in that picture?"

Parker glanced over her shoulder at Benson—the woman he had dubbed "Her Highness," though he was just as likely to call her one of various female body parts, or sometimes Kat, the name she'd gone by undercover in Sealview.Here, kitty kitty, he murmured more than a few times, as he and Sondra plotted in feverish whispers, the paper brides overseeing all.

"Nice firm little ass, yeah. But those tit*, boy oh boy . . . " He gave a low, appreciative whistle, hands cupped wide in front of his chest, indicating a large pair of breasts. "Everything's probably sagging now, though. She's way over forty. All dried up."

It was all Sondra could do not to reach through the bars and throttle him. She was months away from forty-seven. Smiling tightly, she spoke in her most honeyed and measured tone. "I meant her face. She looks awfully pretty for a cop. Is it just the picture, or . . . ?"

"Oh. Hmm." Parker frowned as if he were deep in thought, concentrating hard on conjuring mental images of anything above the captain's shoulders. Eventually he nodded like he was conceding a point. "I wouldn't put a bag over her head. A lot of the chicks in here are real messed up in the face. Jacked up teeth and sh*t from the drugs and getting smacked around. But she wastoopretty, you know? Should've been my first clue something was off. Hey, wait a minute, you sureyouain't UC?"

He smiled at his suaveness, and Sondra couldn't help herself—she joined him. He'd given her just what she hoped for. "Tell them the buyer said not to touch her face. Anything from the neck down is fair game." Sondra Vaughn didn't excite easily, but now she clamped her hands down on his, pressed her own face between the bars as far as it would go, and hissed, "I don't care what they do to her body, but I want her face perfect for that blond bitch. I want Amanda Rollins to look into the face of the woman she loves and see every ounce of pain and suffering she's caused."

. . .

Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (2)

Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (3)

Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (4)

. . .

Chapter 2: Mother's Milk

Notes:

I meant to have this chapter up earlier today, but as usual, life happened. Sorry for the crazy posting schedule so far. I'll get it figured out sooner or later. But I really appreciate the comments for chapter 1! They were super encouraging, and I'm looking forward to sharing the rest of this haunting, harrowing, long-ass story with y'all. There's really not a whole lot to add for this chapter—not to say it's not an important one, just that it's pretty self-explanatory and doesn't have any trigger warnings. So, happy reading. For now. ;P

Chapter Text

And I'll sleep in the sea, and I'll wait there beneath
The mud and forgotten dreams and disease
And what is the secret I'll drain from your soul
And sweet is the sugar I'll drink from your skull

- Swans

Chapter 2.

Mother's Milk

. . .

"Ouch!" Olivia cringed and instinctively shrank from the sharp pain in her nipple, but the mouth latched onto it did not readily let go. Hissing through her teeth, she skimmed a finger between her daughter's gums to break suction and held the baby away from her breast, to gaze down as sternly as one could at a three-and-a-half-month-old. Which wasn't very. "Samantha Grace. No biting Mommy."

Samantha cast a placid look up at Olivia, gurgling as if she hadn't just tried to gnaw through a rather important and extremely tender body part with her strong little gums. The breast milk frothed at the corners of her mouth as she offered a fleeting smile that made it almost impossible to be too put out.

Noah had been a serious baby who grew into a serious child, the official worrier of Olivia's brood (a trait that, in turn, worried Olivia—had she passed it on to him? Would he grow up to be fretful and anxious?); Matilda had been the happiest, most easygoing infant on the planet, and now at almost four years old, continued to be her mommies' little ray of sunshine; and though Olivia had missed out on much of Jesse's babyhood, she knew from Amanda's vivid accounts—both then and now—that their middle child had been a pistol from the start.

But Samantha Grace Rollins-Benson was their wild card. A deep thinker, who already looked at her mothers as if she were slightly exasperated by their insistence on helping her. She often entertained herself in the crib or the swing, appearing perturbed whenever she was interrupted. And though she gave affection freely, it had to be on her own terms. Smiles were bestowed with even more discretion.

"She's as stubborn as you are," had become Olivia and Amanda's tagline for their baby girl, usually recited in unison and accompanied by a skirmish of jinxes, pinches, and pokes.

Stubborn and a biter, apparently. Like everything else she did early—from rolling over to reaching for toys—it seemed she was already teething, a development Olivia had refused to believe until the Night of a Thousand Tears, when she spent hours rocking a squalling Samantha, who would accept no less than Mommy and a wet washcloth for chewing. Now, Olivia knew how the washcloth must have felt.

"Maybe we should have named her Vampira," said Amanda, sauntering into the bedroom from the door jamb on which she'd been leaning. "Or Buffy."

Olivia hadn't realized she had an audience for her induction as a chew toy, though it wasn't out of the ordinary for one of them to watch the other breastfeeding their daughter. The supplemental nursing system, which consisted of a bottle-like container to hold Amanda's expressed milk and a plastic tube as thin and pliable as a spaghetti noodle, had been the perfect Christmas present from Amanda. (On the tag that dangled from the box, the detective had scrawled Olivia's name, of which the O and the V formed a pair of crudely drawn and highly asymmetrical breasts.)

With the tube taped to her breast, the pinpoint hole aligned at her nipple, and the bottle resting on her chest, delivering the milk like fluid through an IV, Olivia was able to simulate nursing her child. "Aww darlin', don't cry," Amanda had said, after explaining what the SNS was for, and that she wanted Olivia to share in breastfeeding duty, an important part of bonding between mother and baby. "You know I can't handle it with these pregnant lady hormones."

But she had cried—they both did—cried and marveled that she would get to experience breastfeeding after all, a ship she'd thought had long since sailed for her; that she could have such a connection with one of her children, providing nourishment for them (from her own body, for all intents and purposes) in a way she hadn't been able to with the others; that she belonged to someone who cared enough to give her such a thoughtful, heartfelt, extraordinary gift.

Then, when Samantha arrived, Olivia had found she got almost as much enjoyment out of watching Amanda nurse the baby as doing it herself. It was a bit of a family affair at times, with either mother camped out at the other's side, an arm around the waist to help cradle their daughter, a head gently resting on a shoulder as they wondered at what they had made, a finger lazily twirling a lock of hair as they listened to the sweet little sucks and grunts from their Sammie.

The love Olivia felt in those moments, absolute and bigger than anything she'd ever dreamed could exist, left her breathless.

"I thought Buffy slayed the vampires. Slew?" Olivia looked up from guiding her nipple cautiously back to Samantha's striving, baby-bird mouth, and caught Amanda snapping a picture with her cell phone. "And I better not see that on Facebook, or vampires won't be the only ones getting their ass kicked."

"Relax, it's for my private collection." Amanda winked slyly, sidling up to the old-fashioned wooden rocker where Olivia sat, and bending down to peck her on top of the head. "You kiss our kids with that mouth,cher?"

Ever since their trip to Amanda's hometown last June, when she'd only been a few weeks pregnant and not even showing, a bit of the Cajun influence from her maternal grandmother's side of the family had steadily crept back into the detective's vocabulary. Olivia couldn't say she minded. Each inflection came with a certain amount of co*ckiness or sass, and always a flirtatious gesture of some sort—like the wink, the kiss. It was ridiculously cute and undeniably sexy.

"Yup. Their mama, too," said Olivia, tipping her head backwards against the carved crest rail, lips upturned and lightly puckered. She didn't have to wait long, and she sighed into the tender kiss she received, her skin atingle as Amanda's fingers coasted the length of her neck, her breast atingle with the sensation of her daughter nursing.

Some of the literature claimed she might naturally begin producing milk on her own, body responding to the suckling infant. While that hadn't happened, Olivia did sense an occasional stirring—a vague prickle and a heaviness in her breasts that she knew wasn't imagined. She loved that feeling. Somehow it made her more present in her body than she had been for years, or possibly ever.

After a childhood spent withdrawing from negative emotion, learning to separate from herself when reality was too painful (dissociating, Lindstrom would correct her), and after an adulthood spent learning to compartmentalize so well she sometimes couldn't access her emotions at all, she'd worried a vital part of herself had been lost along the way. Whatever made her human; whatever made her body her own.

But then there was Samantha. Amanda. Noah, Jesse, Tilly. Her family and her mantra. Those were the names she repeated to herself these days, not the names of her would-be rapists. They grounded Olivia, brought her back to herself no matter how lost she might be. They were the air in her lungs, the heart beating in her chest. The reminder that she had a soul.

Amanda.Noah.Jesse.Tilly.Sam.

"I'll delete it if you want me to," Amanda murmured, perching on the armrest of the rocking chair, though it couldn't have been a very comfortable seat, and displaying the screen of her iPhone. The photo she'd just taken was illuminated there, showing Olivia with breast at the ready, the flesh around the areola held back by her fingertips, nipple shadowed in the half-light. "Y'all are just so pretty I couldn't resist."

Itwasa lovely photo, captured at exactly the right moment. Olivia wasn't fond of having her picture taken anymore; she had tolerated it as a younger woman, aware that she was what most people deemed "attractive," and she participated in current group photos and family photos, for posterity's sake—mostly her children's. (She had only a handful of pictures of herself with her own mother.) But she preferred to be behind the camera these days, especially since finding out Calvin Arliss had been secretly photographing her for years. Just like her rapist father Hollister, collecting newspaper articles about his bastard daughter, to what end she didn't know; would never know. And didn't want to.

She had texted Amanda a revealing selfie or two a while back, just to get the blonde's attention. And boy, did it ever work. Posed during Amanda's morning shower, the shots were little more than some off-the-shoulder and deep cleavage action, with a smoldering look over the rim of her glasses, but when Olivia sent them off from behind her captain's desk, the detective had nearly spewed a mouthful of lunchtime coffee across Kat's desk and her own.Happy Friday, Det. Dimples, read the accompanying text. And a happy Friday it had been indeed, when they were finally back home and in bed.

Then there was Amanda's suggestion that they record a—ahem—home video of themselves, for the heck of it. She'd tried to play it off as a joke, but the hopefulness in her voice had been unmistakable. Olivia was considering it. She'd never filmed a sex tape before: not when she was young and foolish enough to participate in such a production (granted the cameras back then were huge and obtrusive, but still); not when she was a detective third-grade in SVU and slogging through the vile things people recorded themselves doing to others, especially children; not when the digital age hit, bringing with it a whole new means of violating someone's privacy and destroying their reputation.

She didn't have to worry about any of that with Amanda. And it might be kind of sexy and exciting to film themselves—Amanda, at least. Soon, maybe. While her breasts were still delectably full and ripe from the milk they produced, turning her into a hefty C-cup, the blue veins flowing beneath her lovely pale skin like hillside rivers in the snow. While she still had that soft little pouch of skin on her belly, left over from giving their baby girl a safe place to grow. The detective despised that "flab," as she called it, but Olivia found her hands inexplicably drawn there whenever they made love.

Yes, very soon.

"Keep it," Olivia said, guiding Amanda's thumb away from the trash can icon below the picture. She might not like looking at herself, but she loved the way Amanda saw her, and the picture reflected that: she was gazing down at their daughter, face framed by her side-swept hair, eyes filled with love, heart on her sleeve. Beautiful because of the beauty surrounding her. "For your eyes only. And someday maybe this little piranha's, if she stops biting Mommy's boobies. Isn't that right, Sammie?"

"Yeah, kid, leave that to me." Amanda leaned in to confide the naughty statement to the baby, jutting a thumb at herself like a boxing coach in an old black and white movie, claiming her fighter was undefeated. Only thing missing was the stogy. She stole a sideways glance at Olivia, the corner of her mouth twitching with a suppressed grin, waiting.

"Amanda Jo." Olivia clucked her tongue, pretending to be scandalized. To Samantha, whose eyes were rolling drowsily in their sockets now, one pudgy hand lightly kneading the breast to which she was attached, Olivia said in a soft, storytime voice, "Your mama is an incorrigible pervert, little love. Yes, she is. Yes, she is."

Snickering, Amanda joined in the baby talk ("Well, your mommy shouldn't have such a great rack then, should she, peanut? No, she shouldn't, no ma'am"), their nonsense banter lulling Samantha further, her chin working with gradually slowing gulps. But the moment Olivia started to ease her breast away, Samantha's eyes went doe-wide and her mouth resumed its greedy suction.

"Good Lord, she's really going to town," Amanda commented. Before she could follow up with anything more suggestive, their attention went to the doorway, where their second youngest padded in on Olaf slippers that matched herFrozenjammies. Matilda was toting her plush Elsa doll under one arm, her lookalike Anna under the other, and yawning so grandly, she could have been belting the big note from "Let It Go." Disney+ had become a staple in the Rollins-Benson household.

"I'm sleepy, Mommy," Matilda announced, wandering into the bedroom and over to the rocking chair, the Arendelle sisters' exceptionally long legs trailing the carpet on either side of her. She'd outgrown the toe-walking that had concerned Olivia last year, a habit the pediatrician assured her had most likely been the little girl's attempt to imitate Noah's constant dancing. Now, Miss Tilly was enrolled in dance classes of her own, and already leaps and bounds ahead of her peers, thanks to her big brother and private coach.

But, at a month shy of just four years old, Matilda was still very much a baby. And still very much a Mommy's girl. She extended her arms, Elsa and Anna peeping out from under her tiny armpits like she had them in the world's cutest headlock. "Hold me." And remembering her manners a moment later: "Please."

Except she forgot the L.Pease. Olivia's heart melted a little bit and she cupped her palm to the child's fair, freckled cheek. As far as she was concerned, the only downside to four children was not having enough arms to hold them all. And despite efforts to foster some independence in her gentlest, most sweet-spirited child, Olivia relished every minute that Matilda clung to her.

She would walk through fire for any of her children; lay down her life for them, if need be. But they each had their distinct personalities, their special virtues, and there was something healing in the way Tilly chose her. Olivia had felt it the moment she held her daughter for the first time, and every time since.

Nothing could completely undo the feelings of rejection Serena Benson had instilled in Olivia from birth—from conception, most likely ("Women never used to talk to their bellies the way these silly young mothers do today," Serena had confided once, rolling her eyes at a pregnant woman stroking and singing to her baby bump while seated on a park bench)—but Matilda's love and affection, her sweet kisses and endless cuddles, came close. So close.

"Can you be Mommy's big girl and wait just a few more minutes for me to hold you, lovebug?" Olivia tucked Matilda's curls uselessly behind her small ears, smiling as the coppery ringlets sprang right back up again. Such a bold and unruly head of hair for such a compliant little person.

"'Cause Amantha's hungry?" Matilda inquired, rising on tiptoe for a better look at her baby sister, Olaf's pointy carrot noses smooshing into the carpet. She hadn't quite gotten the knack ofthe infant's full name yet, often combining it with Amanda's name to form the near-missesAmanthaandSamanda.

Olivia thought the mispronunciations were adorable, but to save on confusion she nodded and said, "Yes, bug, Sammie's eating. I think her belly's almost full, but . . . " She lowered her voice to a whisper and peeked up at Amanda, who was fluffing the little girl's curls seconds after Olivia smoothed them. "I bet Mama will hold you, if you ask her."

"Hold me?" Matilda turned a pair of imploring blue eyes up at Amanda. Ha! Mama was finally getting a taste of her own medicine; she used that sad puppy look to get her way all the time.

But the detective had a stronger constitution than Olivia, at least when there were dolls involved. Suspiciously, she eyed the monarchs tucked under Matilda's arms, as if they were suspects in a despicable crime. She must have decided their cloth bodies, constructed more like stuffed animals than the baby dolls that struck fear in her pediophobe heart, were relatively harmless, because a moment later she patted her knees and said, "Sure, sugar booger, come on up."

In the process of being lifted, Matilda lost her grip on the dolls and they slumped to the floor, blessedly facedown, their permanent smiles and sightless embroidered eyes hidden from view. Amanda made no attempt to pick them up, instead settling back on the arm of the rocking chair with Tilly snuggled against her. The little girl gazed curiously from her sister to Olivia's breast for a long time, then patted Amanda's chest through her faded MetallicaRide the Lightningt-shirt.

Olivia didn't care for the macabre image of the man being electrocuted on the back, but she couldn't complain when Amanda slipped off her pajama bottoms after the kids were in bed and strutted around the apartment in just the t-shirt—her long hair concealed the guy's skeletal face, anyway—and panties that seldom covered both cheeks. Ride the lightning, indeed.

"Why do sissy get food there?" Matilda asked, with the earnestness of her older brother and the inquisitiveness of her big sister. But whereas the older children regarded feedings with wary glances and, at one point, outright disgust ("What is she doing to your boobies!" Jesse had shrieked, the first time Amanda nursed in front of her), Tilly was still fascinated.

The decision to let the older children observe—or not observe, if they preferred—their new sister's mealtimes had been a topic of serious discussion for weeks, before and after Samantha's arrival. Amanda had no reservations, maintaining that it was a healthy, natural part of motherhood, and one they would want to perform promptly once Samantha got the hang of it.

While Olivia mostly agreed, and hadn't shied from using the SNS around her daughters, it had taken longer to feel comfortable baring a breast in front of her son. She was discreet, and Noah had grown bored of the whole process after the third or fourth time, bless his heart, but she'd been on the lookout for any changes in his behavior. Thankfully he was the same introspective, quiet, dance-obsessed little guy as before. Olivia hated that she still worried about his background sometimes—it was so easy to forget, until he asked questions like, "Did I do that when I was a baby?" and it all came flooding back to her. She hadn't known how to respond; whether Ellie had ever breastfed or not was anybody's guess, and Alexa Pearson couldn't even afford a crib, let alone an SNS or the supplements needed to induce natural lactation. Not to mention the handful of failed foster homes.

"No, sweetheart," she'd finally answered, heart heavy. "You drank from bottles. Like Tilly did when she first came home, remember? I made her formula and warmed it under the faucet. That's what you drank, too."

"Okay. Good," had been the decisive response. "I don't think I would like it the way Sammie drinks it. No offense, Mom."

She'd had to laugh at that.

Meanwhile, Jesse refused to believe she had ever suckled, period. "Hush up, Mama," was her automatic response whenever Amanda teased her about it, poking lightly at her squirmy six-year-old body. The child was so boneless she was practically reptilian.

"You want me to take this one?" Amanda asked of Matilda's question, eyebrow raised amusedly at Olivia. They had both fielded the preschooler's many pop quizzes about nursing, usually with whichever mother wasn't performing the task acting as spokeswoman, but apparently the answers weren't satisfactory to a three-year-old.

"I got it." Olivia cast a fond smile up at Amanda and patted Samantha's bottom rhythmically. The baby was a blink or two away from full sleep, but her hand remained cupped possessively at Olivia's breast. Just like Mama. "Sammie eats this way because mommies' bodies make milk for their babies, bug. And this is where the milk comes from."

"Like cows?" Jesse had asked, when given the same explanation.

Matilda was slightly more decorous than her elder sister. She nodded carefully, as if processing some dubious information. One day, she would make an excellent journalist. Or, even better, a judge. "Like crying," she said, repeating the less bovine comparison Amanda had made to Jesse—when the detective finished laughing, that is—after the cow comment.

"Yes, sweet girl, like crying." Olivia grazed the pad of her thumb down Matilda's cheek, and then the other side, tracing imaginary tear tracks and pushing out her bottom lip in a silly pout. "The way your eyes can make tears when you're sad. Mama's breasts can make milk when Sammie's hungry."

Head tipped back on Amanda's shoulder, Matilda looked up at her mama wonderingly and patted the band t-shirt again, matching the soft beat of Olivia's hand on Samantha's diapered bottom. "Is it owie?"

"Nope. Not owie." Amanda folded both lips over her teeth and chomped them lightly against Matilda's shoulder, making the little girl giggle and scrunch the shoulder to her ear. "Feels just like that, Tilly-billy."

Well. Maybe once your nipples were no longer so sore and cracked they actually bled, Olivia thought. That had been an experience, and had put quite a damper on foreplay for a week or so, there near the beginning. "If this is the beauty of motherhood, I am deeply unimpressed," she'd groaned, as Amanda snickered and applied droplets of breast milk to her raw skin, and when that remedy didn't work—lanolin ointment. God's gift to nursing mothers. (Having the surrounding flesh kissed and caressed by Amanda's warm, sympathetic lips helped, too.)

"Can I have some?" Matilda asked next, taking both mothers by surprise. She'd made a similar query early on, but seemed to have forgotten it in the weeks since. Ever helpful, she reached out to pat Olivia's covered breast this time, clarifying her meaning, in case confusion was the reason behind the long silence. "From there."

"Umm . . . " Olivia glanced down at the nearly empty bottle on her chest, fretting her lower lip for a moment. The books all said it was normal for a child Matilda's age to make such a request; that it was equally fine to assent. But Olivia wasn't entirely convinced. She didn't want to be the reason her daughter regressed or ended up in therapy before she reached high school.

"Tell you what, Tilly Vanilli," Amanda piped in, resting a hand on Olivia's shoulder for a reassuring squeeze.I got this. "Next time Mama's feeding Sam, I'll let you give it a try too, okay? You might not like the taste, though. It's awful sweet, huh Mommy?"

That, Olivia could absolutely attest to—the sweetness. It had been an accident, at least the first time. Amanda's hormones were up and down in the weeks immediately following Samantha's birth, the increased prolactin and oxytocin her body produced making her, by turns, disinterested in sex ("How 'bout tonight I just watch, babe?") and insatiably horny ("Woman, get your ass in this bed right quick"). But it was that first postpartum org*sm that really got their attention. Amanda had looked just as startled as Olivia when her nipples started to leak, the cream-colored fluid dribbling down the sides of her breasts, towards her armpits. "Aw, sh*t," she'd muttered, grabbing a throw blanket to dab herself dry. "Sorry."

Then, in a totally inspired and uncharacteristically spontaneous moment, Olivia had requested, "Let me," and—permission granted—leaned in to lap up the milk with her tongue. She didn't make a habit of consuming Amanda's milk (that was for their baby girl), and the detective had taken to pumping before sex to reduce spillage, but the eroticism in that first taste, the unexpected mellow sweetness, like innocence with a drop of vanilla, had awakened in Olivia a passion like she'd never known. She craved Amanda now, more than ever before. And once in a while, if that lovely, soothing nectar happened to find its way past her lips, then so be it.

"Mm-hmm." Cheeks aflame, Olivia ushered herself back into the present, where Matilda was agreeing amiably to the arrangement, as the little sweetheart agreed to almost everything, and Amanda was grinning knowingly at Olivia's red face.Shush, Olivia mouthed, and stuck her tongue out at the blonde, whose response was to grin even harder.

After a year of marriage and close to two years living together, they had developed their own private language of sorts—mostly hand signals and facial expressions—for discussing sensitive topics in front of the children. A few revolved around work (the Shaka sign near one ear either meant an important phone call, usually with the chief, or being summoned back to the precinct; murders were described by the weapon of choice: finger guns, air-stabbing, invisible nooses around crooked necks, and so on), but the majority were sexual in nature. Scissors cutting through imaginary paper. A quick, lizardlike swipe of the tongue. Index and middle fingers beckoning suggestively, sometimes incorporating a third digit, if the messenger was feeling frisky.

Tonight, Amanda introduced a new one: an upraised eyebrow and a fist brought down on its side, like a gavel, against her leg. She repeated the motion a few times, while Olivia stared, nose and brow crinkled in confusion, and finally guessed, "Hammer?"

"I was going for pounding or banging, but that works," Amanda said, conceding with an easy shrug. She flashed another devilish wink and a smile. Postpartum couldn't keep Amanda Jo Rollins-Benson or her libido down for long, no sir.

"At least you didn't say f-i-s-t-i-n-g."

"Ooh, Captain." Amanda puckered her lips, elongating the word.Ooohh. "Dirty."

Before Olivia could think up a decent comeback, Jesse marched into the room, took one look at the breast Olivia had removed from Samantha's slack mouth to dab with a burp cloth, and threw her hands up in exasperation. "Oh Lord," she said loudly, shielding her eyes and peering through a crack in her small fingers. "Is it gone yet?"

Olivia clucked her tongue, but peeled off the medical tape and unwound the SNS from her neck and shoulders, setting it aside on the nightstand. She tucked her breast back into the loose camisole she was wearing, and announced wryly, "You can look, Jesse Eileen. My hideous deformity will no longer offend thine eye."

"Huh?" Jesse lowered her hand guardedly, face scrunched up in an expression that, according to Amanda, the little girl had inherited from Olivia.

"Think about it. All that eye-f*cking we used to do?" the detective had said, when Olivia pointed out that it was unlikely any of their children would inherit her physical traits. "And you were there for her birth. I'm just sayin', youcouldbe the father, we don't know . . . "

It had been impossible not to giggle at the notion, especially when Amanda went on to add that she'd been present for Olivia's introduction to Noah—the first to lay eyes on him in fact, while Olivia was the first to free him from the womblike dresser drawer, to hold him and mother him—therefore, she, Amanda, was clearly the baby daddy.

Clearly.

That left Matilda, their little fairy child, who was just as likely to have sprung from the flowers and sunshine she exuded as from any human birth parents, and baby Samantha, whom Olivia truly had impregnated Amanda with—she was the one to insert the syringe and release the donor sperm that fertilized Amanda's egg.

Maybe she really would pass some things on to her kids, after all. Considering the hodgepodge of DNA in their family, Olivia's chances seemed as good as anyone else's.

"Never mind," she told Jesse, waving her eldest daughter over to the rocker, where she could marvel at her baby sister up close. Luckily, Samantha had received a warm welcome from all her siblings, with only some minor glimpses of jealousy since her debut three and a half months ago.

Noah had expressed disappointment that he hadn't gotten a brother this time, but he brightened when Olivia listed all the fun things he could teach Samantha that he'd been too young to teach his other sisters—namely dance. Miss Jess, sassy little britches that she was, had also been the hardest to sell on adding a new member to the household ("I think we have enough already," she'd said, dead serious, when her mothers announced the pregnancy), but now she was Samantha's biggest champion and the only person capable of making the baby laugh. They went into hysterics together for no other reason than a silly noise or a surprise sneeze. And Matilda thought baby Sam was hers, plain and simple. If allowed, she would have carted the little one around like herFrozendolls.

But the wonder of a quiet, sleeping infant wasn't lost on the older children, no matter how well Samantha had acclimated. When baby didn't sleep, no one in the Rollins-Benson family slept.

"Whatcha need, pumpkin?" Olivia asked softly, gathering the little girl into the crook of her left arm, alongside the rocking chair. It was her weaker side, the one that throbbed from shoulder to wrist on rainy days, and the one she habitually rotated to dispel stiffness (didn't work), but it never felt defective when she held her children.

Jesse swiped at the cobweb of blond hair that always seemed to knit itself across her forehead, and gazed up with an expression so serious Olivia knew she was about to get bushwhacked. In what way she couldn't say, but the forty-five pounds of first-grader next to her, clad in Noah's outgrown Spider-Man pajamas, was gearing up for something big. "I have an important question, Mommy," Jesse said, her somber tone making it difficult for Olivia to keep a straight face. "Hear me out, okay?"

"Okay . . . " Olivia tucked in her bottom lip, suppressing a giggle. She didn't know many six-year-olds who used phrases like "hear me out," but then, she didn't know many six-year-olds being raised by an Olivia Benson and an Amanda Rollins, either.

"I think you should let me 'n Tilly 'n Noah sleep with you and Mama tonight. In your bed." Jesse exhaled heavily, as if a huge weight had just lifted from her small, polyester-adorned frame. Sometimes she resembled Amanda so identically, whether in personality, facial features, build, or pattern of speech, it was uncanny. Look out, world. "We can help y'all take care of Sammie if she wakes up."

"Is that so?" Olivia snuck an amused glance at Amanda, whose face was nestled in Matilda's curls under the pretense of giving kisses, but whose shoulders were noticeably quaking with stifled laughter. Turning her attention back to Jesse, Olivia cleared her throat and leaned in for a secretive exchange. "You know what's funny?" she stage-whispered, her forehead almost pressed against the little girl's. "I don't think I heard a question anywhere in there."

Without missing a beat, Jesse ducked down to look Olivia square in the eye, placing a hand on both of her shoulders and whispering, "Please, Mommy?"

It all became very clear what was happening then, especially when Olivia spotted her son peeking around the doorframe from the lit hallway, straining to overhear. She and her wife were being played like a couple of well-rosined violins, their two older children guiding the bows. The little stinkers had sent Matilda in first, to soften them up before working the real angle: securing a family sleepover in Mommy and Mama's bed.

The worst part wasn't discovering that her kids were evil geniuses, or that they thought she and Amanda were gullible saps; it was realizing that their plan was working. Despite her better judgment and all the parenting tips that discouraged co-sleeping, Olivia felt a strong urge to say yes. She suddenly and desperately wanted her babies close, even if it meant not getting a good night's sleep herself, even if it set back the little bit of progress they'd made at keeping all the kids in their own beds for full nights at a time.

"This wouldn't have anything to do with that weird cartoon I told y'all not to watch earlier, would it?" Amanda asked, in a wry voice that suggested she knew that was exactly what this was about.

"Ma-a-a-ybe," Jesse drawled, assuming such an innocent pose, a halo practically dinged into existence above her, as golden as her hair.

"Jesse Eileen . . . "

While the little girl attempted to verbally tap dance her way out of trouble with Mama, Olivia tried to make sense of the sudden, overwhelming need to have her children and Amanda near. She always cherished their time together, sometimes barely unable to contain her eagerness to leave work and be home with them again.

Returning to the job after Samantha's birth had been particularly poignant and painful; Olivia wanted to be there for every moment of her daughter's rapidly changing development. Each day brought with it something new and awe-inspiring, everything from the infant trying to vocalize (so far "agoo" and raspberry noises were her entire lexicon) to discovering her hands and feet. She hadn't gotten those early months with Noah or Jesse, and duty had frequently called her away from baby Tilly. So much lost time she would never get back.

But this was different, even beyond that. She had expected some anxiety, with the anniversary coming up—it was unavoidable, really, although the past two years had been easier, with the distraction of a new relationship with Amanda, then a new marriage. Nothing would compare to that first year, when she almost couldn't leave the apartment, and the ten year anniversary would inevitably seem significant. Tomorrow was only nine years. Nine years since Lewis had stepped quietly from the shadows and changed her whole world. Why did it feel like she should be looking over her shoulder, holding onto her family just a little tighter? Why did it feel like she was running out of time?

Realizing she had let her thoughts run away with her—falling into that catastrophic thinking Lindstrom warned her about—she dismissed the knot in her stomach and motioned Noah into the bedroom, smiling encouragingly when he hung back at first. It was probably a boy thing, that hesitation to join in with a gaggle of girls, but Olivia worried about his tendency to watch from the sidelines. She knew what it was to be an outsider in her own home, with her own mother. Her son was never going to feel that way, as long as she had breath in her lungs.

"Come here, little man," she said, making room for him to sit on her knee. He obliged happily, almost skipping forward the last few steps, and assuaging most of her concern with a wide grin, all dimples and disheveled curls. Then, just as quickly as her fear had reared its ugly head, it disappeared altogether when Noah looked down at his baby sister with complete adoration.

"What do you think, Mama?" Olivia asked, sliding her gaze in Amanda's direction with added emphasis, indicating which parent the children should be focusing their coercive tactics on. "Do we have room for three more?"

Crestfallen, Amanda gave a defeated little huff at the sight of three sets of blue eyes—and Olivia's—turned hopefully up at her. She bopped her fist against her thigh again, the signal growing weaker with each repetition. The poor thing really wanted to get laid tonight. "But . . . "

"Yeah, Mama, can we?"

"Can we, Ma?"

"Pease."

As long as she was already fighting dirty, Olivia decided she might as well contribute a pouty lip to the kids' efforts. That did it. Amanda groaned, relenting almost at once with a grouchy, drawn out, "Fine." But she was smiling when their children celebrated with a hushed cheer—Noah and Jesse exchanged a silent high-five—and scampered over to the bed, the older two hoisting Matilda by upraised arms onto the tall queen mattress.

"I'm gonna have blue balls now, I hope you know," Amanda murmured, easing their sleeping daughter out of Olivia's arms to be deposited in the bedside bassinet. Plans were to move Jesse into Noah's room soon (promises of a bunk bed required) and set up the full crib for Samantha in Matilda's room, but neither of them had the heart to make the transition just yet.

Subsequently, sex had become a catch-as-catch-can occurrence, often taking place in random corners of the apartment, and at the oddest hours of the day. The breast milk incident, for example, had been a nooner, while the kids were at the park with Lucy, and Samantha napped in her swing. Gigi, the long-suffering bystander to her owners' sexual antics, had kept watch over the baby while her mothers wrestled on the couch.

Blue balls seemed like a very real possibility, if they didn't get some privacy—some unrushed, unrestrained org*sms—soon. Maybe a weekend away, just the two of them . . . . It didn't even need to be someplace fancy or expensive. Just somewhere they could ravish each other for two or three days straight, without keeping one eye on the door, an ear tuned to the slightest sound. Amanda's birthday had already come and gone a month ago, their one-year anniversary a month before that, but they didn't need an occasion for weekend getaway sex. Olivia liked surprising her wife for no particular reason, anyway. The delight in Amanda's eyes was reason enough.

"Sorry, love," Olivia whispered in the detective's ear, as they strolled to the bed, an arm around each other's waists and Sammie secure in the crook of her mama's elbow. "I just . . . want everybody close tonight. I'll give your sad little balls my undivided attention another time."

"You better." Amanda followed the good-natured warning with a playful pinch to Olivia's rear, her lightweight pajama bottoms not offering much in the way of resistance. But instead of teasing Olivia with more pinches when she squirmed from the touch, Amanda pulled her in and quietly asked, "You feeling okay, darlin'?"

"Mm-hmm."

And as Olivia piled onto the bed, swallowed up by an octopodlike collection of arms and legs—including Amanda's, once the baby was safely in her bassinet—she said with absolute sincerity and contentment, "I'm feeling just fine."

. . .

Chapter 3: Creep

Notes:

Keeping this note brief so I can update before it gets too much later. Just wanted to say thank you for the chapter 2 reviews, and I hope you like chapter 3! For the people asking about my posting schedule: I'm going to try and bump it up to two chapters a week, probably Mondays and Thursdays. I don't want to make any promises, since my RL schedule keeps getting in the way, but that's what I'm aiming for. Especially since the cliffhanger chapters are upon us. On that note . . . happy reading. }:}

Chapter Text

Chapter 3.

Creep

. . .

According to Melville, hell was an idea first born on an undigested apple dumpling, but on that Saturday afternoon in late May, on a day just like any other, Amanda Rollins-Benson learned that hell was an uneaten bag of warm bagels.

Everyone had requested a different flavor and a corresponding schmear to go with it: Noah wanted blueberry with whipped cream cheese only, claiming regular cream cheese made him barf; Jesse thought it over extensively, and still decided on chocolate chip—the only flavor she seemed to believe existed, no matter the form it was eaten in—and Nutella; Matilda would nibble on a plain, like a prisoner subsisting on bread and water, perhaps with a thin layer of butter, perhaps not; and Carisi, bless his little New York City heart, sure could go for an everything with lox, cream cheese, capers, tomato and cucumber (but hold the onion), if it wasn't too much trouble.

Amanda had stared at their late Saturday morning guest for so long, Olivia intervened before any blood could be shed. Carisi was doing them a favor, after all, stopping by on his day off to review a case involving several elderly victims in a nursing home. And he did volunteer to watch the kids so Olivia could accompany Amanda to the bagel shop and help keep the order straight. Rather than take offense at the implication that she wouldn't be able to remember a simple list—which, honestly, she'd already forgotten halfway out the door—she jumped at the chance to be alone with her wife.

Alone in a city of eight million people, that is. But other than a few stolen moments at work, and a couple of late-night rendezvous in the living room, she and Olivia hadn't spent time together without a child in tow since Samantha was born. No, scratch that—Amanda had carried their baby around inside her for nine months prior to that, even. It had been a whole damn year since she'd gotten Olivia all to herself.

No wonder she was horny as hell. And no wonder she somehow still missed the woman she woke up next to every morning.

Two months of marriage wasn't enough time before beginning a pregnancy. Amanda had known that when she expressed interest in the idea last year on her birthday, while she sat across from Olivia in what was to become their favorite sweets shop; had known, the instant she saw the quietly hopeful spark in her new bride's warm brown eyes, that she would agree to anything if it put that look of wonder and boundless love on Olivia's face.

She didn't regret the decision to have Samantha—not for one second—and she understood the urgency. Neither she or her wife were getting any younger, and the longer they waited to have another child, the more difficult it would have been, the greater the likelihood of complications. Amanda didn't mind that the big decisions moved at warp speed for them; that was how she'd made decisions all her life. No sense slowing down now, especially when you were past forty and just starting a family.

But occasionally the old Amanda, the one whose jealousy and impulsive behavior she'd spent the last year in therapy trying to suppress, still made an appearance. That Amanda wanted the undivided attention Olivia had promised the night before. And they had fooled around a little that morning, after the kids drifted out to watch cartoons in the living room, and Olivia turned the bassinet away from the bed.

"Even if she did wake up, you really think she's gonna know what we're doing?" Amanda had asked, hands clasped behind her head on the pillow, a smirk on her lips. She'd stretched out her foot, plucking at the hem of Olivia's rumpled camisole with dexterous toes, attempting to drag the captain back down beside her.

"I'llknow," Olivia replied, then turned to shuck off Amanda's pajama bottoms in one fell swoop. Her face was buried firmly between Amanda's thighs when Carisi texted to say he was on his way up from downstairs. They might have gotten to finish if he'd waited just a few more seconds to drop by unexpectedly. Once a co*ckblock, always a co*ckblock, Amanda supposed.

She had been tempted to reach out and stick a sock on the doorknob, after a glimpse through the front door peephole, but Olivia was already wandering from the bedroom, yawning, hair in slight disarray, a groggy Samantha nodding against her shoulder. Sonny was oblivious to what he had interrupted, despite Amanda's braless, cheerless state and Olivia's compulsive wiping at her mouth with the inside of her collar.

Amanda came dangerously close to strangling the ADA with her bare hands. She would have had the strength, too—all that pent up sexual frustration. It was the first time she hadn't climaxed while Olivia went down on her, and now she understood the captain's frustration at being on the cusp but denied release. Olivia must have the self-control of a Buddhist monk not to have murdered someone every time she felt like this.

That was how they ended up making out in the stairwell of their building for ten minutes, when they should have been walking the five blocks to the bagel shop. Not for homicidal reasons, but because Amanda had led her unsuspecting wife by the hand away from the elevator (they didn't have a very good track record with those) and cornered her on the landing between floors three and four.

Olivia smelled vaguely of breast milk—they both seemed to be swimming in it these days—and the coffee she'd sipped as Sonny shuffled paperwork around on the dining room table, using his pen as a pointer on the more graphic portions of each written statement, lest the children overhear. She had looked so sleepy, so obliviously sexy squinting at the pages from behind the reading glasses she fished out of her purse, Amanda could hardly concentrate on Carisi's yammering.

Unfortunately, Olivia had taken the glasses off and changed out of her fluttery camisole and capri bottoms before leaving the apartment. But thank the Lord for thin white t-shirts that clung to every contour, the ghost of a bra and bronze skin visible just beneath, and stretchy black yoga pants that contained more curves than the Himalayas. Comfy weekend attire was Amanda's favorite part of her wife's wardrobe, especially the weightless slip-on tennis shoes that put them at the same height, thanks to Amanda's chunky sneakers.

"Sweetheart, I love you, but those things on your feet are godawful," Olivia observed, the first time Amanda had worn the fat-heeled Skechers.

"What, they make me feel like a Spice Girl. I'm Peach Spice."

They also gave Amanda the perfect height boost to walk Olivia backwards, until her well-accentuated rear bumped against the handrail that bordered the landing wall, and clamp a hand to the rail at either side of her waist, ensnaring her for a deep, lingering kiss. Around the time they got married, Olivia had loosened her rules about public displays of affection; they were still largely off limits in the precinct, and she swatted away anything that approached her inner thigh while she was driving, but empty stairwells, stalled elevators, and cars parked on abandoned piers were all fair game. And Amanda loved to play.

"Our children are going to wonder where their brunch is," Olivia murmured, wrist raised for a glance behind Amanda's head at her watch, as Amanda peppered more kisses along her jawline. "And Carisi."

Pausing with both hands up Olivia's shirt, breasts squeezed gently together, enhancing the cleavage at the low V-neck mere inches from her lips, Amanda frowned. "Please don't say that name while I'm this close to your tit*." She gazed longingly at the sumptuous mounds cupped in her palms, mouth watering at the thought of what she'd like to do with them. But the moment had passed, the mental image of Dominick Carisi making love to his bagel and lox a definite mood killer. Olivia probably wouldn't let her past second base in the stairwell, anyway.

"Sorry. I meant the ADA in our apartment," Olivia amended, easing back to look Amanda in the eye. Her lips quirked into a wry smile when Amanda heaved a wistful sigh, gradually releasing her breasts like she was stacking wine glasses and didn't want the precarious tower to come crashing down. "Better?"

"Not really, no." Amanda screwed on a moody pout, but it didn't last very long. After a quick glance above and below to ensure they were indeed alone, Olivia caught her t-shirt by the hem and flipped it up, exposing her bra and chest fully, with a taunting little shimmy of the shoulders. She grinned widely at Amanda's surprised expression and whipped the shirt back into place just in time, a latch clicking open on one of the other landings. Company coming.

"That oughta tide you over," Olivia said, plucking up Amanda's hand and leading her toward the stairs, "at least until we get Sammie down for a nap and crank up the cartoons."

"My Lord, woman, you are a shameless hussy," Amanda teased, keeping her voice low, in case they met up with the other tenet on the last few flights down. But Olivia's giggles drowned out the sound of footsteps, and whichever neighbor had happened into the seldom used stairwell never crossed their path. Must have been an upstairs occupant.

Moments later, they emerged from their apartment building and into an ideal New York City spring day, so mild and refreshing you could almost smell the flowers over the engine exhaust, almost hear the birds chirping over the swearing cabbies and honking horns. It was sunny enough for Olivia to slip off her unzipped hoodie and tie it around her waist.

Ever since Amanda's prowess at braiding hair revealed itself, Olivia had requested a different style braid at least once a week. Truthfully, it was just an excuse for Amanda to play with her hair, a fact they were both aware of, and one they both used to its full advantage. Today, she had only wanted a loose side plait, which bobbed on her shoulder as they walked, the fringe at the end curled against one breast like a sleeping cat. Her hair was longer than ever, and Amanda could have spent the better part of the weekend running her fingers through it. Had done so on past occasions, as a matter of fact.

But Carisi needed his damn nasty fish bagel.

Sighing, she fitted her hand into Olivia's, falling into step with her wife's long, easy stride. Her own legs had to work a little faster than their regular clipped pace to keep up, but she didn't mind. She was glad Olivia didn't tailor her steps for anyone, including Amanda herself. The captain had tried to make herself smaller for Amanda in the past—tried to just grit her teeth and "take it"—and it always ended badly. Olivia Benson wasn't meant to follow any path but her own.

Together they exuded confidence as they strolled hand in hand to the first crosswalk. Nothing could have prepared Amanda for her move to the City all those years ago, not even her time in Atlanta; part of her present day surefootedness on the overcrowded streets and sidewalks of Manhattan, she owed to Olivia. The older woman's poise and agility in the urban setting were something to behold. She might not be a dancer, but her movement throughout the city was as well-choreographed as any ballet. Amanda had learned from watching her, emulating what she saw, the way she and Kim used to teach themselves the dance moves from music videos. "Rhythm Nation," "Vogue," "Cold Hearted," "Smooth Criminal"—none compared to her city girl.

Pride at walking alongside such a woman, the wedding band on her finger proof that they belonged to each other (and proof that Amanda always settled her debts; she'd worked her ass off to pay Olivia back for that ring, despite the captain's reluctance to accept the money), might have had a little something to do with Amanda's co*cky strut as well.

They turned a lot of heads when they were in public, even among native New Yorkers, who tended toward the jaded seen-it-all side of the spectrum. Olivia attributed it to Amanda's fair and delicate beauty, but Amanda disagreed—this city devoured fair and delicate. Gobbled it up and spat it out like a barn owl with a mouse. It was the fierce beauty, the inner strength and indomitable spirit, that survived in a place like this. That's why people looked at them so often. And it originated from Olivia.

"Whoa! Watch out!"

Amanda's reverie was cut abruptly and breathlessly short when an arm shot out, blocking her path and colliding with her breastbone. Before she could comprehend why Olivia had just clotheslined her, a flash of yellow zipped past, hot and hulking, leaving behind a gust of warm, sulfuric air that snatched at her breath and blew her hair back in long streamers. The last time she had felt three-thousand pounds of steel breeze by her like that was when Tad Orion tried to run her and Olivia down in a stolen Mercedes in the Catskills.

"Geez," she said, staring dazedly after the speeding cab that had almost been her demise. It had plowed through the red light without even slowing down, inches from taking Amanda with it as she started across the street. "Crazy sumbitch nearly wiped me out. D'you see that?"

"Kinda hard to miss." Olivia glanced pointedly at her extended arm, still braced against Amanda's collarbone. She lowered it a moment later and resumed holding Amanda's hand, leading the way into the crosswalk with the hesitation of someone encountering a mud puddle, rather than someone who had just saved her spouse from certain death. She'd become an expert at last-minute rescues, due in large part to their children—specifically Jesse, who didn't just stroll blindly towards danger, but ran full speed ahead.

A few of the saves were truly magnificent to behold: the one-armed catch as Jesse plummeted headfirst from a tree branch taller than Olivia herself; the hawklike swoop to grab the back of Jesse's overall straps and haul her away from the edge of a subway platform; the gasp and lunge that prevented countless heavy objects, including a stuffed bookcase, a set of expensive china, and the flatscreen at home, from toppling onto the adventurous little girl's head. Olivia had honed her reflexes on the worst scum in the city, and they were still no match for the six-year-old kamikaze known as Jesse Eileen Rollins-Benson.

Neither, apparently, was Amanda. Her wife already seemed to have forgotten the homicidal taxi by the time they cleared the opposite curb. But then:

"You okay, love?" Olivia cast a sidelong glance in Amanda's direction, gave her hand a faint squeeze. Per their therapists' requests, they had been working on affording each other space and not doting quite so intently on their spouse. (Well, Olivia was working on it. Amanda made a halfhearted attempt once or twice, then went right back to fretting over the least sign of discomfort or unhappiness from the captain.)

Olivia's startle response had calmed considerably in the months after insemination. In fact, it was around the time of Samantha's first kick that Amanda noticed a change in her wife's anxiety level, as if that tiny fluttering beneath the palm Amanda grabbed and pressed to her belly had soothed Olivia's deepest, most ingrained fears. An affirmation of life, and proof that Olivia could bring something of absolute purity and good into the world. This child would never question whether she was wanted, loved, cherished. This child would never wonder if she was a monster.

"Yeah, I'm okay," said Amanda, massaging circles on the back of Olivia's hand with her thumb. She wouldn't wish PTSD on anyone, least of all her captain, but she did miss taking care of Olivia and feeling needed. And though loathe to admit it, she missed being fussed over by the other woman as well. She'd gotten used to being pampered and pacified for nine months; now all the Pampers and pacifiers belonged to Sammie Grace.

As they should. And Amanda was immensely proud of the strides Olivia had made in her recovery; wouldn't begrudge her that for one moment. Still, it was probably a good idea for Amanda to jot down in her journal a few of the less noble feelings she'd wrestled with recently—jealousy, fear of being replaced, desire for attention—and discuss them with Dr. Hanover next session.

"You sure?" Olivia lifted her sunglasses and propped them on top of her head, studying Amanda a bit more closely. She hadn't worn any makeup for this outing, and her freckles ran amok on her cheeks and nose, cinnamon brown in the late spring sun. The lone freckle on her upper lip reminded Amanda of a wayward speck of chocolate syrup, and she had the sudden urge to lick it off. "You're awfully quiet over there. Something you need to talk about?"

Without any forewarning from her brain, Amanda heard her lips inquire, "How'd you get that scar?" She had no idea what brought the question on, only that, with both sides of Olivia's hair gathered into the braid and the sun shining down on her forehead, the jagged blemish gleamed noticeably.

Amanda knew the story behind every one of her wife's scars, except for that intricate silvery zigzag. There was the caterpillar shape on Olivia's right palm, courtesy of Amanda's pocket knife, and the pinched skin at the web of her left thumb—courtesy of a kitchen knife and Amanda's mother; the little divot in her forearm, just under the left elbow, from being stabbed by an intruder, years before Amanda's transfer to SVU; a crease down the middle of her shoulder, as if it had been poorly ironed post-op; the thin white stripe across her neck from Calvin Arliss' razor; and a deep furrow low on her abdomen, from an emergency appendectomy at the age of ten. And those were just the impressions left by a blade.

Most of the visible scars for which William Lewis was responsible, a mosaic confined almost entirely to the upper body (the lower region, his pièce de résistance, had been branded in other ways), were from cigarettes. Four altogether, focused on Olivia's breasts. Amanda hardly saw the puckered white flesh anymore—one looked like a perfect bullseye, an outer ring still visible around the inner dot where the tip had pressed the longest—and she had done her best not to stare or avert her eyes too often in the beginning, when she and Olivia were new and tentative in their lovemaking.

The two that really infuriated Amanda and made her wish she could resurrect Lewis, just to have the pleasure of killing him again, were the spiky teeth of a house key, concealed between Olivia's cleavage, and the serpentine length of wire hanger that slithered along one hip. That snakelike mark bothered Amanda the most. It hadn't been administered through clothing (too distinct), which meant Lewis had Olivia's pants down at some other point, besides in the bathroom. That part of the story had been left out, and Amanda hadn't pushed, though Lord knew she wanted to.

Last but not least were the slit on Olivia's left eyelid, incurred during a sorority volleyball match gone awry, and the mystery scar on her forehead. Amanda had hoped the story of the latter would be offered up someday without prompting. But a year in, she still didn't know where the fault-line in her wife's otherwise smooth brow had come from. She probably should have gone on waiting for Olivia to bring it up in her own time. They just didn't have much of that anymore—their own time.

"This one?" Olivia touched the scar as if there were several to choose from in that particular area. She frowned at first, stroking the seamed skin with her fingertip, hesitating like she needed to think the answer over, the memory buried deep. "Childhood accident," she said eventually, her voice almost too soft to be heard above the street noise. It appeared she might leave it at that, but when they stopped at another crosswalk, she spoke again. "I was three. Fell into the bathroom mirror and got a big piece of glass embedded in my forehead. My mother said it looked like someone threw a tomahawk at me."

She chopped the side of her hand towards her forehead and made the noise.Pffwt.

Just as Amanda was thinking that it didn't sound too awful or unusual—she had scars from similar childhood mishaps; Jesse got it honestly—another thought occurred to her, and this onewasterrible. "Tell me she didn't do that to you, Liv. Please. Otherwise . . . "

Otherwise what, Amanda couldn't finish. She would like to have slapped Serena Benson across her damn alky face for the pain she'd put Olivia through, whether the woman had rape trauma syndrome or not. Being traumatized was no excuse for neglecting an innocent child, and it sure as hell wasn't an excuse for abusing that child. Olivia still downplayed the mistreatment, refusing to call them beatings ("She usually only slapped me or, you know . . . grabbed me, or something"—this, while demonstrating with a hand clamped roughly around a bicep), attempted murder ("She didn't know what she was doing, I don't think she would have really hurt me"), or sexual abuse ("Not all of them came after me, and she tried to stop most of the ones who did").

Most, but not all. Amanda would never forget the matter-of-fact way Olivia described being forced, at fifteen, to give her mother's latest one night stand a handjob in the middle of their kitchen, only for Serena to walk in, see the assault,thankher weeping child, and lead the scumbag molester back to her bed to finish f*cking him.

Would that Serena Benson have slammed her three-year-old daughter face-first into a mirror, resulting in a tomahawk-sized chunk of glass slicing the baby's head open and scarring her for life? You bet your f*cking ass she would.

"No," Olivia said at once, though the lengthy pause that immediately followed piqued Amanda's curiosity—and her suspicion. "She didn't do it. But . . . she left me alone in the bathtub. I got out and climbed onto the sink to play in the medicine cabinet. That's how I slipped and fell into the glass."

"Why the hell'd she leave you by yourself in the tub?" Amanda asked in a peevish tone. She was determined to be pissed off at Serena, even if the woman hadn't harmed her daughter on purpose.That time, Amanda thought to herself, darkly. What kind of mother left a toddler alone in the bath, anyway? That was how most accidental drownings occurred in the home.

Then again, maybe that was the idea. If the kid happened to die—well, Serena would no longer be stuck raising her rapist's baby, now would she?

Amanda forced away the ugly thoughts, hoping Olivia couldn't read them all over her face. If the captain had never made the connection—that the same woman who had sat on her chest, strangling her until she started to lose consciousness; chased her with a deadly weapon, threatening to never let anyone else have her; almost burnt the apartment down with Olivia inside, asleep—if Olivia had never realized that same woman might have wanted her to just die, Amanda would do whatever it took to keep her from figuring it out.

"I don't know." Olivia turned her face aside, gazing across the street at something unseen. In some ways, she had more difficulty talking about her mother than sharing the details of her multiple assaults. The wounds were just too deep. Amanda understood because she had the same problem. "I've always assumed she was drunk. She did that a lot. Started drinking and forgot where I was. That I needed her."

This time it was Amanda's hand that went up, stopping Olivia from entering the crosswalk too soon. Though not a close call like the cab a moment ago, Amanda held tight to her wife as several cars and a van whizzed by. She nuzzled gently at the bonnet of dark brown hair created by Olivia's side braid. "Sorry, baby. I shouldn't have brought it up," she murmured, pressing a kiss to the ear buried under all that hair. "Just been curious."

"It's okay." Olivia turned to peck Amanda on the tip of the nose, so lightly it almost made her sneeze. When the sensation and the subsequent blinking had passed, she found Olivia smiling warmly over at her. "I've got everything I need now. And it's not going anywhere."

"Damn straight I ain't." Amanda grinned and guided Olivia into the crosswalk and past the line of cars waiting for the light to change. Releasing Olivia's hand, she spun around on her heel and began jogging backwards in front of her wife, encouraging a brisker pace, but really just showing off. "Well, just to get some bagels. But you're coming with me. Get those long legs moving, city girl. Hup two three four."

Three blocks later, the marching count had faded—though their steps were still fairly uniform and military—and Amanda trotted ahead to sweep open the door to the aptly named shop Bagels Bagels Bagels. She ushered Olivia inside with another sweeping gesture that earned an eye roll and a whispered accusation ("Dork") as the captain glided by on those gloriously long legs, her subtle bittersweet scent wafting behind her. Amanda followed after it like that randy cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew tailing an especially fragrant feline.

"Are you humming 'What's New puss*cat?'" Olivia asked with a wry little smile as they stood near the cash register, watching their order being plucked from a buffet of carbs and yeast. The baby-faced boy wielding the tongs chattered them playfully at Olivia through the glass windshield before selecting her whole wheat bagel, which would promptly be toasted and smeared with peanut butter and grape jelly at home. Amanda's Asiago bagel came next, topping off the bulging paper sack, its warm aroma already making her mouth water.

"Yup." Amanda scrounged in the pocket of her Adidas three-stripes, withdrawing her debit card and putting up a hand to stay Olivia, who was patting down the hoodie around her waist, trying to locate her own pocketed plastic. "Keep your money, brunch is on me. puss*cat."

"Okay, Tom Jones." Olivia gave a small snort and started to say something else, but fell silent instead, her smile slipping as she glanced at something behind Amanda. She looked as if she'd just been made by a perp, and she let her gaze drift to one side before turning slowly to the counter, facing the same direction as Amanda.

"What's wrong?"

"Don't look," Olivia said sharply, when Amanda tried to steal a peek over her shoulder. "There's a guy in the corner who keeps watching us. Your eight o'clock. Really tall,Leave It to Beaverhaircut, serial killer eyes. He's creeping me out."

Hands thrust into her pockets, Amanda pretended to study the bagel shop's interior with great interest, as if there were an art installment on the walls, rather than the knotty pine paneling that covered every surface. She did everything except whistle nonchalantly as she angled herselftick-tick-ticktoward six . . . seven . . . eight o'clock and dropped her gaze onto the man stationed there. Not her stealthiest work, but it was her day off.

He was very tall, that was a fact. Six-four or -five, from the looks of him. He was also very young, Amanda thought, probably not much more than twenty. The Beaver Cleaver hair didn't help. His eyes, which lingered on Olivia's back for a moment, then cut straight to Amanda so suddenly she almost gasped and looked away, were deep-set and penetrating, the irises not quite symmetrical, one lagging behind the other. They reminded her of a doll whose open and shut eyelids got stuck in different positions. When a slow smile unfurled on his prominent, rubbery lips, she felt the hair at the back of her neck stand up. Serial killer indeed.

But he was just a kid, and his smile was friendly enough, if somewhat unsettling in its execution. A lazy eye and weird facial expressions didn't mean someone was a bad person. As a matter of fact, many of the most heinous criminals looked like perfectly normal people. This kid might be a bit strange, but he was probably harmless. Yet another gawker who recognized the strength and power Olivia exuded, even while dressed down and looking forty at most. You could take the girl out of the precinct, but you couldn't take the precinct out of the girl.

"Aww, he's kinda cute, in a Hannibal Lecter sort of way." Amanda hooked a protective arm behind Olivia's back nonetheless, keeping her close. She didn't stiffen or shake anymore, the way she had after Orion; after the bank robbery. After Henry Mesner. Still, it would have been better if Amanda hadn't followed up with, "He probably just wants to eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."

Later, she would recall quoting that line and despise herself for it, for making light of Olivia's discomfort. Now though, she nudged her wife's hip, trying to draw out a smile, or at least chase away the dark cloud that had passed over the other woman's features. The darkest thing on Olivia's face since their daughter's birth had been the smudges under her eyes from not getting enough sleep. Samantha was finally on a schedule now, and her mommy's eyes had never been more vibrant. Almost no zoning out in the past year. No night terrors, either.

"I'm serious. He's—" At the sound of the bells tinkling above the shop door, Olivia glanced back and breathed a deep sigh of relief. "Leaving. Good." She forced a short, scornful laugh and shook her head as if disgusted with herself for overreacting. "Sorry. Guess I'm being paranoid. He really was staring at us, though."

If anyone had the right to be paranoid about watchful young men, it was Olivia. She'd been stalked by two of them, one of whom sexually assaulted her and tried to slit her throat, the other forcing her vehicle into oncoming traffic. Calvin Arliss was almost four years in his grave, and last year they had gotten word that Henry Mesner was arrested at the Canadian border, where he fled after another failed murder attempt—this one on his mother and younger sister.

Truthfully, Amanda had been relieved by that news as well. She didn't expect Henry to return and try to finish off Olivia, not if he had any kind of brain in his demented head, but it was better knowing he was behind bars. It freed Olivia from constantly having to look over her shoulder, and it freed Amanda from having to track down the little bastard herself. That was the least she could have done, since she was off visiting petty acts of revenge on Olivia's rapist ex-fiancé Daniel while the captain was being hunted.

That experience—along with the nightmare in Calvin and Amelia's kill room—and getting shot in the stomach by twenty-something Makiah Washington had made Amanda somewhat wary of college-aged kids for a while, too. If she'd let herself, she could have become anxious to the point of being frightened by young men in bagel shops. So she hadn't let herself.

"You don't need to be sorry," Amanda said to Olivia, accepting her debit card back from the kid behind the counter. He was a high schooler and too wet behind the ears to be a threat. He still had his baby fat, and he called Amanda "ma'am" when he thanked her and handed over the bagels. "Guy gave me the creeps, too. But that's the beauty of living in this big overpopulated city of yours. We'll never have to see his ugly mug ever again."

Olivia cast a skeptical glance out the glass storefront they were headed towards, and though her feet didn't falter, there was a momentary hesitation to continue on. It was the same reluctant behavior Noah sometimes displayed when he felt uncertain about approaching family cuddle sessions comprised entirely of girls. It tore at Amanda's heart then, and it tore at her heart now, to see Olivia conflicted about the simple act of walking outside into the sunshine. The captain had made great strides in her recovery, it was true. But every once in a while, she needed a bit of coaxing, a bit of reassurance. Maybe even a little of the brash (and occasionally unfounded) confidence Amanda had in generous supply.

She switched the bag of bagels to her opposite arm, cradling it like a fat, delicious baby against her hip, and linked arms with Olivia on the other side, escorting her to the door. A small, grateful smile turned up the corners of Olivia's mouth, and she followed willingly, hugging Amanda's arm to her chest. "You're right," she said, leaning into Amanda's side as they exited the shop and began the lazy trek back to the apartment, neither in the mood to rush it. "How'd you get so smart, little pretty?"

"Welp, way I figure, learned 'most everything I know from my city girl." Amanda affected her best cowboy strut, which wasn't easy in sneakers and track pants, but she made it work. Just needed the right amount of bounce in the knees, the faintest turnout of the toes. All that was missing were the chaps and spurs. "And she's one smart cookie."

"Chocolate chip or Oreo?"

The sly question put a grin on Amanda's face and an extra spring in her step. Oreos had become a favorite post-coital snack and subject of major debate for the two of them. Olivia started it, often requesting the sandwich cookies whenever Amanda padded out to the kitchen, ravenous after an energetic roll in the sack. Now Amanda craved them as well, and found she couldn't eat them without feeling slightly amorous.

But the real issue—the one that saw them bickering like a couple of old ladies, each certain hers was the superior recipe—washowto eat them: Olivia insisted they should be dunked in milk, which she then nursed from the cookie, wafers and cream dissolving to a chocolaty mash on her tongue; Amanda swore by twisting off the top, licking up every ounce of filling, and consuming the leftover wafers last, one at a time. "Hey, save some of that for me," Olivia had remarked once, while Amanda laved a cookie clean with the determination of Frannie and a spoonful of peanut butter. The captain hadn't been referring to the Oreo.

"Oh, definitely Oreo," Amanda said now, dropping her voice to a seductive purr. She winked at her wife, who gave an appreciative hum of laughter and again hugged tight to her arm. "She's chock full of all kindsa good stuff."

"Charmer." Olivia stated it like an accusation, but craned her neck to stamp a kiss on Amanda's cheek when they stopped at yet another crosswalk. She eased back and gazed softly at Amanda, immeasurable fondness gleaming in her warm brown eyes. "You know how much I love you, right?"

"'Course I do. What's not to love?"

If Amanda had known those were the last words she would speak to Olivia—her captain, her perfect, fierce, loving, compassionate city girl—before their entire world was ripped apart; if she'd suspected in the least that the van parked half-assed on the curb as they approached the second crosswalk held horrors untold, curated specifically for herself and for her wife; if she had ever dreamed that, sitting in a cell in Sealview Correctional, Sondra Vaughn was smiling at an engagement photo of her and Olivia, to whom the prisoner whispered, "Happy anniversary, Captain," Amanda might have chosen a better goodbye.

If she had known.

It started with the sunglasses. Olivia bent to pick them up when they fell from their perch atop her head and cracked against the sidewalk. Though not prescription, they were an expensive pair—dark aviators that made her look twice as badass and effortlessly sexy. "Shoot," she muttered, losing a few cool points, but none of her cuteness, with the mild oath. (Her New Year's resolution was to stop swearing in front of the children. Jesse had gotten several time outs at school earlier in the year for exclaimingdammitduring spelling tests.) "Darn it, shoot."

"If you insist," said a male voice, barely rising above the volume of normal conversation, but clearly audible over the Saturday traffic. It sounded a bit like Calvin Arliss; that creepy little f*cker had always seemed to be speaking from the bottom of a well, his voice at once hollow and resounding. But the Mangler was dead.

This was the guy from the bagel shop, and his off-center eyes once again struck Amanda as odd, even a little deranged, as he stepped from the shadows of some scaffolding on the corner, aimed a gun at her, and fired.

These assholes never give me a chance to react, she thought, watching the bullet arc toward her like an arrow loosed from a bow.

Except it wasn't a bullet, she realized at the last second, noting that there were two glints of silver advancing, something that resembled fishing line trailing behind them, and instead of a deafening bang, she'd heard a crisp snap, like a twig breaking underfoot. And then her legs were the twigs, buckling beneath her as the prongs from the gun pierced her side and hip, stinging her through the useless layers of t-shirt and track pants that were her only protection.

It's a Taser, not a gun, her brain relayed an instant before the real pain began. That knowledge was cold comfort as her central nervous system turned against her, muscles contracting so violently she pitched forward, clenched as tightly as a noose with a body kicking and twitching at the end. She would have smacked face-first against the pavement
(See? Jesse gets it honest)
and probably knocked out a few teeth, if not for Olivia and her lightning reflexes.

Dropping her sunglasses for a second time, the captain's hands shot forward to catch Amanda, a hairsbreadth away from colliding with the ground. "Oh my God," she said, her voice jittery in Amanda's ears, but whether it was the convulsions or the electric crackle from the Taser was hard to say. A definite schism of terror ran through the reflexive statement, like a crack opening up the earth—normally so solid and steady—during an earthquake.

Olivia was scared, and Amanda was in too much agony to care.

She had been tasered before, upon joining the police force. It was a requirement, a rite of passage of sorts, for the newest officers welcomed into the Atlanta Police Department to be tasered, and later in the same endurance test, pepper sprayed in the face. The goal was to give rookies a better understanding of the effect disarming agents had on the human body and to prepare them for the event, should a suspect ever use those agents against them. Amanda had actually laughed back then, giving a rowdy war whoop and slaps on the back to her fellow recruits, as they wiped tears and snot from their tomato-red faces and flung it from hands that still tremored like an old drunk's. It was a good lesson, one she never forgot.

But nothing prepared you for the mind-numbing, bone-rattling pain when a stranger came out of nowhere and shot an electrical current through your body for five excruciating seconds.

And in that five seconds, an eternity. Amanda saw it unfold around her as if it happened underwater, a dreamy, stop-motion ballet. Olivia lowered her heavily to the ground ("Amanda! What the hell are you doing? Stop it!"), half falling and half dropping to her knees on the sidewalk, from the sudden dead weight in her arms. She gazed down from above, features twisted in concern and confusion, a golden aura behind her, turning the tips of her hair amber.

Out of the scrambled thoughts that went through Amanda's glitching hard-drive of a brain, there emerged one clear, coherent line of code—She looks like an angel—and then it was lost. Another upheaval of pain, her insides trying to migrate to her outsides. (How long could five seconds last?) Forever, said the kid with the Taser and the serial killer eyes, but it came out, "Sorry, Cap, boss's orders."

A shrill whistle followed, and that's when the second man rolled back the slider door and alit from the van. He reminded Amanda of a panther descending a tree branch—the sinewy, crouching movements, the plodding boots that belied his speed. She could see him slinking ever closer, his flinty eyes focused solely on Olivia, whose back was to him.

The captain never saw him coming. She was too busy shielding Amanda's head from the concrete below and yelling at the first assailant. But Amanda saw it all: his platinum fauxhawk and face full of metal (industrial piercings in both ears, barbells in his eyebrow, a labret, a septum ring), the teardrop tattoo on his cheek and the riot of ink that spilled from his neck and on down both muscular arms, his silver tooth that glinted dully when he grinned at her and wielded the syringe. He was directly behind Olivia now, so close he could reach out and stroke the braid on her shoulder. Instead, he aligned the needle with the exposed side of her neck—

Oh my God, Liv, turn around, Amanda screamed with everything she had in her, but the only sound her lips produced was a faint gurgle, drowned out by the sizzling Taser.

—and jammed it in, depressing the plunger to the hilt, whatever substance it contained disappearing into Olivia's bloodstream. At first the captain merely grimaced and put a hand to her neck, as if she'd just been stung by a bee. She tried to turn then, to look up at the man holding the syringe, but something was very wrong. Her hand flopped uselessly into her lap, fingertips glancing across Amanda's brow, and she slumped sideways, her upper body boneless and drooping, head lolling against one shoulder as though her neck was made of rubber.

Stroke, Amanda thought, paralyzed by fear and the stun gun. Someone had taken a hit out on them, and this was the last thing she would see before they died: her wife's wide, terrified eyes looking to her for help she couldn't give.

But that didn't make sense. Why tase one cop in broad daylight and drug the other into a stroke? Hitmen didn't work that way. They shot you with real bullets from real guns until you were real f*cking dead.

No, it wasn't a hit, Amanda discovered, when the electrical pulses finally—blessedly—reached their predetermined limit, relinquishing her hijacked muscles. Not a hit, but an abduction, and her body was too weak to do anything besides lie there as the men took Olivia by the arms and yanked her backwards, ejecting Amanda's head from her lap to thump against the pavement.

"Liv. No," Amanda cried feebly, trying to lift a hand, stretch it out towards the retreating figures who flanked Olivia, dragging her by the underarms like soldiers removing a wounded brother from the battlefield.

The captain's eyes were open and staring when she was lifted into the van, but her body remained flaccid, her lips slightly parted and wordless. Fully awake, unblinking, breathing, yet offering no resistance. Amanda mentally ticked off a list of drugs she knew could induce such a state: ketamine, maybe—although an injection of that probably would have rendered Olivia unconscious; succinylcholine, but oh Jesus if they gave her that, she wouldn't be able to breathe. It froze everything, including respiration, which was why anesthesiologists administered it in unison with a sedative and careful monitoring of the airway, so the patient (or the victims, which were what had familiarized Amanda with the drug) didn't panic, didn't lie there suffocating and unable to move, to scream.

Did these men know enough to help Olivia breathe? Did they care? Surely they wouldn't go through the trouble of abducting her, just to watch her turn blue and expire on the floor of some sh*tty old van, would they?

Actually, the van was in good shape, better than most of the undercover vans Amanda had worked in; sleek black with tinted windows, same as the Feebs used. No major distinguishing marks, and the nose was pointed away from Amanda, the license plate out of view. All she could see was Olivia being dumped onto the cargo mat in back of the van, much like the deer carcasses she'd watched her father and his hunting buddies sling into the beds of their pickup trucks, amid the empty beer cans and fishing tackle, during smoky crisp autumns in Loganville.We're having venison tonight, boys.

"Liv." Amanda managed to reach out this time, her arm abnormally heavy and her hand trembling like one of those autumn leaves that the neighbors raked up and burned, filling the woods with a scorched smell she could taste in the meat when she ate her daddy's latest kill. (Some people claimed the animal's fear yielded a distinct flavor. A desirable flavor.)

Flat on her back in the van, Olivia didn't move a muscle, her eyes fixed so raptly on the ceiling she appeared to be having a vision of God. In her head, Amanda heard her Grandmama Brooks plunking away at the church organ and singing in a sweet birdlike trill:Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. And then Olivia was gone, swallowed up by the dark van when the guy with all the metal in his face and ink on his body flashed her another grin and slammed the door.

"Help," Amanda said hoarsely. It felt like she was on her dozenth rep of an intense push-up routine—military, not the modified kind for girls—but she managed to rise onto her elbows and hold up her head about as well as her three-month-old daughter could have done.

There were a handful of bystanders on the opposite curb, a couple with their cell phones out, aimed at the vehicle that lunged forward and made a sharp U-turn in the middle of the street. A disgruntled cry arose from the crowd when the van bumped onto the curb, nearly sideswiping the looky-loos in front. Amanda caught a glimpse of the burly driver (shaved head, small goatee, big muscles) and the last few digits of the license plate (86J) as the man cranked the steering wheel like he was changing course on a ship, and sped away in a screech of tires and hot rubber. Another haphazard turn at the end of the street, and the van roared out of sight.

Thirty-one years of searching for Olivia; nine more years of Amanda with her head up her ass, not realizing how in love she was with her sometimes-partner turned boss; a year of living together that felt as if it had always been, like Amanda was finally home; another year and a marriage that felt like the truest, mostrightdecision she had ever or would ever make—all of this, and she had just lost Olivia in an instant.

People were milling around Amanda now, asking if she was hurt, if she needed an ambulance or the police.Where were you f*ckers ten seconds ago?she wanted to shout at them, but heard herself inquiring about the license plate instead. "Did anybody see the rest? Please, anybody?"

Someone thought it was a "U," not a "J." Someone else swore the "8" was really a "B." The woman who helped Amanda to her feet and steadied her while she swayed said that, yes, she would be willing to come down to the precinct so TARU could take a look at the footage captured on her phone.

"What's that?" Amanda asked, staring at the hoodie the same woman handed over, as if she'd never seen such an article of clothing in her entire life. Maybe this lady thought Amanda was shivering because she was cold, rather than from the fifty-thousand volts that had been delivered by the barbs she pinched from her flesh, or from watching her wife be snatched up right in front of her and not doing a damn thing to stop it.

"It fell off the lady when they threw her in the van," said the woman, whose voice was deceptively young and tinged with a slight British accent. Her face, when Amanda finally glanced at it, belonged to a much older woman, and it was creased with deep sympathy. Amanda hadn't realized the woman was still keeping her upright, a hand at her back. "Is she a friend of yours?"

Something about that hand made Amanda feel like she might scream or cry—or both. But she couldn't fall apart, not while time was so important. Not while Liv needed her. (The first few hours were the most crucial in any abduction, not just the ones involving children; beyond that, she couldn't let herself think about time length or likely scenarios.) She accepted the sweatshirt, clutching it to her and vaguely noting the heft in one of the pockets. Olivia's cell phone. They wouldn't be able to track her with it. Amanda hugged the hoodie tighter, praying that, wherever the men were taking Olivia, it would be someplace warm.

"She's my wife," Amanda said in a thin, broken whisper, and sank to the ground, sitting down hard on the sidewalk. She was aware it should hurt, but her body felt numb and displaced, like a lip or gums given a shot of Novocain at the dentist. Even the inside of her skull felt as if it had been clanged like a bell. "M-my wife . . . "

From her pocket, she dug out her cell phone, located Fin's number among her contacts, and thumbed the telephone icon beneath his name. She missed the first time, and tried again, repeating the words "My wife" under her breath, over and over, while the call rang through.

"What happened to the man who was with you?" she asked suddenly, of the Good Samaritan who had helped her and who was now gathering up Olivia's cracked sunglasses and the bag of bagels, placing them beside Amanda on the sidewalk. There had been a man standing next to the woman in the crowd, filming the van's getaway, Amanda was sure of it. He might have captured something that this lady's camera missed.

"What man?" asked the woman, a bit dubious, as if she suspected Amanda of hitting her head during the fall. It was thumping at the back, where it had kissed the pavement when Olivia was ripped away from her, but Amanda knew what she'd seen. The guy had been sporting a red MAGA cap, that's why she noticed him. No one wore that sh*t anymore. "I'm not with anyone else, miss."

"Hey, Rollins. What up?" Fin's voice, oddly chipper for the sergeant on a working weekend, interrupted Amanda before she could reply to the older woman. He sounded like he had just finished chuckling at a joke. It was jarring, finding that humor still existed in the world. "Call to gloat about having a day off?"

"They took her, Fin," Amanda blurted, barely getting the words out around the sob that immediately followed. "They took Liv."

The bagels were warm against Amanda's leg as she did her best to explain what had happened. Like laughter, the smell of fresh baked bread, normally a comforting, homey fragrance, seemed profane at a time such as this. Vaguely, she wondered if Olivia would ever get to eat bagels again. If they would ever get to walk down the street again, holding hands in the sunshine. Laughing and loving.

Fifteen minutes later, when Fin whipped his Crown Vic up to the curb, lights and sirens awhirl, Amanda was still hugging Olivia's hoodie to her chest, trying to hold onto every last ounce of her wife's warmth and scent contained in its folds.

. . .

Chapter 4: Exit Light, Enter Night

Notes:

I'm sorry I missed yesterday's update, guys. I was feeling crummy and ended up sleeping most of the day. Now that I'm alive again, here's a new chapter for you. I suppose it could have been split in half, but I wanted to keep the chapters a bit more substantial this time, since there's so many. That said, I don't want to rush through it either, 'cause I put so much work into it, and I like hearing what y'all think each time. So, yeah... keep the reviews a-comin' and happy Friday to you all!

Chapter Text

Chapter 4.

Exit Light, Enter Night

. . .

The coffee, a generous term for the dark and watery brew swirling around in the mug Fin had blown into prior to filling ("Sorry, habit. Got open cabinets at home, sometimes the dust . . . " If he explained further, Amanda hadn't heard it), was hot as blue blazes. That term she had learned from her grandmama. "It's hot as blue blazes out there, Mandy. Come on in for some lemonade."

Grandmama Brooks always knew how to make everything better, whether it was a skinned knee, the unbearable Georgia heat, or another knockdown drag-out between Mama and Daddy. Absurdly, Amanda caught herself wishing her mother's mother was there now, to tickle her back with nimble pianist's fingers and sing a few stanzas of "You Are My Sunshine," until Amanda was smiling again. Her sweet grandmama, who couldn't even bear to kill the pests that invaded her garden, and who had remarked on Olivia's gentle spirit, likening it to that of a doe or a white dove, just last summer. Grandmama loved Olivia.

"This tastes like sh*t," Amanda said, and took another swig of the coffee, scalding her tongue and probably her esophagus with the bitter liquid.

If it hurt, she didn't notice. The sensation had not returned to her body since being tased. Fin kept trying to persuade her to get checked out by a doctor, and he was most certainly correct in his assessment that she was in shock from that street corner ambush, but once they had arrived at the precinct, she refused to leave it.

She couldn't feel her body without Olivia there. After Charles Patton held her down and raped her in a cheap motel room, she'd stumbled into the hall ("No need to rush off, pumpkin," he had called out to her), hunkered in the back seat of a cab, and fled to her apartment door, locking it behind her, as if she were being chased, all the while unable to feel anything below the shoulders. Something was taken from her back then—something vital and sustaining, a tether between mind and body—and today it had been torn away from her again. Only this time she couldn't just burn her clothes, skip town and pretend it never happened.

"Christ," she said, coughing into her fist after the next slug of hot java definitely did burn her throat. "Who made this?"

"Uh, sorry." Kat raised her hand sheepishly, then ducked behind her open laptop like she wanted to disappear underneath it and the file-strewn table. She was the one who had set up a command center in the interview room, complete with laptops, tablets (electronic and paper), a landline, and the coffeemaker, where the SVU officers could escape the growing circus in their squad room. It was a nice gesture, but it also meant she expected to be there for a while. Officer Tamin did not foresee her captain being returned any time soon.

That upset Amanda, and the bad coffee only added to her already frazzled nerves. The younger woman might be a certified health nut who preferred coconut water to caffeine, but if she wanted to make it in this unit—and two years in, she was still the newbie—she should learn how to operate a damn Keurig. Sometimes coffee was all that kept her squadmates going. "Oh. Well, pro tip for next time: more grounds, lower heat setting. Maybe something not quite so comparable to the surface of the sun, y'know?"

Amanda.

As clearly as if Olivia were seated in one of the other chairs hemmed around the table, Amanda heard the gentle reprimand. The captain was always getting on her to be nicer and more patient with Kat, the youngest and most inexperienced member in the unit. Amanda preferred the tough love approach, at least with a fellow cop, but she couldn't go against Olivia's wishes. Not right now.

"Sorry," she said to Kat, without much conviction. She sighed and put the mug aside, raking back the bangs from her forehead with several compulsive sweeps of her fingers. She longed for a ponytail ring, then remembered the one she'd twisted onto the end of Olivia's braid less than two hours ago, and abruptly let her hair fall in a heap around her face and shoulders. "I'm . . . going crazy just sitting here."

"Don't sweat it." Kat re-emerged from her hiding place, lips folded into a sympathetic smile. Her head tipped to one side, dark eyes soft and almost misty. (People had to stop looking at Amanda like that, or she would lose her mind.) "I get it. Totally."

Amanda dug her nails into the thighs of her track pants and tried counting to herself like Dr. Hanover had suggested. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. By the time she reached ten, her anger was supposed to have dissipated enough for her to give a calm and rational response to whomever she was addressing—at least in theory. But there were no theories that suited this situation. And there was no way in hell Katriona Tamin understood anything Amanda was going through.

Oh really?she wanted to demand of the younger woman. The twenty-seven-year-old had never even been married.Did you get tased and have to watch your wife be drugged, thrown into a van, and driven off by three strange men, for God only knew what purpose? I must've been out sick that day, Officer.

Those men hadn't been careful, either. Amanda wasn't concerned about what they had done to her; she hadn't hit her head that hard on the sidewalk—even if it was still throbbing and tender to the touch—and the quaking in her muscles was mostly gone. But the way that kid and the second abductor had manhandled Olivia made it clear she was not precious cargo to them. The second guy worried Amanda the most. Teardrop tattoos were prison ink, and they usually signified a murder conviction. An outline of a tear stood for attempted murder; this guy's was filled in, black as a seed. He had killed someone in the past. Planned it, followed through with it, and now he walked free. And now he had Olivia.

Ten Mississippi.

"Not that I've ever experienced anything like what you're going through," Kat was saying, her voice distant and meaningless to Amanda's ears. She might as well have been speaking Mandarin, or one of the other fifty-seven languages she apparently had at her disposal. Too many, if you asked Amanda. Sometimes plain old English worked best. "I just mean it's gotta be tough, with Garland ordering you off the case. I get that it's a conflict of interest, since she's your wife and all, but come on, if anyone's gonna bring her home, it's you."

Being taken off the case (officially) had been a slap in the face, that was true. Amanda might have punched the deputy chief when he made the pronouncement, if not for her sergeant holding her back. She had taken a menacing step towards the smartly dressed commander, who was to "fill in" for Olivia during her absence, though his time would be divided between SVU and his regular chiefly duties. Technically, Fin and Kat shouldn't have been allowed to work Olivia's case either, given their close relationships with her, but Christian Garland had ordered all hands on deck to find the missing captain—all, except Amanda's.

"Easy," Fin had cautioned softly, holding her by the shoulder. Somewhere in the back of Amanda's overstimulated brain, she'd been reminded of Jiminy Cricket playing conscience to the little wooden boy Pinocchio when her friend whispered in her ear. "He ain't gonna hang around and dirty up his nice clean suit. Wait till he leaves, then you can help look for her."

That was over an hour ago, and Amanda still hadn't turned up any leads. The squad room was filled to capacity with officers from different units, including Missing Persons and Major Crimes, most of them eager to find Captain Benson, whom they inevitably referred to as "the real deal" or "good police." Even the cops who had butted heads with Olivia in the past—usually the men with reputations as good ol' boys, or those with excessive force complaints in their jackets—were fired up about someone coming after one of their own. Their sister in blue, they were calling her.

Seeing them all gathered near the white board, watched over by the 8X10 photo of Olivia in her captain's uniform, made Amanda heartsick. She vividly remembered putting together a similar murder board and presenting it before her colleagues when Lewis had abducted Olivia the first time. God help her, she'd felt energized and alive back then, adrenaline pumping at the thought of her coworker in the hands of a monster like William Lewis. She had been concerned for Olivia, of course, but there was also that heady rush—almost a thrill of excitement—at the thought of taking Lewis down and saving the day.

This time she didn't feel excited, just shell-shocked, hollowed out, and desperately afraid. Beyond a couple of blurry shots captured from the bystander's cell phone footage, they didn't even have any profiles of the perps to display on the board. Just vague physical descriptions cobbled together from Amanda's admittedly compromised viewpoint: Perp One was early 20s, slim build, brown (Leave It to Beaver) hair, green or blue (serial killer) eyes; Perp Two was mid- to late-30s (plenty of time to become a hardened criminal), muscular build, dyed platinum hair, eye color unknown (something mean). She couldn't even wager a guess at the driver, other than a resemblance to a brawny Anton LaVey.Satanist on 'roidswas not a useful descriptor for an APB.

Amanda thought the younger guy was around six-four, a detail she'd repeated incessantly, until someone finally wrote it under the photo in which his bulging eyes were focused on an unpictured Olivia. The other guy was harder to tell, because Amanda had been lying down and only saw him sneaking forward with squatted knees, but he seemed close to Olivia's height when he hauled her upright. Height had little bearing on strength, though. Quite often the most violent criminals were of modest stature. Amanda herself could lift Olivia off her feet if she put enough muscle behind it. Why had that always filled her with such pride, like it was proof of her physical superiority?

Now it just made her nauseous. As did Olivia's personal information being splashed all over the murder board for everyone to see. Female brunette, brown eyes, 5'9" (5'8½" at her last doctor's appointment, a decrease for which Amanda had teased her mercilessly, crowing, "Who's the short one now, baby?" and poking her while she squirmed), 154 lbs. Most of the cops in attendance knew Captain Benson on sight—she had made a strong impression throughout the New York Police Department over the years, not just at the one-six—but if the FBI was called in to assist, they would need a physical description to aid their search. At first, Amanda hadn't understood why, the impulse to protect Olivia's privacy overruling her logic and all her police training. Then it clicked: bodies were often too disfigured to ID by facial features alone.

Jesus God.

"Don't worry, Rollins, we're gonna find her." Kat didn't reach over to pat Amanda's hand, but her voice sounded as though she had. "Hell, knowing the Cap, she'll probably rescue herself before we even—"

"What've you got?" Amanda asked, indicating the back of Kat's laptop with an abrupt nod. She appreciated the attempts at reassurance, but if the officer backpedaled any harder, she was going to break an axle. Amanda had neither the time nor the patience. "Anything?"

Kat's shoulders sagged, giving her a slightly chastised appearance. She gazed at the screen in front of her with a dubious expression, then askance at the squad room, where Fin was conferring with CSU about the Taser that had been left at the scene. The kid must have dropped it when he helped drag Olivia to the van.

"I'm not really supposed to . . . "

"When has that ever stopped you before?" Amanda asked, fixing the younger woman with a hard look. It wasn't right to lord that over Kat, especially when her own motto had always been that it was better to ask forgiveness than permission, but Amanda didn't care about right or wrong just then. She only cared about getting Liv back safe and sound. "You said yourself I'll be the one to find her. Garland ain't even here, and Fin's letting me help. So, tell me what you've got, Tamin."

After a brief hesitation and some chewing of the lip, Kat relented. She swiveled the laptop in Amanda's direction and wheeled her chair around the table, leaning in to operate the media player that engulfed the screen. "I still can't make out the full plate number," she said, and cautiously pressed play, as if slow movements might lessen the pain of viewing the video for the fortieth or fiftieth time. As if Amanda hadn't experienced it in living, breathing, brutal color. "And the van blocks most of the shot. But there is this guy. Over here in the red hat."

Somewhere between the ride to the precinct in Fin's department issued car and taking down the contact information of their eyewitness—a tourist from London who was visiting her granddaughter at university and accidentally caught Olivia's abduction on camera while recording a Facebook story—Amanda had forgotten about the man in the MAGA hat. She followed the accusatory line of Kat's finger as it pointed him out in the throng waiting to cross the street. Other than the outdated cap, he seemed fairly innocuous. An Average Joe clinging to an extinct administration, as men so often do. "What about him? Bastard didn't even stick around to help."

"Right. Didn't think much of him at first. What kind of asshole records something like that and doesn't offer it over to the cops, you know?" Kat tapped the screen emphatically, right on the man's side-turned face, then did the same to the rewind button. "But watch this. If I take it back to where Mrs. Lockhart leaves the café and starts filming . . . "

For several moments, Amanda didn't catch on. She stared intently at the jerky slo-mo images in the video—a blinding flare as Mrs. Lockhart conveyed her cell phone from dim café to bright sunshine, the old woman's sandaled feet moving along the sidewalk, the seasick whirling while she figured out where the camera lens was located, and a sharp pan to the left when the action broke out—growing more frustrated with every second that passed. "Just tell me what—"

She cut herself off, all at once spying the small detail that her brain had tuned out after studying the footage too many times. Kat replayed the moment, pitched forward and eyeing Amanda coaxingly, like a speech therapist struggling physically to encourage a stuttering pupil. There it was, a split-second before the van screeched up, before the kid had emerged from under the scaffolding and pulled the trigger.If you insist, he had said.Sorry, lady. . . A blink-and-you-miss-it glimpse (and all the other cops had, up till now) when Mrs. Lockhart turned the camera towards the crosswalk, at the very same moment Olivia and Amanda approached on the other side. At the very same moment MAGA Hat zoomed in on their progress.

"Sonuvabitch," Amanda muttered, bringing her fist down so hard against the table a tidal wave of coffee crested over the brim of her mug and splatted next to the laptop. "He was already filming us when those pricks showed up. He was pro'ly in on it too, the f*cker."

"Yeah." Nodding eagerly, Kat clicked through the scene again and again, each time taking it back to that single frame where Olivia was smiling, before all hell broke loose. A candle-flame flicker in the fires of eternity. That was how quickly life could change. Finally, Kat paused it there—The After—and Olivia smiled no longer. "That's what I'm thinking. He was there to get it on video for . . . whatever reason. Proof of life? I dunno. Then he bolted during the commotion. Like a bitch."

Tentatively, Amanda pushed play on the video window and watched herself fall into her wife's arms, watched Olivia drop to her knees and yell at the kid pointing the Taser. The video was muted, only traffic and the umbrage of the onlookers surrounding Mrs. Lockhart discernible in its audio, but Amanda heard the words perfectly when the kid moved his mouth. "Sorry, Cap, boss's orders," she narrated for him, glaring at the lanky, bug-eyed figure on the screen. A moment later, the van blotted him out like an instantaneous solar eclipse. The last clear shot in Mrs. Lockhart's video was of Olivia, expressionless and limp as a dishrag, being hauled into the back of the vehicle.

"What?" Kat asked, breaking into Amanda's dark reverie, a quizzical expression on her bold features.

"That's what the younger guy said to Liv after he tased me, and before the other guy tranqed her." Amanda poked at the rewind double arrows, backtracking to the scene she spoke of. She was only now remembering his exact words to her wife, who had demanded to know why he'd hurt Amanda. That distraction had ultimately gotten Olivia drugged and kidnapped. "'Sorry, Cap, boss's orders.' I forgot till just now. He definitely called her 'Cap,' though. He knew who she was. And there's someone else calling the shots. 'Boss's orders.'"

"sh*t, yeah." Kat chewed at her bottom lip some more, casting an uncertain look at the laptop and another at Amanda. "What are you thinking? Drug cartel or something? Those guys are always making threats when she puts them away. Or maybe that douchebag lawyer she locked up a few years ago. Didn't he have it out for her, too?"

Amanda shook her head, but try as she might, she couldn't pry her eyes from the screen and that final glimpse of Olivia's face. Blank though it was, due to whatever paralytic she'd been shot up with, she had to be absolutely terrified. She had to be, because Amanda was, too. "Miller's a blowhard. Ain't heard hide nor hair of him since he went to Rikers. You know how chickensh*t rapists do in prison," she said, tugging her shoulder up in a dismissive shrug. "Probably got his hands full with gangb*nger co*ck right now."

Ex-attorney Rob Miller wasn't the only one who was all bluster, Amanda thought. Despite her confident and callous tone, she felt a large weight settle onto her chest at the mention of his name. The truth was, she didn't know if this was him or not. He likely still had ties on the outside, men willing to do his bidding for the right price. It would be foolish to think a rat bastard like that didn't have some of his riches hidden away in offshore accounts never uncovered by the NYPD. Rat bastards always did. And there was the man with the teardrop tattoo, unquestionably an ex-con . . .

She made a mental note to check up on Miller, even as she shot down the drug cartel theory. This one, she was sure about. The cartel—from Sinaloa to Juárez—did not waste time on tasing a cop and abducting another off the street. Vengeance was swift and cruel with drug lords; they would have entered the apartment late at night and slit the throats of each family member as they slept, right on down to baby Samantha and both dogs.

Amanda said as much, all the while fighting the urge to vomit. She left out the part about her baby. "It's about more than just retaliation," she concluded, reaching to trace her finger along the outline of Olivia's face. She drew back at the last second and returned the video to its dark and featureless beginnings. "That would be too impersonal. This felt more like—"

"Uhh, Rollins?"

Annoyed by the interruption, Amanda hiked an expectant eyebrow at Kat and waited for the younger woman to spit it out already, instead of gaping at the front of Amanda's t-shirt as if the Just Peachy slogan was morally offensive. "What?" she snapped, and immediately regretted the harsh tone when she glanced down and saw for herself the wet spots darkening her ringer tee. Two of them, right in the vicinity of her nipples. No wonder her chest felt warm and heavy a moment ago—her milk was letting down.

"Aw, Christ." Reflexively, Amanda peeled the shirt away from her breasts, but the damage was already done. Both cups of her cotton bra, the one reserved for lazy weekends and midnight bodega runs, were soaked through.

They had laughed wildly one evening when Olivia commented that she "probably couldn't fit one whole boob into that dinky thing," and Amanda spent the next few minutes trying to arrange the cups over her wife's ample and uncooperative bosom. She never did manage to secure it properly and with adequate coverage.

"I forgot to pump," she said, gazing at the damp spots in bewilderment. She flapped her shirt uselessly and looked around the interview room, for what, she didn't know. Only when her eyes fell upon the toy box in the corner did she realize she was searching for her infant daughter. "I was going to feed Sammie when we got back home . . . "

"Do you, um, need to go? I can call you if—"

"I'm not leaving." Amanda stood, the abrupt shift sending the chair rolling out behind her. The undrunk coffee shimmied in the mug, close to overflowing again. Olivia had been after her not to consume too much caffeine while they were breastfeeding, convinced it made Samantha fussy. (How could she have forgotten that? How could she have forgotten their baby needed to eat?) "I've got a breast pump in my locker. And there's extra bottles in the fridge at home. Lucy knows the routine."

She said it as much for her own peace of mind as for Kat, who appeared rather dubious though she nodded understanding. If she was doubting Amanda's mothering skills right then—well, sister, get in line. Amanda had felt like a louse calling up the nanny to relieve Carisi of childcare duties, but even if it made her a bad mama, she couldn't go home to her kids yet. She couldn't bear to look them in the eyes and lie when they asked where Mommy was.

"I gotta go take care of this," Amanda said, gesturing to her soiled t-shirt and edging towards the door. She peered out the glass partition wall at the busy squad room beyond, took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders. She wasn't particularly self-conscious about her body, but no female cop wanted to parade past her male colleagues with leaky tit*.

Just f*cking Peachy.

"Here. Take this." Kat shrugged out of her blazer and walked it over to Amanda before she could object. "I'm getting overheated from the laptop anyway." The officer kept a safe distance and averted her eyes from the milk stains; for someone who enjoyed a bloody contact sport like boxing, she was awfully squeamish.

"You sure?" Amanda held the jacket away from herself for a moment, as if it might be rigged to explode. She'd never been the type to share clothes with her female friends when she was younger, for fear they would find out she wore her cousins' hand-me-downs throughout most of grade school and junior high. By high school, she had a job and bought her own clothes, only to have them constantly stolen by Kim.

Now, though, Amanda was the thief, pilfering from Olivia's wardrobe whenever she got the chance. It was the smell. She loved donning one of Olivia's old shirts and finding her wife's scent trapped in the fabric, like whiskey that got absorbed by the wooden barrels in which it was stored. The devil's cut, they called it. Amanda never felt safer or more at peace than when she wrapped up in that scent, the devil's cut of her Liv.

She'd held onto Olivia's discarded hoodie until CSU bagged and tagged it as evidence. Logically she knew that was the best place for it—a stray hair or a wayward print on one of the grommets could be enough to identify the kidnappers, to bring Olivia home. Sometimes cases broke wide open with far less. But Amanda couldn't help wishing she was slipping on that jacket now, rather than the blazer Kat insisted she borrow.

"Thanks," she said distractedly, pausing to glance back at Kat from the doorway. She pointed at the
(black void)
blank media player on the laptop screen. "Get someone from TARU to run that guy through facial recognition. And find out what Rob Miller's been up to lately. Doubt it's him, but it's a place to start."

"On it."

The sounds of Kat's furiously clacking keyboard followed Amanda into the squad room, as did several pairs of curious eyes, a few belonging to cops she didn't even recognize. Someone had tipped them off that she wasThe Wife. So much for keeping a low profile. It might be a good thing, though. People were sometimes more willing to do their job well if they knew who would be benefiting from their hard work.

Amanda's forced smile fell short at a grimace as she skirted past the uniforms, arms folded tightly over Kat's blazer (it smelled like granola, a snack Olivia detested), and made her way over to Fin at the conference table. He stood at one end, fists pressed against the tabletop, his face a study in concentration and something Amanda seldom saw there—worry. It sent a stab of fear to her heart, and her voice came out a breathless quaver when she asked, "Anything?"

She must have looked as anxious and pitiful as she sounded, because Fin's features softened considerably the moment he turned to her. More troublesome than yet another sympathetic expression was the reluctance with which he answered her. If the sergeant couldn't shoot straight with her, something was terribly wrong.

Of course something is terribly wrong, you idiot.Your wife is missing. She's in the hands of total strangers, their intent unknown.(Who are we kidding? Intent is always known in situations like this.)

"Oh, God. Is she dead? Just tell me, Fin." Amanda hunched forward, leaning on the table for support, the other hand forked at her side, a habit she'd acquired after being shot in the abdomen and frequently getting winded with the least exertion. "Is Liv—"

"It ain't that," Fin said in a hushed, hasty tone, taking Amanda by the shoulders and steering her into the break room area, away from the whispers and surreptitious glances. She was already proving why a spouse shouldn't be allowed to work her partner's case.

"I'm good. I got it." Amanda shrugged off his hands, straightened out her blazer with a jerk at the sleeves, and sidestepped the chair he tried to guide her towards. No more sitting. She'd sat on her ass on the sidewalk, bawling because Olivia had been taken from her. She would be damned if she behaved that helplessly again. "Just tell me what you know. puss*footin' only makes it worse."

Fin set his lips in a firm line that brought out his dimples and made it seem like he might deliver a lecture on conduct unbecoming, instead of the information she sought. But after an excruciating pause, he spoke with the matter-of-fact drawl he was famous for around the precinct. (If my sergeant gets anymore laidback, I'll have to install a napping couch next to his desk, Olivia had once joked, gazing out of her office at Fin nodding off in front of his computer.) "We can't trace the Taser. They tampered with the cartridge, so there's no serial number to go on."

That much Amanda had figured. Police tasers like the one she'd been shot with contained anti-felon ID tags that resembled confetti with the serial number printed on each fleck, to help identify which weapon was fired by which cop. Or criminal. Poor man's ballistics, some called it. Looks like a rave, said others. Personally, the colorful, scattered dots had always reminded Amanda of the exit toss at a wedding.

She and Olivia had opted for bubbles on their big day. And Amanda didn't recall seeing any confetti today when the stun gun was fired, or in the aftermath. In shock or not, she would have remembered something like that.

"We did get a hit on the plates, but the owner reported the van stolen four months ago. He seems clean, just a couple parking tickets. We'll keep an eye on him, though . . . "

The false optimism in that last statement and the way it drifted off, as if Fin were mentally preparing for what came next, alerted Amanda there was more. That was a cop's segue—deliver the good news first, then drop the bomb and run—if she'd ever heard one. And she had; it was usually she who held the detonator. "And?" she asked impatiently. Her arms were crossed again, shielding her heart (it felt horribly vulnerable and exposed) as well as her breasts.

"And we got a print off the Taser." Fin swatted his bobbing knee a few times with the folder in his hand, and that simple, unconscious gesture, which Amanda recognized from her own store of nervous twitches, filled her with more foreboding than anything he'd said. Sergeant Tutuola did not fidget. "Ran it through AFIS and got a match. So far just some misdemeanors, mostly for dumb kid stuff. But one of the guys from vice recognized the name. Liam Sandberg."

A couple more swipes of the file, and then, with the deep remorse of a long-awaited apology, Fin added, "Rollins, his dad is Gus Sandberg."

From the import of his words, Amanda knew she should be familiar with the name, but it held no significance for her, whoever it belonged to. Any other time, she would have blamed her cluelessness on postpartum brain. Right now she didn't have the energy or the patience for motherhood jokes. "That supposed to mean something to me? Who is he, Fin?"

The sergeant sighed and proffered the manila folder begrudgingly. "They call him the Sandman. Sprinkles dust in your eyes to make you sleep, but all he brings is bad dreams. And no one can catch his nasty ass."

That description did ring a bell, though it was faint and sounded more like a death knell. Amanda grabbed the folder, taking a shaky, preparatory breath before opening it and surveying the contents. One page wasn't a very impressive rap sheet, she reasoned; the list of infractions in her NYPD jacket was much longer than that. But the blood drained from her cheeks and she slumped a hip against the table, feeling momentarily faint as she read over the suspected crimes of Gustav Sandberg (Known aliases include Sandman, Gus Sanburg, Gustaf Bergmann, August Sanderson, and Stavo Bergström), age 51:

Drug smuggling and distribution, money laundering, arson, kidnapping, homicide, child p*rnography, procuring, and human trafficking.

"Sweet Jesus," Amanda whispered, reading and rereading the list until the words bled together, no longer legible except for the last four offenses. And of those, it was human trafficking that flashed at her like a neon sign and made the blood run cold in her veins.

Homicide was bad, but if murder had been the objective, why stage an abduction? A drive-by would have been cleaner and more effective. Child p*rnographers were the scum of the earth, but they didn't kidnap grown women, either. On its own, procuring didn't frighten her much—Olivia was no whor*—although it put him in the sex trade, and combined with the trafficking, it painted a scary picture. Men who sold human beings were some of the most vile criminals SVU encountered. Those mendidabduct women and what happened to those women, the ones who survived to tell their story, was often the stuff of nightmares.

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream, Amanda thought, gazing at the distorted surveillance photo that must have been the only available image of good ol' Gus. Crappy as the quality was, she could still see the resemblance to his son, Liam. Tall, lanky. And those cold, penetrating eyes looking directly into the camera.Boss's orders, Liam had said.

"You the big boss, motherf*cker?" Amanda murmured to Gustav's picture.

"Huh?" Fin ducked his head for a glimpse at Amanda's downturned face, his own features knotted with concern. "What'd you say?"

"Nothing. Why the hell haven't we collared this guy?" Amanda stood, pushing off from the table, which gave a shriek of protest when its feet scraped across the floor. The cops in the other room probably thought she was having a breakdown, but she was too distracted by the head rush she got upon standing to care about the noise or its reception.

"Because he's good. Been operating for years. And he gets other people to do the grunt work for him while he sits back on his pretty little ass and rakes in the dough. Some people think he's got dirty cops working for him." Fin examined her carefully as he spoke, stepping closer to peer into her eyes like a doctor with a pin light. "You all right? You don't look so hot. Let me see your pupils."

Falling back a step, Amanda shooed the sergeant away with the Sandman file and tossed it onto the table. The single sheet inside glided from between the manila folds, coasting across the table on a breeze. It reminded Amanda of the puck in a game of air hockey.And the first point goes to Gustav Sandberg, she thought darkly, turning aside from his poor excuse of a mugshot. "Man, piss off. I'm fine. I'm just drained because my body is literally a milk factory." She gestured at her breasts, uncomfortably damp and sticky within her bra. "And, oh yeah, my wife is probably being sold to some Saudi prince right now. How much you think she'll go for? I hear American women bring in top dollar. 'Specially the pretty, white ones. And a cop? sh*t, that's gotta be a few hundred thousand right there."

Fin's patience as he waited for her rant to finish was infuriating. He gathered Sandberg's page into its folder and tucked it under his arm, hands dipping loosely into his pockets. God, just once could he not be so damned easygoing? "You know that's not how it works," he said, and in spite of his relaxed posture, there was a grim note in his voice. "They turn 'em out right here on home turf. And it ain't to no princes."

"That supposed to make me feel better?" Amanda asked, trying for incredulous and just sounding tired instead. In a strange way, his acknowledgement that the situation was dire had defused her mounting temper. She shouldn't be taking her anger out on Fin anyway. He was on her—and Olivia's—side, always.

"No. Just saying." Fin gave a light shrug. "This ain't some Liam Neeson flick, there's no seventy-two hour window, or whatever. If they did grab her for that—and how many women in their fifties you know get trafficked for the first time? But if they did, it means she probably won't leave the city. And that means we'll find her."

It was a good speech and it almost did succeed at making Amanda feel better. Women didn't have to travel outside the United States to be trafficked, and it wasn't like in the movies, where a gang of Albanian marauders dragged some cute teenager kicking and screaming from her hotel room. Girls were in far more danger of being forced into prostitution by a relative, a friend, a boyfriend—and most of them were young, anywhere from adolescence to late twenties. Olivia did not fit the typical trafficking victim criteria. And yet.

She had still been snatched off the street in broad daylight by at least one man with ties to a known trafficker. Nothing about that was typical, and frantic wife or not, Amanda knew her fears weren't unfounded. Somebody wanted Olivia badly enough to stage a risky ambush, and with the kind of enemies the captain made—the kind of men Amanda had seen in the van and read about in the file under Fin's arm—there were no good scenarios to choose from. Even if Olivia never stepped foot out of Manhattan, finding one woman in a city of over eight million, with barely any leads to follow and a sandman sprinkling his magic dust, was damn near impossible.

"Yeah," said Amanda. She caught herself pinching the bridge of her nose, and immediately jerked her hand away, dropping it against her thigh. Olivia did that when she had one of her migraines—squeezed the bridge of her nose to alleviate the pressure in her skull. Massaged her temples. Took off her glasses and scrubbed both hands over her face.

Headaches had never been a problem for Amanda, at least not excessively so, but she had one now. And if she had one, Olivia probably did too. That reasoning gave her more comfort than anything else had so far, as if it proved some sort of psychic connection between her wife and herself, a connection rooted in pain. As long as Amanda felt it, that meant Olivia was still alive.

It wasn't much to go on, but it was all she had.

"Yeah, we'll find her," she said thinly, unable to muster the confidence the words implied. She gave Fin a distracted nod, only half aware he was still there, and headed for the door.

"Hey," he called after her, "If I get an EMT up here, will you let them check you out? You know I'll get my ass chewed if I let you run around without medical clearance."

"Fine. Do what you gotta do." Amanda couldn't help noticing he hadn't mentioned who would chew him out, a job that usually fell to Olivia. Maybe he wasn't so convinced of her swift return, after all. At all. "I gotta go pump. Tell people to stay outta the crib, and call me the second something turns up. I mean it, Fin. No matter what it is, I wanna know."

Without waiting for a response, Amanda stormed out of the break area and past the multitude of eyes that followed her through the squad room. She wanted to yell at them all to mind their own business and find her wife, goddammit, but she kept her head low and quickened her pace, feeling oddly exposed. Being the center of attention didn't bother her one way or the other—she'd never been shy, although she hadn't hungered for the spotlight like her mother or sister, either—but she knew what some of these assholes thought of her and Olivia. That they were drama queens who invited dangerous situations on themselves. That they were soft from working sex crimes too long.

Most of those same macho pricks wouldn't last eleven days in SVU, let alone the eleven years Amanda had spent there. Never mind the twenty-four that Olivia boasted. But maybe it was too long, if things like this kept happening. Maybe it wasn't worth it.

She shoved through the door to the crib, slammed it shut behind her, and delivered a vicious kick to wood that would have broken some toes if not for the sturdy construction of her chunky sneakers. "Motherf*cker," she snarled under her breath, though whom she was addressing, she couldn't say.

It felt good to swear, though, and she continued to do it as she flicked the lock on the doorknob and went to her locker along the wall. Fin had thought it was hilarious to scrawlHerson two pieces of tape and stick them to her and Olivia's neighboring cubbies. "I's gonna get ya towels, but I went with Hers and Hers lockers instead," he'd announced, smirking. A year later, the tape still hadn't been removed.

"Motherf*cker son of a bitch."

Amanda started to open her own locker, then reached for Olivia's at the last moment. She knew the padlock combination ("40-21-35, just like your measurements, hot stuff," she liked to tease the captain), but no one kept the doors secured when they were off duty. Not even her extra cautious, by-the-book Liv.

She felt a little guilty nonetheless, as if she were violating Olivia's privacy even more than it already had been today, and she almost closed the door back up. But a small bundle—neatly folded—deep inside the storage compartment caught her eye, and she withdrew it with something like reverence. Ever practical, Olivia kept a change of clothes at the office at all times. Amanda laughed it off whenever it was suggested she do the same, but now, unraveling the navy blue sweatshirt with the NYPD crest on the left breast, she thanked her lucky stars that her wife was such a square.

After double-checking that the crib door was still shut, the lock on the knob still horizontal, she leaned her back against the lockers, bunched the sweatshirt to her nose, and inhaled. It took some searching, but she located Olivia along the back collar, faintly, fleetingly, and stood there breathing her in for several moments. Too soon Amanda lost her again, and with tears in her eyes, the sweatshirt clutched to her chest, she retrieved the breast pump from her locker and slogged over to sit on a bottom bunk.

Two minutes went by with no milk flowing into the bottles, even after she adjusted the breast shields and the suction speed. The longer she waited, the more agitated she became, fretting that the electric jolts she'd received from the Taser had somehow affected her supply. And if she did manage to squeeze something out, would it even be safe for Samantha to drink? Had enough breastfeeding womenbeentasered for there to be a study on that particular motherhood quandary?

Olivia would know. She had read all the baby books from cover-to-cover in preparation for their youngest's birth, despite already having brought up two babies herself, and what she didn't have an answer for, she researched on the Internet until she found one. "Once an overachiever, always an overachiever," she said sheepishly, when Amanda had commented on her study habits.

Sniffing, Amanda scrounged the phone from her pants pocket and typedDoes Taser affect breast milkinto the Google search box. As she scrolled the results, which were mostly about the dangers of tasing pregnant women—"No sh*t, Sherlock," she muttered as they drifted to the top of the screen and out of sight, like so much smoke—an email alert pinged in the background. At the same moment, Amanda felt a familiar tingling in her breasts and breathed a sigh of relief when two streamers of milk spiraled through the tubing and trickled into the attached bottles. That part always reminded her of drinking through a Krazy Straw.

Putting her phone aside, she focused on the steady pull of the pump and trying to determine if the milk looked discolored or abnormal in any way. She didn't think so, but maybe it was a good thing Fin wanted to bring in an EMT. Amanda could ask the medic about the milk.

Fifteen minutes later she was bone dry, except for her bra, which she stuffed into her locker, along with theJust Peachyt-shirt and the breast pump. She hadn't gone braless at work since those late nights out at illegal gambling clubs saw her rolling in for early shifts, with only a few winks in the backseat of her car, no clean underwear, and not a toothbrush in sight. Back then, she hadn't really needed the support, but her tit* were huge right now—to her, anyway—and she would have been uncomfortable without the undergarment, if not for Olivia's baggy sweatshirt. She kept shrugging her shoulder to smell the fabric, a compulsion she either wouldn't or couldn't cease.

A text message trilled through on her cell phone while she was screwing the cap onto the second bottle of milk. The plan was to store both bottles in the break room (her colleagues were well aware to steer clear of the mysterious containers of white stuff that regularly appeared in the fridge) until she could get them to the nanny, but she never made it that far. Sent from an unknown number, the message read:

You've got mail.

It had been at least two decades since Amanda last heard that AOL greeting; so long ago, in fact, she first wondered why someone was texting her the title of an old Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romcom. Then she remembered that the movie was named after America Online's ancient email herald. Then she remembered the email alert she'd gotten just as her milk let down.

"No," she whispered to her phone, head shaking as she brought up the mail app and thumbed her Gmail inbox. "No no no."

A wave of nausea, as strong as any she had felt during her first trimester with Samantha, came crashing down on Amanda when she saw the subject line of her newest message.

Bagels Bagels Bagels

She reached for the top bunk to steady herself, but her legs were rubber, wobbling beneath her until she sat down heavily on the bottom bunk, the bottles of milk tipped over, forgotten. Her finger trembled above the subject line, which claimed to have No Sender. She'd encountered that plenty of times before on the job—it usually meant the message came from an anonymous account, lots of encryption, an untraceable IP address. The sort of safety measures taken by someone who wanted to remain a ghost. Or a sandman skulking around in the dark.

And there were only a handful of reasons people like that made contact in abduction cases. Ransom demands were the most common, but sometimes the sickos got off on sending photographic evidence of death. The worst was when they sent actual body parts to the family members. Ears and fingers were the favored "gifts" among your run-of-the-mill kidnappers, although Amanda had once interviewed a man less than an hour after he opened a box containing his wife's tongue. He'd filled the wastebasket with the partially digested remains of their anniversary dinner seconds after the interview concluded.

With a silent prayer of thanks that she wasn't opening a small—or large—box, Amanda held her breath and tapped the subject line. She didn't want to look. She didn't want to look, but she had to. For Olivia, she must face whatever lie ahead.

The body of the email was a single line, reading,Did you lose this, corner of 58th and Grand?and for one blessed moment, she thought she'd been wrong. That it was just a kind New Yorker (believe it or not, they did exist) attempting to return something she'd dropped during her ordeal. Hers and Olivia's. But there was nothing absent that she could recall—other than her wife—and it didn't explain how this imaginary New Yorker had gotten her email address and phone number.

All of that was forgotten when the attached picture loaded. The entire crib melted away, taking with it the bustling squad room beyond, every cop therein, and the precinct itself, until it was just Amanda, suspended in some hazy, gray NoPlace where time and space didn't exist. Nothing did, except for Amanda and that picture.

Olivia's frightened face filled the screen. Whatever drug they injected her with had since worn off, her features mobile once more and capable of expressing
(pure and utter terror)
fear. From the red-rimmed, watery eyes, Amanda could clearly see she had been crying. And no wonder—the bastards had duct taped her mouth.

That was a huge trigger for Olivia since spending four days with Lewis, her mouth taped shut for hours, maybe even days, at a stretch. Amanda had stopped by Cassidy's apartment in the aftermath of that abduction, to drop off some flowers for her recovering colleague, and she'd found it difficult not to stare at the rectangular rash that spread from one side of Olivia's face to the other, like the perfect impression left behind by a latex Band-Aid. That splotchy red stripe had filled Amanda with guilt—along with the injuries she couldn't see but had no trouble imagining, after getting an up close and personal look at Lewis' handiwork on Mrs. Mayer—and she'd left quickly.

No looking away this time, Amanda Jo.

There were no bruises on her wife's face yet, she noted with some relief. They hadn't beaten her. (At least not where it's visible, Amanda's brain chimed in.And it's not a full-body—) She appeared clothed, the shoulders of her white t-shirt still in place at the bottom edge of the shot. Behind her was a grungy, colorless wall of nondescript makeup. Hard to identify. Impossible, really.

"Oh God, Liv, where are you?" Amanda whispered, tracing the outline of Olivia's face. The picture was soft and shimmery through a glaze of tears she blinked back furiously. She had to keep her sh*t together right now. Find Olivia, then fall apart, not the other way around.

She took a deep breath, heart in her throat, and pressed the link below the picture, which invited her to "Click for more" and pointed the way with a string of motivational arrows→→→

What waited on the other side left her choking back sobs and fighting to hold onto not just her composure but her sanity.

. . .

Chapter 5: A Wartime Novelty

Notes:

Betcha didn't think I was going to get this posted today, did you? I'll let you in on a little secret—I didn't think so, either. But here it is, just under the wire. I went ahead and split this chapter up because it was so long (40ish pages), so the next couple of updates will flow into each other. Putting a trigger warning for sexual assault on this one, too. Thank you so much for the comments on chapter 4! I'd like to say I didn't cackle maniacally that y'all were losing your sh*t, but I'd be lyin'. ;)

Chapter Text

I can't remember anything
Can't tell if this is true or dream
Deep down inside I feel the scream
This terrible silence stops me

- Metallica, "One"

Chapter 5.

A Wartime Novelty

. . .

The van door slammed shut, cutting Olivia off from Amanda for good. She hadn't even been able to turn her head for one last look at her wife, whom the men had left lying on the ground like the litter for which New York City was notorious. At first her concern for Amanda outweighed the fear for herself, but alone with the three men (she thought there were three of them; two had grabbed her, and someone had to be driving the van, although she couldn't see him or the passenger seat), still conscious and yet unable to so much as lift a finger or blink an eyelid, her panic skyrocketed. She thought her heart might actually explode.

They had hurt her when they chucked her into the back of the vehicle. Luckily the floor had some padding, or it would have been worse thumping her head and smashing her back on the corrugated metal underneath. She didn't think anything was broken, but it was hard to tell with her adrenaline pumping as if she'd just swum the entire Hudson River. While paralyzed from head to foot.

It didn't dull pain, the drug they had injected her with; ketamine would have been her first guess, if not for that characteristic. Neither did it seem to impair cognitive function, for she was completely aware of her surroundings, almost to the point of hyperawareness.

Were there muscle relaxants that were also stimulants? She racked her frantic brain, trying to remember. Her only firsthand experiences with drugs were the kind that knocked you out, not ones that made you more alert. And she was familiar with most substances on the party scene, because so many of them were used to facilitate rape. Maybe it was a new designer drug, then. Lucky her, she got to be the first test subject. And that meant she had no clue how long the effects would last. Minutes, hours, days . . .

If she made it that long. Every muscle in her body was screaming at her to move, to do anything besides lie there and stare at the ceiling, while strange men hovered at the outskirts of her vision, leering. She thought of the Metallica song about the soldier, so grievously injured in a war that he can't see, speak, or move, praying for God and the doctors to end his life.Kill me, he begged them, jolting his limbless body in Morse code the physicians puzzled over, until they realized the awful truth.Kill me, over and over.

"One"—that was the name of it. How Olivia had hated that song and the music video, even at twenty years old. (What would she beg of God and these men, she wondered now. What desperate, dying plea would she make with her bones and flesh?)

Her heart really was going to explode. She was running standing still, and her lungs weren't pumping fast enough to keep up. At the very least she would go into cardiac—

"You wearing your weapon?" asked the guy with the teardrop on his cheek. He appeared above Olivia's limited vision, looking as though he were peering down into a well. First good look at him she'd gotten, and she already knew he had done hard time. Even without the tattoo, it was written all over his face.

She tried to shake her head, couldn't; she tried to say no, but wasn't able to lift her tongue, part her lips, form sounds. He didn't want an answer, anyway. With a cold little smile that so resembled Lewis it was momentarily him above her, taunting and terrorizing, he groped his way up and down her body, inspecting places she couldn't possibly hide a gun. She was wearing a light t-shirt and yoga pants, for Christ's sake. Any weapon would have made a noticeable bulge beneath her clothes, like the one he probably had in his pants as he ruthlessly squeezed her tit*.

He reached into the V-neck of her shirt, rubbing his calloused hand roughly between her breasts like he was sanding the sides of a homemade boat. As he rummaged inside her bra cups, he fiddled his tongue piercing, flicking the little silver ball back and forth with his front teeth. Eyes locked on hers, he pinched her nipple so hard it tweaked a nerve at the bottom of her foot. He co*cked his head, as though he were testing her reaction. Olivia gave him none.

Men had been ogling, commenting on, and grabbing her breasts without permission since they first developed. Her own mother had often glanced at them from the corner of an eye, first with apprehension, then as Olivia matured and surpassed her in shapeliness, with resentment and accusation. As if Olivia had any control over the matter. (She'd tried, hadn't she? Practically starving herself didn't make a bit of difference in the long run. She went down a full cup size her senior year, and Serena still hated her.)

All that attention, good and bad—mostly bad—had made Olivia despise her large bust for a time. Only when she had come into her own as a cop did she start to view it as a source of power, and not just in the bedroom. She had been young, strong, beautiful, and no one got to touch her breasts, her body, unless she said so. No one. That, she could control.

Then came Lowell Harris, William Lewis, Calvin Arliss . . . And a handful of others—no pun intended—in between and after. She didn't even know this guy's name, but he was already taking potshots at the armor she'd built up in the aftermath of those assaults, the armor her attackers had all but stripped away entirely. She longed to clench her eyes shut, willing it so fiercely tears swam into her vision and spilled onto her cheeks, though she still couldn't blink. Crying was not a good idea right then. She needed to remain calm so she didn't aspirate or block an airway. Doubtful anyone in this van would know how to revive her.

"They real?" asked the younger kid, whose smiling face wavered as if reflected in the surface of a pond as he gazed down on her and addressed his handsy partner. Nevertheless, she recognized him as the tall guy who had given her the creeps in the bagel shop. Her gut had told her something was off about him, but she never would have guessed this. And what this was, she hadn't figured out yet.

"Yeah. Nice for a bitch her age. Hate it when their titt*es hang down to their knees." The man with the teardrop on his cheek gave Olivia's breast one final wrench before withdrawing his hand from her bra. He winked at her, conveying none of the charm or good-nature usually implied by the gesture. It was the wink of a hunter sighting game with his rifle. "We're going to have some fun with those later."

Well, there it was. At least he hadn't kept her in suspense, wondering what their intentions were. It gave her some time to prepare, if she could just harness her racing thoughts and heartbeat, and maybe when they got to wherever it was they were going, the drug would have worn off. Maybe she could negotiate or escape. Unlikely she would be able to overpower the three men; the kid by himself, perhaps—he had the height advantage, but not a lot of muscle to go with it.

But the felon, though not exceptionally large, was strong. She'd felt it when he dragged her to the van, and now, as he opened her thighs, smoothing his palms up the insides, under her buttocks, over the hips, and (through the woods, to Grandmother's house we go) cupped her crotch roughly through the stretchy fabric of her pants. She said a silent prayer of thanks that she'd worn underwear, indifferent about panty lines while making a simple bagel run. It wasn't a steel barrier, but it was better than what she'd had when Lewis finger-f*cked her in a beach house bathroom.

Better than red velvet.

The Crier had no intentions of using his fingers, though. Knocking her legs farther apart with his knees, planting a fist near either of her shoulders, he lowered himself against her like he was doing a push-up. She'd been right about the erection; it jabbed into her crotch when he thrust his hips, as if he could f*ck her through the layers of material between them. Lewis had done that as well, crawling on top of her to simulate the various ways he would rape her (again). Sometimes molesting her with the muzzle of her own gun. And when he stood behind her in the granary, rubbing his co*ck against her ass and mashing her tit* together, it had been as familiar as screwing an ex lover. Once Lewis' bitch, forever Lewis' bitch.

"Bet you still got a nice juicy c*nt too, don't you, slu*t?" the Crier gruffed in Olivia's ear. He nipped painfully on the lobe, and for one second, Olivia forgot she couldn't cry out. She thought of the tagline to the movieAlien—In space no one can hear you scream. She'd been eleven the year that was released, and the concept had filled her with terror. Floating alone out there in space, forgotten, forever lost.

She still feared that was what death might be like. Like being mute and frozen on the floor of a dirty van while a man with a teardrop tattoo dry-humped you and murmured, "I been getting sick of kiddie puss*. 'Bout time I got to break in a real bitch."

"Boss said not to mess up her face," the kid warned, though he watched with fascination as the scene played out. Any closer and he would be nose to nose with his accomplice. "Buyer wants her pretty."

"Yeah well, her ear ain't her face, dickweed." The Crier shot a murderous glare at the younger man, but whatever the exchange meant, it had done the trick. He shoved away from Olivia and slammed her knees shut with a nudge that felt more like a kick. "And your boss daddy isn't here risking his neck to grab some bitch cop, is he?"

Okay, breathe, she told herself.Think about what you know, what you're hearing.Keep your sh*t together, he didn't rape you(yet).At most you've got a sore ear and probably need a tetanus booster, from the looks of him.

She took a deep breath and blinked. This is what she knew: None of these men were in charge; it was important to learn the power dynamic early on, so you knew to whom to appeal. Hadn't the kid mentioned something about boss's orders, too? She couldn't remember, but she tucked the information away in her brain, along with "boss daddy." Real daddy or just a dig at the kid was hard to tell.

Then there was the comment about a buyer. That frightened her more than anything else thus far, other than seeing her wife tased and dumped on the sidewalk. (Oh God, Amanda. Please let her be okay.) Buyer was trafficking lingo for someone who purchased a human being, usually for sex or forced labor. Or both. Occasionally the buyer simply wanted someone to torture, or in one case Olivia would never forget: as hunting practice.

Maybe it was the last name Byer, she reasoned. But she knew that wasn't what the kid had meant. The drugging, the van clearly equipped for transporting large cargo, the references to breaking her in and leaving her pretty for a buyer, the pawing and rutting she'd just endured, the group of assailants—this abduction had so many earmarks of human trafficking, it was almost laughably formulaic. Next thing, she would be tied to some filthy bed, being force-fed co*ke and co*ck, until there was nothing left of Olivia Benson but a hollow shell, frail and zombie-like. Wasn't that how these movies went?

Except it didn't make sense. Men like this went after young girls without families who would support or miss them. They promised young immigrant women jobs as nannies or maids, then turned them into all-American prostitutes in the land of the free and the home of the brave. She had never, in her thirty years on the force, and twenty-four of those in SVU, heard of a police captain in her fifties getting trafficked.

She supposed there was a first time for everything. A time to every purpose under heaven, like the song said.Turn, turn, turn.

Her eyes blinked again, and she realized she was able to move them around in their sockets, a natural impulse she immediately fought to suppress. The drug was beginning to wear off—she felt herself gradually regaining control of her faculties, one by one, as if a potent poison were being leached from her body through the feet; she felt like a draining bathtub—but the fear of what these men would do to her once she rallied was greater than her relief at being mobile. She might at least buy herself a few extra minutes to think, to plan, to breathe, if she could just hold still . . .

"Eyes are moving. Cryo's wearing off." That was the Kid, helpful little son of a bitch that he was. He leaned in so close Olivia smelled banana on his breath, momentarily reminding her of the Gerber banana-flavored cookies Matilda had loved when she was teething. Someday soon, Samantha would be ready for those as well. Jesse hated bananas; Noah loved them. Her sweet little monkeys.

It hurt to think about the children while she was in this predicament (would she ever see them again? Samantha was too young to remember her if she didn't make it out of this), but the Kid blew an experimental puff of air directly into her face, scattering her thoughts like leaves in the wind and grinning when she flinched. "Should we dose her again?"

"You wanna turn her brain to mush before we even make the docks?" The driver had finally spoken, calling into the back of the van in a faintly accented voice. New York with a bit of Latin flair. Spanish Harlem, maybe. Local. Olivia didn't know if that was significant or not, but she filed it away with the other intel: the drug was called Cryo (short for—?) and they were taking her to the docks. Lots of places to hide in New York Harbor. Lots of cargo coming in—and going out. "You give her another dose of that sh*t already, she'll have the same IQ as your retard brother. Nobody wants to f*ck some special needs c*nt, no matter how big her tit* are."

The Kid bristled at that comment about his brother, forgetting Olivia for the time being and pushing himself upright to sit with his back to the van wall, arms folded petulantly on his bent knees. He was still part child, and he looked it at the moment, sulking in the corner. It hadn't been a joke, then; the boss was his father. No one acted that way around men like the Crier and the Driver (Olivia caught a glimpse of his beefy frame in the front seat as her eyes pinballed back and forth, trying to spot a familiar landmark through the windows) and stayed alive, unless he had a sh*t-ton of money, or his father did.

"I was just asking," he said, stone-faced and glaring at the opposite wall. He cracked each knuckle of his long, spidery fingers compulsively, and when he noticed Olivia gazing askance at him, he thrust his foot forward without warning, the heel of his Converse sneaker buffeting her temple.

An explosion of light dazzled her already inflamed senses, as if she had caught the sun's reflection glancing off a storefront window in passing, and for a moment her terror disappeared as pain ricocheted inside her skull. It settled somewhere behind her eyes, and she gave a feeble moan, wishing she could hold her aching head but unable to lift either arm. Extremities must take longer to restore than other parts closer to the brain. She hated that the first sound she made in the men's presence was weak and vaguely sexual; she hated that she reacted at all to the spiteful kick.

"Now who's breaking boss daddy's rules about not f*cking up her face?" The Crier smirked encouragingly, in spite of the question. Olivia got the distinct impression that he would have enjoyed seeing the Kid give her a few more jabs with his foot, and it wouldn't have bothered him a bit if the younger man stood up and stomped her skull to bits, gray matter and bone shards kicking up like mud and stone from his black Chucks. In fact, the man with the teardrop tattoo would like that very much.

"Why don't you make yourself useful, junior, and help me tie this bitch up?" he said, clapping Olivia soundly on the thigh the way a farmer might show affection for a prized hog. "She's stronger than the skinny little skan*-hos we usually bring in. Spinners practically snap right in half on my dick. This one's got some fight in her. Look at them eyes. Still thinks she's gonna get away, don't you, Mommy?"

"Afraid she's too much woman for you? Won't be able to keep her satisfied?" The Kid snickered at his own commentary while he dug around inside a dark backpack that sat open in the corner. It reminded Olivia of the duffle bags used by the robbers when she and Amanda were held hostage in the bank a year and a half ago. They had taken her engagement ring, almost killed Amanda. At least it wasn't the detective's life in danger this time. That was Olivia's one comfort so far.

But the Crier had called her "Mommy." It could have beenmami, though she didn't think so. The driver was the one who spoke Spanish, that much was clear from his accent. Cry Baby looked like an average white guy—from what she could make out of his natural skin and hair color, under all the ink and bleach—and probably didn't knowel jefefromla bolsa. But he did know she had young children at home, the way he affected a baby voice when he said "Mommy," and delighted in informing her that she couldn't get away. Even that small amount was too much information for her liking.

Before she could fret about what else he had on her, what else could be used against her, the other guy pulled a roll of silver duct tape and some zip ties from the backpack. Olivia's pulse spiked at the sight of them, and she tried to shout a resoundingno, breathing from the diaphragm like she did when her words needed to project to the back of a squad room, an auditorium, (a prison basem*nt), a noisy and agitated crowd. She managed little more than a whimper and a shake of the head that felt like it rattled her brain, though she'd barely twitched.

"N-no," she croaked, forcing the sound up her throat and through her lips with an audible puff of air. She thought of the Tin Man fromThe Wizard of Oz, bleating for his oil can. Amanda always made her and the kids laugh by imitating the rusty axman, plank-stiff and uttering the squeaky request from the corner of her mouth, whenever they reached that scene in the movie. Olivia had taught their children that hugs and kisses worked just as well as oil at restoring Mama to her pliable, grinning self.

The men either hadn't heard, or chose to ignore the woman struggling and grasping for purchase—even the smallest of footholds to lift her from the mire of total paralysis—on the floor between them. "Never had any complaints before," said the Crier, grabbing his crotch with both hands and rubbing it lewdly. He kissed the air above Olivia, directing it at the younger man. "From bitches on the inside or the out. What about you, rich boy? You even had puss* yet, or you just jerk off to that kiddie p*rn your daddy sells?"

"I've had plenty of puss*." The Kid did a fancy trick with the wheel of duct tape, rolling it down his arm, launching it from the bend of his elbow, and batting it hand to hand with the skill of a trained juggler. Suddenly, he pitched the heavy skein at the Crier, who caught it against his chest at the last second and scowled darkly, looking as if he might take the Kid's head off in return. "My pops got me a hooker for my fourteenth birthday. While you were cornholing your buddies in Attica, I was getting real play. I'll f*ck her right here if you need a refresher course, bro."

Olivia's fear of the duct tape, roughly that of spotting a shark fin approaching in dark waters, was swallowed whole by mind-numbing terror—the great white breaking the surface, its soulless black eye focused on her—when the Kid got to his knees and unzipped his jeans. No f*cking way would she lie there and let that disgusting little bastard use her as a demonstration tool. No one other than Amanda was permitted to touch her. She didn't believe marriage offered a protective barrier against assault, nor did it make someone the property of their spouse, but she had come to think of herself as Amanda's, all the same. It made her feel safe, untouchable. Fighting for her own protection had so often failed; perhaps fighting for what belonged to Amanda would better serve her.

"No," Olivia said again, and this time the men heard. They turned to watch her flounder, with the dispassionate gazes of scientists standing outside the cage of a test subject—a monkey or a rat they had injected with an experimental drug not yet approved for human trial.

Other than mild surprise, they registered no emotion while observing Olivia's desperate struggle to prop herself up, walking backward on both elbows and shuffling her feet, just to gain a few inches of distance from them. "Don't touch," she whispered hoarsely, unable to dislodge themethat stuck like cotton in her throat, which had gone dry at the prospect of having her mouth taped shut. The burning aftertaste of vodka, a flavor similar to scorched tires, ignited on her tongue.

"I don't think she likes you, junior." The Crier grinned, turning even that typically pleasant expression into something sinister and trashy by licking his silver tooth, his eyes roving Olivia's retreating form. He reached down and grabbed her ankle, tugging her towards him and undoing what little progress she had made in her escape. When she tried to kick out at him with her other foot, he knocked it aside as easily as swatting a pesky insect. "Limp noodle probably doesn't do much for her. Bet a tough bitch like this makes that little blond wife of hers wear the nine-inch. The tough ones always like being put in their place with a good, hard f*ck. Wait'll she gets a load of my nine inches."

As he spoke, the man gripped Olivia's ankles tightly enough to leave bruises, preventing her from doing much more than uselessly pedaling her knees up and down. She thought of Jesse, who was just learning to ride a two-wheel bike. According to Amanda, their daughter would have been buzzing around the streets at four years old—the same age Amanda had been when she taught herself to ride a big kid bike—if they lived in a small town, rather than the city.

But it still took Olivia's breath away to see her fearless little girl wobbling haphazardly through the park when Amanda, jogging alongside, released the bicycle seat. Would she ever get to see Jesse discard the training wheels for good and ride confidently on her own? Would Jesse ever forgive her for not being there, if she didn't make it through this? Would any of the children?

"Limp noodle, my ass. Give her here, I'll f*ck her so hard she'll choke on my dick from the other end." The Kid clamped a hand on Olivia's arm, wrenching her sideways, and for a moment, the men engaged in a tug of war with her limbs, pulling her this way and that.

Had she been an old shirt, surely she would have been rent in two. Luckily she was made of sturdier stuff than that, and she let her body become dead weight, a much more difficult state to maneuver. She hoped. In the end, however, it was the Driver who rescued her from being yanked in opposite directions; from being raped on the floor of a van that smelled like a jockstrap and something industrial, metallic.

Later, he would prove to be as sick and heartless as the others, when she was suffering, bleeding, and crying out for mercy in a colder, filthier hell than this one. For now, he was her savior, calling over his shoulder, "Cut that sh*t out, fool. Both of you. Gus'll string us up by ourcojonesif we start sampling the merchandise ahead of time. You can't afford to make any mistakes, sonny boy. You screw up your first gig, you can kiss being a recruiter goodbye."

At first the Kid didn't appear to care whether or not he made recruiter, his hands still poised at either side of his open fly. He gazed down at Olivia with a mixture of longing and disdain, and for half a second, she expected him to spit on her, or whip out his penis and blow a wad on her face. He wanted to, of that she was certain. When he zipped up his jeans instead, she breathed a sigh of relief and felt as if some of her strength had been restored. Not a true escape, perhaps, but a reprieve nonetheless.

Then she heard the screech of duct tape separating from the roll and turned just in time to see the Crier tear a piece off, bringing it towards her lips. "Wait—" She tried to dodge his oncoming reach, craning her neck and twisting her head side to side, the way babies refused bites of strained peas or carrots (not Matilda, of course, she had loved—) "No, please!"

Grabbing the long braid that had slipped behind Olivia's shoulder, the Kid coiled it around his hand like an abusive husband preparing his belt in a tawdry Lifetime movie about domestic violence. He jerked it tight, snapping her head back in the other man's direction so abruptly her neck popped. One of her first vehicular homicide cases as a newly minted detective had been a woman whose thick French braid got shut in a car door during an argument, breaking her neck instantly when she sped away and collided with a tree. She could still picture the odd angle at which the woman's head lay upon her shoulder, severed from the spinal cord, like a bent match head, a top-heavy dandelion.

"I—" I, what? She had no follow up to the declaration (I'm a police officer,I have children at home,I can't be raped again,I don't want to die) and it wouldn't have mattered anyway, if she did. The tape sealed any and all conclusions inside her mouth, where they withered on her parched tongue. Operating on reflex, her hand shot up to pry the adhesive aside, only to be slapped away with such force, it flung her arm out wide, as if she were displaying a sprawling vista.

When she automatically reached up with the opposite hand, the Crier reared back a second time, preparing to drive his fist into her face. She cringed from the anticipated blow, sure it would break her nose, a cheekbone, an eye socket—or maybe all three—the way he was hitting. His strength was immense and terrifying. Earlier in the school year, Noah had done a report on honey badgers, the small but incredibly powerful and ferocious creatures that resembled skunks and were capable of taking down large mammals. So thick-skinned they could withstand arrows and machetes; resistant to snake venom and known to kill even the most deadly cobras.

That's what the Crier reminded Olivia of, those fiendish, foul-smelling weasels, right down to the stripe of white hair he styled like a mohawk. She gritted her teeth, waiting for him to shatter the bones in her face
(like you shattered William Lewis')
but the impact never came. Not from that angle, at least. "Turn her over," said one of the men—she hadn't distinguished their voices from each other yet, the blood and her heart pumping too loudly in her ears—and before she could force open her eyes, she was bodily lifted, flipped, and slammed onto her stomach by two sets of hands. Her abductors were finally working together, it seemed.

She tried to push up from the floor on flattened palms. For a woman in her fifties who had large breasts and a trick shoulder, she still had a great deal of upper body strength. "Damn, girl, were you a mountain goat in another life, or just a lumberjack," Monique Jeffries used to ask, when she and Olivia went indoor climbing together. It was the same strength that made it possible to subdue perps so efficiently, and the reason she was able to pull Amanda back from a cliffside in the Catskills. And it was absolutely useless to her, now.

Both men caught her by the wrists, one on each side, and wrenched them behind her back, crushing them together while the tape roll made several revolutions, thicker and tighter with every loop. There wasn't time to be afraid or triggered by the sound and sensation of the bindings; it happened too fast for her to process, and neither function nor feeling had fully returned to her extremities anyway.

She had felt cut off from the rest of her body before, but those moments of dissociation paled in comparison to the Cryo, which had the added effect of trapping her inside the body she was separating from. She wasn't outside, looking in; she was at the innermost part of herself, cocooned in duct tape like a chrysalis awaiting transformation. What would her body be when this was over? To whom—or what—would it belong?

"Think I like her better from this angle," said the Crier (Yes, Olivia thought it must be him, he had a harder edge to his voice than the Kid). He gripped her ass with rough hands, kneading and spreading until she gave a sickly little groan behind the tape and turned her face to the floor. A metal groove beneath the mat pressed painfully against her forehead, but it was better than what he was doing. It kept her grounded, yuk yuk. (I'm here all night, folks!Unless these fine gentlemen kill me first!)

The groping seemed to last forever, and Olivia was trying to summon the strength to buck him off—maybe if she whiplashed her lower half hard enough, she could use the momentum to swing over, hook her legs around his neck, and squeeze until he turned purple or she heard a telltale crunch, whichever came first—but the Driver saved her the trouble, slamming on the brakes and sending the other two men sprawling. Already flat on her stomach, Olivia hardly budged. She launched a few blind kicks, hoping to hit something, anything, and connected only with air.

"Red light," the Driver announced, by way of an apology, his partners cursing and grumbling about his sh*tty driving. "You want me to get pulled over by the cops? That'd really give you something to bitch about."

It occurred to Olivia then that she should have been paying more attention to her surroundings this whole time—counting stoplights, listening for familiar sounds or changes in road terrain, noting the direction of each turn. She'd seen those movies and didn't believe for one second that someone with a bag over his head could memorize the layout of a foreign city through auditory cues and an internal compass alone, CIA or not. But she had lived in Manhattan her entire life, and she knew the streets well, thanks to thirty years of traveling them in squad cars. Perhaps if she'd been more observant (Like when that guy was rubbing his dick in your crotch?), she would have figured out where they were taking her.

They were headed for the docks, she knew that much. It was too general to be very helpful—there were countless docks in a city surrounded by water—although she might be able to narrow it down a little, based on how long it took to get there. Had they been in the van for ten minutes or fifteen? God, she couldn't remember. Every second that passed with the tape over her mouth, hands behind her back, face to the floor, felt like an hour. They could be upstate by now. They could be in goddamned Jersey.

She had experienced that same time loss with Lewis too, her memory and consciousness glitching in and out while she was tied up in the trunk of a car, then the floor of yet another van. Day blurred into night, the living blurred into the dead, the assaults on her mind and body blurred into a waking nightmare, much like the current one. Maybe she had never really escaped at all. Maybe everything since had been the dream: Amanda, their children, the home and family she had always wanted. A beautiful, perfect, impossible dream . . .

No, Olivia scolded herself so sharply she grunted. She didn't get to check out like that. She had survived minutes with Harris, hours with Arliss, days with Lewis, years with her mother, and kept her sanity through it all. No matter how painful the reality, she had to face it head on, just as she'd done her entire life. Her wife and children were as real as the metal ridge pressing against her forehead, the tape cutting off the circulation in her wrists, and they needed her sane and whole.

She closed her eyes and pictured her family—all smiling faces and blue eyes, except for little Sammie Grace, brown-eyed and dark-haired, just like Mommy—so she didn't have to see the men gazing down at her. Their intentions were clear by the expressions they wore (the Kid kept grinning and winking at her, the Crier glared and licked his lips every few seconds) and the bits of conversation she struggled to tune out ("—she's ever been f*cked by a guy before?" "—take a while to break a bitch like her in, but that's what the buyer wants, so . . . ").

Some of the meditative state was to block out their faces and voices, some to conserve her strength. She couldn't fight two of them in close quarters while partially hog-tied, but she would be damned if she'd lie back and take whatever they had planned for her at the next location.

And she knew, didn't she? No matter how hard she pretended not to, she knew what it meant to "break a bitch." It was slightly outdated street slang for what pimps did beforehand to the girls they turned out. They were calling it seasoning these days, traffickers and law enforcement alike, a term that referred to raw meat being prepared for consumption. Whichever nickname it went by, it all boiled down to the same basic methods: psychological torture, threats, rape, beatings, food and sleep deprivation. Anything and everything it took to make the victim docile and compliant. That's how Olivia's buyer wanted her.

She had a buyer. She'd been branded like livestock by William Lewis, now she was to be sold like it. Unseasoned meat, awaiting slaughter. That was all she was to these men.

Oh God, she longed for Amanda.

. . .

Chapter 6: Run

Notes:

asjkdlaksj I know this is extremely late, and I apologize, but I had the brilliant idea to make new cover art for part two. Long story short, it took forever and that's why I didn't get the story updated yesterday (didn't help that I ended up making three covers, because I apparently have no chill). :/ The good news is, I think the covers turned out pretty awesome and you can see them below in all their glory (two are at the very bottom). Okay. Thank you to everyone who's told me you're sticking with this story, even though it's dark. I appreciate you guys and your comments so much. One of the reasons I wanted to break some of these chapters up is to give y'all a breather too, 'cause I know it's a lot. It's hard for me to read it, and I wrote the damn thing, lol. Just take your time, and like I said before, if you ever need to skip a scene or two, I highly encourage you do to so. That said, the only trigger warning I'm putting on this chapter is for graphic language/threats.

Chapter Text

Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (5)

Chapter 6.

Run

. . .

Some time later—whether minutes or hours, Olivia couldn't say—the van slowed to an amble, the bumpy city streets giving way to the crackle and crunch of gravel beneath tires. The man at the wheel had coasted into a driveway or lot of some kind, from the sound of it.

Lengthy shadows flickered past Olivia's peripheral vision, as if the van were traveling through tunnels, into daylight. The buildings beyond the windshield must be tall, but Olivia couldn't catch even a glimpse; she was still flat on her stomach, forehead resting on the vinyl mat that would probably leave a maze-like indentation on her skin. She had turned onto her cheek a while ago, only to jerk face forward again when the Crier stared down at her, slowly cracking each of his knuckles. Although she wasn't squeamish, just listening to the bubbles burst inside the fluid in his joints made Olivia want to puke. She couldn't do that with the tape over her mouth, though, and the sole of the Kid's sneaker was inches from her face on the other side. So, she prostrated herself and she prayed. God, how she prayed.

"Honey, we're home," the Driver announced, doing his best Ricky Ricardo.Lucy, you got some 'splaining to do. The Kid didn't get it, but the Crier sniffed out what was probably the closest thing to a laugh he could manage.

If this were a realI Love Lucyepisode, the men would all be bumbling fools who botched the whole kidnapping, probably forgetting to secure Lucy's restraints, only to find she'd escaped out a window and down the fire escape—of course, not without several pratfalls and plenty of the other physical comedy for which the zany redhead was so famous. Unfortunately, Olivia was not Lucille Ball, and these men were far from foolish or inept.

"Okay, listen up, sugar tit*," said the Crier, taking Olivia by the braid and, like a lever, using it to turn her face toward him. "I'm only going to say this once, so you better pay attention. You're going inside with us, and you're not going to make it complicated. Our boss will be here shortly, and you're gonna be on your best behavior for him, right?"

When Olivia simply looked at him, breathing heavily through her nostrils above the chemical-scented duct tape, he cranked her braid up and down, forcing her to nod yes. Her scalp was tender from the previous mistreatment, her temples pulsing from the kick she'd taken, and the come-down of the drug. She gave a soft, involuntary cry, squeezing her eyes shut against the pain. Long ago she had learned to function normally, in spite of the headaches and various sites of extreme discomfort within her body—as a child, it was chronic bellyaches; as an adult, the migraines that had tripled in size and frequency since Lewis—so she would survive a little hair-pulling. But Jesus, it hurt.

"Good girl." The same praise Olivia and Amanda gave to their dogs. The same thing Harris said in the basem*nt of Sealview, his co*ck in her mouth. "Because if you do fight me, you know what'll happen, right?"

Yes. She knew.

Before she could nod, he did it for her, jerking her hair even harder than he had the first time. Tears pricked at her eyes, behind the closed lids. She exhaled wetly through her nose, hating the snotty, juddering sound it made; the way it puffed uselessly against the tape, like a bird fluttering at a windowpane, expanding her cheeks. It was difficult to gather herself, to feel in control and capable of forming a plan, let alone a clear thought, when she could hardly breathe properly. The smell itself was nauseating. That was how vodka smelled to her now.

"It's good that you do. But I've heard you're a real handful, and not just here." With the hand not clutching Olivia's braid, the Crier tugged back on her shoulder and slid his palm down to cup one of her breasts. "Seems like you didn't learn your lesson too well from those other boys who tried to tame you," he said, lips against the outer curve of her ear. "So let me be crystal clear—if you try any of your bullsh*t cop moves or whatever puss*-ass self-defense they teach you bitches in rape class, I will break both your kneecaps. Might cut off a couple fingers while I'm at it. Gus keeps a cattle prod around for the extra feisty girls. That's what I'll f*ck you with, you give me any trouble. Got it?"

This time he allowed Olivia to nod for herself, a cruel smile—no, more of a sneer—on his face when she finally opened her eyes and looked at him. She didn't believe him about breaking her kneecaps or cutting off her fingers. If she truly was being sold, they wouldn't cripple or mutilate her and risk losing business. Men usually didn't want their toys broken.

But the threat about the cattle prod sent a cold stab of fear through her. That, she believed. She had witnessed the Kid tasing Amanda without hesitation, and she'd seen enough genital scarring, inside and out, over the years to be aware of its popularity as a method of sexual torture and coercion. Men weren't often concerned with the internal or what a woman's genitalia looked like, as long as they were in working order when needed.

"Mm," Olivia agreed. She had few other options. Until she got a look at her surroundings, she didn't know what the chances of escape were, if any. She would have to play the obedient captor, the "good girl," long enough to orient herself, decide in which direction to run and whether or not her muffled screams could be heard. It worried her that she wasn't blindfolded. They had no intentions of her returning from this abduction.

"That's more like it. You keep that up, we might go easy on you." At that, the Crier chuckled to himself, a dry, hoarse sound like dead leaves scraping the pavement in autumn. It scraped Olivia's inner ear, making her shudder and shy away from his humid breath. Then he read her mind. "No place out here for you to go, anyway. Unless you're a damn good swimmer. And tit* like these? You'd sink straight to the bottom."

The Kid and the Driver joined in with his laughter, their voices spilling out the door of the van when the Crier shoved it open, hopped to the ground, and hauled Olivia onto her feet beside him. Once again, his brute strength shocked and terrified her. She'd been close to men like him before; men whose power seemed disproportionate to their size, and burst out of them with a force that snatched her breath away, sometimes literally. Men who were like a loaded gun that went off unexpectedly in your hand.

Elliot Stabler had been that kind of man. His explosive temper had frightened her at first, and she'd even considered requesting a new partner after seeing him in action in those early days. But what kind of cop would she be if she went whining and tattling to her boss because the big scary boy yelled and occasionally played too rough? What kind of partner? She had grown up with an angry, aggressive parent who yelled and played rough too. She knew how to handle it. Even when it turned on her.

He had hit her once—Stabler. It was accidental and partly her fault for grabbing his arm in a stupid rookie attempt to drag him off the perp he was pummeling. When he wheeled around, not realizing who she was, and decked her in the face, she'd instantly learned her mistake. That punch laid her out flat, after she slammed into the brick wall of the Central Park tunnel behind her. Hardest hit she'd ever taken, up to that point. Still one of the hardest.

This man, this Crier who probably hadn't shed any real tears since he was in a cradle, had that type of strength. The type that nearly knocked you out of your shoes with one blow, left you lying in the dirt and staring dazedly up at a swirling sea of stars on brick, made you forget your own name for a second. It was the strength of Harris, Lewis, Arliss, Orion . . . not of seven men, but of seventy times seven. Wasn't there a verse like that in the Bible?

(Would she ever get to look it up and find out?)

There was nowhere to run, just as he'd said. From what Olivia could tell, they were on some sort of loading dock that was practically an island unto itself. Huge shipping containers, the kind transported by boat and freight train, were stacked three and four deep on all sides, blocking most of her view beyond. She caught glimpses of water in the gaps between the stacks as the men marched her forward at a pace she had no choice but to keep up with, practically lifted off her feet by their iron grips on her arms.

A brackish scent tinged the air, and she could almost taste it in the back of her throat, like the warm saltwater her mother had made her gargle when she had sore throats as a child. Surely they weren't along the East River; she would be able to see the skyscrapers from there, hear the constant onslaught of traffic. Here, all she heard was the screech of seagulls—their vocalizations were eerily human to Olivia's ears, although maybe she was projecting—and the abrasive, discordant jamboree of drills and hammers from a nearby construction site.

Neither source was visible to her, bird or builder, and even if she did manage to break free from the two men on either side of her (the Crier outweighed her by twenty or thirty pounds, but the Driver was massive, easily in the two-twenty range and most of it muscle), no one would discern her muted screams for help over all that noise. Her captors would be on her before she made it past the first row of shipping containers, as uncoordinated as her legs still were from the injection, and she would find out what it was like to stick her privates in an electrical outlet.

Even that grim prospect couldn't keep her from balking when they reached a lone container, set off slightly from the rest, and which stood upon a jumble of railroad tracks so ancient they had receded into the ground like an old man's neglected gums withdrawing from his teeth. "Hm-mm," she said, and tried to fall back a step as the Kid loped ahead, unlatching the chain threaded through the panel doors at one end of the big metal box.

She had been inside of similar storage spaces enough times to guess where this was leading. Good for shipping large cargo, they were even better for housing all manner of clandestine individuals—illegals, trafficking victims, squatters, brothel workers who sometimes fit into each of those categories. During one raid, Olivia's team had discovered fifteen underage girls living in one of the units, the conditions so squalid each cop required several breathers in the fresh air to get through assessing the scene. The youngest girl had cerebral palsy and lost three toes, after they were gnawed by rats.

For her attempt at backtracking, Olivia received a rough shove that would have sent her face first onto the filthy floor if the Driver hadn't kept a tight hold on her bicep. As it was, she stumbled forward into the container, blinded by the shift from afternoon sunshine into stale, artificial darkness, depending solely on the Driver to keep her upright. The memories of being led around that way by Lewis and Amelia Cole, too out of it to object or aid in her own transport, were so vague she could barely access them; in her dreams of those attacks, she often floated. What dreams or memories would she have this time, she wondered.

Assuming she survived.

"Sorry about the accommodations." The Crier—AKA the Shover—resumed his clutch on her arm, jerking it unnecessarily towards him. Of course he had ended up controlling the side she'd required surgery on. Pretty soon they were going to start calling her Lefty, after all the injuries she seemed to accumulate on that half of her body. "Best we could do on short notice, puss*cat. Previous tenants weren't very good about upkeep. Don't worry, they got, uh, evicted."

That earned an appreciative chuckle from one of the guys, or maybe both, it was difficult to tell in the dark. No sooner had the thought entered Olivia's mind than a switch flicked on somewhere behind her, a mechanical hum like a large air conditioning unit whirred to life, and four tall tripod lights—the kind found on movie sets and in photography studios—suddenly blazed so brightly Olivia's vision eclipsed.

"Lights, camera, action," shouted the Kid in a booming director's voice. He was the one who had turned on the generator that powered the lamps, and he kicked out his long legs as he skipped into the island of light, like an energetic circus master or a vaudevillian taking center stage. His size thirteen Chucks were pigeon toed and flappy on his awkward feet. Still such a boy.

The other men ignored his antics and walked Olivia deeper into the room, which was smaller inside than it had appeared on the outside. About the length of her office and the adjoining interrogation room, and not much wider than the back of the van she was just in. With a small hop, the Kid could easily touch the ceiling.

Furnishings were sparse—beyond the square of light formed by the lamps, an old metal office desk like the one Olivia had written her DD5s on during her early days at SVU stood at a slant. Its surface reminded her of a slab in the morgue. A five gallon bucket of the sort used by house painters and car-wash attendants crouched in the corner. She doubted it was filled with sudsy water. The floor surrounding it was mucky dark, swamplike, and judging by the strong whiff of excrement she caught from that direction, the swamp had had multiple contributions.

The smell alone turned her stomach, but her belly flooded with hot acid when she saw what lay beneath the confusion of wadded blankets, crumpled fast food wrappers, unspooled toilet paper, and, inexplicably, a mangy, one-eyed teddy bear that littered the floor. A single, pitiful mattress with almost as many stains in its creases as on the floor was just visible, co*cked at an odd angle from the wall. It looked like an old hide-a-bed mattress, probably poached from some prehistoric RV, folded, slept on, and f*cked on countless times over the years, until it dragged itself into this hellhole to die.

Before Olivia could pause to consider the consequences, she stopped short and dug in the heels of her tennis shoes on the unfinished wood floor. There was enough traction to keep her from skidding, not enough to keep the men from strong-arming her forward—closer to the mattress with each step—so she locked her knees, summoned the strength she'd been saving up in the van, and threw her full body weight into the man closest to her size: the Crier. He grunted and lurched to the side, and for a second, as he and his accomplice recovered from their surprise, Olivia managed to break loose.

Acting on instinct and adrenaline, she spun around to flee, every muscle, every synapse, the very blood in her veins crying out for her to RUN. She'd been there before, that lizard-brain place where fight or flight were all that existed; where you were just legs pumping, a heart pounding, and that single red word flashing in front of your eyes like a neon sign.Run.

Too late she felt the braid slide from her shoulder. Too late she sensed the fist that closed around it. She barely made it two steps before he jerked her backwards by the hair, stumbling and cringing ("Mm!" she cried sharply), and reeled her in as if she were his big catch of the day. "They told me you were smart," he snarled in her ear, the stubble on his face scratching her cheek. "But that was one dumb bitch move you just made. I'm gonna hurt you bad now, c*nt."

Warning delivered, he clawed a hand around her throat, braid pulled taut in the other, and slung her gracelessly onto the mattress by both. She hit hard on her side, the thin, wilted padding providing almost no buffer against the unyielding floor below. The impact sent a cloud of dirt and dust wafting into the air, a good portion of that going up Olivia's nose and into her eyes.

Blinded and numb with pain on the side—the left, of course—on which she'd landed, she couldn't have said exactly how she made it onto her knees. But when the foot connected with her belly (she felt the unmistakable steel toe and ridged tread of a work boot), she wished she had stayed down. The dirt in her sinuses scraped like steel wool as she inhaled, trying to breathe past the pain in her stomach, except there was no breath to be found. Every bit of oxygen she sucked in through her nostrils was coughed right back out again, via the same route. And then she began to sneeze.

For several moments, she was lost in the throes of a hacking and sneezing fit so violent it blocked out everything else: the men who stood above her, like gods in a Greek tragedy, masks of varying emotion affixed to their faces (the Kid was Comedy, the Crier was Fury, the Driver was Apathy); the heat and cramping in her torso, the likes of which she hadn't felt since menopause ran its course, from that kick; the filthy, musty mattress she knelt on, doubled forward and fighting to remain conscious and breathing. Her sinuses burned like she'd snorted chlorinated water, her lungs burned like she was running a 10K at lightning speed.

If she didn't catch her breath soon, she would surely die. And maybe that was better than what the men had in store for her . . .

Before the thought had time to fully form, Olivia drew in enough air to keep herself from blacking out. She had worked up a sweat with all the coughing, and beads of perspiration ran down her temples to mingle with the tears and snot that flowed freely from her eyes and nose. Her face felt unbearably hot and she desperately needed to clear her throat, but couldn't find the adequate breath to do it without starting another coughing spell. She swallowed forcefully instead, willing away the twinge in her throat that threatened to set her off again. She wouldn't be done in by some dust and a strip of duct tape.

This was nothing compared to being stuffed in a trunk for hours with tape over your mouth and William Lewis behind the wheel, or feeling your life and breath dwindle away in your mother's monstrously strong hands as they tightened around your neck. Compared to those nightmares, this was child's play.

"Finished?" asked the Crier, a note of boredom in his tone. He extended his foot and prodded her in the ribs with his steel-toed, ridged-tread work boot when she didn't respond. From this angle, hunched and heaving, she had an up-close view of all their shoes—the Driver was wearing a pair of expensive high tops, brand new from the unblemished look of them; and the Kid had his classic Chucks. She'd known it was the Crier that kicked her. Who else?

He jabbed harder the second time, and Olivia shrank from the stitch in her side, nodding vigorously.Yes, you motherf*cking asshole, I'm finished almost asphyxiating while you stand there and watch. A hank of hair had come loose from her braid, after all the manhandling, and she flicked it out of her face as she straightened—as fully as her stiff abdomen would allow—and shot him a dirty look, conveying the message.

Unimpressed with the glare that served her so well in interrogation rooms and jailhouses (but not here, oh no not here . . . ), he casually raised his arm and blinded her again, this time with a flash that threw large spots into her vision. She blinked hard to dispel them, though it didn't do much good. The throbbing in her head seemed to synch up with the flickering afterimages, creating a strobe light effect that intensified the nausea in her aching stomach. A vicious cycle of sickness flowing through her, head to foot, like raw sewage churning in the pipes. She could even smell it, thanks to that mess in the corner.

"You can't send that one," said the Kid, whose voice she recognized now. It had more of a lilt than the Crier's flat, emotionless pronunciation. And none of the Spanish inflection unique to the Driver. Why she should be so intent on distinguishing them by voice alone, Olivia couldn't say. Refused to say. "She's supposed to look hot, remember?"

And just as Olivia's vision returned, it was blotted out once more by something scratchy and foul-smelling scrubbing across her face. Worse was the hand clasped behind her head, keeping her from pulling away, from seeking the oxygen that was in such short supply already, while the Kid dried her sweat, tears, and snot. He gave the rag a final jiggle, like a mother prompting her child to blow, then tossed it onto his shoulder as if he were about to do the dishes. It was a ratty old long-sleeved shirt with a pink cartoon cat on the front. Something a preteen girl would wear, if not for the blood and mystery stains. Dried seminal fluid, if Olivia were to hazard a guess.

"There she is," the Kid said, and smiled as he crouched down and tucked the stray locks of hair behind her ear. She pled with her eyes, hoping there might be a shred of humanity left in him to appeal to; he was so young, surely he still had a soul, a conscience? Calvin and Amelia didn't, nor did Henry Mesner, but maybe this Kid could be reached . . .

"Much more f*ckable." He tapped the end of her nose, the way she sometimes did to her children, and stood.

Maybe not.

"Say cheese," he added, his too-wide grin vanishing in another supernova burst of light from the Crier's cell phone camera.

The spots lasted longer this time, morphing into a trio of hideous monster shapes that loomed above Olivia, a dark and sinister trinity. In the outer reaches of her mind, someplace long ago and far away from here, she resurrected the lyrics to a song she hadn't heard since the days ofSchoolhouse Rock!on Saturday mornings. Five-year-old Livvy, seated inches from the TV screen—the cause of her adulthood hyperopia, perhaps?—because Mommy had another headache and the volume had better stay low, or that thing is going out the window, do you hear me, young lady? (Livvy was lucky Serena let her have a TV at all, didn't she know that?)

She seemed to remember a funny little magician pulling an assortment of items from his hat, including the letter three:

The past and the present and the future
Faith and hope and charity
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three
As a magic number

A magic number, indeed. Although, some of the shine wore off when it was the number of men who were about to gang rape you. They left that part out of the song. But as she brought the men back into focus from the blobs they had briefly become, she saw that they were too preoccupied with their own affairs to concern themselves with her.

The Crier had wandered towards the container doors, jabbing at his phone screen and brandishing the device like he was trying to locate a signal; meanwhile the Kid and the Driver were huddled around the ramshackle desk, engrossed by something their broad backs hid from view. Their secrecy worried Olivia, who had witnessed similar behavior from Noah and Jesse, when they were up to no good. Unlikely these boys would be nearly as innocent in their troublemaking as her son and daughter.

Sure enough, the Driver, whose Vin Diesel build did most of the blocking, turned to the side and retrieved a plastic baggie from his pocket. He was far enough away, and just outside the perimeter of the tripod lights, that Olivia couldn't determine the bag's exact contents, but she knew without a doubt that the colorful capsules were not candy. Nor was the spoon the Kid rapped against the desktop in a manic, mind-numbing drum solo intended for scooping cereal. No Cap'n Crunch for Livvy today.

Lewis had done drugs too. She'd seen the telltale white crust around the rims of his nostrils at some point—the precise hour could be divulged only by Daddy Bill, and he wasn't talking—while they were still in her apartment, and he had snorted a line of white powder off of Mrs. Mayer's vanity prior to raping and torturing the old woman for Olivia's viewing pleasure. "Breakfast of champions," he'd announced to no one, flaring and kneading his nostrils until they squelched.

The stuff inside the baggie wasn't co*ke, that much she could see. She had heard enough horror stories from victims, and she knew enough about the drug scene, especially as it pertained to sexual assault, to make an educated guess about what the multicolored tablets were. Anything that bright and bearing such a strong resemblance to Flintstones vitamins or SweeTARTS had to be ecstasy.

The "hug drug," a favorite among ravers and rapists alike, supposedly caused an amorous response in the user, with heightened physical sensations. Ironically, it also lowered the sex drive, but that was why God had invented the little blue pill. Combining ecstasy and Viagra increased sexual potency to almost superhuman proportions (think small Mario consuming the mushroom and growing into super Mario) and made it possible to rave—or rape—on for hours.

Olivia wasn't surprised in the least when the Driver took another baggie, this one filled with light blue capsules, from the opposite pocket. Even from here, she recognized the distinctive diamond-shape of them, although that might have been a trick of her imagination. She was a little on edge, after all. But no, the Driver palmed several of the blue pills, trailing them like a gardener sowing seeds among the E, gearing up to sow his seed in Olivia, and the men began divvying up their bounty. Her boys were cooking up something extra sweet indeed.

"Hey, come get summa this sh*t before I hammerhead it like motherf*ckin' Jaws on that naked chick," the Kid called over his shoulder to the Crier. He sounded like a kid on Christmas morning, in raptures as he surveyed all the presents under the tree.

"Man, Jaws was a great white, not a hammerhead, dumbass." The Driver butted the Kid's shoulder with his own, knocking him back a step, but laughing at the joke all the same. The Kid joined in as he began crushing pills with the heel of the spoon he'd finally stopped clattering against the desk. They stood there, giddy as schoolboys, pulverizing the trail mix into a fine powder. In that form, the E was known as Molly. At least in the United States.

In the UK, they called it Mandy.

(God, please let her find me somehow . . .)

And snorted, it took effect in about half the time of an ingested tablet. Olivia had approximately ten minutes until they started on her, fifteen at most. If she didn't act now, they would likely do her right here amidst the McDonald's cheeseburger wrappers and the foxed sheets of newspaper. She gazed down at the litter, frantically searching from side to side—for what, she didn't know. A cell phone she couldn't use with her hands taped behind her? A discarded blade, somehow overlooked by the men during their last gangb*ng? A revolver to end this before it started?

Click.

Her body began to rise of its own accord before she had mapped out a plan. There was no planning in a situation like this. She either got out, or she died trying. That would be better than the alternative, which was just a different kind of death, really. Like a cat with nine lives, she kept on escaping it, but soon those lives would run out and she'd be crushed beneath the tire for good, her guts fusing with the road until eventually all that remained was a garish smear.

It had almost gone that far with Lewis. In fact, her wife would argue that ithadgone that far, and not just the once. According to Amanda, many of the attacks Olivia had sustained over the years were full-fledged rapes: months of statutory rape by Daniel McNab, following that initial assault which claimed her virginity; ten seconds with Lowell Harris in her mouth, barely managing more than one or two thrusts; Lewis fingering her
(and whatever else he put in you while you were unconscious, don't forget that)
and moaning about red velvet.

Olivia had drawn the line at calling the titf*ck by Calvin anything other than an assault, and more often than not, she called it nothing at all. She had assented that the nameless—and all these years later, faceless—man who forced her to manually masturbat* him when she was fifteen had committed sexual assault on a minor, and the breast fondling at thirteen, by a pair of hands she couldn't confidently say were male or female, had been a form of sexual abuse.

While she and Amanda had come to a grudging agreement about the terminology for those incidents, it was her most recent revelation that caused the biggest controversy. After a first trimester checkup at the OBGYN led to a discussion about first-time experiences with Pap smears, Olivia had mentioned offhand that hers was enforced by her mother as punishment for the engagement to Daniel. To be sure she wasn't pregnant or infected with the clap, supposedly.

"Wait, back up. She made you have one against your will?" Amanda asked, in that tone she had. The one Olivia had come to think of as the detective's watchdog voice. There was practically a growl in it.

"Yeah, it was mortifying. She wouldn't even let me go in alone. I hated her for months after that," Olivia had replied, expecting a sympathetic groan from her spouse, who knew what it was like to be a teenager embarrassed by her own mother. The response she got instead caught Olivia completely off guard and almost resulted in her running them into a telephone pole blocks from their apartment.

"Babe, that's . . . do you not hear what you're saying?" Gentle, yet steady and unrelenting. The voice of an SVU detective breaking difficult news to a hospitalized victim who was unaware of her freshly acquired status. "She forced a gynecological exam on you without your consent. That's rape by medical proxy."

Olivia's exact reply was a blur, the heated debate that ensued in their parked vehicle inside the garage fragmented in her memory, but at some point, too shrilly, she had declared, "Of course I'm upset, you're trying to say my motherrapedme. My God, Amanda. You have got to stop making me out to be a victim every time I tell you someone touched me. It's too much."

That was one she couldn't accept. Would never accept. Just like she could never accept being raped by three men rolling on E and Viagra. She only had three or four of those nine lives left, by her wife's calculations.

Get outnow, she thought viciously, still attempting to stagger onto her feet. Without hands to boost herself—the lumpy padding distorting the floor below, her abdomen broiling from that kick, legs weakened by the Cryo—it was almost as impossible to stand as it had been to sit up on the bed Lewis threw her onto when they arrived at the beach hou—Get upnow, you stupid bitch.

Rocking her upper body to generate momentum, she dragged a leg forward, bent at the knee, and levered herself upright, to her full, albeit protectively hunched, height. The Crier had been thumbing at his phone again (composing a text or email, his rapidly pecking fingers suggested); he paused to observe Olivia's progress, with the cold gaze of a hunter preparing the kill shot for a wounded, dying animal. Not a mercy killing but a trophy hunt, to be stuffed and mounted. To be studied with dispassion or vague amusem*nt on a parlor wall.

For a long while they simply looked at each other, muscles tensed and breath held, as they waited to see which way their opponent would feint. Amanda played that game with Frannie, arm co*cked back, tennis ball in hand. When loosed, the fuzzy projectile—both ball and pit bull—would launch halfway across the park and be snatched up midair by a set of powerful jaws. Olivia's reflexes, while swift and efficient, weren't as keen as Frannie Mae's, nor was master as fleet of foot as canine.

If Olivia wanted to make it past her crying captor, she would have to rely on physical strength. He was strong, but so was she, and they were of similar size, at least in height. Given enough force, she might be able to plow through him and burst through the unbolted container doors. From there she would just have to improvise.

She'd been outmaneuvering larger, crueler individuals most of her life, from dodging her mother's drunken swings to fleeing through the woods to escape Orion. She had almost charged him on the edge of that cliff, seeing no other way to take him out. There was no other way now, either. The Crier smirked as if he knew it too. He twitched his shoulders like he was about to pounce forward himself, making a spitting cat noise against his front teeth.Fft fft. Mouth opening into a wide, vampiric maw, he let out an eerily realistic hiss.

Olivia flinched back, startled, and it was that split second of hesitation which cost her everything.

. . .

Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (6)

Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (7)

. . .

Chapter 7: Bespoke

Notes:

I started to put this up earlier, then ran out of time to post it before an appointment. At least it's the right day this time? Same trigger warning as the previous chapter: graphic language/threats. Also, some torture lite. And since this note is already all over the place, Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian friends and readers!

Chapter Text

Chapter 7.

Bespoke

. . .

She tried to run then, feeling the metal prongs dig into her side a moment too late, and her knees buckled before she made it more than a full step. At the bottom edge of her vision, she saw an aura of neon blue light sizzling in the vicinity of her ribs. Her first thought was of those bug-zapper lanterns that fried mosquitoes upon contact with the UV core. Amanda's grandmother had one hanging from an eave on her front porch, and it had blinked a Morse code signal the entire time they sat sipping lemonade on the porch swing that late-June evening—Olivia, Amanda, Grandmama Brooks, and Great-Aunt Ouise. (Was that really almost a year ago? How badly Olivia longed to be back there.)

Pain exploded in Olivia's side, her ribs igniting with a wildfire that spread rapidly throughout the forest system beneath her skin, consuming everything—branching veins, the sap that flowed there, the organs whose striations chronicled age and significant events—down to the root. She was being electrocuted, of that much she was convinced. During undergrad, she'd written a research paper on the death penalty and learned more about lethal injection, hanging, and the electric chair than she ever cared to know. Sometimes the eyes popped out when people got the chair. Occasionally the body burst into flames.

She was burning and any second now her heart would stop. A smell of scorched hair made her wonder if she had indeed burst into flames, but looking up from the garbage-strewn floor she saw that none of the paper or flammable junk around her was on fire. She'd fallen when the weird blue light sunk its teeth into her flank, and she stared dazedly at the Converse sneakers less than an inch from her face, trying to make sense of her new surroundings.

Groaning with the effort, she turned her head to gaze at the grinning man above—her Converse Kid. So, it had been old Chucky Boy, and not a lightning strike or her finger in a light socket. Whatever he had shocked her with was more powerful than a normal stun gun or Taser; years ago, when tasers had become NYPD regulation, she'd gone through the entire training program, including the capstone project: lining up to be tased herself. Though barely out of rookie blues, she was one of the few officers who didn't drop to her knees or squawk when the electrical current passed through her. She certainly hadn't pissed her pants like that one guy.

The jolt she had received this time was at least twice (possibly thrice) the voltage of that mid-90's Taser, wielded by a snigg*ring sergeant. Her eyes wandered to the Kid's hand, where she wasn't at all surprised to spy a clublike weapon with electrodes the size of the prongs on a washing machine plug at one end, and a pump handle at the other, for controlling the surge.

It was somewhat modified, but Olivia was definitely looking at the cattle prod the Crier had threatened to f*ck her with. She'd come across similar devices in the handful of kill rooms she had helped process over the years; they were a favored method of torture among deviants, specifically designed for human victims, and thus banned in the United States. In theory, anyway. Its high voltage and low current meant it probably wouldn't kill her, just burn like a son of a bitch and hurt like a motherf*cker.

The one consolation was that they hadn't used it on Amanda. It was bad enough that the detective had been tased, but Olivia couldn't bear to think of her in this much pain. (Had she traced the Taser by now? She must have, she was damn good at her job. First-grade material, maybe even sergeant, if she continued the level of work she'd done in the past year. She would come for Olivia. She would.)

(God, please.)

"Next one goes in your tit*, you interrupt my happy-time snack again," the Kid warned, pointing toward the desk with the business end of his sad*stic toy. He swung it back down and jabbed it into Olivia's breast, grinding cruelly, the electrodes biting at her flesh like vampire fangs. The smile never left his face.

That perpetual grin reminded her of The Joker, both the character and the song. Lewis had sung the latter while he jammed his finger inside her ("I get my lovin' on the run . . . "), and Noah had pouted for days when she refused to let him watch the movieJoker, with that actor whose name was a fictional bird. Phoenix something. The birds that self-immolated and were reborn from the ashes.

Olivia held her breath, waiting for the next shock, wondering if she would have the strength to rise from the ashes these men left of her. But the flash-fire pain didn't come, and when she nodded in response to the Kid's demanding, "Got it, Captain?" and another thrust from the cattle prod, he relented and practically skipped back over to partake of his happy-time snack.

She couldn't watch as he and the Driver leaned over to snort the kaleidoscope of dust scattered on the desktop, tightly rolled bills from each of their pockets poised between their fingers. As a kid, she'd loved those little glass potion bottles you filled with layers of pigmented sand. Once, Serena had hurled one at the wall above Olivia's head, bent in study, her drunken aim off by a mile. The bottle exploded in a nebula of multicolored grit that resembled the crushed up drugs when it settled.

What a mess you have made, Serena said the next day, shaking her head at the rainbow smears she caught Olivia scrubbing off the wall and carpet, her own contribution to the disaster forgotten.Why can't you just behave yourself?

Forty-some years later, she hadn't learned her lesson, it seemed. She still didn't know how to behave herself, and the consequences were much more dire now than they had been when she was a bookish twelve-year-old who collected bottles of sand. She had the scorch mark on her side to prove it.

Lifting her head cautiously—somewhere in the span between shoulders, a muscle was strained, and her neck felt wobbly, weak—she peered down at the hot spot over her ribs, finding exactly what she'd expected. The holes in her shirt were bigger, the fabric singed in wider, darker circles, but the resemblance to cigarette burns was uncanny. Underneath, her flesh glowed a meaty, gristly shade of pink. Another brand, to go with all the rest. How had they known to use an instrument meant for livestock? What made her such choice meat for men like these?

Don't just lie here, you dumb cow.Move your ass.Right then, her internal voice, which normally sounded a lot like her mother, sounded more like Lewis instead. In a strange way it was comforting, and she didn't care to know why.Show them what you're really made of.

Struggling to sit up, she propped on one elbow and shoved off the floor, for a moment lingering in the space between like a sticky gauge. With a switch of the hips, she lurched fully upright, legs extended, and checked over her shoulder that the Kid and the Driver were otherwise engaged. They were bent over, snuffing powder off the desk in long, chalky lines, the woman on the floor all but forgotten.

Not so for her old pal Crier. When she turned back around, he was staring intently at her, his face betraying not a single emotion. He gave his phone a perfunctory glance before pocketing it and sidling towards Olivia with the body language of someone coming to taunt and intimidate. It was the way lifers approached fish in the prison yard, thugs approached rival gang members, bullies approached the smaller kids on the playground. (The way rapists approached their victims.) Same old song, and he knew all the words by heart.

As he drew near, about to squat down in front of her, Olivia counted to herself, trying to time the kick just right, align it perfectly with his groin. Her heart clenched up at the thought of what would happen if she missed—or didn't—and maybe that gave her away, some involuntary twitch on the outside alerting him to her next move.

He intercepted her foot when she thrust it forward with all her might, and gave it such a violent twist, she thought he meant to break her ankle. Maybe he did, but her shoe came off instead, her heel smacking heavily back to the wood floor. So he improvised, hurtling the tennis shoe at her with allhismight, which was immense. Though lightweight, the Nike trainer felt like a cannonball hitting her in the sternum at that speed.

While she was still coughing and wheezing into the duct tape, he snatched up her other foot, ripped off her remaining shoe, and pelted her in the back with it as she huddled up protectively. It hit her with a hollow thump that resounded in her ears and her lungs, and she began to panic at the thought of another episode like before—that inability to catch her breath, to hold onto the small amount of air the tape and her fear permitted. The Crier solved the problem for her, jerking her head back by a fistful of hair and opening her constricted airway.

Distracted by the pain in her tormented, fiery scalp, Olivia forgot the need to cough and inhaled sharply, hot tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. "You keep making it worse and worse for yourself, you stupid slu*t," the Crier said in a confidential tone, as if imparting some deep wisdom for her ears only. "All that bad bitch bullsh*t you keep trying to pull? It's my job to f*ck that out of you. Now, you see those assholes over there?"

He took Olivia's head between his hands, one at her brow, the other gripping her chin, and snapped it towards his cohorts. They were grinning and rubbing compulsively at their noses, probably trying to absorb every last bit of powder they had snorted. Enough to rape Olivia for at least a couple hours, continuously if they took turns during each other's refractory period. Even on drugs, men still couldn't get it up immediately after ejacul*tion. But with a break in between . . .

"They don't take this work as seriously as I do. The big one, he'll hurt you plenty with his fat sausage fingers, but the 'roids shrunk his dick, so you won't feel much when that's inside you. He only makes the really little girls scream. Guess they're too tight— Hey. Hey." The Crier shook Olivia's lower jaw, her top teeth screeching against the bottom, when she tried to pull away. "And the dumbass-looking Nancy boy is only here because his daddy's in charge, so he'll inherit this dump and the business someday. He wouldn't know a gourmet c*nt like yours from a hole in the ground otherwise.

"Point is, kitty cat, they're just here to have fun and make bank. The more you fight them, the harder they'll get. But Gus chose me because he needed someone to really teach the girls. Someone who understands discipline and control. See, I don't get off on the squirming and flailing and sh*t. For me, it's about the pain. That's the only drug I need to get me going. And the longer it takes to break you, the more chances I'll have to get high.

"Oh, and I should warn you: I'm a biter," he concluded with a gnash of his teeth, jerking Olivia's face close enough that she felt the moisture from his breath on her cheek. He grazed it with his incisors, as if preparing to take a hefty chunk out of an apple, and when she whimpered a wordless plea, he licked the side of her face with an agonizingly slow stroke.

Olivia swallowed several times, forcing down the bile that coated the back of her throat like a hot, slippery algae. She wouldn't give him—any of them—the satisfaction of seeing her throw up and struggle not to aspirate behind the tape muzzle. If they thought she was that weak, they could think again. Four days of being hammered on vodka and pills, being pawed and licked and rutted against by that man-beast Lewis, and lying flat on her back when she wasn't getting tossed around like cheap luggage; all that, and not once had she vomited in his presence. She'd learned from the best. Serena passed out drunk on the regular and had never choked to death on her own vomit.

God knew Olivia sometimes wished she had.

Olivia wished the Crier dead, too. She hoped the Viagra backfired on the other men and gave them such painful erections they had to rush to the hospital and have the blood drained from their throbbing co*cks with needles the size of ice picks. If she had some handy, she would perform the aspiration herself. Then she would lobotomize the Crier by inserting one of those same needles under his top eyelid and directly into his brain. She'd read about the procedure years ago, after a case involving a woman whose rapist lobotomized her (badly) and kept her as a sex slave. She remembered the steps vividly, but she would add a few extra stabs of the needle for the man before her.

How long she went on torturing and killing the men in her mind, Olivia didn't know, but she became increasingly aware of the Kid and the Driver's antsy, erratic behavior. They were laughing too loudly at nothing funny (the Kid's floppy, untied shoelace; a paper plate that sailed across the room like a flying saucer, after a kick from the Driver) and pacing like a pack of wild dogs awaiting instruction from the alpha male.

Estrus had been scented and the she-bitch was running out of time.

But the Crier had returned to his phone, and he barely glanced up when the other two started dragging the desk across the floor, unleashing a hawkish shriek. It sent a jolt through Olivia, as if she'd been touched with the cattle prod again, and it must have woken her up, because she suddenly spotted a large nail sticking up from the poorly hewn flooring a few inches away.

While her captors were looking elsewhere—the Crier intent on his phone, the two dipsh*ts standing back to survey the screechy old desk, now bathed in light, as if they were propmen preparing a stage—she scooted closer to the nail, praying she didn't gather any splinters along the way. Honestly, a splinter in the ass would be the least of her worries right now, but she wanted nothing from this godforsaken place under her skin, not even the smallest piece of it inher. Somehow she managed to avoid being snared, and lowered her bound wrists over the sharp crook of metal behind her.

Cautiously, she began to whittle at the thick layers of tape, trying not to scrape her skin in the process, though it was almost inevitable.You can live with the scratches, she told herself.Worst case scenario, you'll need a tetanus shot.That's better than the shots you'll need for whatever STDs these scumbags give youif you don't get the hell out of here.

She was so focused on sawing through her restraints, stealing furtive glances between the trio of men, she barely noticed the shaft of light that joined the overbright lamp beams when the door opened to her right. At the opposite end of the container, two dark silhouettes entered in a sunburst of rays that first made Olivia squint, then made her cry out.

It couldn't be the cops already, not unless they had somehow tracked the van, but it might be help. Unsuspecting workers who stumbled upon an unlocked shipping container and would surely call 911 when they discovered what was inside? Or even just a couple of curious teens who would see the woman duct taped on the floor, her muffled screams scaring them off—but only far enough away to dial the police. Every teenager had a cell phone these days.

Her voice vibrated the roof of her mouth, blaring from her throat and colliding with the padded wall of her sealed lips. In the back of her mind, a murky memory surfaced: the soundproofed room with checkerboard walls, where Calvin Arliss had sexually assaulted her. It was inside her now. They all were—the dirty rooms she'd been assaulted in, the dirty men responsible. And not just assaulted.Raped. Maybe if she finally admitted it, this new nightmare would end. She couldn't have survived three rapists, just to become the victim of a gang rape. Not even fate was that cruel . . .

Was it?

She yelled herself hoarse behind the duct tape, or would have, if the Crier hadn't taken several swift strides forward, almost appearing to spring from one side of the room to the other, and backhanded her across the face with such force it knocked her sideways. She felt something drag across the nail and rip, but it was just her skin, not the tape. Tape didn't bleed. Wrists and the insides of cheeks did, especially when a hand came out of nowhere and slapped the living hell out of you. Olivia had learned that lesson at a young age, and still she hadn't been prepared for such a vicious blow. On her side like that, pain emanating from her cheek, scalp, chest, and abdomen, she couldn't even find the strength to sit up right away.

"Enough," boomed a voice, almost as loud as the blood pounding in Olivia's skull. She flinched involuntarily, knees curling in tight towards her chest. There was a time that yelling men didn't frighten her, when big noises hardly made her jump at all, but those days were over. Lewis saw to that, as he had so many of the alterations to her life, her soul, over the last nine years.

A life bespoke by monsters.

And here was the next in a long line of men-shaped beasts who would control Olivia's fate. She recognized his power without even seeing his face; the moment he had shouted, the Crier halted his attack—boot co*cked back, about to drive into Olivia's gut like he was the kicker and she the football—and retreated. Whoever the new man was (not help, that much she realized), he had authority over the Crier and his buddies, whose laughter had cut short abruptly at the sound of his voice. Didn't they say everything went silent right before the tornado hit?

"What's the meaning of this?" Despite the demand, his gait was casual, his shoes barely scuffing the floor upon entry. Someone followed along behind him, plodding heavily and awkwardly with each step. "Was I unclear when I told you no damage to the face? Do you want this deal to fall through, after all it took to make it happen?"

"Bitch was screaming," the Crier said in a vaguely military tone. Olivia didn't lift her head to look, but she imagined him standing at attention, fists behind his back, stance wide. A regular goddamned soldier. "Had to shut her up somehow. She can take a hit, and it worked didn't it? Look at her, curled up all nice and quiet, like the good little puss* she is."

Olivia unfurled from her defensive ball and slowly dragged herself upright, every movement a struggle for her strained muscles, which were still glitchy from the paralytic and the electric shock. She felt like an old VHS tape with bad tracking, her inner reels snarled beyond repair. But she would not lie on the floor and be compared to a f*cking animal (although she was certain there were other connotations to that particular choice of species) while four men stood around, licking their chops. Five, she saw, when she straightened her shoulders and raised her chin with defiance.

The fifth was a boy. Younger than the Kid, to whom he bore a strong resemblance, but his crooked baseball cap and LEGOStar Warst-shirt were oddly juvenile for a boy of his size. He lagged behind the taller, older man, openly gawking at his surroundings and playing with the zipper of his red windbreaker. "It stinks in here, Dad," he commented, wrinkling his nose when he caught a whiff of the bucket in the far corner.

His father ignored him, eyes on Olivia, though he hadn't finished with the Crier yet. The two older men were practically toe to toe, and though the Crier wasn't exactly using the soldier's posture that Olivia had envisioned, he gave a clipped nod when his boss said, "Touch her face again, you're out."

"Hey, bro!" the boy called, waving at the men by the desk.

"Hey, man," the Kid replied, sauntering over to the new arrivals, hands in his pockets. He whipped one out and slapped the brim of the boy's hat, knocking it down over his eyes. "What're you doing here?"

"Dad said I could come." The boy adjusted his hat, grinning as if he'd received a good-natured whack on the back rather than a bullying gesture. "I'm eighteen now. It's time I learn the business too. Right, Dad?"

The Kid looked to the man who was obviously his father as well—they were the same height and build, sharp-featured, with those creepy penetrating eyes—and co*cked his head, dubious. "Seriously? You didn't let me join in till a few months ago."

"That's because you're careless and impulsive," said the father. If Olivia remembered correctly, the Crier had said his name was Gus. He seemed familiar somehow, but her thoughts were too disjointed, her nervous system too fried, for her to place him. She probably wouldn't even recognize her own face in the mirror right then.

"You were already making trouble for yourself and all those young women by the time you were fifteen, anyway. Now it's time to shape up and teach your brother how to become a man."

The Kid swiped the flat of his sneaker along the floor, sending up a dust cloud worthy of a dirt driveway. He thrust his hands into his pockets again and frowned at his father, looking like a child pouting over a confiscated toy. Noah made that face when his video game privileges were revoked. "Come on, Pops, you really think this is the best one for him to learn on? You said it yourself, this job needs to go smooth. Can't he wait till we've got some little nobody?"

"You never did like to share," said Gus, a faint smile belying his disapproving tone. He reached up and cupped a hand firmly to the back of the Kid's neck. Not rough, but certainly not gentle, either. "You'll teach him. And you'll make sure there are no mistakes, like when you got out of hand with that pretty little immigrant girl. I lost a lot of money on that one, son. You know I don't like to lose money."

The last bit sounded like a warning—or a threat—but Olivia was too busy trying to process the part about the little immigrant girl to decide which. How little? What had these animals done with her? Was she in a shallow grave somewhere nearby (or maybe another shipping container like this one, filled with decomposing bodies, more money lost); had she survived the Kid's overzealous attentions and been too damaged to fulfill her duties as a pretty little girl anymore, thus discarded for Olivia and her squad to find, to try and piece back together?

Olivia suddenly felt more afraid for the girl than for herself. She had to get out of this place and look for her. Even if she only found a corpse, the ME could still identify the body and put it to rest. Someone somewhere had to be searching for their lost daughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend . . . Women and girls didn't just go missing, without at least one person looking for them. There was always somebody who loved them, wasn't there?

It was like trying to get up with an anchor tied around her neck, weighing her down to the floor, but she made it onto her knees and summoned the strength to rise fully. Where she would go from there, she didn't know; she only knew that all it took was one stroke of good luck: a well-placed kick that knocked the jagged bottle away, a metal bar that came loose with a final desperate tug, a perfectly chambered bullet, a cliffside that beckoned in the deep dark wood.

(But there's five of them and only one of you.)

No matter. She had escaped Lewis, who seemed to have the power and wherewithal of five men, or even ten. By the time she was through with him, his face was a misshapen mask of blood, the dents in his skull sunken in like shallow graves, limbs twisted at odd angles. She had broken him on the inside, just like he'd done to her. The difference was, his wounds healed.

Parts of Olivia would always remain broken—her inability to be approached from behind, to walk into a dark apartment alone, to feed her children cake batter from the bowl, to trust herself not to go too far—she had accepted that years ago. But she couldn't let it happen again. She couldn't let these men shatter what she had so delicately and painstakingly reconstructed for her wife and children's sakes.

Maybe one of the men had a gun on him. Probably Gus, since he was the ringleader. It wouldn't do to put firearms in the hands of the Kid or the Crier. Little Brother, obviously intellectually disabled in some way, would probably end up shooting himself if given a weapon. The father was her best bet, though how she could break her bonds, wrest an unseen gun from him, and not be overtaken by the others was a terrible riddle she had no time to solve. She would just have to think on her feet, as she had always done since first learning they could carry her far away from her mother.

But in her haste to stand and run, she had forgotten about the Driver over by the desk. From the corner of her eye, she saw his muscular form coming at her, not with a gun in his hand, but with the cattle prod from before. He was too quick for her, his movements surprisingly spry for someone so large.Well, at least I know it's coming this time, she thought, as the metal teeth of the weapon bit into the soft, bare flesh at her inner elbow.

It didn't hurt any less than the first zap, even with that fleeting moment of preparation. She tried not to cry out, and failed, as the current ripped its way through her like a buzzsaw going up her spinal cord. Luckily the Driver didn't have quite the happy trigger finger that his younger partner had demonstrated, and he eased off within a second or two. The burn wouldn't be as bad as the one to her side, and she only fell to her knees now, instead of kissing the filthy floor. Perhaps she was already building up a tolerance.

Please, God.

"Wait," said Gus, his hand going up when the Driver repositioned the prod at Olivia's hip, probably intending to lay her out flat with a second shock. She wondered why her jaw hurt so badly, and realized she was clenching her teeth in anticipation of another jolt. She attempted to relax her body, especially the jaw, fearing it would lock up entirely like it sometimes did when she chewed, but she couldn't let down her guard with Gus approaching.

Olivia eyed him warily as he drew near, a placid smile on his lips. Whereas his son grinned too wide and too much, this man's expression barely touched the surface. A formality for his guest, and nothing more. He wasn't a bad-looking man—at one time, she might have smiled back to find him watching her in a bar or a restaurant; she might even have been flattered that someone so attractive and well-dressed had noticed her. Now, she shied away, unable to fully recoil with the Driver gripping her shoulder and aiming the cattle prod at the opposite side of her neck.

The meaning was clear: one false move, bitch.

"Whose idea was this?" Gus asked, pointing to the tape slashed across Olivia's mouth. He glanced at each of the kidnappers in turn, an expectant look on his flinty features. "You really think it's a wise idea to close off the airway of someone to whom you've administered a paralytic agent? You're lucky she's still breathing."

"I didn't put it on her until after the sh*t was wearing off," the Crier said gruffly. "She was being a mouthy little c*nt, so I shut her up. That's what we're supposed to do. These bitches don't learn if you play nice,boss."

The honorific was anything but, and Gus turned a cold glare on the other man, the room gone deathly quiet. In the distance, a muffled chiseling from the construction site was just detectable. "You've seen what duct tape does to the skin. You want to be the one who explains to the buyer why she's got a rash on her face?"

"I don't see what the big deal is. It's just a face. Unless this guy only wants blowj*bs, there's other more important parts of her. Speaking of which, can we speed this up? I'm losing my woody over here."

At the mention of blowj*bs, Olivia's pulse kept time with the jackhammer across the water. She tried to jerk free of the Driver, but he had her trick shoulder in his large, unrelenting grasp. He was standing close enough to headbutt in the genitals—Gus, too—if only she could twist in the right direction. As if he had read her mind, the Driver moved his hand to the back of her neck, squeezing at either side and giving a vicious shake. For a moment, she felt like a cat being lifted by the scruff. Bad puss*.

"See? She's ready and rarin' to go," the Crier said, grabbing his crotch as if his co*ck was already out and wagging at her. "Can't wait to feel this glide between her cheeks."

He didn't elaborate, but Olivia had a pretty good idea which cheeks he meant. Even so, she gagged at the thought of him putting it anywhere close to her mouth, and the spasm nearly brought up her breakfast coffee. (She wondered vaguely if her children had gotten their bagels, and if not, what had they been fed? The thought of them going hungry was too much to bear; worse, almost, than knowing what was about to happen to her.)

Feeling another coughing fit coming on, now with the added challenge of the Driver keeping her in place, his ball-peen fingertips digging into the slope of flesh on either side of her neck, Olivia started to panic. The room was suddenly too small, the air too thick. It was like the inside of a broom closet—or a tomb. There were ways out of those places (hadn't Jesus risen from the tomb after three days?), but not out of here.

Beads of sweat sprouted on her forehead as she fought back a giant whooping cough, and just as she was about to begin choking in earnest, a hand appeared and whisked aside the tape from her lips. She took in a gush of air that whistled in the back of her throat, a strong wind through the eaves, and spluttered it out again, hacking until she produced a deep bronchial rattle. Noah used to sound like that with his frequent respiratory infections and lung issues; sometimes he still did, if he caught a bad enough cold. It always put Olivia on edge, her own lungs growing tight, throat constricting, as she tried to breathe for him. Tried to breathe. Couldn't.

She couldn't breathe.

Someone thumped her on the back with an open palm, as if she had a piece of food lodged in her windpipe. She realized then that the Driver's hand was no longer at the nape of her neck—he was probably the one who hit her—but she was too busy guzzling all the rancid, sh*t-scented air she could get to do more than hobble a few paces on her knees. The room shimmered in her teary vision, a mirage in the vast and fiery desert, though one she wanted to run away from, not towards. And ahead, a dark figure emerged from the light and the wavering aura, like a terrible angel, bending down to Olivia's level.

"Shh, shh. Get hold of yourself," said Gus. His voice was unique from the others, calm and soft-spoken. Soothing, almost. Perfect for reading bedtime stories and last rites alike. He swam into Olivia's watery gaze, lifting her face in his hands and swiping away the tears with his abnormally long thumbs. All his fingers were extraterrestrial in length, and ice cold. "Is that any way for a seasoned NYPD officer to behave? I've seen you in action, Captain Benson, and you're quite impressive. Frankly, this is beneath you."

He smoothed her hair with his palms, tucking it behind her ears, then licked the pad of his thumb and wiped a sore spot on her cheek. The Crier must have broken skin with one of his ugly skull rings when he hit her. Again she imagined tearing loose of her bonds, this time seizing the cattle prod from the Driver, and—after she'd zapped him and Gus in the balls—using it to bash the Crier's skull in. Just like she did to Lewis. Next, she would tell Little Brother to run before taking care of the Kid. Just like she did with the housekeeper and her daughter. And Lewis.

Now, she reared back, hawking up a wad of phlegm and saliva and expelling it directly into Gus's face. Just like Lewis. That had been the first and only time she'd ever spat on anyone, until this very moment. It didn't do a damn bit of good, in fact it probably hurt her cause grievously, but right then she didn't care. She had few weapons in her arsenal, other than screaming and fighting, and you didn't roll over and expose your belly to the wolf, unless you were prepared for him to tear out your intestines.

If nothing else, it put her DNA on him, should he be questioned in her disappearance. He wasn't new to organized crime, that much was evident from his calm, self-possessed exterior and the way each man kept referring to "the business" he ran. Maybe NYPD already had eyes on him. The FBI might even be involved, if trafficking and child p*rnography were his bread and butter, as it had been suggested. Olivia wouldn't argue jurisdiction with the feebs on this one, as long as these men never saw the light of day again.

She expected another blow to the face, or at least another bone-rattling, skin-sizzling jolt from the cattle prod, especially when the Driver clapped a hand to her shoulder, squeezed until she thought her collarbone might snap, and nuzzled the fanged end of the prod into the side of her breast. Before she could cry out or beg him not to turn on the juice, Gus called the man off again. He gestured for the Driver to step back, and after a reluctant glance down, the man released Olivia and faded into her peripheral vision.

The others were gazing at her with anticipation and open hostility, waiting for Gus to deliver whatever punishment was befitting a faceful of sputum. Calmly, he brought forth a handkerchief from his pants pocket and used it to polish his forehead and cheeks. Of course he would have one of those. The only other person Olivia had ever known who kept a handkerchief was her mother. Serena's all had her initials—SGB—embroidered in the corner, though Olivia had never seen her pick up a needle and thread. Those were the implements of housewives and domestics, certainly not of Serena Grace Benson.

Tucking away the hanky, now crawling with Olivia's DNA, Gus hitched up the legs of his trousers and squatted in front of her. If her hands were free, if she weren't kneeling and nursing an inflamed, aching torso, she might have been able to take him down—claw out his intense, creepy eyes; uppercut him in the big brass balls he hefted around; or maybe just rely on her old standby, an elbow to the face.

But her self-defense options were limited and she could barely muster the strength to stay balanced on her knees, let alone pull off some feat of athleticism and coordination. She was fooling herself about being able to overpower five grown men, each individually stronger than she, perhaps with the exception of Little Brother. Feeble-minded didn't necessarily mean feeble-bodied, however, and he shared his father and brother's physicality.

She hadn't felt Gus pressed up against her yet, hadn't been hauled around by him like a sack of garbage headed for the incinerator, but she sensed that the frame before her was well-toned beneath the crisp trousers, chambray shirt, and leather jacket. His power emanated from him the way some guy's put off a heavy, oppressive cologne scent. As if they bathed in it.

Left with no other means of defending herself, Olivia turned to the method that seldom worked in these situations—in her experience, at least—and tried to use her voice, not for screaming but for appealing to Gus's humanity, assuming he had any. But when she opened her mouth to speak, the only word she could think of, the only one she could summon from her strained and raspy throat, was, "Why?"

"Why?" Gus co*cked his head, giving the impression of sympathy, as if he had happened upon an animal with its leg caught in a trap. Never mind that he was the one who laid the trap to begin with. "Why you, is that what you mean?"

Olivia nodded. She supposed it was what she meant. Not in the woe-is-me sense or even in a "why do bad things happen to good people?" way (she'd stopped asking that question long ago), she genuinely wanted to know why she had been chosen for this hell. It wasn't a random kidnapping, she was here for a specific reason—a buyer wanted her, face intact, but the rest of her broken. Those kinds of sad*stic requests usually sent a message to someone. It was the type of revenge torture she and her squad encountered in drug cartel cases, typically with dismembered body parts playing a significant role, or gang wars. Weaponized rape with a twist.

But if she was the target of the buyer's revenge, why leave her face untouched? What lesson did that teach her? That was a lesson for lovers, for the person who had to look on their beloved's face and know that their sins had been taken out on the flesh below it.

Why?

"Because, Olivia, you caught the attention of a really big fish. Someone with a lot of friends in this town. A lot of pull." Gus reached for a strand of hair that fluttered next to Olivia's cheek, gliding it over her shoulder between his fingers.

His gentleness was unnerving. Olivia almost preferred the manhandling to being touched as if they were about to share a romantic kiss. Calvin had touched her like that—intimately, lovingly; Lewis a few times, too. Those were the touches that didn't wash off, afterwards. The ones that stuck in your mind when the pain was long gone, the way women were said to forget the pain of childbirth with that first glimpse into their newborn's eyes.

It was true. Sweaty blond hair plastered to her head, cheeks as pink as rosacea, Amanda had wept and laughed while they held a minutes-old Samantha, her tiny fists and tiny wails piercing the air. The detective had never looked happier than in that moment. And in their daughter's deep brown eyes—which knew nothing of suffering or cruelty, hurt or sadness—Olivia had found an unimaginable peace that drove out even the darkest thoughts, the worst memories. Amanda had forgotten the labor pains, but with Sammie in her arms, Olivia forgot every trauma, every maltreatment, including the kind disguised as tenderness, of the past fifty-odd years.

Until today.

"Or I suppose your wife caught their attention, and you?" The man offered that regretful look again, the one you gave a likable insect— ladybug or butterfly—before swatting it dead. He grazed his knuckles across the gouge on her cheek from the Crier's ring. "You're just collateral damage. It's unfortunate. As I said, you're quite impressive, not only as a beautiful woman, but as a cop. And I don't say that lightly. The NYPD and I aren't exactly on the best of terms. But I've come to think of you as a worthy opponent. You've ruined quite a few of my operations over the years without even knowing it."

He tapped her under the chin with his fingertip. It was an oddly affectionate gesture that made her cringe. "We grew up together, you and I. I remember you in your little sleeveless tops when you were still a third-grade. So cute and so green. Half the time I couldn't decide whether to court you or kill you, you were such a pain in my ass. Pardon the language.

"In the end, I liked knowing you were out there, balancing the scales. Challenging me. But you can see why I was so intrigued by the call to bring you in. The only thing better than having such a formidable foe is finally besting her."

Most of the speech was lost on Olivia, who had heard little else after the mention of Amanda. It was the same old spiel crime bosses and narcissistic, presumptuous men had been giving her for years—how deeply connected to her they were, how alike; how the woman in her brought out the man in them, and on and on ad nauseam. But this was the first time one of the bloviating assholes had made a direct reference (or threat, came the unbidden thought) to Amanda.

"What about my wife?" she asked, failing to mask the fear and concern in her voice. It didn't help that she could barely speak above a hoarse whisper, her throat still scratchy from the intense coughing spell and the dust. She sounded weak, small. "Whose attention did she catch? Is she— is she in danger? Please, I have to—"

"Ah-ah," Gus said discouragingly, wagging his finger like a strict school-teacher admonishing an unruly student. "Nice try, but I'm not going to spoil the surprise. Besides that, my clientele expect anonymity with their transactions—I only know the pertinent details of this one myself. Your wife pissed off the wrong person. She's going to pay a steep price. Not out of her own pocket, at least not yet. You, Ms. Benson, are the first installment towards paying off her debt."

Though she had listened carefully this time, analyzing every nuance and inflection, Olivia couldn't make sense of the words. She and her squad received countless threats on a regular basis, most of them nothing more than big talk from desperate, angry people who were about to go down hard. Occasionally someone tried to make good, but only the extremely wealthy or extremely powerful ever got close. And William Lewis.

Olivia racked her brain for a name or a face who fit that description; someone Amanda had been instrumental in capturing and whose threats Olivia most certainly would have taken seriously. No one in the past year. It was a bit underhanded and perhaps a tad unethical, but she had played favorites with her detectives during Amanda's pregnancy. Any case that sounded potentially risky or strenuous had gone to Fin and Kat, or to Olivia herself, while Amanda was given the lighter duties of a sergeant, to be conducted from the squad room as much as possible. The detective had commented on not being in the field as much, but she'd been so consumed by her new leadership duties and her impending duties as mother to a newborn, she hadn't seemed aware of Olivia's ulterior motive: protecting her.

That was always Olivia's top priority.

There were past busts, some of them high profile, and Amanda did play a major role in that sting at the brothel a few years ago. Many of the girls had been underaged victims of trafficking. But the man in charge got himself blown to kingdom come by opening fire on the detective, and therefore the SWAT team and half of the one-six who served as backup. No one had mourned that guy, certainly not enough to orchestrate something like this as revenge.

The harder she grasped at an answer, skimming through eleven years worth of cases stored in her memory like microfiche, the farther it receded from her whirring, flickering brain. She truly felt as if she were getting motion sickness from her rapidly flashing thoughts, and as the bile crept up her throat again, so arose a realization that filled her with stark, white-hot terror. If she was just the first installment, what—or who—were the rest?

"Is everything in place?" Gus stood up and looked to his lackeys, acknowledging Olivia no more than if she were a dog he had greeted then forgotten once the fur was brushed from his trousers. "You've set up contact?"

"Sent the picture and the link. Should be opening it any second now," said the Crier, holding up his cell phone and slapping it against the opposite palm several times. He hadn't even partaken of the sextasy and he was still antsier than the Kid and the Driver. He kept adjusting his crotch, swiping under his nose like a boxer spoiling for the next round, licking his lips as he eyed Olivia top to bottom.

"What's the rest of the p-payment?" Olivia asked, gaining a little volume, if not steadiness, in her mounting trepidation. She dodged the Driver's bear claw of a hand as he attempted to clap it over her mouth. "The other installm—"

The Driver's second attempt was successful, his palm crushing her lips against her teeth, his chiseled abdomen pressed against the back of her head so she couldn't turn it and bite. Something hard nudged between her knees—his shoe, she thought—knocking them too widely apart, and for a moment, she was suspended there, with just him holding her upright by the head, his big hand cupped beneath her nose and partly under her chin. She envisioned him snapping her neck right then; he had the strength to do it, no question. One little twist and this could all be over . . .

(Please, please, oh please.)

Gus motioned the Driver's hand away with a two-fingered salute that was vaguely religious, like those sacred heart paintings of Jesus. But there was nothing Christlike about the smirk on his thin, colorless lips. "You always were a sharp one," he said, with something resembling fondness. He took a cell phone from his back pocket and thumbed at the screen a few times, then extended it towards Olivia.

Even without her glasses, she recognized the picture of her son. It wasn't just any old snapshot, either—this was his third-grade school photo, his hair a wilderness of brown curls that should have been smoothed before the shutter clicked, the bow tie he had picked out himself slightly askew. But that big, beautiful smile was perfect. And so was the next, revealed by a swipe from Gus, this one belonging to Jesse. Her first-grade portrait, for which she'd insisted on matching her best friend Jillian, right down to the bangs she hacked into herself with a pair of snub-nosed scissors from art class. Olivia and Amanda had both cried over that one, although pregnancy hormones might have played a role. The six-year-old's bangs had since grown out, though the picture would live on in infamy.

Another swipe, and Olivia was staring at a candid shot of Matilda on the playground of her daycare, red curls ablaze in the afternoon sun. She only wore her little spring jacket with the bunnies and birdies on it, the one she chose at GapKids just two months ago, so the picture had to be recent. As did the last.

Shot with a telephoto lens at a good distance, the picture was no more than two weeks old—Olivia could narrow it down to almost the exact hour, because it depicted her exiting her apartment building, baby Sammie asleep in the stroller she navigated, Gigi standing guard alongside. She'd been meeting up at the park with her wife, Frannie, and the older children, after a mid-morning nap and feeding with her sweet baby girl. Not a bad dream in sight.

How had she missed it again? She'd been so vigilant in the years since Calvin Arliss tried to make her his magnum opus, when she discovered he had been stalking and photographing her for God knew how long. Henry Mesner had slipped through her well-constructed defenses early last year, but that was a one-off; he hadn't tailed her for months—years, in Calvin's case—with a camera, stealing pieces of her private moments as surely as a pickpocket nicking her wallet. He was a hit and run. Calvin and Gus were a head-on collision with no survivors. Those school pictures hadn't been passed out to anyone but family.

A sourness spread over Olivia's tongue, flooding her cheeks and palate, pressure building in her throat, and she fully expected to empty her stomach on the floor in front of Gus's chestnut-brown boots, sleek and burnished as a horse's coat. But when she opened her mouth, what spewed out was far more vile than dark coffee-scented sludge.

"If you go anywhere near my children, I will f*cking kill you," she snarled, quaking now with rage instead of just terror—though there was plenty of that, too. She wasn't even sure what words her lips would form next, only that they came from some dangerous, blackened part of her soul. The part that had goaded her into beating a man nearly to death; to playing judge, jury, and executioner. "I swear to God. I will tear your heart out and feed it to the f*cking sewer rats, do you hear me? No one touches my kids, you piece of sh*t. You're f*cking dead, all of you.Dead."

Gus's eyes glinted a steely, malicious blue-gray that reminded Olivia of sun reflecting off the barrel of a gun. (Click.) He directed his response to the room at large, though his voice didn't raise above its rockabye cadence and he crouched slightly, like a wildlife enthusiast spotting a tiger in the bush: "There she is."

To Olivia, as he returned the phone to his pocket, he said, "I'm sure you passed some of that fire on to your children, even if they're not biologically yours. Hopefully not too much, though. It's always hardest on the feistier ones. You, for instance. And the little blonde—Jesse, right? I'm afraid she'll have a rough go of it, too. But your boy, the dancer . . . he'll learn fast. And the youngest two will never know any different.

"They'll grow up calling every man they meet 'daddy' and selling themselves for the price of a takeout dinner and some blow. The redhead might fare a little better, especially if she keeps that color upstairs and down . . . "

For a moment Olivia thought a rabid dog had wandered into the storage container, but the doors were closed and she was the only one practically on all fours. She realized then that the deep, beastly growl was coming from her own throat, and she released it with an infuriated cry, lunging at Gus with the intention of biting whatever she got hold of—aiming for the groin, but the femoral artery would do just as nicely—or ramming her head into something vital. Even if she only managed to bruise some ribs or a kidney, at least it would shut him up.

He didn't get to talk about her children that way. No one talked about her children like that—ever.

The Driver's hands snatched her back before she got anywhere near Gus or his dick. He barely flinched, the smirk never leaving his lips, somehow reptilian in their formlessness. If a forked tongue had flickered from behind them, testing the air, Olivia wouldn't have been a bit surprised. What did slither out of his mouth, though not a serpent's tongue, was just as sinister.

"Okay, gentlemen. I believe the pump is primed, so to speak. How's our viewership?"

"All eyes," said the Crier.

"Excellent. Then let's show Captain Benson what her new duties will be, now that she belongs to me."

. . .

Chapter 8: Make America Great Again

Notes:

Shorter chapter this time, guys. The next one is massive, though, so there's that. Trigger warning for graphic language on this one. As you can see from the chapter title, the narrator is rather vile.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8.

Make America Great Again

. . .

Matthew Parker was not happy with the role he had been relegated to in this twisted little scheme of Vaughn's. He felt like a neutered mutt, his balls chopped off to keep him from running wild. From looking for some other bitch to mount. It wasn't fair, especially since he was the one who had set the whole plot in motion anyway. If he hadn't found that dyke wedding announcement in the newspaper last year, Little Miss Smarty Pants Vaughn never would have known that Rebecca De Mornay-looking cop was married to the Linda Evangelista-looking c*nt he'd almost banged right here in good old Squealview. ('Cause that's the sound they made when you stuck it to 'em.)

How many guys even read the paper anymore, let alone paid enough attention to all that wedding crap to notice such an important piece of the puzzle? Granted, he'd only glanced at that section on the off-chance there were some good tit* on display—and out of habit, to see if his ex ever roped in another poor sucker—but that didn't make it any less of a good catch. Even Vaughny couldn't deny that.

And yet she treated him like he didn't know his ass from a hole in the ground. Bossing him to do this and do that, and "don't deviate from the plan, Parks," as if he hadn't practically set up Phase One singlehandedly. The Sandberg guy (Parker didn't play into that "Sandman" bullsh*t) might be the head honcho and the one Sondra Vaughn had connections with, thanks to her old lover Nadari, but Parker had been the go-between, relaying all the instructions and putting his ass on the line stalking those dyke cops.

Now, Sandberg and his merry little band of assholes were going to get a taste of that luscious, turbo-tit captain who should have been Parker's fourteen years ago. He'd seen her first, copped the first feel, and bent her over that table, when it was all he could do not to jerk down her snug orange bottoms—in his mind, they were always spandex-tight on her nice round ass—and take her right there, in full view of Harris and the other inmates. Harris had helped himself that time, later telling Parker he only got a few good thrusts before the partner ran in, but it had been like sliding his dick into warm apple pie, like they said in that movie.

It burned Parker to think of Sandberg and the other guys having their warm apple pie while he got nothing out of the deal. Okay, sure, Vaughn was a hot piece of ass, too, and she did give good head. He supposed he loved her, otherwise why would he have gone to so much trouble to make her happy? But he was sick of sneaking around to get sucked off in broom closets that smelled like bleach and the last guy's wad. Sometimes it was still dripping from whichever surface the dude had blown it on. Parker preferred creampie himself, though he seldom got the chance with Sondra. Wouldn't get many chances for at least seven more years; longer, if she got caught in the web she was spinning for the De Mornay lookalike.

In the meantime, Parker deserved his own serving of creampie, and he intended to fill up on that Benson bitch. She might be old now (only four years older than he was, to be honest; still, women were different, they aged in dog years), but he had gotten it up a few times in his parked car just watching her and the blonde from behind his camera viewfinder. He'd practically splooged the windshield fantasizing about the two of them together, and he wouldn't mind splooging all over the little blond detective, either. But he liked the look of the captain these days. Her breasts, hips, and thighs were fuller than ever—the ass, too—and he couldn't wait to get his hands on them again. To get what had been due him for nearly fifteen years.

Sondra would be pissed to find out he'd gone against her wishes, but she would have to forgive him once she saw the surprise he had for her. And he was going to risk everything to kidnap one of those brats she kept yammering on about, so she better show some gratitude. Why she wanted a kid that belonged to a woman she hated, and a white woman at that, he couldn't say. The two youngest were kind of cute, though.

The older boy was queer and the blonde was off limits—Sandberg had plans for her. But Parker wouldn't mind playing papa to the little redhead or the baby, whichever he nabbed first. So long as Big Daddy got to have a go at Mama Benson in the meantime.

He nearly popped a boner just thinking about it on his way to D Block.De co*ck, the male guards called it, with a Frenchie accent that always cracked him up. As if the coozes that ended up there were straight off the Paris runway or some sh*t. Most of them were pretty heinous. Except for Sondra and her cute curly snatch. What did Kitty Kat's look like? he wondered, then smiled to himself. He supposed he was about to find out.

Parker never had quite gotten the hang of calling the bitch by her real name, instead of the undercover one. He liked the sound of Kat better than Olivia, anyway. She'd be purring in his ear soon enough.

"Sst," he hissed, resting his chin on the crossbar of Vaughn's cell. "Wakey, wakey."

Recumbent on the top bunk, a cloud of dark hair was all he could see of her at first. She didn't get the time or the products to style it behind bars, and it was kind of a rat's nest, but he liked the wild curls all the same. They felt nice between his fingers when she went down on him.

"What the hell are you doing here?" she asked in a harsh whisper, rolling over to gaze down at him with annoyance. No doubt irked that he wasn't keeping his distance today like they had agreed. Best not to raise any eyebrows on the commencement date of Phase One.

It was really f*cked up, how she had insisted the captain's abduction take place on the anniversary of her abduction by that Lewis nutcase. (Yet another bit of information Vaughn should be thanking Parker for; he had watched Captain Kitty lie her pretty little ass off on live television back then, while he bragged to his buddies that he'd stiffed her once, and he was the one who snuck his favorite moptop prisoner all the articles and court transcripts he could find on the case a few months ago.) Probably a chick's idea of poetic justice or whatever, but it was still pretty twisted.

His Vaughny could be a downright bitch.

"I brung you a present all the way up here, and that's how you greet me?" He flashed a grin, perhaps with too many teeth—she eyed him warily—and slipped his cell phone through the bars, swaying it back and forth, tantalizing.

"Brought." Sondra sighed heavily, but swung herself down from the bunk, fluid as a cat, and sauntered over like a tail was twitching behind her. A different kind of kitty altogether. "What is it?" she asked, huffing when he swiped the phone back at the last second, playing keep away. "Dammit, Parker . . . "

"Jesus, you are the moodiest bitch I ever met," he said, but let her pry the device from his fingers on the next try. He hadn't gone through all the trouble of smuggling in his private phone, equipped as a hotspot for this momentous occasion, just to turn around and schlep it right back to his locker. "Could at least say, 'Thank you, Parksy.'"

"What's it for?"

So much for his sweet brown sugar. He'd just have to get him some milky white cream when he visited the captain later.Here, kitty, kitty . . .

After a glance around to be sure the other celly wasn't returning from macramé classes (or whatever the hell these bitches did in their spare time), he skirted the open cell door and instructed Vaughn to check his photo album. When she glanced up with uncertainty, he tapped the thumbnail that was time-stamped at a little over two minutes, playing the video he had shot during his lunch break. He'd had to wolf down his ham and cheese on the way back to the prison, but man, it was worth it to see those two dyke cops get ambushed in person.

The blonde had looked like she was pissing on an electric fence—God, he wished he'd gotten a shot of her tit* then, still filled up from the baby, the nipples probably rock-hard—and the way Sandberg's boys moved on that apple-pie captain, you'd think the gangb*ng had already begun. Parker wasn't inclined to be jealous of a friend, but he had envied his pal Angel in that moment. He and Nicky Angelov went way back, to before the freak-show body modification and multiple incarcerations. Good guy, Angel. And a devil with the ladies. That little prude captain wouldn't know what hit her.

"What is thi—" Sondra squinted at the phone, holding it under her nose. She flat-out refused to buy any of the cheapo glasses from the commissary whenever Parker suggested it. "Wait, is that them? Cagney and Lacey?"

That was one of the code names Sondra liked to use for the cops in the video. Parker had never watched that dumb chicks' show himself; just a bunch of ugly man-haters running around trying to act tough. He favoredBaywatch, and his preferred names for the women he'd recorded were Pamela and Yasmine.

"In the flesh." Parker flashed his broadest grin, feeling pretty proud of himself, truth be told. The surprise only got better from here, and Vaughn was already gaping at the phone, mesmerized. She was going to sh*t a brick when he played the next video. "Double D's and all. Keep watching, it's about to get good."

He had started filming a bit early to capture a decent tit shot while the women were walking along, totally unsuspecting. He liked the way their t-shirts jiggled, especially the big-breasted captain's. It was just a filmy little white thing you could see right through in the sunlight. Bitch had flaunted it around Sealview, too. Today would be the last time she did it and got away with it.

"I told you to stay out of this part, Parker," Sondra said, but her eyes were still glued to the phone and her voice hadn't hit that razor-wire pitch that made his testicl*s jump back up in his stomach. "If Gus even suspected that someone was poking around— oh, sh*t."

The blond detective on the screen was gripped by a sudden seizure-like spasm, having just been tased by Sandberg's kid, whose name Parker could never remember. Parker just thought of him as Jack, because he looked like a beanstalk. Within seconds of Jack's attack, Angel hopped down from the van like he was doing a kickflip on the skateboard he'd ridden constantly as a teenager. Rolled right up on the goody-goody captain and sunk a needle in her neck, and she never even saw it coming. He always had been sneaky, that guy.

"f*ck." Sondra said it reverently, as if she were watching a religious ceremony, rather than a couple guys lugging about a hundred and fifty pounds of dead weight into a van. Parker hadn't envied them that part, even if their hands were all over several pounds of grade-A tit* and ass in the meantime.

"Yup," Parker said, hooking his thumbs into his utility belt, unable to resist a faint smirk. The inmate was practically vibrating with excitement as she watched the final seconds of the kidnapping, a sad*stic little gleam in her eyes.

They were as black as eight-balls in this lighting. "Like to act big and tough, but those muff divers went down fast, huh?"

Onscreen, the one whose muff was probably blond, too—Parker really would be interested to know—was flopping around on the sidewalk, reaching out a hand towards the van, calling for her wife as the vehicle sped away. It was all very dramatic. He would give it four out of five stars, though the camera work wasn't his best: he'd hightailed it in the opposite direction the moment the van disappeared.

"Very. Wonder what was in that syringe." Vaughn passed the phone back to him, a smear of red frozen in the video window. Parker had accidentally switched to selfie mode in his haste to flee the scene, and the last frame was a flash of his MAGA cap, his only disguise. Luckily, the shot was too blurry to make out his face. "Better not knock her out. The instructions were to keep her awake and lucid. I want her to feel every second of it. The more she suffers, the more Rollins suffers. That's the whole point, those idiots better not—"

"Hey, relax." Parker rested his hand awkwardly on her shoulder. She didn't like him to touch her unless they were fooling around, and sometimes not even then. But that edge had been creeping into her voice and she had slipped up on the detective's name, which wasn't like her. Sondra never slipped. "They know what they're doing. She's gonna feel all of it, every single dick-inch and whatever else them guys put in her—and I can prove it."

Sondra rolled those wide eight-ball eyes up at him, skeptical. "How?"

So glad you asked, he thought, but kept it to himself. If she knew she was playing right into his hand, giving him everything he'd hoped for, she would probably act like the next part was no big deal. Still, he could barely contain his excitement as he glanced outside the cell, listening briefly, then pulled up the link on his phone. Right where Angel said it would be. Parker didn't know dick about that dark web bullsh*t, but Angel had promised him simple point and click access to the livestream.

He held his breath and clicked.

"Who's your daddy?" he asked, grinning from ear to ear when he displayed the browser and the video feed therein. It was a bit pixelated, the sound a bit muffled, but the lighting was good and the old office desk in the forefront was clearly visible. Must be where they were going to do her. She had the kind of ass you wanted to bend over and ream from behind, he knew that from personal experience.

Right now, though, she was on her knees (also a good position) and the guys were standing over her. Parker didn't recognize the one in the ball hat, but he saw his buddy Angel, that Jack kid, the walking steroid who went by Lobo, and boss man Sandberg—speaking, of course. That dude loved to hear himself talk. He was currently informing Captain Kitty Kat Benson of all the f*cked up sh*t he planned to do to her kids.

Parker didn't go for all the kiddie p*rn and child trafficking stuff Sandberg was into—though he had heard you could make a killing—but it was none of his business. He would be doing his part by saving one of the littler kids from that fate. In the meantime, the bitch captain looked like she was about to hurl. Not so high and mighty anymore.

They had roughed her up pretty good already, but her clothes were still on, so nothing too exciting had happened yet. Nevertheless, Vaughn's eyes were bugging out of her head as she gaped at the scene unfolding in her hands. She was even shaking a little, like one of those puny, bobble-headed dogs that could barely contain itself.

"Is this now? How did you—" She broke off there, either too stunned to continue, or too fed up. Based on her inability to pry her gaze from the screen, where the dyke cop let out a bestial roar and tried to launch herself at Sandberg, it was the former.

"I got connections too, baby," Parker said, and took a chance, slipping in behind Vaughn, arms cinched around her narrow waist, to watch the captain fight and scream and lose. When he wasn't rebuffed, and when the screaming began in earnest, he relaxed into the embrace and rested his chin on the inmate's shoulder. This was better than pay-per-view p*rn.

Too bad he hadn't brought popcorn.Oh well, he thought with a shrug, and concentrated on enjoying the show. He always had been a fan of the coming attractions.

. . .

Chapter 9: Prayers to St. Jude

Notes:

Wow. Y'all really said chapter 8 could just GTFO, eh? (Shout-out to RoliviaIsLife, dahllaz, and Brizbizz for keeping the dream alive!) Okay, well... here's 9. MEGA TRIGGER WARNINGS: graphic and explicit depictions of rape herein. I can't stress enough how much you should turn back now if you don't think you can handle it. Also, the chapter was way too long, so I split it in two. Yeah, it's gonna be a long, rough week.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9.

Prayers to St. Jude

. . .

Time seemed so frangible during the other abductions. Like the broken shards of a mirror, some pieces missing, others savagely sharp and glinting, but all cracked beyond repair. No matter how often Olivia tried to put it back together, the glass always shattered again, never quite solidifying in her mind. There were days with Lewis, hours with Calvin, that she would never get back. Moments of her life stolen, along with everything else they took from her.

But now. The mirror was whole, so crystal clear it reflected everything in high definition, and so bright it practically blinded her. Time wasn't frangible. It was sheet metal, solid and inflexible, glaring hot in the sun; it was the blade of a guillotine, swift and brutal. Even at that speed, she saw it all unfolding around her in exquisite detail.

The Kid coercing his younger brother into snorting the powder that remained from the crushed up Viagra and ecstasy, then laughing hysterically as Little Brother clutched his nose and keened in pain.

The chest-slapping and shoulder-thumping that the Crier and the Driver engaged in, psyching each other up the way football players did before a big game; the way Elliot used to during summer softball league between precincts, and sometimes in the locker room before a big bust.

The flash of a tactical knife that Gus removed from a hidden pocket, though he made sure she got a good long look as he unsheathed it. The blade wasn't particularly large—maybe four inches in length—but it curved into a sinuous, wicked grin, mocking anyone who doubted its capabilities.

Knives were like scorpions—the smaller ones could be more deadly than the big ones, especially in the right hands. And Gus definitely knew how to handle the full nine inches of this one.Wait'll she gets a load of my nine inches, she thought, her guts gone loose and watery, her mouth the same. She had to swallow several times just to get out thepleaseshe instantly silenced as he grazed the tip of the blade along her jawline, traced the outline of her lips with it, and glanced the edge across the opposite cheek, closely enough to remove peach fuzz.

This was how it always started. They used
(a police baton or your own gun)
a weapon in place of their dicks to frighten you into submission, to give you a little sneaky-peek of what was to come. She'd been so terrified that Lewis would rape her with her service pistol—and why not, he had jammed it into her crotch enough times to create a vivid mental image and leave her sore for days—it was almost a relief when he had only used his hands.

You could survive penetration by a gun if it didn't go off, and on rare occasions even if it did, although the damage was usually catastrophic. But the cases Olivia had encountered of foreign object rape with a knife (and there were many) seldom had a live victim to follow up with. Too much blood loss, too many delicate parts severed beyond repair. When an attacker hated his target enough to f*ck her with a blade, she usually wasn't meant to walk away from the assault.

Four inches might be short enough
(like he'll stop at the haft, yeah right)
for Olivia to be one of the lucky ones, but she couldn't remember which vital organs to worry about; which she could live without and still be fairly functional, still desirable to her wife. How would Amanda ever look at her again, let alone touch her, knowing she was mutilated like that? It was so hard to think, with the knife poised at her throat, nicking the skin when she swallowed convulsively.

"Please," she whispered, afraid of what else Gus would nick if she moved suddenly or breathed too deep. "Don't do this. I'm not some street kid or an illegal they'll let fall through the cracks. They'll be looking for me nonstop. My wife won't give up until she finds me. You don't know her like I do. This will end badly for you—"

He pressed the blade flush with her windpipe, releasing a trickle of blood she sensed more than felt. She had experienced that same spreading heat, similar to a hot flash but more contained, the last two times her throat was slashed. "It's not a threat," she said quickly, her voice paper thin, crackling as if she were losing the station. "I'm trying to let you off the hook. I don't know where I am. Take me somewhere and drop me off. Blindfold me. I won't be able to lead them back here. I won't look for you. You can go on with your business, and I'll go on with mine. You know me. I keep my word."

"That is true. It's one of your best qualities." Gus angled the knife blade under Olivia's braid, gliding it from the top notch to the fringe at the bottom, the entire plait dropping back against her shoulder with a flick of his wrist. He placed the sharp edge at the crook of her neck this time, leaning in to murmur the rest. "It's one of mine, too. So believe me when I say, if you make this difficult for me or my boys, I will carve you out a new c*nt with this knife. cl*t to asshole. You're allowed to resist, I wouldn't expect anything less from you, and it gets these fellas going. But if you fight and don't let us do our job, by the end you'll wish that all we had done was f*ck you."

Olivia felt strangely bloodless as the words passed through her ear, into her brain. For a moment, she wondered if he really had cut her throat and she was slowly exsanguinating. She wanted to look down at her shirt, to see if it was stained in a waterfall of blood, but Gus was too close, the knife too eager to bite into flesh. Left with few other options, she nodded. After all, she did believe him.

"Good. I like that you're a quick study. It will serve you well here, as long as the lesson that you learn is who's in control. I know plenty of men have failed to break you before now, but let's face it, they were amateurs. This is what I do." Gus gave a conversational gesture with the knife, then reached behind her, tugging her arms up painfully, until she was forced to bend forward and relieve the strain on her muscles. "I'm cutting you loose because I prefer it, aesthetically. There's just something about a woman's wrists pinned above her head that does it for me. Don't make me regret it."

Her wrists snapped free of the split tape all at once, arms falling to her sides so heavily she almost dropped to the floor face-first. After an hour (had it really been that long, or was her mind playing tricks on her again?) of being tightly trussed behind her back, and crushed a couple of times too, the limbs were leaden and numb. They felt useless, and she feared trying to lash out like she'd planned to while he was sawing at the restraints. What if she missed? What if she didn't?

But she had to do something—he'd signaled to the other men, who advanced as a unit, save for Little Brother (he was already rolling on the E, grinning and hugging himself, an erection tenting the front of his pants). "How do you know about the other men?" she blurted, hoping to delay the inevitable. He liked to pontificate, maybe if she kept him talking a while longer, it would be enough time for Amanda to find her. To get her out of this awful place.

Maybe.

"Lewis I get. That was all over the news, everyone knows about it. But the others . . . "Harris, Calvin, Amelia. The most anyone—other than Amanda and Dr. Lindstrom—knew about Olivia's experience with the Manhattan Mangler was what she had told the press: an attempt was made on her life, but she was ultimately unharmed. With both perps dead, there hadn't been a trial to dredge up the gory details. And Amanda was the only living soul, besides Olivia herself, who knew the full extent of what Lowell Harris had done to her. Supposedly, dead men told no tales. So where were these monsters masquerading as men getting their information?

"Nice try, Olivia." Gus's smile held a tinge of sadness, as if he were saying goodbye to a child who would be grown when next they reunited. "We'll have plenty of time to chat in the coming days. Weeks, perhaps. Depends on how well you cooperate. Right now, my boys are getting restless."

His boys grabbed her by the arms just as she swiped for the knife in Gus's hand, not even coming close. He had already retreated a step, calmly standing back to watch the other men haul her upright. It was a weightless, jostling sensation, like the times she'd fallen from the wall during her days of indoor climbing, jerked up short by the harness. For a moment her feet really were off the ground, and she flung out a wild kick, but it only grazed the sleeve of Gus's leather jacket. Without her shoes on, she couldn't land a hard enough blow, anyway. She felt a flash of anger not at the men, but at herself for not wearing socks with her tennis shoes. It had seemed so unnecessary this morning. She was just going a few blocks for some bagels . . .

Her bare feet dragged across the unsanded flooring, scraping the skin off her heels when she tried to dig them in, splinters driving into the soles when she shuffled for purchase. How could she be so stupid, forgetting her socks like that? She hated to be barefoot outside of her home, where it was safe. Where she was safe.

"No," she grunted, her legs twisting and flailing over each other as she attempted to wriggle loose, tossing her weight from side to side. She'd expected to be thrown back onto the disgusting, flea-bitten mattress, but they were toting her to the rusty old desk that had served as their drug buffet minutes earlier. So that's why they had moved it away from the wall and into the light.

That was to be the site of her very first gangb*ng.

She'd never even participated in a threesome before (though a couple of past boyfriends had definitely made their case for why she should) and now she was going to take five at once. Maybe only four, if Gus stayed on the sidelines. Three, if Little Brother couldn't perform. Could she get it down to two—cram her foot into the Kid's crotch and put him out of commission? She could probably handle two, especially if the Driver's dick was as small as the Crier had claimed. Steroids were known for causing ED too, so maybe she would get lucky.

That just left the Crier himself, and that realization shattered the entire illusion she was constructing. She couldn't stop him. (Amanda wasn't coming.) She couldn't stop any of them. (This was really happening.)

As her hope began to crumble, so did her sense of propriety, of honor—captains didn't grovel, they didn't scream in terror and desperation—and her sense of shame—she hated losing control, showing weakness. She gave into the fear and the panic, and she screamed for help. She screamed so loud and so long, one of the men uttered a startled, "Jesus." Little Brother stopped hugging himself and covered his ears, face contorting in a pantomime of horror.

And while she screamed, she fought. She fought like they were dragging her down to hell, because they were; she fought like her life depended on it, because it did. f*ck Gus and his f*cking little shrimp-dick knife. He might carve her out a new c*nt with it, but these guys were about to do the same thing, just using a different type of weapon.

Rape was never pretty, and one man could do a lot of damage, but gang rapes were often the most violent crimes Olivia had to investigate. Men lost their inhibition in groups, lost themselves. They did things they wouldn't normally do, sometimes to impress, sometimes to assert dominance, sometimes to belong. Whatever the reason, it always escalated the violence. It was an important component in weaponized rape in places like the Congo—the brotherhood it created among soldiers, raping together. Destroying together.

Look at that, Alex, you didn't have to go all the way to Africa, after all, she thought, writhing in the men's relentless grasps. Her left shoulder, the one weakened by her rotator cuff injury and subsequent surgery, was already crying out for mercy as they yanked and twisted her by the arms.You could've found what you were looking for right outside your front door.

"Lemme go," she bawled at them, her voice already giving out at the end. She was unable to draw in the adequate breath for another lengthy shout. Her lungs weren't as strong as they used to be, nor were her core muscles (especially after taking a foot to the gut). Maybe if she were younger and thinner. If only this had happened when she was thirty-four, instead of fifty-four.

"Motherf*ckers! Don't touch me! You're dead, you hear me? You'll rot in jail, you sickf*cks!" And when that didn't work, when they only laughed at the profanity and idle threats, and lifted her so she peddled air the last few steps to the desk: "Please don't do this. I have a new baby at home. My oldest is only eight. Please, don't. I'm begging y—"

She managed to plant the arches of both feet on the ledge of the desk, bending her knees and shoving backwards with every ounce of strength she possessed. A solid surface to spring from might have slowed them down a bit, but the desk lurched sideways, emitting a banshee shriek. Or maybe that was just Olivia screaming again, because they didn't find the defensive move nearly as funny as her cursing, especially when the back of her head smashed into someone's chin.

It must have been the Crier, who nursed his bloody bottom lip and wrenched her arm up high enough behind her back she thought it might snap. "You f*cking bitch," he growled, so close his breath warmed her cheek. He smelled like engine grease, or some kind of motor oil. Olivia didn't know much about cars, but from this day forward she would think of him whenever she was in a repair shop (if she ever went to one—or anywhere—after this).

She would think of him grabbing her by the nape of the neck, his long, unkempt fingernails digging into her flesh as he slammed her facedown on the short end of the desk, the metal ledge driving into her pelvis like a battering ram, and said, "Boss won't need to cut you, 'cause I'm gonna tear this puss* up. You can forget the Vaseline now, I'm doing you dry."

I'll do you cold, Lewis had said, indicating his willingness to rape her corpse if he was forced to kill her for not cooperating. Dead or alive, cold or dry, it was all the same; they were ending her life. This was just the latest death. She was about to be raped by the pallbearers who had carried her casket.

On the cinematic screen in her mind, where the picture was always so much more vivid and visceral during a crisis—and never so much as when she was under attack—she saw Amanda and their children at her graveside. Amanda in mourning dress with a widow's veil, Tilly wearing a little blue coat and saluting her mommy's coffin like John-John in that iconic photo. To her older children, she would be the mother who had abandoned them; to her two youngest girls, she would be nothing more than a headstone:

Olivia Rollins-Benson
Beloved Wife and Mother
1968 - 2022

And to Amanda, she would just be gone. The ghost of what might have been.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." For a moment, they were the only words Olivia could say, and she repeated them until other words finally flew out of her mouth, whatever she could think of: "Please don't hurt me. Please don't do this. Get off me— I can't—please, don't!"

"Well, since you asked so nice," the Crier said, even as he started to undo his fly. One of the men (Driver, she thought) stood behind her, his own hard-on nudging at her ass, his large hand at the small of her back, pinning her to the desk like an insect mounted with a straight pin in some display case. She couldn't turn her face away with the Crier still gripping the back of her neck, either.

His erection, strangely dusky for his skin tone, suddenly jutted out of his unzipped pants, reminding her of a curious animal poking its head up from a hole. He had a Prince Albert piercing, one of those barbells that went in through the urethra and out beneath the glans. Olivia had seen one or two perps with that piercing over the years, but she'd never gotten such an up-close and personal look before. Most men were revolted by the idea of shoving something sharp through their penis. They couldn't stand the pain.

I'm doing you dry, he'd said.

More than anything, Olivia wanted to cry out again, but she was afraid to open her mouth with him that close to it. Hot, hopeless tears seeped from her eyes, and she screamed through gritted teeth—in frustration as much as terror—thrashing as best she could with someone grasping her arm on the opposite side and the other two men pressing her to the filthy metal surface of the desk. It felt like twenty pairs of hands holding her down, rather than three, and any movement she made was quickly subdued. They were so goddamned strong.

"I wanna go first," said the Kid, so petulant it was almost laughable. He was definitely the one who had Olivia by the left arm. She tried to yank it away from him, not caring if she reinjured her shoulder, if it meant getting his hands off of her—but the little son of a bitch held fast. "You got to shoot her up with the Cryo and rub off on her in the van. Should be my turn."

"I'm the one who did all the work getting the heifer here. You'd still be trying to haul her ass into the van and dropping sh*t and ji*zzing yourself if I wasn't there to keep you from screwing up the whole grab." The Crier scoffed loudly, a drop of his spittle landing on Olivia's cheek. She flinched and writhed some more, until he squeezed her neck so roughly, she yipped. Frannie made that sound when someone accidentally stepped on her tail. "No one wants your sloppy seconds, junior."

"None of you woulda got anywhere without me," said the Driver, whose prowess behind the wheel was undeniable. He had gotten them through the city streets in no time and didn't even need lights and sirens to do it. He punctuated his assertion with a brisk slap to Olivia's ass, which made her gasp and clench, and made him chuckle. "I'm taking her for a spin first,eses. If that's a problem, talk toel jefe."

Either the Driver had more authority than Olivia first suspected, or the other men didn't want to be tattletales in front of their boss, because no one argued with him. He clapped her on the hips like he was patting a horse's withers or a dog's rump—some loyal, well-trained beast that had followed the commands of its master. "On her back," he instructed, his hands sliding down to her thighs, helping to flip her over. "I like seeing their face when I put it in."

The lights were blinding as the three men turned Olivia onto her back, a disorienting shift that gave her vertigo and left her squinting at the figures looming above. For a second they were featureless shadow demons, and that was frightening, but then they came into focus: real sneering, leering men whose hands and eyes were all over her body—and that was most frightening of all.

"Please don't," she whimpered, defeat creeping in no matter how hard she fought to keep it—and the men—at bay. She still hoped for her squad, led by Amanda (who always came for her in the past,always), to burst through the door at the last second, like it happened in the movies. Sometimes it did happen that way in real life too.

Didn't it?

Not for Olivia. Not this time.

While the two men leaned heavily on her shoulders, both gripping her by the wrists with their free hands, the Driver shucked off her yoga pants like he was whipping a tablecloth from underneath a setting of fine crystal. The snug material and swift removal bunched her panties around her hips, but thankfully they stayed on. She longed to tug up the waistband and shield herself, or at least to cross her legs against the stubby fingers kneading her inner thighs, but every time she tried, the Driver forced them apart, until it felt as if he were trying to rip her straight up the middle.

"You got some nice long legs, girl," he said, stroking the limbs admiringly, even as Olivia kicked and peddled and bucked. Her heels hit the side panel of the desk, punching in the aged metal with a sound that reminded her of junior-high lockers. Two eighth graders had gotten into a fight in the hall during first period one semester, and that was the sound the boys' fists made when they swung wild, whanging the locker doors. "Mm-mmm. You wrap those pins around me nice and tight, okay? Let's see who can crack whose spine first."

She obliged right then, snapping her knees shut around his middle like a triggered bear trap and squeezing so hard it made her thighs shudder. She half expected a crunch of breaking ribs or at least an indignant shout, but the Driver hardly reacted beyond a smirk that extended to his skinny goatee, sharpening the already pointy corners.

In her precinct, Olivia might be formidable—a force to be reckoned with, some called her—and even out on the streets, with a squad behind her and a gun on her hip, a badge on the other, she had considerable strength, especially for a woman. But here, stripped of authority and now her dignity, strength was failing her too. The eighty or more pounds of muscle he had on her surely made a difference (she wouldn't have tangled with him outside of an interrogation room or gunpoint, under normal circ*mstances), but it still felt like failure. She should be able to stop him, stop all of this. If not, what was she good for?

"f*ck, bro, look how eager she is," the Driver commented to one or both of his buddies, or to no one, it was hard to say. He grabbed Olivia's knees and jerked them open with no more effort than undoing a stubborn clothespin. "Can't even wait till I put it in her. Littleputa. I already smell her from here."

To demonstrate he dipped low, spreading her resisting thighs wide beneath his palms, and buried his nose in the crotch of her underwear, for a deep whiff that traveled from perineum to cl*tor*s. A miserable groan escaped Olivia's throat when she tipped her head back on the desk, striving to be as far removed from the violation as possible, even if only by sight. Why couldn't she just dissociate and step out of her body like she had in the past?

She'd done it the first time her mother beat her, after discovering twelve-year-old Olivia had emptied all the hidden vodka bottles in the apartment down the drain; it was so successful that, upon returning to herself, Olivia couldn't remember how she had gotten the bloody welts that covered her body. To this day, she didn't remember what implement Serena had used to make those leechlike wales.

Once or twice with Daniel, her first fiancé, she had gone blank (that was the only way she knew how to describe it, at age sixteen) when he asked her to do something sexual she didn't enjoy. He did that a lot, actually.

It had come in particularly handy during her previous assaults, though she never managed to tap out quite so fully as she had in her childhood. Those times—Harris, Lewis, Arliss—she had stood outside herself, watching the men hurt that poor woman who screamed and wept and bled and begged. At least that was how she remembered it. With all the alcohol and drugs pumped into her system the last two times, it was hard telling which memories were hers, which were the sedatives, and which were the nightmares she'd had since. That was what she consoled herself with, at least: the idea that parts of those attacks must be illusion.

This was wide awake, brutal reality—the musclehead rooting in her privates, his bros slamming her shoulders, elbows, wrists against the desktop whenever she lifted one or the other—and she was maddeningly sober, maddeningly present. From her upside-down vantage, she caught a glimpse of Little Brother staring wide-eyed at the lurid scene, wringing his baseball cap in his hands.

"Help," she called to him weakly, praying he might appeal to the others on her behalf. Make them see her as human. But he just stood there wringing his stupid hat. "Please help me."

The Kid grabbed a handful of her breast and gave it a vicious twist that would have hurt worse without the padding of her bra cup, but still caused her to wince and gasp in pain. It redirected her attention to the men ahead, in particular the Driver, who had finally finished sniffing and stood up to declare, "Not half bad for cop puss*." He smiled at the little white stars on her black cotton bikinis before grasping the underwear at the hip and rending it from her body. He tossed the tangled material aside, presumably in the same direction he had pitched her pants.

It happened with no more import than if they had wandered across a skin flick on television and paused on that channel with mild interest ("Nice," the Driver said of her pubic hair, meanwhile the Kid observed, "Huh, I expected a bigger bush"). For Olivia, who had never been nude—partially or not—in front of a group of men before, it was earth-shattering. She squirmed frantically, trying to kick out at the Driver, but he was standing between her dangling legs and the most she could do when he pushed her hips flat to the desk was whiplash her body at the torso, in the hopes someone would lose their grip.

No one did. Not until Driver let go with one hand, reached into his low-slung joggers, and pulled out his penis. He was hard and not as small as Olivia had hoped. Longer than the four-inch blade introduced by Gus, but shorter than the nine inches promised by the Crier. Like the rest of him, the Driver's girth was the intimidating part. He looked from his genitals to Olivia's, weighing some unspoken option, then spat into his palm and smeared the saliva between her legs.That doesn't work, you dumbf*ck, she screamed at him in her mind.

Aloud she cried, "No! Please."

Then he was inside of her, and all screaming, all crying out for mercy, ceased. Other than the man's initial grunt upon entry, the room went momentarily still and silent. It was as if the entire world held its breath
(no, she could hear the jackhammer going in the distance; the outside world carried on, despite the woman being raped in a shipping container on the waterfront, ob-la-di, ob-la-da)
until the second thrust, much deeper than the first.

Sometimes Daniel had gotten too eager and pushed his way in before she was wet enough, but nothing could have prepared Olivia for being entered totally dry. It was that over-full, gagging sensation she'd felt when Harris shoved his dick in her mouth, except this pulled at her insides, dragging back and forth like sandpaper between her labia. Now she knew how the barrel of her gun felt when she plunged it with a stiff-bristled bore brush, by design larger than the opening for which it was intended.

"Oh yeah," the Driver said in a long, guttural exhalation, as if he'd just settled into a bathtub of steaming hot water after a hard day's work. He released Olivia's hips, pressing his hands to the desktop on either side of her and leaning into the thrusts. "f*ck. Bitch is tight. I can hardly fit."

"That's 'cause you got a dick like a damn Spam loaf." The Crier, whose own dick kept grazing Olivia's arm whenever she moved it, snickered at the wisecrack and winked conspiratorially down at Olivia. "Open wide, puss*cat. Hope you're in the mood for some canned imitation meat that smells like ass. Probably tastes like, too."

The Kid joined in with the older man's derisive laughter, egging the Driver on, not just by mocking but with slaps on the shoulders and a vigorous rub of his shiny bald pate. He lowered his gleaming head, already beaded in sweat from his efforts, and drove into Olivia harder than before. Hard enough that a hiccup of pain and trapped air from the lungs she'd forgotten how to use escaped her lips.

It reminded her to breathe, although she would just as soon not, when each breath hitched in her throat, mingling with the Driver's convulsive grunts in a vulgar sort of harmony. She had given up fighting once he penetrated her, once that first irrevocable thrust undid the fifty-four years of fighting that came before it—all those years of dodging her mother's boyfriends, with their wandering eyes and wandering hands; all those years of burying the truth about the assaults she had endured, until she believed the lies herself; all those years of pouring her heart and soul into protecting women and girls from scenarios like this one: being raped on top of a rusted-out desk by a man whose St. Jude medal swung back and forth, inches above her face, as he rocked against her.

Olivia was being raped. There was no way around it this time. She couldn't argue that it was consensual, or that her desires had been unclear and therefore absolved the rapist of any wrongdoing, as she had with Daniel since the moment he first assaulted her (then went on doing so, in various ways, for months after). She couldn't claim the "five-second rule"—that it wasn't full-fledged rape because he hadn't made it all the way in; hadn't been in her mouth longer than one or two thrusts, barely enough time to cut off her air supply; had only used a single finger, and her body was already so numb she didn't really feel it anyway. She couldn't let awareness slip away, protecting her from the harsh reality of what
(Daniel, Lewis, Calvin, the Crier)
the man on top of her was doing.

He put his penis in my vagin*. How many women had she encouraged to say those precise words? How many thousands of victims had she listened to recount the exact moment someone stripped them of their humanity, agency, safety, pride? And now she was one of them, for however long she survived after this attack.

Tonic immobility, that's why she couldn't move. Could barely think. God, she was one of those statistics now. The seventy percent of women who experienced involuntary paralysis during their rape. Likelihood doubled if you had experienced it before (she had, the first time with Daniel, and if she were being honest, it was part of the reason she'd kept so still during that last time with Lewis) and if the assault was violent or included multiple attackers. Check and check. She was like some small, helpless creature curled in on itself while the big bad wolf batted it around with his paw.

"Get her legs up," the Driver instructed, lifting Olivia's legs one at a time, behind the knee, and hooking them over the other men's arms. Her upper body was momentarily unrestrained as they followed his directions, but it didn't matter since she couldn't move on her own. The men did it all for her, anyway.

She had inched higher up the desk with Driver pounding away at her like he was, so he jerked her back down by the hips, positioning her ass right at the edge. With her knees co*cked apart and her ass about to slide off the cold slab below, she felt as if she were on a gynecological table, feet in the stirrups.I'm doing this for you, her mother had said while they were waiting on the doctor's arrival for that first, forced vagin*l exam. Olivia had simply stared at the wall, refusing to acknowledge her mother's existence.You don't know what he might have given you.Men are filthy.

Like you ever asked any of your f*ckbuddies from the bar if they had VD, Olivia thought, distantly. She hadn't said it back then; she would have gotten her mouth slapped. Besides, Serena was right—Olivia had known nothing of Daniel McNab's sexual history and what diseases he might pass on to her (none, as it turned out).

Lucky. She'd been so lucky over the years, except for the pregnancy scare that turned out not to be a false alarm. When she was still trying to do something important with her life. That was the story, at least. Never mind that she would have given birth at the same age her mother had delivered her, and she couldn't bear to see the look on Serena's face when she announced an unplanned pregnancy. Serena never would have forgiven her if she dropped out of college to raise a child. So she hadn't.

Maybe it was better to be raped at fifty-four, after all. Of the many unpleasant outcomes, it did take unwanted children off the table. Had her mother thought about that, Olivia wondered, while lying on that dirty concrete landing below street level, with Joseph Hollister on top of her? That she might have a child who was conceived down there in the lonely, godless dark, among the broken bottles and decaying newspaper? That, no matter how far the child ran from it, how long and hard she fought it, she would end up right back in that dark in which she was conceived?

Had this been written in Olivia's stars all along? Not family, not happiness, not peace and safety. What a fool she was to have believed any of those things were meant for her.

She watched the St. Jude medal pendulum above her, gaining momentum with each stroke, until it pitched wildly back and forth, like a playground swing the occupant had jumped out of midair. It was close enough for her to reach up and touch, to squeeze in her palm and say a prayer. Jude was the patron saint of lost causes, if she remembered correctly. Nothing could be more fitting than that.

"Look at me," the Driver panted, heaving his pelvis into her with a faint smack of flesh against flesh. Wet, sloppy sounds that curdled the blood inside Olivia's ears. She forgot them a moment later, when his hands went up her shirt, sliding the hem to her shoulders, and began harshly massaging her breasts. Even through the bra cups, it hurt. "Hey, bitch, up here. Look at me while I f*ck you. Yeah, that's it, show me them pretty brown eyes."

She tried not to. But the longer she avoided eye contact, the harder he squeezed and the more vicious his thrusts. Her breath caught with each one, and she could swear she felt him in the back of her throat. She felt him everywhere. "No. S-stop," she said, in a voice so thin and broken he probably wouldn't hear her over his p*rnographic sound effects. "Stop."

The Driver swatted her cheek smartly with his fingers, not hard enough to be called a slap, but enough that it startled her into obedience. She didn't want to be hit anymore. Perhaps if she cooperated, he wouldn't be so eager to make it hurt. Some men couldn't rape a woman who looked them directly in the eye. But Driver held no such reservations.

The moment he had her full attention, he bucked faster and twice as violently, until she was sure he would do internal damage. She wasn't delicate or of small build, and she'd engaged in plenty of vigorous sex over the years, particularly in her teens and early adulthood, but nothing like this. Nothing that made her whimper in pain and reach blindly for something to hold onto. She caught a handful of the Kid's shirt and knotted it around her fist. If she could have brought it to her mouth to bite, she would have.

It occurred to her then that she had developed that habit—needing something to bite down on when she didn't want to cry out during
(rape)
sex—while she was dating Daniel. At first it had been to muffle the sounds coming from the bedroom so his roommates wouldn't hear; then, as he'd gotten more adventurous with his sixteen-year-old plaything, Olivia had bitten whatever was handy (usually herself) for reasons she couldn't explain. Daniel thought it was sexy.My little carnivore, he called her.

"Sugar tit*," the Driver called her. He groped her breasts like he was trying to crush a pair of grapefruits with his bare hands. St. Jude flailed above, his useless, sad face staring down as if he were f*cking her, too. Patron saint of carnivores and women with big tit* the boys just loved to squeeze.

And finally, abruptly, the Driver came inside of her, spilling his seed where few men had and adding to the slimy sensation she was almost certain must be blood. It sure as hell wasn't arousal. Her body might be numb from the shoulders down, it might feel like it belonged to someone else entirely—the man straining inside her, perhaps—but there was no part of her that had wanted that. Daniel had convinced her otherwise; even Lewis made her question the reactions her body had given him. But no one, including herself, could tell her what just happened wasn't rape.

If she made it out of this godforsaken place, if she wasn't sold and used up till there was nothing left, she would have to describe for countless listeners what the Driver had done to her: how he wetted her down beforehand, his saliva as thick and sticky as his sem*n; how he yanked her into each thrust by tugging on her breasts, his fingernails leaving hot, red crescents in her flesh; how he smiled when he pulled his co*ck out of her with a faint pop, like a cork plucked from a wine bottle. How she could only lie there, naked from the waist down and half out of her t-shirt and bra, shivering uncontrollably, while he vowed, "Not finished with you yet,puta. Gimme a couple minutes, we'll go again."

She began to panic at the thought of relating those details to a jury, to other cops, doctors, or even just to her wife. At least the other assaults had been very much in the past tense when she finally disclosed them to Amanda, but this was their present, their here and now. Rape often tore relationships apart, or at the very least, changed them forever.

And what if Amanda blamed her for not fighting harder? The detective hadn't let it show much lately—not since the night that almost ended their marriage before it began, when they pushed each other to their limits, emotionally and sexually—but it still angered her when Olivia didn't defend herself well enough. During the last Super Bowl, Olivia had apologized for blocking the TV at a crucial moment, inciting Amanda to bellow, "Move, woman!" and toss a throw pillow across the room, and the blonde practically wouldn't speak to her the rest of the evening—not for the interruption, but because Olivia had excused the yelling and throwing. Amanda went into labor the following day, so it had all been a moot point anyway.

Nothing about this was moot. Amanda would never forgive her if she found out Olivia had just lain there and taken it. She would have her proof that Olivia was weak and deserved the blame for the past assaults as well, things she should have put a stop to, but didn't. And then Amanda would leave her, because no one wanted a wife who didn't fight with every last ounce of strength not to be gang raped. Wasn't that like complicity, when you really got down to it?

"Damn, Captain, you're tore up," said the Kid, gazing down at her with fascination and a hint of disgust. It was the way Noah and his ballet friends sounded when they showed off their calloused feet and split toenails, challenging each other to see who had the best war wounds.

At first, Olivia thought the Kid was talking about her genitals, which indeed felt raw and stretched beyond their limits—inside and out—but his eyes were on her breasts. More specifically, the pucker marks that marred her deeper cleavage and curved along the outsides. The scars from Lewis' cigarettes always reminded her of bullet holes in glass, that striated outer web with the puncture at its center, signifying where he most firmly ground in the tip. She had five of those bullet holes altogether, and considered herself lucky not to have five times that. Most days she hardly noticed them, and she no longer hid the scars from Amanda or felt self-conscious having them touched and kissed. She had very nearly forgotten how ugly they were; how "tore up" she was, truly.

And that wasn't even counting the serpentine mark on her hip from the coat hanger, or the various and sundry scars she had accumulated over the years, from her various and sundry attackers. God, how Amanda didn't find her completely repulsive was beyond Olivia.

"Guess you've got a little more mileage on you than most of the c*nts that come through here, though, huh?" The Kid traced a fingertip from one cigarette burn to the other, connecting the dots. His fingers were cold, but the touch seared Olivia's skin as surely as any smoldering Marlboro. "You're gonna be the oldest bitch I ever had. It's kinda hot, actually. Like that Mrs. Robinson chick. Roll over, Mrs. Robinson, I want you from behind."

As he spoke, the Kid unzipped his jeans and peeled them back from his slender hips. He was rummaging for the bulge inside his Calvin Klein boxers when Olivia threw her elbow sideways, aiming for the crotch of the plaid shorts, but swinging high in her frenzy to get away. She caught him in his soft, concave gut, drawing a faintoomphand a bow, as if he were inviting her into a Baroque dance. Near the wall behind him, visible only when he ducked, was his father Gus, looking on with a dispassionate eye. He didn't seem at all bothered by his son's difficulties, nor did he spare a glance for Olivia. It looked like he was watching a dogfight, the outcome of which he had no stake in either way.

The Crier, however, thought his friend's plight was hilarious. His laugh sounded rusty, like a gate forced open after years of disuse. It was a harsh, hateful sound, maybe the ugliest one that Olivia had ever heard, and she longed to shut him up. She longed for a metal bar to beat in his brains and shatter his kneecaps with; to bash against his crotch until he went flaccid, his balls turned to mush, Prince Albert embedded deep; to stand over him and wield, making him feel small and helpless and afraid.

Her elbow would have to do. He was at her left now, after that last-minute flip the Driver—her rapist—had requested. That was her weaker side, thanks to fractures and surgeries, but she mustered all her strength and hurled that elbow at the Crier. Once he was doubled up, clutching his stomach like the Kid was doing, she would only need to kick the Driver, and run. Little Brother couldn't stop her, and perhaps Gus was far enough away for her to get a good head-start . . .

She had barely finished the thought, or worked out how she would find her pants and get them on before she fled, when the Crier smoothly stepped aside to avoid the blow. Heaving herself sideways into nothing, into the fetid air, threw Olivia off balance and she rolled from the side of the desk, crashing heavily to the floor. Her arm crumpled beneath her, and she feared it might be broken, but then the Crier's boot came hard and fast. She felt a definite snap when it connected with her upper abdomen, and if that hadn't fractured some ribs, the next two kicks undoubtedly did.

He continued to laugh while he kicked her, hitting a maniacal crescendo before cutting it abruptly short and wrestling Olivia upright. "That the best you got, you dumb f*cking c*nt?" He exhaled hotly in her ear, holding tight around her middle as he hoisted, the pain in her freshly injured ribs bright and exquisite. "You think you're a real tough bitch 'cause you got a badge and a gun? You wouldn't last five minutes where I been, kitty cat."

"f*ck you," Olivia rasped, her shortness of breath no longer from panic or adrenaline, but from his foot colliding with her solar plexus. She'd had the wind knocked out of her a few times as a kid, and this felt a lot like that. Except she only need worry about defending herself from her staggering drunk of a mother back then. "You're gonna burn in hell a lot longer than five minutes."

The Crier's laugh was sharp and brief this time. Not a laugh at all, but a warning, like the growl that preceded a dog bite. He grabbed her t-shirt where it had slid back down her shoulders, and jerked up, momentarily shrouding her in white, until another yank freed it from below her chin. The shirt—just a markdown from Gap or somewhere, purchased for its soft, airy texture and mostly worn for lounging around at home—went the way of her yoga pants and underwear before it.

Nude, except for the bra she was only half in anyway, she felt divested of everything that made her Olivia Benson. He might as well have reached in and ripped out her soul. Perhaps that was what he intended, because he popped the hooks of her bra with a swift tug, unceremoniously spilling her from the cups, and groped her bare breasts from behind, burring, "This is hell, baby. And you better get used to it. You and me are gonna be here a long, long time."

. . .

Chapter 10: The Weight of the Soul

Notes:

I am so pissed at ff.net right now, I can't even tell you. I was going to drop this chapter early yesterday as a surprise, because I don't like leaving it on a cliffhanger at such a crucial, tragic, horrifying moment. I'm not about building tension that way. I truly did want to give you guys a breather between this and the previous chapter, though. 'Cause... it's a lot. Unfortunately, my schedule didn't allow for an update yesterday, and then today. I've had the chapter ready to post since early this morning, but ff.net has been down All. Friggin. Day. I'm sick of waiting for them to get their sh*t together, so I'm posting here and then I'll update over there as soon as I can.

Also, I'm sorry if I was a little salty about the (so-called) lack of reviews for chapter 8. I wasn't getting any notifications on the other site when someone commented, nor was the review count working for me, so all I heard after that chapter was radio silence. :/ Thank you to everyone who continues to review, despite the ff.net f*ckery, and a special thanks to girleffect for taking the time to PM me to make sure I got your message!

And to the anon who said the trigger warning on chapter 9 was insufficient. If you were upset by the content, that's understandable, but I'm not offering an apology. I've consistently put very clear trigger warnings on the story since chapter 1 (and before that, when it was still just a WIP), including giving away pivotal plot points, because I would never intentionally want to trigger someone. Unless you dropped into the chapter with absolutely no previous knowledge of the plot or my writing style, then anything you chose to read is on you. And even then I have to question why you just took up reading the story from there, unless of course, it was to deliberately call me out for something you did all on your own... Hmmmmmmmmmm.

Speaking of Trigger Warnings: This chapter contains graphic and explicit depictions of gang rape and sexual violence (brief mention of bulimia as well). I'm not kidding, guys.

P.S. I've seen a lot of you commenting that you don't know how Liv will ever come back from this, and believe me, it was a major concern of mine when I was developing the plot. I didn't think it would be possible. But I was compelled to write it, even if it did scare me and I wasn't sure I could do it. I'm not saying there's any kind of fix for what's happening to her, but I hope y'all trust me enough to handle it. Let's just say—I'm satisfied with the direction it takes, and I think it's realistic and lives up to the rest of the story. I hope you guys will feel the same way when we get to that point.

(In a sick and twisted turn of events, ff.net just decided to work as I was about to post this, so I rewrote a big chunk of this note for nothing, lol. OY.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 10.

The Weight of the Soul

. . .

"This is hell, baby. And you better get used to it. You and me are gonna be here a long, long time."

Thiswashell, on that much they agreed. Hell was being raped by one man and knowing you still had four more to go (not to mention what would happen when they got their second wind). Hell was having your tit* squeezed from behind by a sad*stic scumbag, and still reassuring yourself that at least it wasn'tHim—wasn't Lewis. And hell was being bent over a desk again, the long side this time, unable to see what your next rapist was about to do to you.

Don't worry, you'll feel it, she thought. And if she needed a visual, the Kid was directly in front of her. He had recovered from the jab to his belly, which seemed to have had little, if any, effect on his arousal. The sextasy was doing its job and ensuring Olivia would have to do hers, too. One of these days she should start charging for her services, at least then she would get something out of these encounters. It was astounding how many men still went ahead and paid the prostitute they had just raped.

She wanted to tell the kidnappers she forfeited, that they had succeeded in getting her to think like a hooker—which was usually the goal of seasoning in the first place—and there was no need to condition her any further. But all she got out was a breathless, anemic, "Stop . . . " before she clamped her mouth shut at the sight of the Kid freeing himself from his boxers. She could already taste him, the musty, briny flavor that had flooded her palate when Lowell Harris orally sodomized her instantly at her tongue, like a long-forgotten name. No other men had been in her mouth since then, but if you tasted one, you'd tasted them all.

(Not entirely true. Young and fit, Daniel had had a much more robust, tangy essence that Olivia associated with blowj*bs until well into her sophom*ore year of college. Made sense—he was the guy who had taught her how to give head, after all. He taught her a whole lot of things by the time they were through.)

"You know what, I'm feeling generous," said the Crier. He smacked Olivia on the ass hard enough to leave a handprint, evoking a small, girlish squeal that shamed her deeply. Any sound he drew from her was just another thing taken without her permission. She was already naked in front of him, he didn't get to expose any more of her. "You take this end first, junior. I wanna have a word with this mouthy c*nt, 'cause she still seems to think she's the boss."

Olivia shook her head furiously, or as furiously as she dared while her brain throbbed inside her skull like an ear-splintering bass. And that was tame compared with the pain radiating from her rib cage. Now, more than ever, it hurt to take a breath, a deep stitch in her side preventing her lungs from filling to capacity. "No. I-I don't think th-that," she said, between each gasp and subsequent wince.

She tried to track the men's movement as they switched places, trading heads for tails as if she were a bad coin toss, but the tripod lights were blinding (she didn't even remember seeing them while the Driver raped her) and blotted out their faces. The Kid's arms were longer and he kept a hand on her back, pressing her flat to the desk as he rounded on one side, Crier on the other. If not for the shortness of breath and the pain in her torso, like she'd just met with the business end of a taxicab, she might have been able to push up from the desktop, knock him aside. But right then, she doubted her ability to stand up straight, let alone rely on her shaking limbs.

Instead, she tried her shaking voice. "You're in con-control here. I'll— I'll cooperate, if you'll please just stop this, please. You s-said there's a b-buyer. Do you want money? I can g-get you money."

NYPD wasn't in the business of paying ransom demands, and Olivia doubted she had enough in her savings to tide these men over for very long, but she would say anything to get away at this point. Do anything, besides just lie there and take it. She could worry about the follow through of her promises later, when she wasn't moments away from being raped a second time by two assailants. (God, please.)

"Still thinks she can talk her way outta this," the Crier said to no one in particular, least of all Olivia, though he stood before her and looked down as dispassionately as if he were observing a slug inching along the sidewalk. And like most cruel, unfeeling boys, he was more interested in dousing the slug with salt than helping it. "Still thinks she can hand out ultimatums." He clucked his tongue and bent forward to be at her level, the angle between them too steep for her to maintain eye contact otherwise.

When he got closer he grabbed the back of Olivia's hair, fingers sifting in deep, and snapped her head back viciously. She gave an involuntary cry, tears springing to her eyes as the heat spread again through her tender scalp. He wrenched her head side to side—no rhyme or reason, just because he could—before addressing her in a low tone, as if he didn't want the others to overhear. "Since you've got this all figured out, tell me, bitch. You think you can afford one mill? That's how much your bitch-cop ass is worth to someone. I've sold girls for less than ten grand, so what makes you so f*cking special? You just look like some pig captain who eats puss* to me."

The whole time the Crier was speaking, the Kid was behind Olivia, rubbing the head of his penis against her labia, the shaft gliding between her buttocks. When he spread both cheeks with his hands, fingers dangerously close to her anus, she tried to buck him away, but succeeded only at making him titter and jerk her tucked-in ass back against his pelvis.

"No!" she said to him, and to the Crier, who shook her roughly by the hair for not answering his questions. "No, please. I'm— I'm not special. I'm nothing. I'm not worth tha— ouch! P-please don't, not there."

The last part was directed at the Kid as he went on prodding with his dick, grinding into her perineum and teasing at the opening beyond it. Every time he got close to pushing inside, he pulled away and started over; and every time, Olivia gasped and struggled fruitlessly beneath his hands and the Crier's.

She'd had anal sex before, with her first fiancé Daniel—who else? Just another thing he had taught her to do with her body. She hated it more than oral. It took weeks of cajoling pillow-talk for her to agree, Daniel snuggling her so tightly, so securely, as he murmured about how sexy it would be, how all the college girls did it that way, and didn't she want to make him happy? Didn't she love him? The first time, she hurt and bled for days after; and every time after that, Daniel held her while she cried, telling her how good she was at it, and he just couldn't help himself, he wanted her so much.

"I know it hurts, honey," he said once, dropping kisses onto the top of her head, something that still made her feel safe and content after sex. "But it's worth a little pain, to heighten the pleasure, right?"

Olivia had learned at an even younger age than sixteen how fine the line between pleasure and pain really was, thanks to her mother's tendency to slap (or choke) first, then offer the affection Olivia desperately craved. Sometimes you did have to push through the bad to get to the good. But she'd never learned to do that with Daniel and his frequent sexual requests, and she had never let another man touch her the way—and the places—that he had. Not willingly, anyway.

The Kid laughed outright at her plea not to be sodomized. "She must not be a fan of backdoor surprises," he said, as if she weren't there, listening to every word. Feeling every movement behind her. He reached into a drawer that rattled open near her knee, which he knocked aside with his own, and withdrew something that he stamped down on the desktop. It sounded plastic, but that was the only feature Olivia could discern. "Maybe this'll help grease the wheels."

"Stick to the front door, little man," said the Crier, his fingers slackening as he focused on something besides Olivia's eyes and, with unmistakable hunger, her mouth. (Bet yours is real pretty, just like your mouth. You wanna suck—) "I got dibs on the back."

"Dude, this isn't Skee-Ball. It's a free country and every hole is up for grabs." The Kid drummed on Olivia's buttocks until both sides were hot and numb, not just where the Crier had slapped her. Other than playful swats from Amanda, she'd never been spanked before—not even by her mother, who, ironically, hadn't believed in corporal punishment—and it was every bit as degrading as she had always suspected. "But fine, I'll keep it kosher for now. I know how much you must miss your prison wives. Don't wanna ruin your walk down memory lane."

"Eat me," growled the Crier.

"That's her job. Hey, bro, get over here and watch this. Come on, buddy, I'm gonna show you what to do when it's your turn." The Kid gave a piercing whistle that went through Olivia like a jolt from the long-forgotten cattle prod. She tried to cringe from it, but the men jerked her back into place every time she deviated even an inch one way or the other.

"Go on, son," said Gus, patting his younger son on the back and urging him to join his brother like he was being sent onto the field during a Little League game. Make your old man proud.

Hesitantly, the boy donned his hat, so twisted out of shape it barely fit his head, and stepped forward, his eyes locked on Olivia as he edged past her at a wide berth. She wanted to cry for help again, but he was useless to her. If his father and brother weren't present, she probably could have appealed to him. But with them in control, treating her less than human, he would never see her as anything other than what his brother had reduced her to—a series of holes waiting to be filled.

She detached then, listening at a distance while the Kid explained inserting dicks into puss*es, his thumbs spreading her labia for a better view, and how the Vaseline he'd taken from the drawer made for a smoother, more enjoyable f*ck. He slopped a large, slimy glob of the stuff onto her vulva, greasing her from front to back, like a skillet for frying, and kicked her feet apart when she tried to close her legs.

"If she pulls any sh*t, just shove it in harder and she'll settle down," he said sagely. "Then just keep doing that until you shoot your load, know what I mean? Here, I'll show you. Go ahead and touch her if you want."

A hand skimmed the dip of Olivia's spine, and a moment later, the Kid pushed into her, keeping his promise to enter her vagin*lly. Just some good old-fashioned penis-in-vagin* rape, like an All-American Boy. (Or dick-in-puss*, she supposed, in his case.) He had been right about the petroleum jelly, it did help smooth things out a little, along with her blood and the Driver's sem*n. Thank God for small favors.

"No, p-please. I— I—" She what? She had nothing to finish with, and couldn't stand the sound of her voice hitching as she was jostled from behind, so she fell silent, like she had the first time.

Olivia had ultimately been silent for all her rapes.

In front of her, the Crier released her hair and took her roughly by the chin, forcing it up until she was looking him in the eye again. The other hand went to his penis, the erection still going strong, and brought it towards her mouth.

That sight—so familiar it felt like déjà vu—triggered in her such a visceral response, she didn't realize she was screaming and thrashing until Crier ordered someone to, "Get your thumb outta your ass and hold her down," and a third pair of hands joined his and the Kid's, which encircled her waist. These hands, big and paw-like, pinned her arms behind her back, easily holding them in place by the wrists. "Ow, ow," she cried in a childish timbre, when he pushed up, stretching her awkwardly twisted limbs beyond their limits. Too much higher, something was bound to snap.

"Use this." The Crier grabbed Olivia's long, tattered side braid and passed it back to the Driver, the only man present whose hands were that beefy and strong. "Keep her head still. And facing that way."

One-handed, the other still clasping her wrists, the Driver looped the braid around his fist like a boxer wrapping his knuckles, pulling it taut near the top, so close to the scalp Olivia couldn't turn her head one way or the other. It would have brought tears to her eyes, if they weren't already streaming down her cheeks.

Then just like that, the Crier disappeared from her shimmering vision. She tried to follow him with her eyes, but he was beyond peripheral range—and oh God, the Kid was hurting her. He didn't have Driver's girth, but like the rest of him, his penis had considerable reach, especially when used as a battering ram.

She had, on occasion, enjoyed deep penetration with her sexual partners, men and Amanda alike. Some might even call it rough sex (Olivia preferred the term "vigorous"). vagin*l org*sms weren't quite as pleasurable to her as cl*toral ones, and yet, there was something primal and intensely erotic about a deep, relentless f*cking. Even when it hurt, she still got off. Sometimes she got offbecauseit hurt.

Once again, it was a predilection she could trace back to Daniel McNab. Oh, he was gentle at first—even that initial assault had seemed tender at the time—but his desire for rough sex gradually came to light the longer they were together. At sixteen, Olivia hadn't known any better. She was used to hearing (and sometimes seeing) her mother f*ck strange men, loudly and vigorously. It had seemed to her the thing to do, and so she'd told herself she liked it, until she eventually believed it. Until it became true.

Lewis had seen it in her, that dirty little secret she'd been hiding since eleventh grade. The hypocrisy of it was astounding—a sex crime detective, an advocate for survivors of the worst kinds of violence and assault, and she still liked it rough. Women wept as they disclosed to her the details of being savagely penetrated, meanwhile she got to go home and do it for fun.

It had finally caught up with her. She could feel the Kid pummeling her cervix and knew the damage it would cause: bruising, at the very least, a common injury among rape victims, especially the ones who were positioned—like Olivia was—for deeper penetration during the attack; maybe even some tearing, although small tears of the cervix were usually left to heal on their own. Like broken ribs. She would be expected to heal after this, too, but how?

She hurt so much.

"Switching to granny puss* after this," the Kid grunted, the slap of his hips against her ass punctuating every word. "More lived in. Like a nice, homey cottage."

One thought she was too tight, the other thought she was "lived in." She guessed they would know; her body belonged to them now. She had slowly started to untether from herself, as effortless as a kite string unraveling from its spool, the pain and humiliation too great to bear. (Little Brother stroked her thigh while his brother violated her. "Is she gonna cry when I do that?" he asked.)

What was the quote about slipping the surly bonds of earth? Olivia was about to slip the surly bonds of this hell on earth when one of the desk drawers clattered open, startling her back into the body that was no longer hers. Metal scraped metal, the Kid made a noise like a leaking steam valve, and a moment later, the Crier reappeared before her.

Without a word, he grabbed her chin again and jerked downward, jamming something long and hard into her open mouth, cracking her trick jaw wide. At first, wildly, she thought of the metal bar that she'd used to beat Lewis, but this was thicker and pronged at the end. She gagged as it met resistance, and only when she felt the fanglike tips pressing into the tender meat of her throat did she realize it was the cattle prod.

Please, Jesus.

"It's this or me, bitch," the Crier snarled, his hand on the pump-style trigger. "And you better choose me, otherwise I'll make Junior back there shove this up your ass next, and you'll still have to blow me. Take your pick."

Olivia wanted to tell him to go f*ck himself; that she would rather die than pick him. She wanted to grab his ugly, soot-colored co*ck and rip out the idiotic f*cking Prince Albert piercing with her teeth, maybe bite the head off while she was at it. Spit it at him. Watch him scream and bleed and die. Instead, she cast a pleading look at his penis, choosing it over the prod. At least it wouldn't break her teeth or destroy her ability to talk or swallow. It wouldn't scorch the back of her throat like lit cigarettes against flesh.

It would just make her wish she were dead, rather than actually kill her.

Without her hands free to gesture, her head free to nod, or her mouth free to speak, she could only convey an answer with her eyes, flicking them up to the Crier's hard, tattooed face and back down to his hard, barbelled penis. She repeated the signal until he eased up on the prod and slid it out of her mouth. Tentatively, she shifted her lower jaw side to side, afraid it had locked in place. It clicked a few times, but she was able to close it. For now.

"Good girl," said the Crier. (God, why did they always have to say that?) He let the torture device—the electric one, at least—slide onto the desktop, Olivia starting violently at the racket it made, and scooped up something else that gave a familiar screech of metal on metal. "Now, you see these?"

He waved the pliers in front of her face, too close for her to bring them into focus at first. She flinched instinctively, getting nowhere. The Kid thumped her from behind, rocking her forward in an energetic and unrelenting rhythm. Her stomach clenched convulsively with each thrust.

"If you bite me, I'll rip every last tooth out of your pretty little head with these and cram 'em down your f*cking throat. You'll be sh*tting teeth for a week." The Crier clacked the pliers loudly on the edge of the desk, jolting Olivia again. (The Kid reciprocated the jolt at the other end.) He chattered the tools at her like a pair of wind-up teeth, and she wondered if the dark rust spots in the creases were actually dried blood. "Got me?"

Olivia tried to nod, forgetting she couldn't. She had recently watched a documentary on snakes with the kids, who were particularly fascinated by the wranglers whose job it was to milk venom from the deadlier serpents. She supposed the Driver was her wrangler now—and she? She was the black mamba, about to have her mouth forced open, her power stolen in a way that, unlike the snakes, she could never get back.

"Y-yes," she said, her voice so hoarse she hardly recognized it. Her throat was sore from screaming and being jabbed by the prongs of the cattle prod. And her thirst was unimaginable.

Some of it was real, but some of it was in her head, she knew that; ever since Lewis had withheld water from her until her tongue felt as rubbery and shriveled as a piece of beef jerky, she'd been experiencing terrible dry mouth in dangerous or frightening situations. Or sometimes for no reason at all.

She shuddered to think how her thirst would be quenched this time. Clearing her throat, she attempted to speak up, hoping to disguise her parched voice. These men didn't get to know she needed anything from them. "I underst—"

The Crier rapped Olivia's forehead with the jawed end of the pliers ("Hey," Gus said sharply, as if scolding a bad dog), making her cry out more from surprise than pain. Not to say it didn't hurt. There would probably be a notch in her forehead to match the one his ring had left in her cheek. "Gotta teach her somehow," he called over his shoulder to the man who stood in the wings. And to Olivia, a hand under her chin, ruthlessly squeezing her cheeks against her closed teeth, he said, "Tell me you want it. Say, 'I can't wait to suck your big, yummy co*ck, Angel.'"

So he had a name, or at least a nickname. She would never call him by it. He was no angel.

Her lips wouldn't form the other words, either, no matter how hard
(he f*cked her from behind)
she tried to push them out. She told herself it was fear—that freeze response again—but truth be told, it was stupid, stubborn pride. What she had left of it, anyway. Never had she spoken that way to any man in her life, not even in jest, and she'd be damned if this prick would be the first.

Despite the nasty yank of her braid, despite the vicious thrusts from behind, Olivia held out for as long as she could. A matter of seconds, perhaps. Time was so hard to keep track of here, whilethiswas happening. Whatever the length of her silence, it was too long for the Crier. "Say it, slu*t." He brought the pliers down on the edge of the desk again, but refrained from hitting her in the face, she noted. He was itching to, though. It practically oozed off of him, how much he wanted to hurt her. "f*cking say it, or I'll use these to gouge out your goddamn eyeballs."

That was a lie. She believed him about sodomizing her with the prod and pulling out her teeth with the pliers—a few missing molars would likely go unnoticed by anyone looking to "purchase" her—but eyeless prostitutes were not in high demand. Olivia finally had something over on him, and it almost felt good for a split-second, until the Driver jerked up on her pinned wrists, pushing them to the middle of her back. The Kid bore into her like a drill motor in drywall. Inexplicably, it made her want to cough.

She whimpered instead, hating herself for it. Such a pathetic, weak sound, and one she associated with her previous assaults, because those were the only times she ever made that noise or anything like it. As an adult, she had never whined, until those four days with Lewis. Then, it was because of a desperate need to pee, a desperate need for water, a desperate need not to be raped. What would these men do that would finally make her whine in desperation?

"Okay, have it your way," said the Crier, with an indifferent shrug. He picked up the cattle prod and brandished it over her head at the Kid. "Give it to her good."

"W-wait. Wait!" Olivia shouted the second time, but it came out rusty and ineffectual, like an old sink knob that screeched in protest when turned. "Wait, I'll say it. I— I—"

The Crier gazed down dispassionately at her, and just when it seemed he would ignore the plea and proceed with the sodomy, front and back, he lowered the cattle prod onto the desk. "'I can't wait . . .'" he coached, as if he were feeding lines to a child with stage fright.

"I c-can't wait to—" Olivia cringed. At the words, at the soft porcine grunts from the Kid. She'd hoped his youth meant he would be an early arriver, but he was not that inexperienced. "—to suck your co*ck."

"Nope. Start over. 'I can't wait to suck your big, yummy co*ck, Angel.' Say it all, like a good kitty."

The kitty bullsh*t made her want to puke. The co*ck bullsh*t made her want to puke even more. It was just a f*cking power play, another way to prove he had control over her. And the bitch of it all? He was right. Penetration with a foreign object was common in gang rapes, almost expected, and whatever Olivia must do to avoid it, to only have penises shoved inside her, she would do.

God help her, she would.

"I can't— I can't wait to—" Olivia licked her lips, but couldn't moisten them. Couldn't stop her own small grunts and groans every time the Kid bucked forward. "I can't wait to suck your— your big, yummy . . . co*ck, A—"

He saved her from the blasphemy of using that name by catching her lower jaw, forcing it wide, and gliding in his big, yummy co*ck. An interesting fact Olivia had learned from the snake documentary was that snakes didn't unhinge their jaws to consume large prey, as many people believed; the reptiles' mandibles weren't fused like a humans, therefore they had nothing to dislocate and, because of stretchy ligaments, could open their mouths unbelievably wide—a mechanism known asgaping.

Olivia had no such luxury. Her misaligned jaw cracked dangerously the farther he yanked it down, and her first instincts were to clamp shut, but the old, improperly healed injury—whatever it stemmed from, she still didn't know—kept her mouth locked open.Gaping. Just right for raping. (Hey, I'm a poet and didn't—) Once again, her body was working against her, in favor of her attacker.

Reflexively she tried to jerk back, but the Driver hadn't loosened his grip on her braid, and the Crier rested a firm hand at the back of her head. He pushed her forward, using what little leeway she'd gained to meet his thrust and slide himself to the hilt. Deep-throating was the popular term among p*rn producers and high schoolers alike, and Olivia had been avoiding it since the age of ten, when she saw her mother do it to a perfect stranger. Even with Daniel and the two other boyfriends she'd—very badly—fella*ted, it hadn't gone this far. Even with Harris.

He tasted like he smelled, oily and alkaline. Car battery, she thought, right before all thinking abruptly ceased. Choking. She wasn't thinking, she was choking. If he'd lied about being nine inches, he hadn't embellished by much, and most of that was lodged against the back of her throat. Her esophagus contracted, trying to expel the foreign body and unraveling a ribbon of fire that went deep into her belly. It mingled with the upsurge of pain from her groin, from the Kid's punishing strokes, until it was impossible to tell where the hurt was coming from. It was everywhere, all over her, just like their hands.

Please, God, make it stop.

"Heard you were real good at giving head, puss*cat," the Crier said, sounding as though he had just released a long-held stream of urine. His zipper clacked against the desk every time he jerked his hips towards Olivia, but the rest of the world above was muffled, as if she were wearing headphones. "You definitely got a big enough mouth for it. Most of these bitches can't handle all of me. You'd be real popular with some of the donkey dicks we sell to."

As soon as he slid back enough for Olivia to cough and splutter, he plunged in fully again, blocking out everything—the ability to gag, swallow, breathe, think. It must be what drowning felt like, first breaking the surface, then sinking back under, over and over again, until finally your lungs filled with
(big, yummy co*ck)
water, and you died.

The Prince Albert piercing rippled across her palate, soft to hard and back again—over and over and over—like a xylophone mallet dragged along the slats. That's all she was now, an instrument to be played, to be plucked (you mean f*cked) and pounded and used for the entertainment of others.

Obviously not a woodwind or a brass, though, since she was the one doing the blowing. If you could call having your mouth reamed, while you struggled not to asphyxiate, a blowj*b. There weren't any cases of death by deep-throating that she recalled. Women did this all the time and survived, and she was no good to these men dead (I'll do you cold, Lewis had said, but she doubted even the Crier was into necrophilia). He would let her breathe soon. He would . . .

He would . . .

"Trade with me, man," the Kid panted, slowing his vicious tree-sawing to a halfhearted sandpaper-sweep against the grain. "This end's starting to chafe. Thought she'd be wetter by now."

The Driver's voice sounded overhead, the volume and randy inflection suited to a locker room after a big win. "She got plenty wet for me.Muy mojada. Maybe she doesn't like skinny white boy co*ck?"

"Shut the f*ck up. She's just old. They dry out faster or something. Anyway, I felt her come a second ago. That was all me, muchacho." The Kid slammed his hips into Olivia's backside, jolting her forward, her nose pressing into the Crier's scrub of black pubic hair. It cut off what little air she was siphoning in through her nostrils when the Crier's dick wasn't suctioned to the roof of her mouth, preventing her from inhaling at all.

Which one brought her back to reality—lack of oxygen or the
(motherf*cking liar, I didnot)
lie about her experiencing an org*sm—she couldn't say. Both made her struggle to worm away from one man or the other, but she was skewered like a goddamn pig on a spit whichever direction she went. Between a co*ck and a hard place, you might say.

"Uh-oh, we have movement," the Kid announced, imitating police radio chatter, complete with cut-off static.

Christ, this was all just a f*cking game. Would she live to see who won?

" . . . serious, dude. I wanna try this golden throat everyone keeps raving about. Don't get me wrong, these lips are good, but those . . ."

The Crier let out an enraged roar that was almost primal, and jerked himself out of Olivia's mouth so abruptly she gagged more than she had when he went in. For several moments, all she could do was cough and wheeze, tears flowing down her cheeks and blinding her to the men surrounding her on all sides. (Fine, take her mouth, the Crier was yelling.Just shut the f*ck up, for Christ's sake. You're whinier than she is.) She longed to cover her ears, to block out the loud voices and just exist inside the dimmed, muted world where everything hurt but at least she could breathe.

Her arms ached too badly to move. Hot, weighted bands encircled each joint, the muscles in her shoulders clenching painfully, and she winced back from lifting either limb. Only then did she realize the Driver had let go of her wrists and braid, though she could still feel the ghost of his hands wrapped around her.

She felt the ghost of the Kid too. He had pulled out, leaving behind a hollowness that immediately flooded with pain—sharp in her gut, a rashlike burning inside her vagin*, paper-cut stings at the entrance. He'd definitely torn something, somewhere. That was to be expected during a violent assault, even more so for a woman her age. Tissue became thinner and less elastic after menopause; it was why SVU saw more vagin*l trauma in older victims than in young women, excluding the very young, whose reproductive systems hadn't fully developed. Children and old ladies got the worst of it.

But in spite of the terrible cramping, the weakness in her trembling legs, the gashed-open feeling between them, the throbbing in her head, neck, chest, back, arms, hips, pelvis—in spite of it all, she felt a moment of sweet, blessed relief. No one had his hands on her body; no one had his penis inside her. There was air in her lungs. As far as she knew, the men weren't even looking at her right then.

It was the most freedom she had felt since those bleary, half-waking moments with Lewis, when he was out of the room and she convinced herself the whole thing had been some horrible dream—and it was just as much of a lie now as back then. It was just as short lived.

"Turn her that way some more," said one of the men. The Crier, she thought, or maybe Gus. She was too spent to seek out the source, and probably couldn't have raised her head, even if she wanted to. Too heavy. The most she could manage right then was turning it away from the voice and letting her cheek rest on the corroded desktop. At least the metal was cool.

"Aw, Christ, she moved her head. Fix it. And clean up her face, she looks like sh*t." Same voice as before, but this time Olivia was certain it belonged to the Crier. It had come from directly behind her, where he stood rubbing his dick between her buttocks. His intentions were clear, each stroke taking him in the opposite direction Olivia hoped for, prayed for.

Years from now, if she lived that long, and if someone asked her what moment had finally broken her, out of all the unspeakable and dehumanizing experiences she'd had—during this and every other assault—she would say this one. Asking God to let her only be raped, not sodomized.God, please, please, not there.

"Plea—" she tried out loud, but made it no further, before something smashed against her face, smothering her. She gasped (Oh God, I don't want to die here!), sucking in a mouthful of soft fabric that tasted like acrid underarm sweat. Her t-shirt, she realized, gagging and coughing on the material, despite its gauzy weave. Her sweat, pungent with terror.

Only, she wasn't being smothered. The hand that held her t-shirt scrubbed it vigorously across her eyes, the other hand holding up her head beneath the chin. When the shirt was drawn away, she squinted her stinging eyelids, bringing the Kid into focus. He grinned and wiped delicately at the corners of her eyes, like an attentive mother drying her child's tears.

"Anybody ever tell you you cry pretty?" he asked rhetorically, pinching snot from her nose with his makeshift tissue. He licked a thumb and used it to smooth her brows, then raked back the nest of bedraggled hair that had escaped from her braid with his fingers. "There. Good as new."

"Can we stop?" Olivia asked, not caring how pitiful and naïve it sounded. The Crier was moving against her more forcefully, waiting for some cue she couldn't determine before pushing his way in. He was like a bull snorting at the gate, eager to charge. He butted it once, making Olivia's voice spike sharply as she gazed sideways at Gus and said, "Please— oh God, ow, please I just need a minute."

The Kid quivered his bottom lip, pretending to well up at her plight. He whined like a puppy in search of its mother's teat. "Aww. She needs a break, guys. It's hard work spreading your legs, huh, Captain? Gives you a whole new respect for the working girls you lock up, doesn't it?"

You mean the working girls you, your scumbag father, and your punk-ass friends brutalize, then turn out for profit, you son of a bitch?The words were on her lips, but she couldn't produce them. That was Captain Benson talking, and Olivia didn't know if that woman existed anymore. She certainly didn't exist in this place, with these men. Whoever Olivia had woken as that morning, she'd shed that skin the minute she stepped into the storage container. God only knew what she would emerge as this time.

"Think we should let her have what she wants?" the Kid asked, looking around as if expecting a show of hands. He still held Olivia's chin propped in his hand, and he turned her face toward the tripod lights against the nearest length of wall. "Let's poll the audience and—"

Olivia gave a small, strangled cry when the Crier grabbed the back of her hair, jerking her head away from the Kid like he was uprooting some especially stubborn weeds—or pulling a deeply wedged clog from a drainpipe—and slammed the side of her face down on the desk. He pressed his palm against the opposite side, pinning her cheek flat to the tarnished metal.

"You don't get to say stop, you stupid c*nt," he sneered, his free hand snaking around her hip to clamp cruelly at her sex. He squeezed as if he were juicing a tough-skinned piece of fruit, his long, uneven fingernails digging into the soft and intimate pulp of her. He made a ruthless scrubbing gesture until she hissed and nearly used the forbidden plea:stop. "When you gonna get that through this thick skull?" He rapped his knuckles briskly against her temple, igniting sparks behind her eyes.

You don't get to say no anymore, Lewis had informed her at some point during their four days in hell. She couldn't place when exactly; much of that time was a blur to her, even more so after the nightmares and flashbacks distorted what had actually happened and what hadn't . . .

Not true. In Olivia's heart of hearts she knew he had done more than put a finger inside of her, that the soreness between her legs after the first day—all that unaccounted for time spent together in her bedroom—wasn't just from having her service weapon jammed into her crotch. Why was she still denying it, even now, stripped of her clothes, her right to say no—or stop, her humanity? Lewis had raped her. Maybe with an implement other than his penis, but it was rape all the same.

You don't get to say no anymore. What did it matter when he told her? In one way or another, someone had been taking that choice away from Olivia throughout her entire life. She'd fooled herself into believing she was past it. That her family—her beautiful wife and their sweet, perfect babies—had finally broken the curse, like a fairytale kiss. She got complacent, dropped her guard, and now this. The ultimate reminder:

Olivia Benson didn't get to say no.

"Guess I'll just have to keep f*cking it out of you until you catch on," said the Crier, releasing her cl*tor*s from a savage pinch of his thumb and forefinger. She barely felt it—though she heard herself gasp—and she thought perhaps the numbness had finally spread from her mind to her lower body.

It must have skipped her breasts, which were crushed against the dirty desktop, slivers of pain piercing the tissue like glass shards. She thought of Sammie, whose tough little gums created a similar sharp twinge when they latched onto her nipple improperly. Then she pushed the thought away hard, not wanting her baby girl anywhere near these animals or their horrific violence, even just in her head.

Then came another push, this one from behind Olivia, swift and merciless, and the pain was unlike anything she had ever felt before. No amount of numbness or dissociation could have separated her from it. No amount of the Crier rooting between her buttocks with his
(big, yummy)
co*ck could have prepared her to be penetrated there so suddenly, so roughly. He said he'd do her dry, and he was a man of his word. The unused tub of petroleum jelly was still somewhere to her left, where she couldn't see it because her head was pinned to the desk and she was being sodomized by a man whose co*ck piercing felt like marbles in her rectum. The rest of him was a goddamn redwood.

She managed a single, wounded scream that sounded more like an animal being tortured than a human. It cut short abruptly, as if the poor creature's head had been lopped off in one fell swoop, but the pain went on and on, too all-encompassing for screaming. The most Olivia could do was clench her teeth against it, and she did so with such force, something crumbled in the back of her mouth. The sensation was similar to crunching ice chips with her molars, but that usually wasn't accompanied by searing gums and the tang of blood. Shattered tooth, most likely. Maybe the Crier would extract it with the pliers if she asked nicely.

Gritting her teeth in spite of the pain it caused, as bright and pulsating as a star
(wish I may, wish I might)
she tried to remind herself to relax her muscles. The worst thing you could do during anal penetration was tense up; she had known that since she was sixteen. Back then, she'd used the breathing techniques she knew from competitive swimming to get through it.Try to push me out a little, Daniel had coached, stimulating her with his fingers in front, gradually inching deeper in back as she whimpered and puffed.It relaxes the right stuff.Mm, you feel so good.

But there was nothing gradual about what the Crier was doing to her. At least Daniel had taken his time and used plenty of lube, for his own sake as much as hers. The Crier didn't mind the discomfort. It only seemed to turn him on more, and he plunged ahead at a jerky, unrelenting pace. Olivia's body remained rigid, her breath snatched away by each jounce. Now she knew how raw meat felt when it was tenderized, she thought. Now she knew how the men she'd sent to prison, with warnings that they would be sodomized by their fellow inmates, must have felt the first time they were facedown in their bunks.

She desperately wanted something to bite down on, and started to lift her hand to her mouth, not caring if she broke skin—the rest of her was already ripped open. But the Crier grabbed her wrist and pinned it behind her, the same way she did to perps when she handcuffed them. He leaned forward until the weight of his upper body rested on her back, his hips still working behind hers, and blew the hair away from her ear to murmur into it.

"I'll be nice and use the jelly when I do your girls like this," he said, no noticeable difference in his voice as he thrusted. He could have been taking a leisurely stroll, for all the effort he evinced. "Not the boy, though. He might as well get used to it early. Most guys who f*ck below tenliketearing up the kid's asshole. How's it feel knowing your son's gonna be in this same position soon? You wanna see that, puss?"

Olivia opened her mouth to release a scream of sheer hatred, of a rage so profound it felt as though a demon had been unleashed in her soul, but all that came out was a low, mournful cry that dwindled into an infantile whine. That finally did it. Lewis had reduced her to a helpless, whining captive with booze, pills, bathroom control, and his boundless rage; this man did it with sodomy and threats against her children. She wanted to believe it was a lie—just a way of bringing her to heel—but until the Driver had shoved his dick inside her, she never would have believed she was going to be gang raped, either. And they had pictures of her babies. Oh, Jesus. Oh, sweet Jesus.

"No," someone sobbed brokenly, and Olivia longed to tell her to shut up.No, likestop, was a forbidden word here, and it would get them hurt even worse, if the stupid bitch kept on wailing it like that. "No, please— no, not my—" Only when the Crier clamped his hand over her mouth, muffling the devastated sounds, did Olivia realize she was the stupid bitch. She was the one pleading with him not to harm her children. And she was the one he reamed even harder, the more she cried.

"Remember when I told you I'm a biter?" he asked, and clacked his teeth together beside her ear, as if he meant to chomp down on the lobe. Instead, he drew back and sank his teeth deeply into her shoulder, the way vampires always seemed to bite—wide, voracious—in movies and television shows. He didn't tear out the hunk of flesh and spit it aside, like in the movies, but he might as well have, with the heat that blossomed in her shoulder, a furious, fiery orchid. "From now on, you say no to me anymore, you're getting one of those."

He snagged her earlobe in his teeth this time, and if he had bitten down with the same force he'd just applied to her shoulder, he surely would have snipped the lobe clean. "Understand?" he asked, and gave the morsel in his mouth a greedy suck.

Olivia failed to stifle a groan of revulsion and total despair, but she nodded faintly. She was lying, of course—if her kids came up again, if he or the others put anymore of those horrendous images in her mind (she would die before she'd let her son go through something like this, and her sweet, tiny girls who didn't even know such evil existed in the world . . .), she would no more be able to hold back a reaction than she could hold back the Crier himself.

As if reading her thoughts, he tested out her truthfulness, murmuring in an almost tender voice while he reached down to stroke her cl*tor*s, "Good puss*. You like that? Your little girls are gonna love it. I'll teach them to come just like their mommy. That redhead's gonna be great on camera, too. Maybe I'll send you a copy of her audition, if your new daddy lets you off your knees long enough to watch it . . . "

Olivia sensed a rending deep inside, not of body tissue or anything tangible—though she felt plenty of that, as well—but of reality and her place in it. Her mind wanted desperately to separate from her current circ*mstances. It was like being the character in a book who was about to be plucked from the pages by a giant authorial hand. And the only thing she could do was cling to the desk as if it were a life raft. She had to stay and fight for her kids. It might be over for her, but if there was even the smallest chance she could prevent this from happening to those babies, she would hold on to the bitter end.

"You're not touching my kids," she said, so shaky and breathless it barely qualified as a whisper. Part of it was muted and cracked, but she made her point clear. "They'll have a protective detail. My wife will kill you before you get near them."

The Crier gave a sharp laugh, an even sharper jerk of his hips. He rubbed at Olivia's raw, aching cl*tor*s until she hissed and tried to shift away from his touch. Suddenly, his other hand shot forward and gripped her chin, lifting it from underneath to display her face to the blinding studio lights. The few times Olivia had been on stage in college, the footlights were similarly overpowering, casting a dark pall over the audience.

"Not if I kill her first," he whispered in Olivia's ear, then raised his voice for the others to hear, making her shrink from the loud sound. "Your bitch wife didn't do sh*t to protect you. We walked right up and took you from her, and she did nothing. Where is she now, puss*cat? I don't see her coming to your rescue."

"You—" Olivia cried out. He went at her even harder, with his hands, with his co*ck, the pain so breathtaking she could barely speak. "Am-ambushed . . . us. She— she— God. Oh God, Manda . . . " She gave in and sobbed her wife's name then, unable to restrain the flood of tears that followed hearing it out loud. She wanted Amanda to wake her from this nightmare, as the detective had done so many times before, and hold her until the tears, the trembling, and the terror abated. To stroke her hair and murmur that it was just a bad dream, and she would still be there when Olivia woke in the morning.

Please, Amanda, she prayed.Please, love, I need you so.

Lewis had told her that, before he finished with her, she would cry the name of the person she wanted most. They all did, he said. And she'd known it was true—the little ones always cried for their mommies, sometimes the big ones too; wives, for their husbands, or in some cases, their children; cops, if they lived for the job, often cried a partner's name. But whichever name was called, be it parent, spouse, lover, or friend, the victim was always asking for the same thing: the person who made them feel safest. The person they were certain could take away all the pain, no matter how severe.

There had been no one like that for Olivia back then. For most of her life, there had been no one. Now, she had Amanda, but would there be anything left of Olivia for her wife to get back when this was over? Jesus God, why couldn't it just be over?

"Okay, you had your fifteen minutes," said the Kid, leaning over to peer at Olivia, the backlighting making him appear as if he were gazing down upon her in a well. If only. She could curl up and hide in a place like that; she could be far, far away from here. "Give her to me. Mouth, at least. Let him do something to her, he hasn't had a chance yet. Get in there, bro."

"She's all bloody," came the slow, childish voice of Little Brother, who was still somewhere out of Olivia's view. (His father leaned against the wall, directly in her sightline, watching everything with a calm, cool eye. He looked as if he were contemplating a chess board.) "And there's other stuff. I don't like how it looks."

"Yeah, and I ain't holding his dick for . . . for him while he figures out where to poke her at," the Crier growled, breathing a little heavier than before. He ought to be, as strenuously as he was thumping into her. He had released her chin and abandoned the cl*t-fondling, in favor of grasping her hips and yanking her back to meet him. Olivia couldn't imagine Gus's knife hurting any worse. "I'm not his— mm, buttf*ck coach."

"You don't have to touch his dick, man. Just show him how to finger her or something." The Kid scooped up Olivia's chin a moment after the Crier let it go, tilting her face back for a look. "Aw, f*ck, she split her lip. Got a whole Queen Amidala thing going on now. That one's not on us, for the record. Did it to herself."

He was right, she realized, her tongue grazing her bottom lip. She'd been tasting blood, but couldn't identify the source with her gums and the insides of her cheeks seeping as well. It felt like slime in the back of her throat and burned like acid going down. The cut opened wider when the Kid tugged on her chin, shoving his dick into her mouth. He used a bit more finesse than Crier, not as impervious to pain as his tattooed counterpart, but by no means gentle, either.

The next several moments were a blur of hands and co*cks and come. Olivia focused on breathing through the oral sodomy, a constant chant ofdon't bite, don't bite, don't biterunning through her mind. With the Kid's fingers digging into her jaws on both sides, she probably couldn't have closed them, even if she tried. Her fear that she would reflexively clamp down during one of the more violent thrusts from behind were eased when the Crier pulled out—her entire body deflated in relief—but he inserted himself into her vagin* just as abruptly and began pumping with renewed vigor. He spread her buttocks with his hands, and a tentative finger circled her anus, then pushed inside.

"See how many you can fit. Move 'em like this," the Crier instructed. "She'll love it. That's what it's there for."

Little Brother obeyed, testing out his new plaything like a curious kid inspecting the inner mechanisms of a new toy. He quickly got over his aversion to blood and the other stuff, and soon, he was hurting Olivia almost as much as the other men. She supposed her feeble moans could be mistaken for pleasure by someone inexperienced, who had probably heard girls in p*rn videos making similar sounds.

(Let's poll the audience.)

(That redhead's gonna be great on camera, too.)

Great on camera, too . . .

"f*ck. f*ck," said the Kid, and gripped the sides of Olivia's head tightly. He bucked two more times and then stiffened, the way corpses sometimes kept twitching when death was instantaneous but the body hadn't figured it out yet. Happened frequently in decapitations.

His ejacul*te was warm and salty, and it filled the back of her throat like a thick broth, triggering the swallow reflex as she struggled not to choke. Almost as if the men were operating on a timer, the Crier grunted and dispersed his seed at the other end, digging his jagged fingernails deep into her backside. That usually got her off when Amanda did it, while wearing the strap-on. (Please, Amanda . . .) Now she barely felt it, barely felt anything, as she gagged and tried to sick up the sem*n she'd consumed.

The Kid's penis blocked her efforts and the most Olivia could do was cough like a croupy baby, mouth wide open, interchangeably gasping and sobbing, moisture streaming from her eyes. The only thing worse than asphyxiating during oral would be choking to death on the fluids. But moments after the thought occurred to her, the Kid removed himself from her mouth and she sucked in a whooping breath.

"Jesus, bet you could suck a golf ball through a garden hose with lungs like that," he said over the sound of her rattling, retching hacks.

All at once, the unpleasant fullness she had felt with the three men inside of her was replaced by lightness—an empty, aired-out feeling, like the windows had been left open in a desolate room—and for a second, she wondered if her soul had slipped out. Supposedly the body lost twenty-one grams, upon death. Some people believed that was the weight of the soul departing.

But she wasn't dead, and she wasn't outside herself, looking down at a battered and broken woman bent over a rusted-out desk. They had simply finished with her, their hands and bodies no longer fused to hers, plugs in a socket. She felt the Crier dripping down the inside of her thigh—or perhaps that was blood—but she made no move to stop the flow.

It was the sem*n on the way to her stomach that concerned her more. There was no greater risk in ingesting the stuff than in having it ooze from between your legs; nevertheless, she wanted it out of her. The taste alone made her mouth dampen, her stomach roiling dangerously, but she couldn't bring it back up without some manual assistance.

One of her most shameful moments as a so-called courageous and honorable captain, mother, and fiancée was going on her knees in the bathroom to purge herself of the wine she'd overindulged in a couple of New Year's Eves ago. She had felt like a self-loathing, bulimic teenager—or a pathetic drunk, like her mother—kneeling in front of the toilet, with her fingers jammed down her throat. The thought of anyone ever seeing her that way, so weak and messy (so stupid), had haunted her long after, and she'd cut back on the drinking, vowing never to let herself get that low again. Never to put her body or her psyche through another purge. She didn't even want Amanda to know she'd done something that stupid.

Now, she didn't care that the men were watching and would see the humiliating act, her nudity only exacerbating the shame. She hung her head over the side of the desk, crammed two fingers into the back of her tender throat, and gave up a mouthful of stringy, coffee-scented fluid that burned like Tabasco. It was much easier this time than it had been all those months ago. She could probably get used to it, if it became a regular practice.

Dragging the back of her hand limply across her painful, wet lips, Olivia blocked out the sound of the men laughing that she had "horked up" the Kid's spunk ("Dude, that sh*t is rank, what the hell you been eating—besides puss*?" "It's her, not me. It's all that rugshe'sbeen munching. Throws off the pH balance in my boys"), and tried to cross her arms beneath her, shielding her bare breasts. She yearned to huddle up in a ball, hide her head, and block out everything else: the blinding light, the potpourri of multiple bodily fluids, the terrible weight of their eyes upon her. But her ribs hurt too badly for climbing onto the desk, and she wouldn't put herself on all fours in front of a pack of wild, rutting dogs, not even for a second.

They had other plans for her, anyway. As she struggled to stand up, unable to accomplish even that small task with her rickety limbs—she felt as though someone had unscrewed all her hinges—the Kid took her by the side of either arm and said, "Help me flip her. Lay her out this way." Crier complied, and with a hand from Driver, who joined the Kid at her other shoulder, they turned and lifted her, mummylike and lengthwise, onto the desk. She knew then what it was like to be a corpse, flat on a slab in the morgue.

At least the dead got the courtesy of a sheet.

"Okay, bro. Hop on up." The Kid cuffed Olivia on the thigh as if he had just saddled her for his younger brother to ride. He waved the boy closer, wearing an encouraging smile. "She's all yours. Don't worry, we'll hold her for you."

The meaning of the words didn't register with Olivia until Little Brother stepped forward, twisting his stupid f*cking cap in the hands he'd used to violate her, so impersonally and revoltingly, moments ago. She had thought it was over, at least for the time being. Couldn't they give her a minute—to breathe, to suffer and take inventory, to die a little bit more? Just one goddamn minute.

"No," she mewled, past the point of caring what sounds she made and how they might be perceived. Three of these men had already f*cked her; propriety and dignity were no longer a concern. And Badass Benson wasn't getting her out of this one. "No more. Please, no more. I wanna go home. T-tell me why you're d-doing this. I'll . . . I'll tell Amanda anything you want. I'll tell her ev-everything you did to me, and she'll— she'll fix whatever it is that started this."

"Oh, Captain," said the Kid, in the voice you used on an incorrigible child who just couldn't help herself. Olivia often used that tone on Jesse, her bright shining star, her little beastie. She hated scolding the kids, and it was especially difficult with her second eldest, who talked big but got easily upset if Olivia was truly cross with her. (My little love, Olivia thought, heart aching as palpably as the rest of her.Will I ever see you again?) "You still haven't caught on, huh? The only way you're going home is in whatever pieces we cut off of this luscious, stacked body of yours."

His fingers glided along her collarbone as he spoke, idly at first, then becoming more intent as he forced her hand aside and outlined the scars from Lewis' cigarettes. Finally, he reached his destination and wrenched heartlessly at her uncovered breast while delivering the threat. He didn't let up until she gasped sharply and started to writhe, and even then, it was only to make sure he had her full attention when he added, "But it's cute, the way you think that blond bitch of yours will still rescue you. News flash, honey: she can't fix this. And she already knows exactly what we're doing—"

"Get on with it," Gus barked in a tone so commanding, his son's jaw snapped shut as if it had been propped open by a stick that was suddenly snatched away.

The Kid stared down at Olivia coldly, like she had gotten him into trouble on purpose. But he was all smiles as he ushered Little Brother forward, giving him encouraging slaps on the back and showing him the footholds to climb onto the desk—and Olivia. The expression widened when he leaned in and confided, "Be nice to him, he's my kid brother and he's slow. Show him a good time, and I'll make sure your kids stay in the US. Believe me, you don't want 'em sent to other countries. Those people are sick."

The sad part was he probably wasn't too far from the truth. Not because other countries were more barbaric than the United States—in fact, just the opposite—but trafficking was such a lucrative business in the states, at least many of the victims went to wealthy investors. That meant food, clothes, shelter, doctor visits. White children fared best of all, usually going for higher rates and getting better care.

Fair-skinned and blue-eyed, Jesse and Tilly would fetch the most money and likely get preferential treatment; Noah's best chance was to be sold for private use, because the Crier was right—men who liked boys that age did terrible, terrible things to them; and that left baby Sammie. Mixed race, but passing, she might stand the same chance as her sisters, although infants were somewhat of a rare delicacy that only a select few had the taste for. And those few tended to be the sickest of all. Sammie should go to a couple that wasn't above buying a baby, hopefully because they wanted a child so badly, not for any nefarious purposes.

Leaving her to divvy up her children like they were kittens in a box by the side of the road, the Kid stood to his full height, grinning wider than ever, his wandering eye slightly misaligned with the other. It gave him a deranged appearance that made Olivia shudder. She still tasted him in her mouth, and it turned her stomach, but Little Brother was straddling her hips, the other men were taking up their posts—one at each of her arms, the Crier in charge of her feet, as if it were a crucifixion—and she knew then that the Kid was right.

She would never be going home. The most she could hope for was to make it out of here in pieces, because once they were done with her (God, would they ever be done with her?) she would never be whole again.

. . .

Chapter 11: Watcher

Notes:

Apologies for not updating yesterday. I had a rough weekend and spent most of Monday recuperating. This chapter's a little bit longer than the previous one, so hopefully that makes up for the delay. Thank you to everyone who assured me my trigger warnings have been more than sufficient this whole time. As I said last time, I would never want to trigger someone or try to use this subject matter for shock value or entertainment purposes. It's difficult and ugly and I hate what's happening to Liv, but it was the story I wanted and needed to tell, and I tried to keep that balance of showing what had to be shown because it's such a hard topic that shouldn't be sugarcoated—yet, still without crossing over into the gratuitous. Some might argue I went too far, but from my POV, everything I wrote was with the utmost respect for the characters, whom I love as if they were my own. Anyway, you guys are the best, and as always, thank you for reading! Also, as requested, here's what's been going on with Amanda and the gang. TRIGGER WARNING: Graphic and explicit depictions of gang rape and sexual violence.

Chapter Text

[1] After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." [2] He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori'ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you."

- Genesis 22: 1 - 2

Chapter 11.

Watcher

. . .

Amanda Rollins-Benson had seen a lot of f*cked up sh*t in her day. By age eleven, she had witnessed her mother being beaten unconscious, choked, pushed down the stairs, and lying in a puddle of blood after miscarrying Amanda's little brother or sister. By age seventeen, she had attended the memorial of a childhood friend who got drunk at a party, wound up being gang raped by three college guys, and committed suicide shortly thereafter—that was actually what had scared Amanda straight; she'd been at the same party, but knew how to hold her liquor by then. She hadn't heard a peep from the upstairs bedroom where the rape occurred, though she remembered the guys involved. One of them had served her a couple beers.

In college, majoring in forensic science, she had studied some of the most horrific crime scenes imaginable, just for the hell of it. Blood-drenched walls and sacrificial killings weren't nearly as disturbing in pictorial form as they were in real life, when the energy—and the smell—of the murder still permeated the room. And since joining the police force, and eventually the Special Victims Unit, she had encountered the worst dregs of humanity and seen things that even the hardest, most callous cops couldn't stomach: women chained up like dogs and used as sex slaves, children being molested on camera, dead babies buried in shallow graves.

There was a lot of f*cked up sh*t out there, and Amanda thought she knew how to handle it. But nothing—not one of those past experiences, no matter how graphic or harrowing; not the unflinching "been there, done that" attitude she liked to convey; not even her own assault in Atlanta—none of it could have prepared her to watch her wife being beaten, brutalized, and gang raped by more men than it took to subdue an NFL running back.

They had been savaging Olivia for almost forty minutes. Ever since Amanda clicked on the link in her email and a blurry livestream consumed the full screen, only a voice recognizable at first, breathless and terror-stricken, as the picture slowly came into focus. Olivia was on her knees in some hovel, a knife to her throat, the Sandman threatening to carve her out a new c*nt if she put up too much of a fight . . .

Then reality took on the same blurry, surreal quality as the first few seconds of the buffering video. Amanda vaguely remembered charging into the squad room with her phone extended like a dirty bomb, shouting for someone (anyone, goddammit!) to get TARU, and get them now. Most of the officers only stared at her, mouths agape, until Fin jogged over, asking, "Whadda you got? Is it Liv?" He took one look at the cell phone, saw Olivia being lifted bodily by three men, and began barking orders to the room at large.

Cops scattered in every direction, the momentary chaos adding to Amanda's disembodied feeling as she stayed in place, unable to take her eyes from the screen. It was like the effect in movies when the rest of the world went into hyper speed around the protagonist while she remained unchanged and isolated from the action. The protagonist usually wasn't viewing a live feed of five men threatening to rape her wife, though. That plotline was too f*cked up, even for the movies.

But this was happening in real life, where there were no rules, no continuity or dramatic structure, and no content rating system to ensure that, while the situation might look hopeless and dire, nothing truly awful would happen to Wife of Protagonist—at least nothing stronger than PG-13 violence and innuendos.

That soon changed, Olivia herself securing a solid R-rating by screaming for help and unleashing a profanity-laced rant on the men who were dragging her towards a shabby old desk that stood singularly in the room, like a sacrificial altar. Overhead lights shone down on its surface, heightening the effect and, Amanda realized with increasing dread, creating a crisper, more vivid image for the viewers. Rape in HD, what would they think of next?

Vaguely, Amanda heard herself answering Fin's questions—yes, the video had been sent directly to her; no, she didn't know where it was coming from; no, there weren't any ransom demands yet—but she was too focused on willing the clouds to part, for a celestial voice to boom down and stay the captors' hands as they slammed Olivia, her primal and blood-curdling screams for help turning to frantic pleas, facedown on the desk. It had happened for Abraham, when he was about to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac and prove his faith in God. Surely, surely, it could happen for Detective Amanda Rollins, who loved her wife with more passion and devotion than any Biblical figure had ever loved his god. She would give up whatever she must to make this stop.

The God of Abraham and Isaac wasn't in the sacrificial business these days, it seemed. No divine intervention came, just threats too vile for Amanda to associate them with Olivia (something about not using Vaseline, which she didn't allow herself to comprehend), the captain's desperate cries ofpleaseanddon'trepeating like the saddest refrain Amanda had ever heard.

It was a familiar song, though—during the worst of Olivia's night terrors, she had cried those same words in a voice so shrill and frightened it was unrecognizable as her own; and during the bad dreams that occasionally slipped by Gigi, the captain could sometimes be heard whimpering different combinations of the phrase Amanda now knew for certain was what Olivia had begged of her other rapists.Please don't.Don't, please.

(Please, Amanda silently joined in.God, please.)

The entreaty hadn't worked for Olivia those other times, and it didn't work for her now, either. Two of the men—Amanda recognized them as Liam Sandberg, the son of a bitch who had tased her, and his tattooed freak of a partner, still unidentified, who had drugged Olivia and whose erection currently wagged from his undone fly—were arguing over who got to rape her first. The driver of the van, the Satanist on steroids, slapped Olivia hard on the ass (she didn't even like that when Amanda did it) and declared himself victor.

Then it was happening. Amanda glanced around helplessly at the crowd of one-sixers, seeing no one in particular, no one who could do something, only a blur of concerned faces, all of them looking at her with pity. They could hear Olivia's struggle, even if they couldn't see her being flipped over, her pants yanked off by the burly guy with the goatee. It didn't take a vivid imagination to guess what was on the screen while the man made his sick comments, most of them regarding Olivia's body. Her beautiful, perfect body . . .

Someone gasped when the man forced Olivia's legs apart and inhaled the crotch of her underwear like he was doing a fat line of co*ke off her labia. Fin's hand came down heavily on Amanda's shoulder, and only then did she realize the horrified sound had been her own. The phone jittered in her hand, but she jerked it away when Fin tried to rescue it. "No, I hafta . . . " She let the rest trail off, no idea how she'd planned to finish, nor did she care, because her heart was shattering into a million f*cking pieces.

"Help. Please help me," Olivia implored, her voice a charred husk of its usual rich, velvety tone. It was directed to the dopey kid standing on the outskirts of the scene, but she had tilted her head back the way she sometimes did during moments of extreme pleasure, her neck exposed and her lips bee-stung with Amanda's kisses, and appeared to be looking straight into the camera lens as she spoke.

"Oh Jesus, Liv." Amanda fisted her hair near the scalp, tugging it desperately. She had known a girl in college who pulled out strands of her own hair till she had bald spots, even going so far as to pluck her eyelashes, one by one. Amanda had never understood the compulsion, until now. She wanted to rend something valuable and irreplaceable with her bare hands. She wanted to tear down the city, brick by brick, until Olivia was back in her arms.

Just as the thought formed in Amanda's racing mind, the goateed man grasped Olivia's panties at the hip and tore them from her body, ripping along the side seam like he was opening a potato chip bag. They were a simple but cute pair of briefs that Amanda loved for their softness and the little white stars that were a charming contrast with the captain's tough persona. (Twinkle, twinkle, little star, Amanda teased in a singsong voice, whenever her wife slipped the underwear on.) They crumpled like so much tissue paper in the man's huge hands.

"Oh my God. Oh my God." For a moment, they were the only words Amanda could think of, and they mingled with the miserable cries coming from her phone, like the ululation of mourners at a funeral. She almost couldn't hear the men critiquing Olivia's pubic hair over the forlorn sound. "Jesus Christ, Fin, we have to help her, he's gonna—"

The air left the room as if it had been sucked out and vacuum sealed; left Amanda's lungs in the same manner, time itself seeming to freeze. All except the live feed in her hands, where Olivia's eyes, bulging with terror, suddenly went dead and sightless, the pained and frightened pleas expiring on her lips. Amanda could see the fight leave her wife's body entirely, like a soul departing its corporeal form, a light winking out in the darkness, the moment she was penetrated.

"Oh yeah," said the man raping Olivia. He exhaled deeply, a carnal, throaty rumbling more suited to a bad p*rno than a gangb*ng.

It didn't seem fair that men could still make sounds of pleasure while inflicting so much pain. Charles Patton had pawed and snorted like a racehorse at the gate when he was on top of Amanda, but he was just a wiry old booze-hound who barely kept it up long enough to finish. Not like this guy, who was clearly putting on a show and making the most of his time in the spotlight.

His muscles rippled while he drove at Olivia, forceful and punishing, though she offered no resistance. In fact, she was practically catatonic, jogged only byhismovements in a profane imitation of the kids on one of their bouncy toys. She didn't blink once.

Amanda's knees buckled underneath her, and she would have gone down hard, if not for the hands that caught her by the elbows on either side. They guided her to the nearest desk chair, where she sat down heavily, her gaze traveling up the arms attached to the hands and settling on a pair of familiar faces: Fin and Kat. But no, not familiar—their features were twisted into expressions Amanda had never seen before. For once, Fin didn't appear to know what to do, his brow furrowed in deep concern as he looked not at Amanda, but at the horrors playing out on her phone. Kat was openly weeping, a hand over her mouth, as if awaiting a gasp that never came.

"He's raping her," Amanda said dully, to no one in particular. No one was listening to her, anyway; not while the rapist complained about how tight Olivia was and got razzed by his buddies for having a fat dick. She almost threw up then, her stomach rebelling at the vulgar remarks—and because she had seen it, before he put it into her wife. His penis was as they described, and he was using it to hurt Olivia.

And Amanda couldn't do a damn thing about it but watch.

It was the story of her life. Child or not, she had sat back and watched her daddy beat, berate, and belittle her mama too many times to count, doing nothing to stop it. She hadn't witnessed any of the rapes, beyond what her childish imagination conjured to explain the sounds from the next room, but she'd lain in bed, hands over her ears, willing her mama to shut up and take it. To get it over with, so Amanda didn't have to hear any more of the begging, the crying, the moaning . . .

She'd done the same thing with Olivia and Lewis, then again with Olivia and Calvin—watched. Only, those times she had been old enough and strong enough to stop the bad guy, if she would have just tried. The warning bells about Lewis had gone off instantly that first moment she saw him with Frannie in the park, but when his interest in Amanda waned in favor of Olivia, she'd actually been annoyed that he had some big supposed connection with Detective Benson. He was Amanda's collar, not Olivia's. Why should Benson get the credit for taking down the psychopath thatAmandabrought in?

Then he had snatched Olivia from her own apartment, tortured her for four days straight, and left her so scarred and broken she couldn't even return to work for two full months—and what did Amanda do? She thanked her lucky stars that it hadn't been her. Oh, she played the supportive colleague who suggested welcome-back cupcakes (then forgot them), but she felt relieved every time she noticed Olivia absently fiddling with her healed wrist or her short hair, or pretended not to see the once-unflinching detective shrink from loud noises. Relieved that she hadn't let Lewis get the jump on her; that she wasn't the one they looked at with doubt anymore. And so goddamned convinced that if shehadbeen in Olivia's position, she would have gotten away sooner, been unaffected by the experience, and wouldn't have needed to beat Lewis to subdue him—or at least would have finished the job she started.

She'd had the audacity to believe every bit of that, while also plunging headfirst into a gambling relapse and her own personal rock bottom; the audacity to take it out on Olivia—if the woman had just looked out for herself better, Amanda wouldn't feel so damn guilty for not protecting her, just like Mama—who had needed Amanda's support, not her sh*tty attitude.

All because Amanda sat back and watched.

And when Calvin came along, dangling his girlfriend and baby in front of Olivia as bait, Amanda had encouraged the lieutenant to follow up on the young mother. Once again, she'd sent Olivia off to face a monster alone, and instead of learning from her mistakes—how long had she sat at her desk in the precinct, thumb up her ass, knowing damn wellsomethingwasn't right, just as she had when Olivia didn't ignore Cragen's order to take two days off after Lewis walked?—she had wandered around Calvin's lair, giving him plenty of time to sexually assault Olivia in the very next room.

Just like Mama, just like Daddy. Just like Amanda, eyes squeezed shut and ears plugged, pretending she didn't know what was happening behind the closed door.

Now the door was flung wide open, forcing Amanda to look inside, to see.

And watch.

She swallowed hard several times, refusing to give up the contents of her stomach (if there even were any; she didn't remember or care). Throwing up would take her attention away from the screen, and the only thing worse than looking at it was not. This was her punishment for years of turning a blind eye, she couldn't look away. If Olivia had to experience it, so did Amanda. Every hellacious, soul-eating moment.

Still. Amanda choked back a sob when the men pulled Olivia's legs up at the knee, her limp arms pinned needlessly at her sides, and positioned her for the goateed man to have deeper access. He slapped Olivia smartly on the cheek for looking at his swinging necklace instead of his face. "You f*ck," Amanda whispered, hot tears rimming her lower lids, but no higher. She wouldn't allow her vision to blur and separate her from Olivia while that piece of sh*t was hurting her. "You sick goddamn f*ck."

If Amanda had been in that room—God, there weren't even any windows, nothing to give any indication of where they were, other than a dreary, boxlike setting that made everything appear artificial, the way plays looked on film—she would have shot the bald bastard right then, no questions asked. She could shoot all five of the men in that room, even the kid who was obviously simple (but also void of compassion; he observed the rape as if he were watching a sporting event with low stakes), and not lose any sleep over it.

"Rollins, maybe you shouldn't be—"

Amanda blocked out Fin's voice saying she shouldn't be watching the stream. It was far too late for that, and if Fin thought for one second that there was any chance of keeping her off the case or dragging her away from the phone screen after this, he was an idiot. Thankfully he abandoned that tack almost at once, instead muttering, "Aw, sh*t," when the f*cker onscreen made org*sm noises.

The guy was dripping when he pulled out of Olivia. She exhaled loudly through her nose and winced, the way she did if Amanda removed the dild* too fast. Amanda always took extra care with such things—or tried to—knowing that sex, while increasingly free and open to experiment the more they'd had it, was still a potential minefield for Olivia, and probably always would be. No matter how much the captain enjoyed the act itself, her long history with sexual abuse and assault had made her vulnerable in ways of which she was sometimes unaware. There were a few sex acts she just couldn't handle, no matter how gentle Amanda's touch.

Seeing this man, thisanimal, disregard it all completely, and likely destroy for good all the progress Amanda had made with her victimized wife, filled her with a rage so immense it tunneled her vision, the overheads grayed out, the faces around her, too. Even the voices sounded foreign and muted, as though she were hearing them through a heavy dark hood.

Then Fin was shaking her shoulder, telling her the TARU officer had located the darknet site Olivia's rape was broadcasting from. Untraceable, of course—that was the whole point of the dark web, to commit the most devious, depraved offenses in the shadows, while never leaving the comfort of your own home. Or your run-down sh*thole of a rape pad.

It was even more of a cesspool than the rest of the Internet, and it featured everything from kiddie p*rn to snuff films to hitmen for hire. The anonymity it provided was a dream come true for criminals of all shapes and sizes, and a nightmare for law enforcement, even the officers with hacking skills and the most high-tech equipment. Oftentimes the video transmitted through darknet servers couldn't be traced at all; in those instances, it was almost always some random detail that broke the case and led the cops to where the victim was being held. Amanda had seen it a hundred times over.

Many of those times, help arrived too late.

Officer Boyd, who had announced that the IP address embedded in the live feed was bouncing from one location to another—Sri Lanka, Okinawa, Sydney, Texas—patched the video through onto his laptop, the tablet on Fin's desk, and the flat-screen monitor in the media section of the squad room. It afforded Amanda a supersized, crystal clear view of the scene just in time to watch Olivia topple sideways off the desk as she tried to elbow the man with all the tattoos. The ink made him look dirty, like a mechanic whose fingernails were caked in grime no matter how frequently he washed.

"No!" Amanda shouted at the laptop screen, springing to her feet when the cruddy, tattooed bastard started kicking Olivia repeatedly. The onscreen desk obscured Amanda's view, but not the thump of each brutal blow connecting with her wife's
(head, chest, abdomen . . . ?)
body, not the grunt from Olivia or the sound like air gushing from a punctured tire. Amanda slammed both palms down on the desk in front of her so hard the laptop screen juddered and a cup of ink pens overturned, scattering. "God damn you! Leave her be, you sick freak!"

"Amanda," Fin said measuredly, and rolled the chair she'd shoved backwards into place behind her. "You gotta sit down and quit yelling. Go on, sit."

"He's hurtin' her, Fin," Amanda cried, pointing indignantly at the screen. Kicking the living sh*t out of her, more like, but Amanda couldn't form the words. She had picked her mama up off the floor countless times, after her daddy had finished whaling on Beth Anne that way. She'd be damned if she would sit there and watch someone do that to Olivia.

But in the end, that was exactly what she did. There was no other option.

"He's hurting her so bad," she said, fisting the hair on either side of her head and sinking down onto the chair. Her elbows banged against the desktop, but she didn't feel it. She felt nothing: not the pins and needles from hitting her funny bones; not Fin's hand on her shoulder, squeezing ("I know," he said solemnly, "and I'll beat his ass when I get my hands on him, but right now she needs us to keep it together"); not the daggers in her heart as Olivia was yanked upright, wheezing and clearly in tremendous pain, by the man whose strength was frightening to behold, let alone be on the receiving end of. He was strong enough to jerk the captain around like a rag doll.

"You wouldn't last five minutes where I been, kitty cat," he told Olivia, the microphone of whatever recording device was being used just barely picking up his low, gravely voice. But it was enough to confirm what Amanda already knew from his teardrop tattoo and hardened features—he'd done serious time.

Fin had heard it, too. "Tamin, get this mofo into facial recognition. He's gotta have a record. I wanna put a name to his ugly ass so we know what we're dealing with."

"Copy that, Sarge." Kat hesitated, turned toward Amanda and the computer screen, then hurried off with the tablet in hand.

Wouldn't want to miss the show, would you, Officer, Amanda thought after the younger woman, when Olivia swore at the tattooed f*cker and paid for it by having her shirt and bra torn off, exposing her fully to the camera. A disgruntled murmur went up from the packed squad room, a couple of the women punctuating it with sharp gasps (imagining themselves in Olivia's place, probably—but they weren't, they didn'tknow. . .) Amanda had forgotten the crowd around her, too focused on the indignities her wife was suffering to think about anyone else watching them unfold.

"Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, oh Jesus," she choked out, head clamped between her hands like a block of wood in a vice. The man was bending Olivia over the desk again, in the Eiffel Tower position, between himself and Liam Sandberg. "Fin, you gotta get these people outta here. Now. She wouldn't want anyone to see this. Make 'em clear out. All of 'em."

"Amanda, we need some of them—" Fin stopped short, looking slightly taken aback by the agonized expression Amanda turned on him. Or maybe he was just shocked she'd actually taken her eyes off the screen, off Olivia, even for a split-second. How could she do such a thing? How could she, while her wife needed her so desperately?

She returned to the screen in time to hear the platinum-haired scumbag tell Olivia that she was being sold for one million dollars. A staggering amount, considering humans were relatively cheap in the modern slave trade, but it supported the theory that Olivia's abduction was connected to a trafficking ring. And that undoubtedly meant the man who stood outside the plateau of light, skulking in the shadows just beyond the camera lens, was The Sandman.

So, please turn on your magic beam . . .

The thought made Amanda shudder—if these guys were just the lackeys, what must the man so notorious he had his own alias be like?—but it was listening to Olivia tearfully deny being worth that much money, or any amount at all, that left her trembling from head to foot. First, with a sadness so disheartening she felt physically ill (Olivia still didn't believe herself worth anything, no matter what Amanda said to the contrary), then with a rage that consumed her like fire when Olivia cried out and pleaded with young Liam Sandberg, of the serial killer eyes and Leave It to Beaverhair, not to f*ck her in the ass.

Might as well call it what it was. Not much point in niceties when you were about to witness your wife being sodomized. Amanda rubbed unconsciously at her mouth, a habit that mostly manifested when she was drinking or trying very hard not to. "Oh, Jesus," she said, her voice a muffled whimper behind her fingers. Liam had retrieved a Vaseline container from inside the desk and slapped it down on top. "Oh, Fin. Get them out. Please get them out."

"The ones who aren't essential, okay? No looky-loos," the sergeant grimly agreed, his hand heavy on Amanda's shoulder a moment longer. Then he was gone, leaving her to nod dazedly while he rounded up bystanders and shouted to be heard over the sound of Liam and Fauxhawk bickering about who got to visit Olivia's backdoor.

Check it out, backdoor shuffle, nine o'clock, Amanda had overheard one of her Atlanta SVU coworkers snickering as a prostitute who had been beaten and sodomized by a john took small, wincing steps across their squad room. Amanda requested a transfer to Manhattan soon after. Running into Deputy Chief Patton at every turn had a little something to do with it as well.

That all seemed like child's play now. What was getting knocked around a little, having your shirt ripped open, and letting your boss have his way—as you'd already agreed to—compared with this? This felt a thousand times worse than anything Ol' Early Arrival Patton had done to her. This was the pure and utter terror Olivia had spoken of the first time she'd let down her walls and given Amanda a glimpse of her experience with William Lewis. Now Amanda knew.

The squad room was only partially cleared out by the time Liam Sandberg summoned over the dopey-looking kid he calledbro("Find out if Sandberg Senior's got a younger kid," Amanda barked out to whomever was listening, when The Sandman called the younger boyson, and sent him into the fray, "Check special ed schools") and began instructing him on how to rape Olivia. "But really, you can stick it anywhere that feels good to you. Give 'er a good smack if she does anything you don't like. Like when we hit Shadow with a rolled up newspaper, remember?"

And by the time Liam's oration was through and he commenced the physical demonstration, perhaps a third of the officers remained. It was still too many, though at least there were no gasps or murmurs as Olivia was penetrated—not even by the captain herself. Amanda couldn't tell for sure where he had put it, but judging by Olivia's reaction, she didn't think the young man was sodomizing her wife.

Yet.

Anal sex was something Amanda and Olivia hadn't even tried together. Amanda had occasionally indulged with old boyfriends, mostly out of curiosity, and while she didn't get much out of it, she wouldn't have been opposed to trying again, had Olivia expressed interest. But the captain expressed the exact opposite, tensing the few times Amanda hinted at the act with wandering fingers, and once guiding the strap-on away from the cleft of her backside, requesting over her shoulder, "Not there, okay?"

(Please don't, not there.)

It had bothered Amanda, the way Olivia asked the question, as if she might not have a choice in the matter. But Amanda had let it go, not wanting to seem like she was pressuring her wife into anal. Knowing Olivia, she would give in, if she thought it was something Amanda truly desired—or if it would get her out of talking about why she disliked being penetrated in that particular area.

Amanda wouldn't need to ask anymore, after watching this. Assuming she ever got the chance.

Liam made some comment about switching to granny puss*, which Amanda only half heard (Thank God, she thought, then wanted to scream in his divine, passive face; he got to sit up there on a throne while she was down here thanking him that her wife wasn't being sodomized). She was too distracted by what the bald man and his tattooed friend were doing.

Tattoos had ordered Goatee to hold Olivia's head still by pulling tight on her braid—the braid Amanda had fashioned just a few hours earlier, the soft, silky strands tangible between her fingers even now—while he rounded the desk and took something from one of the drawers. He knelt down, disappearing from view for only a second, but it was much too long for Amanda's liking. When he re-emerged, it was with a nondescript tube she couldn't identify, though it filled her with a cold, familiar dread. It almost looked like a bicycle pump, without the skinny hose to conduct air.

Whatever it was, he crammed it into Olivia's mouth so roughly and so far, Amanda feared it might pierce through to the other side like a skewer through a beef cube. She got to her feet again, unaware she was moving, just finding it impossible to stay seated. Her wife was being horrifically tortured right before her eyes, Fin could go to hell if he thought she shouldn't react. She pressed her fists into the desktop until her arms trembled, until it felt like she could bore through the wood, and she seethed as Tattoos threatened Olivia—first, with the tube, then with a pair of pliers.

"I'll f*cking kill you," she said under her breath, when he forced Olivia to choose oral sodomy over being penetrated anally with a foreign object or having her teeth pulled out. Amanda didn't care if the TARU guy picked up on what she was muttering. She didn't care about anything but the woman on the laptop screen who was suffering and struggling to breathe. And to the man holding the tube: "You goddamn animal. I will put you in the ground."

His response?

"'I can't wait to suck your big, yummy co*ck, Angel.'" He was making Olivia repeat it, calling her filthy names, threatening her with the pliers or the tube-thing again, each degradation slicing at Amanda's heart like a pair of shears. But he had slipped up, and that was how Amanda knew she would find him. If she had to hunt him down till her dying day, she would do it, and she'd stick more than just a tube in his mouth when their paths finally crossed . . .

(Lord Jesus, Sandberg Jr. was rough. He reamed Olivia viciously from behind, but even though it jarred her entire body, she hardly reacted. She was too frightened of what the man in front of her had planned.)

"Somebody run the name Angel," Amanda called out, aware she was giving orders as if she were in charge of the investigation. If anyone didn't like it, tough. They could try to send her home, but they would have one hell of a fight on their hands. Right then she felt the urge to hit something—or someone—almost as strongly as she felt the urge to smoke while she gambled. "Check for guys with records. Shouldn't be too hard to ID the sonuvabitch with all that ink and metal."

"Already on it," said a voice Amanda didn't even recognize. She didn't turn to look because her eyes were fixed on the screen, where Olivia's features were also flat and unrecognizable.

The closest expression Amanda could recall seeing on her wife's face was the one Olivia had worn under Lewis' blood after he forced her to play Russian Roulette and killed himself in front of her. It was a ghastly image then, haunting Amanda every time she closed her eyes, for days after; now, it was less ghoulish without the blood (although one of the bastards had hit the captain and left a fleck of red on her cheek), but it would haunt Amanda for the rest of her life. Olivia was playing Russian Roulette again, only this time it wouldn't be a gun that got shoved in her face.

"No," Amanda said, shaking her head adamantly as Angel tried handing the tube off to Sandberg Jr., to use on Olivia when she wouldn'tcouldn't—recite his disgusting words back to him. "No, no, no, no, no."

Something of that length and width would unquestionably cause devastating internal injuries, especially in the overzealous hands of the man who was raping Olivia. (Even watching it unfold, moment by horrific moment, Amanda still couldn't comprehend that it was actually happening. They just went out for bagels, for Christ sakes, and now her wife was being gang raped.)

Amanda breathed a shaky sigh of relief when Olivia spoke up, agreeing to the prick's terms, though every twitch of muscle, every facial tic, screamed that she absolutely did not want to. She looked like she would rather die. "Just say it, baby. Tell him what he wants to hear." Amanda nodded encouragement, as if her captain could see it. She hated herself for willing Olivia to give in. It made her feel like an accomplice. All this time she'd been giving Olivia hell for not fighting for herself, and now Amanda wanted her docile and compliant, just like the men did.

Had she really suggested, only a few weeks earlier, that she and Olivia should record themselves having sex, because it would befunandhot? Had she really continued dropping hints that she'd like to try it—everything from playfully recording her wife before bedtime, ensuring the camera was handy, just in case, to leaving the lingerie drawer open, with her favorite selections on the top—right up until as recently as two days ago? God, she was an idiot. A damned insensitive, selfish idiot.

"Oh, come on," Amanda snarled at the creep who was making Olivia start again because she hadn't repeated him verbatim. The captain could barely raise her voice enough to be heard over Liam Sandberg's brutal and vocal assault, the words hiccuppingin her chest as if she were hitting every pothole in a deeply pitted road.

But she said it like the good kitty she was (Amanda would cut out Angel's tongue for using that revolting nickname on her wife, for putting that filth on Olivia's lips), and for her troubles, she received a mouthful of co*ck before the sentence was even finished.

"Jesus f*ck!" Amanda grabbed the edge of the desk, her fingernails digging into the wooden underside so hard they threatened to split down to the quick. She wanted to overturn the goddamned thing, hurtle it across the room, maybe—she had the strength right then to do it. But if she tossed the desk and the laptop resting on it, she risked losing her connection to Olivia. That was something she would not do, no matter how devastating the scenes playing out on the screen.

They couldn't be half as devastating to watch as they were for Olivia to feel. And by God, Amanda wouldn't leave her to feel them alone.

She tipped the desk forward, lifting the rear legs off the floor far enough to slam them back down and rattle the whole structure. Just because she didn't throw it, didn't mean she couldn't make some noise. Even the door to Olivia's office quaked from the impact, and that snapped Amanda out of her desire to rage more than anything else—more than Officer Boyd's exclamation of surprise when his MacBook hopped against the desktop; more than Fin's brusque, "Rollins!" from across the room—because she realized she expected the captain to throw open the door, storm out, and reprimand her for disorderly conduct.

The office remained silent and bare, and Olivia went on gagging and retching in the livestream, the sound amplified by the deathly quiet squad room. Amanda glanced around in misery and despair, barely able to catch anything but glimpses of Olivia's red, strained features, with Angel overshadowing most of her face.

There were at least fifteen people standing around watching Captain Benson of SVU take it from the front and the back. They had the decency to look sickened by what they saw, a couple of them gazing down at untouched coffee cups instead of the flat screen, but it took everything in Amanda's power not to scream at them to get out. They had no right to see Olivia like this. No one did, not even Amanda herself.

From what little Olivia had mentioned here and there about her feelings towards fellati*, Amanda had gleaned that her wife considered it a shameful, degrading act, which she'd only performed on a select few. Amanda had thought it a rather extreme view (blowj*bs were just a means to an end, in her opinion), probably influenced by Olivia's traumatic childhood experiences and the oral sodomy she'd suffered while undercover in prison. Now, Amanda understood the shame and the degradation; it was almost more difficult to watch than the vagin*l rapes. Almost.

"Jesus Christ, let her breathe," she bawled at the screen, where Olivia's face had taken on a purplish hue. She knew from experience how easily oxygen could be cut off during oral, particularly if the guy was big and didn't let up. It didn't matter how tempered your gag reflex—if your airway was blocked, you couldn't breathe through the mouth or the nostrils.

It was an alarming feeling at the best of times, and for Olivia, who had been deprived of oxygen before, it had to be downright terrifying. Indeed, she was trying to squirm away from Angel, only to meet up with Liam Sandberg in back. The burly guy with the goatee held her fast, her braid wrapped around one fist, his other palm splayed low on her back. Close enough to slide down and grab or slap her ass, both of which he did liberally.

Olivia was getting nowhere, and the longer she fought for air, the harder it became for Amanda to catch her own breath. Not until Fin guided her into the abandoned desk chair did she realize she was gasping out loud, chest heaving as if she'd run the entire thirty-five blocks from her apartment to the precinct. Fromtheirapartment.

"Hey," said the sergeant, bent forward to address Amanda. He sounded as if he were on an awkward phone call. There was no right way to talk to someone whose wife was being double-teamed in front of her, she supposed. "Amanda. Hey. The, uh, the EMT is here to check you out. Why don't you go on to the crib and let him make sure you're good? I'll . . . take over here." He gestured half-heartedly at the laptop, just a vague flicker in Amanda's peripheral vision.

"Huh? She turned her head slightly, giving the pretense of looking at Fin, though her eyes stayed glued to the livestream. "Check me for what?"

"You got tased and fell, remember? And I think you need your blood pressure checked. You're beet red. Look like you're about to have a stroke or something."

Amanda had completely forgotten that she'd agreed to see a medic, mostly to assuage her sergeant. She barely even recalled being tased, for that matter. It was something that had happened a million years ago, to some other Amanda. To the Amanda who had sworn to herself, her wife, her mother-in-law's grave, her best friend—and at some point, probably her sergeant too—that she would protect Olivia with everything she had; would make sure no one ever hurt her again the way she'd been hurt so many times before.

And now this Amanda (this failure, thisliar) who had let Olivia be stolen right out of her grasp, and brutalized worse than even Lewis or the Mangler had managed to do—she was supposed to be examined for injuries? She was supposed to care about her own health while her wife was suffering so profoundly?

"No." She sat forward, elbows on the desktop, and hunkered around the MacBook screen, shutting out as much of her surroundings as she could. The animals were bragging about making Olivia come. Amanda shuddered, crying tearlessly. She'd finally gotten Olivia to a place where she could let go and reach org*sm almost every time they made love. It had seemed like such an accomplishment. A goddamn badge of honor.

"Amanda—"

"Leave me the hell alone, Fin," she growled. "I don't need no damn EMT righ' now. Can't you see what they're doing to her? Or don't you give a f*ck?"

"You know I do. But I also see what it's doing to you. So you either let this guy look at you, or I'm sending you to the hospital, then home. That's an order, Detective."

It required every ounce of Amanda's self-control not to whirl around and demand to know who the f*ck Fin thought he was? Half the time, Olivia practically had to strong arm him into doing his job, let alone staying awake at his desk. He wouldn't even be sergeant if not for Olivia's goading, and Amanda was carrying most of his weight these days, anyway. She had all the responsibility, without the increase in pay or rank.

But when she glanced at her longtime friend and partner, her anger dwindled from flash fire to the guttering of a candle flame. His face was full of such sadness and deep concern, his eyes flicking to the computer—he visibly struggled not to cringe—and back to Amanda, it made her want to fold her arms on the desktop, rest her head there, and weep.

Mandy, what's wrong, honey? Does your tummy hurt? Do you need to visit the nurse?Third grade, Miss Hart; she'd caught Amanda crying at her school desk, head down, and whispered those words in her ear. Miss Hart was a good teacher, but how to tell a grownup that you saw Daddy hurting Mama last night and your sick was in your heart, not your belly? How to tell your sergeant you couldn't abandon your wife while she was being raped, because you were afraid it might be your fault? Because you had let this happen?

"Fine," she said dully, glancing past Fin, at the EMT who had hung back near the reception desk. He was feigning interest in his stethoscope and medical bag to avoid looking at the flat screen and the horrors it broadcast to the room. "But he can check me out right here. I'm not leaving her. You make me do that, I'll never forgive you."

Fin sighed, nodded. He knew when to pick his battles, and this was not one. Not while a trio of men were arguing about who got to shove his dick in which of Olivia's holes. Fin must have waved the medic in, because a moment later, Amanda felt a blood pressure cuff tightening around her bicep. The chest-piece of a stethoscope slid from one point to another on her front and back, deep breath in . . . and out . . . Her eyes followed a blue latex finger just long enough to get the f*cking thing out of her line of sight, reserved solely for Olivia.

Amanda answered the man's questions robotically and without truly hearing any of them. There was new activity on the screen: Liam Sandberg and the piece of sh*t who called himself Angel were performing a Chinese fire drill on Olivia, swapping orifices instead of car seats. For one fleeting second, none of the bastards were touching Olivia's body, and she almost looked like herself. Mussed, terrified, exhausted, traumatized beyond belief—but it was Liv.

Then she was gone. An empty shell of a woman, nude and misused, her eyes black slate and unseeing, stared back at Amanda from the digital feed. A million miles of gigabytes, code, and firewalls stood between them, invisible barriers Amanda couldn't break down with her fists or any amount of brute force. It made her feel pitifully small and helpless. Her sweet, fierce, beautiful wife looked pitifully small and helpless.

Meanwhile, the pigs who stood around Olivia, touching her now—batting her tousled braid, smacking her ass, jeering, pinching, pulling, grinding—seemed impossibly large, monstrous. God, how they must look to Olivia, looming over her like that. It was better that she had so clearly dissociated, escaping to the place Amanda suspected she'd been disappearing to since childhood. That place Amanda always tried to bring her back from, lest she be lost there forever.

Stay there, darlin',Amanda silently encouraged. Whatever protection Olivia's unconscious had created for her all those years ago was her safest bet now. No one could remain mentally cognizant through what Amanda was witnessing and keep their sanity. Not even her fearless Liv.Stay as long as you need, until I find you.

No sooner had the thought formed than two things occurred at once: the EMT offered Amanda something to calm her nerves ("Ma'am, your blood pressure is dangerously—") and Olivia cried out in pain, fully lucid as she pleaded for a reprieve. For just one minute of not being raped.

(God,please!)

Perhaps Amanda should have accepted the sedative ("Get the f*ck out of my face," she'd snapped, and heard nothing further from the paramedic), because a moment later, heat surged through her chest, neck, cheeks, and out the top of her skull as Angel jerked Olivia's head back, then slammed it onto the desktop. He flattened his hand on the side of Olivia's face, like he was palming a basketball for dribbling.

"You don't get to say stop, you stupid c*nt."

His other hand slithered around Olivia's thigh, disappearing below the edge of the desk, but obviously fondling between her legs. No, fondling was too gentle a description for what he was doing. He was scouring her, as if she were the washboard and he held the bar of lye soap. Olivia gasped and writhed under the abrasive touch, going nowhere.

"I'm gonna put a bullet in yours," Amanda whispered to Angel, when he knocked roughly on Olivia's temple and asked when she'd get it through her thick skull that she didn't get to tell him to stop.

"What'd you say?" Fin asked.

He never got an answer. Seconds after the question was posed, the sound of a red fox screaming sent a hush over the squad room and a chill through Amanda. She remembered that shriek from the few hunting trips she'd taken with her daddy; listening to the animals keen and whimper and die had quickly put her off the sport, but not before hearing a vixen's final enraged screams as she tried to protect her cubs from Dean Rollins' shotgun.

The sound of that mother fox haunted Amanda for weeks afterward, maybe months, especially at night when the nocturnal creatures called to each other in the woods outside her bedroom window. She wondered how long this sound would haunt her and what mournful, accusatory voices would cry out to her in the dark. Because it hadn't been a red fox screaming just now, she realized—it had been Olivia.

Even without a close-up view, it was obvious Angel had sodomized her. His grimace and Olivia's agonized expression, her teeth gritted in a macabre grin of pain, told the entire story. No need for graphic, gory shots when the actors could convey everything with their faces, wasn't that what they said about television and movies? Same went for livestreams of your wife being raped. It was all in the face.

"Why," Amanda asked in a watery, broken voice, finally unable to look on her wife's tortured countenance any longer. She held the sides of her head, fingers knotted into her hair, and gazed at the ceiling swimming above her. Tears spilled hotly into her ears, but didn't block out the terrible grunts and whimpers coming from the laptop speakers. More sounds she would never forget. "Why is this happening? How can you let this happen to her?"

Whether she was asking God or herself, she didn't know. Maybe no one. A small part of her had held onto the faith she'd been raised with, mostly out of love and respect for her grandmama, whose existence seemed proof enough that some benevolent force out there was watching over Amanda. She had thought so again, when she hit rock bottom and somehow came back from it; again, when her daughters were born; and the day she married Olivia, she had been absolutely certain of it as she walked down the aisle to join her bride.

But it wasn't true. There was no one out there listening, guiding, or caring. His eye wasn't on the sparrow any more than it was on the woman being sodomized in some dirty room while who knew how many people watched.

The last of Amanda's faith slipped away quietly, leaving an empty feeling in her chest. She would have thought the hollowness was in her soul, if she still believed in such a thing. People didn't have souls—not when they could do things like that man was doing to Olivia.

"Come on," Fin said gently, a hand under Amanda's elbow.

Following along, as if in a dream, Amanda let the sergeant stand her up and walk her from the squad room towards the interview room. She balked outside the door, trying to turn back for the laptop—for Olivia—but Fin kept a tight hold on her shoulders and steered her forward.

"I had Boyd set it up in here. I still don't think you should be watching it, but . . . she's your girl, and it ain't for me to say." Fin led her to the office chair where she'd sat earlier, poring over the tourist's cell phone footage with Kat, trying to find even the smallest clue that might result in Olivia's safe return. Before anything truly awful happened.

On the current laptop screen, Olivia was cringing and biting her lower lip hard enough to break the skin. Amanda had caught the captain biting herself like that a few times during sex, especially when it got intense—perhaps too intense, in hindsight—but she'd chalked it up to inhibition. Like a hand covering a laughing mouth, holding back the full blast. But maybe that wasn't it at all; maybe Amanda had just been hurting and triggering her wife all along.

The beast known as Angel was bent over Olivia, speaking too softly into her ear for the microphone to pick up on his naturally low, guttural voice. Whatever horrors he whispered to Olivia made her open her mouth in a silent scream, revealing a dark gash in her bottom lip, split down the middle. A high, thin whine, like a distant siren, escaped her lips and caused the hair at the back of Amanda's neck to stand on end. She had heard Olivia whimper and cry in her sleep, and on the worst nights, Amanda had even heard her wife scream. But she'd never heard the sound Olivia made now; there was no name for it, just endless despair. It was how the fire and brimstone preachers back home would say the damned sounded, suffering eternal torments in the pits of Hell.

"I gotta get back out—" Fin began, his hand on Amanda's shoulder making her flinch. He stopped short and swore under his breath when the man on camera went at Olivia twice as hard, clamping a hand over her mouth and biting down on the fleshy slope of her clavicle like a dog aggressively defending its meal. "Christ," Fin muttered, and drew back as Amanda recoiled from his touch and the laptop.

"Get out." Amanda stared stonily ahead, refusing to look away from the barbarism again, no matter how much distance she put between herself and the screen. She needed to see every violation, every cruelty, however it sickened her and broke her heart, to ensure that the monsters responsible for each atrocity got what was coming to them. And so that she might know how best to comfort her wife once this was all over.

But it would never be over, would it?

"Amanda, I—"

"Just go, Fin. Please." She gritted her teeth, fighting the urge to scream at him. Not for any particular reason, other than to scream. She usually went to the shooting range and unloaded a few rounds into a paper target when she felt like that. Every bullet was a release of the pent-up pressure she could feel consuming her by degrees. Used to be, gambling gave her that release. Gambling and meaningless sex. Now, sex always had meaning because it was with Olivia. Everything had more meaning when it was with Olivia.

Amanda didn't know how to function without her anymore. Angel and Liam Sandberg might as well have ripped Amanda's heart out and taken it with them when they tossed her wife into that van. They might as well have backed over her and left her for dead; it would have hurt less than what they were actually doing, and she probably would have recovered better. (How was Oliviaevergoing to recover from this?)

"I called Garland and let him know it's definitely a trafficking situation," said Fin, his voice retreating towards the door. "He's bringing the Feds onboard. It'll be better that way. More eyes, fancier tech, and we'll need 'em if those punk-asses took her across state lines . . . Amanda? You hearing me?"

She was straining too hard to make out what Angel and Olivia were whispering—she couldn't, even after stabbing at the volume button several times—to hear anything Fin said, but she nodded anyway. He added something about the EMT clearing her medically, but recommending the pills. She hadn't even noticed the blister pack of diazepam beside her on the table, until he mentioned it. There were four capsules total, and it would stay that way. Popping sedatives while her wife was stone sober and being tortured was not an option.

"Wait," she suddenly called, expecting Fin to already be gone.

"Yeah?"

"Put a security detail on my kids." Amanda tossed a quick glance over her shoulder, too brief for eye contact. She wasn't entirely sure where the request had come from, other than the fear of not knowing why Olivia had been taken and whether the rest of her family was a target or not.

Had she been thinking clearly, she would have asked for the protection sooner. Lucy knew the drill and wouldn't leave the apartment or let in anyone without a badge while her boss was under threat—that was a rule Olivia had established with the nanny long ago, after the drive-by at the park when Noah was just a baby. But men like the ones hurting Olivia wouldn't be deterred by petite, innocent-looking Lucy Huston, no matter how protective she was of her charges.

Besides that, Amanda had a bad feeling. It might just be a result of watching her wife being beaten, raped, and sodomized, but she didn't think so. Something told her she needed to prepare for other attempts on her family, and though it was probably instinct, she heard the warning in a voice that sounded a lot like Olivia's.

"The best we got, okay?" she requested, rubbing absently at her head, where it had hit pavement. That attack had come out of nowhere and ended in the blink of an eye. The Sandman and his accomplices were skilled and frighteningly bold.

"Already done. I sent 'em to your apartment right after— right after you called and told me what happened. Your kids are safe, Rollins. Focus on Liv now."

As if she could focus on anything else. But she nodded and said a vague thank you over her shoulder, unsure if Fin had heard it before stepping out or not. She didn't really care either way, because at that very moment, Angel grabbed Olivia's face and turned it directly to the camera lens. Blinded by the lights and the pain, Olivia blinked rapidly, then squinted ahead, almost as if she knew the camera was there, almost as if she were gazing straight at Amanda.

"Oh, Liv," Amanda whispered, tracing the outline of her wife's tear-stained face with her thumb. "I'm here, baby. I'm right—"

"Your bitch wife didn't do sh*t to protect you. We walked right up and took you from her, and she did nothing. Where is she now, puss*cat? I don't see her coming to your rescue."

Amanda snatched her hand back from the screen like she'd touched a hot burner on the stove. It was one thing to think it of herself, but to hear her failure confirmed out loud like that, by the man currently raping her wife, nearly put her over the edge. She couldn't even yell at him that he was wrong. He wasn't. She'd downplayed Olivia's unease about Liam Sandberg at the bagel shop, and she'd watched as this man, a devil who called himself Angel, snuck up behind the captain and stuck a needle in her neck. And Amanda hadn't done a damn thing to stop him.

She'd failed as a wife, a cop, a mother—her kids expected her to protect their mommy; "Mama, are you Mommy's bodyguard?" Jesse had asked once, out of the blue, "Do you shoot the bad men for her?"—and Olivia was the one paying for it. Why hadn't they just taken Amanda instead? That would have been less tortuous than watching this. She could live with being repeatedly and brutally assaulted, but not with listening to her wife defend her ("You ambushed us," Olivia stuttered, grasping at each breath, each word) while crying out in unimaginable pain.

"She— she— God. Oh God, Manda . . . "

Amanda felt as though she were being ripped in half, her skin tearing like paper, her insides snapping apart like a gristly cut of meat, guts unspooling on the floor. This was worse than dying. This was Hell, and Amanda's eternal torment was to hear Olivia sobbing for her, but having no way to help. The rest of the words were broken and incoherent, except for those heartrending cries: Manda. Please.

"I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." For a while it was all Amanda could say, shaking her head in denial (of what, she had let this happen) and gripping the upper corners of the laptop until they felt embedded in her palms, fingers numb and stiff against the outer shell. If she didn't hold it, she would throw it. And right then, it was the closest thing she had to holding her wife.

I'm so sorry I'm so sorry so sorry so sorry . . .

Over and over again, becoming a single, stream-of-consciousness apology that could go on forever and still not be enough. She gave it up—all of it—and covered her mouth with both hands, sobbing into them as Liam Sandberg forced Olivia's jaw open and put himself in her mouth. Acid tears coursed down Amanda's cheeks, trickling between her fingers, and for a moment she was glad she couldn't see clearly: not while the two men raped Olivia together; not when Angel switched to vagin*l penetration, giving the younger Sandberg a tutorial on anal play; and not as the goateed guy took turns stroking Olivia's body and his erection.

By the time Liam Sandberg ejacul*ted in Olivia's mouth, Amanda's tears had turned to dust, refusing to fall any longer. She cried without them, great, racking sobs that had no sound but sent violent shudders rippling throughout her body. She hadn't cried so forcefully since childhood, when everything felt like the end of the world and she'd been powerless to stop it. Except, this really was the end of her world, and she had no more control of it now than she did at six years old.

Angel climaxed a moment later, clawing at Olivia's ass with enough pressure to leave visible scratches in her already florid skin, and hunching over to ram her a few last times before pulling out. Amanda tasted bile at the sight of his slimy, pierced dick slipping, eel-like, out of her wife. He shook it off as if he'd just taken a piss on some bushes.

Motherf*cker.

As soon as Liam Sandberg was out of her mouth, Olivia belly crawled to the edge of the desk and vomited over the side, fingers jammed down her own throat. Amanda tried not to think about what the viscous substance was that drizzled from the captain's lips as she hacked and sputtered, or why she was able to bring it up so easily. Almost as if she'd done it before.

If you asked Amanda, her wife had a sensitive stomach. Olivia would deny it, of course, always quick to dismiss anything that might be perceived as weakness, but she was the one who couldn't keep anything down when she was ill, who spent as much time as Amanda with her head in the toilet during Sammie's first trimester, and whose appetite depended entirely on her emotional state. God, how would Amanda ever get her to eat again, after this? How would Amanda ever eat again, for that matter?

"Liv," she breathed, pressing her palm to Olivia's naked, trembling body on the screen. She ached to wrap her wife in a warm and protective embrace, shielding her from the monstrous assholes who were laughing at her for throwing up.

If there was any part of Amanda's heart still left intact, it shattered completely when Olivia, too weak—or too injured—to push herself upright, tried to cover her breasts with her badly quaking hands. She had been so self-conscious about her chest these past few years, after Lewis and his cigarettes, after Calvin and his sick Oedipal fantasies. Amanda had noticed her unconsciously tugging her blazers closed at work many times, especially in front of the male suspects, and whenever she did wear a revealing top in public, often at Amanda's behest, she constantly checked that her scars weren't visible.

Only since she'd started breastfeeding Samantha had Olivia begun to recapture some of that body confidence Amanda remembered from their early years together at SVU.Man, she used to come in wearing some wild sh*t, Fin had said once, during a rare nostalgic moment with Amanda and Kat.Not to be trifling with your woman, Rollins, but she looked damn good.Amanda didn't know if she could ever completely restore that freedom and ease in her own skin that Olivia once had—age played a role too, unfortunately—but she had wanted to try. That was part of the reason she'd suggested filming themselves having sex. Maybe if Olivia saw herself through Amanda's eyes, she would realize how beautiful and sexy she truly was.

Now it would never happen. Even if the captain did survive this
(If? Shewillsurvive it, she has to, I can't do this without—)
showing off her body, reclaiming that pride she so rightfully deserved, would be the last thing on her or Amanda's mind.

"Oh, Liv. Hold on, baby. Hold on for me, okay?" Amanda kept her hand on the laptop screen, trying with all her might to convey the message. She knew the ability Olivia seemed to have to read her mind was just a confluence of empathy, intuition, experience, and years of working alongside each other, but if there was any chance—any chance at all—that her wife could sense her in the hellhole where she was being tortured . . . . Foolish or not, Amanda had to try.

She gasped and jerked her hand away when Liam Sandberg grabbed Olivia's arms, requesting assistance, and with the other men's help, flipped the captain onto her back. They expended no more effort than men turning a slab of ribeye over the fire. Then Liam called for his younger brother to hop on, promising to hold Olivia down for him.

"Stop," Amanda gritted, through clenched teeth. She got to her feet and leaned on the table, palms flattened at either side of the laptop. They couldn't honestly mean to let this kid rape Olivia, could they? They were heartless pigs, but even people like that didn't encourage mentally disabled boys who barely looked old enough to shave to commit rape. It was unconscionable. It would destroy Olivia, who had spent her life helping the innocents, the ones who couldn't stand up for themselves.

Amanda pointed at the screen, where the boy was creeping forward, an idiotic grin on his smooth baby face. His boner poked prominently at the zipper of his jeans. "Don't. Don't you f*cking dare, you little ratf*ck." She slapped both of her hands down hard against the table, palms stinging almost as badly as the rest of her body had when she got tased.

Before Amanda could unleash a torrent of obscenities on the boy, whose affliction she would not consider when assigning blame if he proceeded with the rape, Olivia uttered a feeble protest that sounded hauntingly childlike. As if she had regressed to some small, neglected part of herself that hadn't been let out of its cage in years. Weak and famished, it dragged its skeletal form into the open, a withered hand outstretched in supplication.

"No more. Please, no more. I wanna go home. T-tell me why you're d-doing this. I'll . . . I'll tell Amanda anything you want. I'll tell her ev-everything you did to me, and she'll— she'll fix whatever it is that started this."

The room began to shrink around Amanda as Olivia's meaning sank in. Her breath came in small, quick gasps, hardly enough to expand her lungs. At the last second, she felt her legs giving out and managed to drop heavily onto the chair behind her. It let out a huff, the lift mechanism giving by an inch or two. She gripped both sides of her mouth in one hand and coughed out a tearful, "Oh, dear Lord."

Her worst fear—which she had been shoving down and refusing to acknowledge since the door slammed shut on the van that took Olivia away from her—was coming true. Thiswasher fault, and not just because she failed to act. The men had told Olivia that Amanda was somehow responsible for her capture; why else would she be offering to relay a message to Amanda, in exchange for release?

It made a strange kind of sense now. Nothing about the abduction or the livestream had felt like the work of Rob Miller, who would rather do the raping himself, or any of the idle threats made by BX9 members, coyotes, drug cartel, Henry Mesner, or the countless other men Olivia helped put behind bars. Those men wanted to end Olivia for interrupting their fun, these men were using her as a pawn. And the game was Amanda's to lose. No wonder it felt so personal, like some sort of twisted payback.

That's exactly what it was.

But who? Who had Amanda so grievously wronged that they would go to such lengths to destroy her, by first destroying the woman she loved? She had paid off her debts—slowly and with a determination that bordered on obsessive—and even if not, this went beyond the scope of a bookie's attempt to collect payment. It was the type of revenge someone sought when you had taken everything from them. She couldn't think of anyone she'd done that to, not even the worst criminals she'd encountered.

"Oh God, Liv, I'm so sorry, baby," she whispered into her hand. She repeated the apology again and again as Liam Sandberg informed Olivia that only the parts he cut off of her would be leaving,signifying his intended starting point by twisting cruelly at her breast.

"It's cute, the way you think that blond bitch of yours will still rescue you," he said. "News flash, honey: she can't fix this. And she already knows exactly what we're doing—"

"No, no, no." Amanda shook her head, scrubbing absently at her mouth, cheeks, bangs. As much as she wanted Olivia to sense her presence—to not feel so desperately alone—Amanda did not want her wife to know she was viewing the rapes like free p*rn on the Internet. Not only would it add to the already catastrophic humiliation of a violent and sustained gang rape, but Olivia was smart enough to figure out that if Amanda was watching, so were a lot of other people.

Luckily, the Sandman cut his son off mid-sentence, and Olivia didn't appear to catch on to the younger man's meaning. She was too busy shrinking from the youngest of the Sandberg men as he crawled on top of her, with the jolly assistance of his older brother. Liam leaned down to murmur something inaudible to Olivia, and whatever it was brought to an abrupt halt what little resistance she offered.

After nearly forty solid minutes of struggling against her torturers, being called the most vile and despicable names imaginable, suffering the most dehumanizing torments, Olivia finally heard the words that broke her spirit.

"Oh Jesus, no," Amanda said. She recognized the expression that softened across her wife's terror-glazed face.

Olivia had just resigned herself to her fate.

. . .

Chapter 12: The Jackal

Notes:

I feel like a broken record at this point, but I'm sorry for missing Wednesday's update. My week was insane and I didn't have much time to relax or even get online. This week should be better, though. Thank you for reading and commenting on chapter 11. It's still going to be rough going for a while, but I hope you'll continue to bear with me. Trigger Warning on this chapter for gang rape and sexual violence.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12.

The Jackal

. . .

Amanda had seen some f*cked up sh*t in her day, but watching a group of grown men egging on a special-ed kid as he tried to rape the woman they were holding down was just about the worst. Olivia wasn't fighting them, though they pinned her as if she were, hands at her wrists and shoulders, spreading her thighs. When they weren't thumping the boy on the back and tugging the jeans and boxers from his skinny hips, chanting for him to "put it in, put it in, put it in" Olivia, that is.

They sounded like frat boys gathered around a beer bong, cheering on a buddy whose thirst was flagging. Amanda used to participate in those same activities, often finding she was the loudest and rowdiest of the bunch. She had coaxed plenty of her friends into drinking past their limit and knew all too well the persuasive power of a noisy crowd. Olivia knew it too, her face turned away in anticipation of the boy's approach.

The goateed man took her by the temples, his span wide enough to pinch both sides between the fingers on one hand, and turned her head sharply back into place like he was popping the lid on a jar. "Eyes front,capitana," he said, and nodded to the boy, who was nudging his penis fruitlessly into Olivia's pubic hair. "Little Man needs some help. Tell him where to stick it."

He can stick it up your ass, you disgusting piece of sh*t, Amanda thought, but couldn't say it out loud. Not after what had just happened to Olivia. What was still happening.

"Louder," said the man, when Olivia mouthed something indiscernible. He slapped at the side of her head with his fingertips, making her flinch and give a small birdlike caw. "Come on,puta, speak up so everyone can hear."

Everyone. Amanda bit down on the side of the hand still covering her mouth. Christ, how many people were watching this? Recording it, even? How many times had Amanda explained to devastated young women that the worst moments of their lives would be forever commemorated online, because nothing ever really went away on the Internet? Now, Olivia would be one of those women. Olivia who had only disclosed most of her assaults, extending as far back as childhood, within the past couple of years. That was how great her shame had been; how little she had trusted anyone besides Amanda to hear the full details of her most painful and traumatic experiences.

Men might watch this for years to come, getting off on seeing Olivia—beautiful, loving, kind Olivia—degraded and so afraid. The thought was beyond Amanda's comprehension or what her broken heart could withstand. At first, Olivia's response, weak and tearful, sounded as if it were coming from inside Amanda herself:

"I— I can't." The captain gazed at each of the men above her in turn, searching for someone who would be merciful and excuse her from participating in her own rape. No one stepped forward. "I can't. Please—"

Angel yanked the wrist he'd been pinning down, jerking Olivia's left arm and shoulder off the desk with a sharpness that drew a yelp from Olivia and an indignant cry from Amanda. Sometimes that shoulder still gave out or locked when Olivia lifted her arm too suddenly. She had almost dropped Jesse once when the little girl launched off a jungle gym and into her arms, accompanied by Matilda, who took the right side. The girls knew unexpected leaps into Mommy's arms weren't allowed now, a rule Amanda had imposed.But I want them to know I'll always be there to catch them, Olivia had argued.They should have that security.

It had been Amanda's opinion that her wife needed the security more than their daughters did—needed to know she would be able to be there for them, arms open wide, no matter what the danger or the physical toll. That determination to keep her family safe had earned her the shoulder injury in the first place, when she rescued Amanda from plunging off a cliff. They hadn't even been dating yet, and Olivia had risked her life for Amanda.

So sorry so sorry so sorry, she repeated silently, as Angel wrapped Olivia's fingers around the shaft of the Sandberg boy's penis and forced her to guide it into herself. Olivia groaned as if she were about to be sick again, but she couldn't turn away to do it. "Stop," she said, gazing past the boy at the ceiling, almost too breathless to be heard. "You don't h-have to do—"

Cupping a hand beneath Olivia's left breast, Angel leaned in and bit the top of the fleshy mound, near the scar left by Lewis' cigarette. Olivia's eyes went wide, first with surprise and then intense pain, a distinction measurable by her intake of breath—the soft gasp ended in a sharp upsurge of air, like a reverse scream. She clamped her eyes and lips shut rather than exhale the scream, and for a moment she looked like a woman drowning, fighting her way to the surface before time ran out.

"Oh." Amanda found no other words to say, just that choked little cry she breathed into her hands again and again.Oh.

The sound of someone clearing their throat behind her startled Amanda so badly she flinched and ducked down as if she were being fired upon. "f*ck," she snapped, recovering almost at once and scrubbing at her damp cheeks and snotty nose with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. Olivia's sweatshirt. She turned a nasty sidelong glare on Kat, who hesitated in the doorway, a stack of files in her hands. "What do you want, Tamin?"

"Sorry, I—" Kat glanced to the laptop screen, where the boy was heaving himself fitfully against Olivia, making a sound like squeaky bed springs, while Angel gnashed at one breast and the goateed man groped the other. When Amanda twitched the MacBook aside, the officer remembered herself and stepped forward with the files outstretched. "Got some hits in facial recognition. We ID'd the two big guys. The youngest one doesn't have a record that I can find—"

"He does now." Amanda snatched at the manila folders and slapped them onto the tabletop. She was aware of being an outright bitch, but couldn't bring herself to care. When the love of Kat's life was being gang raped for going on a full hour, no signs of the perps or their erections slowing down (sick f*cks had to be on something), then she could talk to Amanda.

"Yeah, um. This year's school records didn't turn up anything, either, but I did a quick search of the past few semesters. Found a Xander Bergström who graduated last year from a special needs school in the Bronx." Kat, a native of the Bronx herself, delivered the news with distaste. Her gaze kept darting toward the laptop and the godawful noises that issued from it. "Bergström is one of Sandberg's known aliases, so I think it's probably his kid. He'd be, uh . . . eighteen now."

Amanda could have read every bit of that in the file she had peeled open, or at least she would have been able to under normal circ*mstances. Now the words jumbled up and snarled in her vision as she glanced convulsively from page to screen and back again. God, those sounds. She couldn't even think straight with that playing in her head. "Least he's not underage," she said vaguely, watching from the corner of her eye as Xander Bergström jerked above Olivia like he was having a seizure. The other men howled with laughter at his efforts. "Little f*cker can be tried as an adult."

And Olivia wouldn't have to live with the added burden of knowing she'd been raped by a minor. Just someone with the brain of one.

"Yeah." Gingerly, Kat took the other two files from under the one Amanda stared blankly at, when she wasn't staring blankly at the screen. "The guy with the teardrop tattoo is Nicholas Angelov. Goes by the name Angel. Career criminal, mostly controlled substances. But . . . he's got a lot of sexual assault charges in his jacket."

"You think?" Amanda asked, without much bite behind it. She scanned the mugshot inside the open folder Kat placed in front of her. Sure enough, it was the same man whose teeth marks stood out in bright red dashes on Olivia's breasts—he'd moved on to the right side, tugging the nipple with his front teeth, then sucking it vigorously. Amanda felt a jolt in her own breasts, and glanced down, expecting to find them leaking again.

Her sweatshirt was dry, but oh God, Sammie. Olivia loved breastfeeding their baby girl, approaching the task with such reverence it bordered on the sacred; sometimes she just liked to snuggle up at Amanda's side and watch the ritual performed by another, always with the rapt expression of someone witnessing the miraculous.

Now, Amanda found herself thanking a god she no longer believed in that Olivia wasn't actually lactating. The f*cking animals didn't get to take that away from the captain, like they were taking everything else. Although, how Olivia would ever be able to find joy in using the SNS again, Amanda couldn't imagine. She still avoided letting anyone other than Amanda put things in her mouth, because of a past oral assault—even the kids. What if the same thing happened with breastfeeding?

"He did ten years for a murder too," Kat said quietly, underlining the charges on Angel's rap sheet with her fingertip. "Been out since 2018. Guess that explains the tat."

"Yeah."

It explained nothing. There was no sufficient explanation for how Olivia, who had woken Amanda that morning with sleepy smiles and tender kisses—who smiled most days lately, sometimes for no apparent reason—was now being violated by a murderer and repeat rapist that should be rotting in a jail cell. Whoever had let the sonuvabitch out was partly responsible for this whole thing, as far as Amanda was concerned.

But try as she might to decipher his rap sheet and find a connection in his priors to herself or Olivia, there was nothing. He had never even been charged in Manhattan, and most of his life outside prison walls appeared to have been spent on the streets of Brooklyn.

"The guy with the ugly-ass goatee is Carlos Riva," Kat said, shuffling his folder to the top of the pile. She tapped his mugshot, as if there were another five-foot-ten bald man, two hundred and twenty pounds of solid muscle, to confuse him with. "Former driver to some big art gallery. Priors for assault, including rape. He just got out last year for laundering and—"

"Holy sh*t," Amanda whispered, putting her hand up to silence Kat. She skimmed over the criminal history on Riva's sheet, her eyes going too fast for her brain to keep up. But she got the gist: possession of an unregistered firearm (charges dropped), misdemeanor stalking fourth-degree (plead down from domestic assault), rape one and grand larceny (found guilty, sentenced to twenty years). "Oh, holy f*cking sh*t, Tamin. I know this guy."

"What? What do you mean you know him?" Kat bent over with her knuckles on the table, looking hard at Amanda like she suspected her of brain damage or delusion.

"I f*ckingknowhim." Amanda shot to her feet, launching the chair out behind her. It collided with the cabinet against the wall, clanging loudly, but she was too shaken to notice. She thwapped the backs of her fingers on the edge of the paper she held up. "Son of a bitch. It was, like, eight years ago . . . " She checked the most recent date of incarceration below Riva's mugshot: 03/26/2014. "Yeah, I was— I was undercover in a gambling club. He was the bouncer. He raped this guy's poor wife as payback for— oh my God."

Kat's eyes widened and she reached quickly for Amanda's elbow, as if expecting her to keel over backwards. Amanda had felt the blood drain from her cheeks, and the paper she was brandishing did quiver in her hands, but she wouldn't allow herself to pass out right now. Not while Olivia needed her. And not while the pieces were falling into place with such impact, she felt like the wind had been knocked out of her.

"Oh my God," Amanda groaned, the sound weak and despairing to her own ears. "I think I know who's doing this. It has to be— oh God, Liv."

She peered tentatively at the laptop screen, hoping beyond hope that the men had finished in the half-second since she'd looked away; knowing that they hadn't. While Angel and the younger Sandberg boy continued working Olivia over, Carlos Riva had placed his dick in her hand, stroking it up and down the length of the fat, pulsing shaft. Olivia herself was gone. She was nowhere.

"—hear me, Rollins? Hey, Rollins." Kat was shaking Amanda's arm and gazing at her with a deeply troubled expression. She kept glancing back at the plate glass window, to the squad room beyond, as if debating whether or not to call for help. "Who's doing it? Riva? I don't think he's been out long enough to set up something this—"

"No." Amanda's voice returned to her slowly and she swallowed with effort, shaking her head in the meantime. "Riva's just a pissant, bootlicking flunky."Yeah, the pissant, bootlicking flunky who's sexually assaulting your wife. "He couldn't arrange something like this, even if he had ten years to plan it."Or eight . . .

She could barely think with the internal commentary echoing in her ears. But she had to, she had to get it all out—even if it meant admitting she was to blame—because if her suspicions were correct, they might be the key to finding Olivia. Bringing her home. That was all Amanda wanted.

"The club he worked in was run by this woman, Sondra Vaughn. Her lover . . . Anton-something was the real boss, but she was his baby mama and had a lot of sway." Amanda closed her eyes as, on the screen, the kid Xander pulled out too soon in his excitement and came in Olivia's pubic hair. His brother laughed wildly and gave him a noogie on top of his baseball cap.

"I befriended her to get to— Nadari, that was his name. She ended up turning state's evidence on him. Got herself a lighter sentence, but had to send her kid off to live with family."

Amanda left out the part where she had taken Sondra hostage by pointing a gun at the woman's pregnant belly, in order to get to Nadari.If you don't think I'll shoot, you don't know me at all, she'd warned Sondra and Declan Murphy. And in the moment, to their horror as well as her own, she meant every word. In the years since, she had told herself it had to be believable, that was the only reason she could so vividly imagine pulling the trigger. It was long before Jesse, so Amanda hadn't had the same motherly instincts back then. At the time she was just a desperate gambling junkie in danger of losing everything.

It was a good story.

"I, uh, haven't really kept tabs on her since then," Amanda said, guiltily. She had wanted to put the whole experience behind her, and threw herself into meetings, work, and earning back the trust she had pissed away with her sergeant, Olivia Benson. She didn't have time to check up on every criminal she helped put away, she'd reasoned—even the ones who gave birth in prison and had to pawn the kid off on relatives.

"But this is her MO. She's the one who ordered Riva to rape that guy's wife back then. Just to send a message." Oh Jesus, what had Amanda done? She longed to look away from the livestream, where Carlos Riva was still manually masturbating himself with her wife's hand and Liam Sandberg was teaching his brother how to finger a woman, using Olivia's privates as a guide. But this torture was meant for Amanda.Becauseof Amanda. She didn't f*cking get to look away.

"You think this is to send you a message?" Kat sounded doubtful. She eased the crumpled rap sheet from Amanda's fist, smoothed it inside the folder, and leaned over Riva's mugshot. "That seems kind of . . . extreme, even if you did arrest her. Most people who make threats when they go down never follow through, right? Would she even still be in contact with this guy? Is her sentence up or—"

"I don't know," Amanda said, at a volume her children—and wife—would describe as yelling. She checked it immediately, more for their sake than Tamin's. They hated when she raised her voice. "I betrayed her, Kat. I made her turn on her lover. Took her kid away from her. I know you don't get it 'cause you don't have kids, but a mother will do whatever it takes to defend her child. And female criminals are always more vindictive."

"Okay, but . . . eight years after the fact? Wouldn't she be out by now and back with her kid? Why wait so long?"

It was possible that Sondra had gotten out on parole before her twelve-year sentence was up; apparently Riva had managed it, and he didn't have half the brains or beauty of his one-time boss. The parole board probably got one look at Sondra Vaughn's big brown eyes and doe-like demeanor, not to mention her art history degree from Columbia, and decided a mother should be with her child. Even if she was a snake in the grass.

But Kat had a point. Why wait till now to seek revenge, especially if Sondra had reunited with her kid? A little girl, if Amanda remembered correctly. She'd been a surprise before she was torn away from her mother; Sondra had been convinced she was having a boy. Someone to carry on his father's legacy, no doubt.

"I don't know," Amanda repeated, flatly this time. She gazed at the screen with the same hollow affect, unaware there were tears rolling down her cheeks, until they dripped onto the back of her hand. She didn't care if Kat saw. Olivia was writhing on the desk, her scuffed and battered body flush and arching stiffly at the spine, her eyes squeezed shut so tight it looked painful.

Amanda recognized the struggle, only now it was to ward off something, instead of bring it on. Her wife was fighting desperately against climax, while Liam Sandberg and his idiot brother tried to force it out of her. "Come on, Captain, give it up like a good little slu*t," Liam said, his fingers doing most of the work. Xander couldn't keep a steady rhythm.

"Rollins?"

"If she's out of prison, she's had time to rebuild a network." Amanda swabbed her tears half-heartedly with the cuff of Olivia's sweatshirt, and sniffed. "And even if she's not out, you know as well as I do that these people always have friends on the outside. Especially the rich—"

It occurred to Amanda, then. During her hostage negotiation with Anton Nadari and his baby mama, one of the demands she had made was a million dollars in cash. The same amount for which Olivia's buyer would be purchasing her.

Jesus Christ.

"It's her, Kat, I know it is. Sondra f*cking Vaughn." Amanda cast a pleading look up at the officer, needing to be believed. It was the only thing she had right now, and she couldn't afford to be wrong about it. She couldn't let Olivia down yet again. "You gotta look into her for me. Check out Nadari too, just to be sure. Anton Nadari. Tell Fin, he'll remember the case. Please, Kat."

"Yeah, of course. Of course." Kat's gaze flicked to the turned aside MacBook, where Olivia sounded like she was hyperventilating, her chest heaving with the effort of trying to maintain control of her body. At the same time, Carlos Riva ejacul*ted without reservation or forewarning, his milky sem*n sliding down Olivia's arm with the consistency of snot.

"Go," Amanda said, too harshly. She shouldn't alienate herself from the people who were there to help, especially the ones she knew cared about Olivia too, but she needed Kat to get out. If the Sandberg bastard did force her wife to org*sm, Amanda didn't want anyone else in the room with her. It was bad enough they would be watching in the bullpen. That any number of viewers could be watching from anywhere in the world.

Amanda pushed the thought aside, as she had trained herself to do over the years (gambling and booze helped), afraid that if she considered it too long, she might start screaming and never stop. She felt it just beneath the surface of her skin, burning in her lungs, waiting to claw its way out. Ready to rip her to shreds, along with anyone else who got in the way.

"Tamin, get the hell . . . " Amanda looked up to an empty room, and part of her would have wondered if Kat had really been there at all—if she hadn't just cracked up and imagined the entire interaction—were it not for a glimpse of the officer talking solemnly to Fin in the outer office, pointing back in Amanda's direction.

Plus the criminal records fanned out on the table in front of her. She reached around, feeling behind herself blindly, until she caught hold of the chair and pulled it into the bends of her knees, dropping heavily onto the seat.

Riva's file was still open on top of the others, and Amanda tried to reconcile his mug shot, which she did recognize, to the man on the screen, whom she hadn't. Granted, he had put on another twenty or thirty pounds of muscle since she'd seen him last, probably pumping iron in Fishkill day after day; he'd aged considerably too, as did most who served hard time; and the few moments his face had been in frame on the livestream, she'd only had eyes for Olivia, whom he was raping.

But Amanda still should have recognized him. How much sooner could this have ended, if she had? How many more violations would Olivia suffer because Amanda hadn't done the basic duty of any decent cop and successfully identified the perp?

Her answer was a sharp gasp, followed by a muffled whine as Olivia gritted her teeth and fought her body's normal physiological response. That was how they always described it to victims who experienced involuntary org*sm during an assault—normal, physiological.

But there was nothing normal about seeing your wife struggle against herself with as much exertion as she had struggled against her attackers. And no amount of framing it as physiological would convince Olivia, who had only recently stopped apologizing for not reaching climax every time Amanda used her fingers, that she wasn't somehow to blame for how her body did or didn't react.

Luckily, it was over fast and there hadn't been anything too overt for the casual viewer. Just for the wife, who knew the captain's body and its responses like the back of her own hand. Amanda brought the hand to her mouth, making a fist and biting down hard on her knuckles. She didn't even feel it.

"That the best you got?" Liam Sandberg asked, gazing down on Olivia with disappointment. She barely seemed to register his voice, her eyes fixed on the ceiling as she panted shallowly, either too traumatized or in too much pain for anything deeper. She tried to cross her arms over her ravaged breasts, but that prick Angel pushed them away, leaving his handiwork exposed.

"I think you can do better," Liam continued, reaching toward Olivia again, with the hand he had just dried on his jeans. These men were covered in her DNA by now. And she in theirs. "Let's try again. What do they say in show biz? Once more, with feel—"

"Step back, son."

From out of his shadowy corner, the Sandman emerged. Amanda had almost forgotten he was there, just off camera, so still and quiet he might have been a statue presiding over the gang rape he had at least partly orchestrated. She wasn't sure what his connection might be to Sondra Vaughn, other than the bottom-feeder Riva, but even if they weren't in on this together, he was still a lowlife trafficker who raped for sport. He was still the one who had greenlit Olivia's abduction. Sondra had wielded a little power because of Anton Nadari, but by no means was she a big fish. Gus Sandberg was a great white.

He even approached Olivia in a sneaking, sharklike manner, as if he had scented blood in the water and was preparing to circle a kill. "You too, my boy," Sandberg said to his youngest, whom he patted on the cheek, fondly. The proud papa. "It's my turn to get acquainted with Ms. Benson. Go on. You'll all have plenty of time with her when I'm through."

"You don't want me to hold her for you?" asked Angel. With his face aimed down at Olivia, the teardrop tattoo made him look like one of those sad clown paintings. Then he sneered and shattered the illusion. "She's stronger than most of the others, I'll give her that."

"I don't think that will be necessary, will it, Olivia?" Gus gazed at the captain, who didn't acknowledge him and hadn't uttered a sound since the org*sm, with a mild expression that could have been mistaken for kindness. But the shark always smiled while it ate its prey. "We'll be fine," he told Angel, sending the man to wait with the others at the edge of the frame. "Alone at last."

And though he didn't speak directly to the camera—he kept his face mostly in profile, as a matter of fact—Amanda sensed that he was addressing her, more so than Olivia. "Kiss my ass, you piece of horsesh*t," she hissed, longing to reach through the screen and strangle him with her bare hands.

(Why had she thought that? Why couldn't she have thoughtanythingbesides that?)

"Are you having a good time so far?" Gus reached out to stroke Olivia's hair off her forehead, finally eliciting a reaction, albeit a small one—she shied from his touch, turning her face in the opposite direction. He took her by the chin and turned it back. "I know my boys are a little rough, but you're used to that, right?"

Amanda wasn't sure what Gus meant by that, and for a moment she was convinced he was talking about her. She had been rough with Olivia last year, while recovering from a gunshot wound and having a gambling relapse. She was still too afraid to examine their sexual encounter during that whole mess—it had been disrespectful and thoughtless at best. At worst, she feared it had been nonconsensual.

Olivia had sworn she'd been a willing participant in the angry, aggressive foreplay and sixty-nining, but that was almost as worrisome to Amanda. She knew all too well how easily women, especially the ones with histories of abuse and sexual violence, could convince themselves they had been complicit, had enjoyed it. What if Olivia was doing that every time they had sex?

Logically, Amanda knew that wasn't the case. Until about an hour ago, their sex life had been at the top of its game. But for the past couple of months, she'd considered mentioning her fears to her therapist, just to get a second opinion. Now she never would. She had blamed Serena Benson for allowing Olivia to be molested as a kid, but was Amanda any better, allowing this to happen?I'm never going to let anything else bad happen to her. Not ever.That's what she'd told Serena's headstone last January.

What a liar.

"That Lewis fellow and the Mangler weren't exactly known for their finesse, I imagine." A vague smile touched the Sandman's lips when Olivia shuddered at the names. He made no move to stop her from covering her breasts, arms crossed to cup one in each hand. "And that old partner of yours—what was his name? Stabler? Oh yes, I remember him too. An egotistical, hypocritical thug. He assaulted a few of my best paying customers over the years."

Any relief Amanda felt at not being the source of the violence Gus was referring to faded at the mention of the three men. Not only for the obvious distress it caused Olivia, but because the Sandberg f*cker seemed to have been keeping tabs on her for quite a long time. The Lewis case and the Mangler were both well-publicized at the time of their attacks on the captain, and their subsequent demises, but Elliot Stabler predated Amanda herself—in almost every way. (Olivia seldom spoke of him; Amanda knew just enough to make her hate the guy.)

Was it possible none of this tied back to Sondra Vaughn after all? It had to, though . . . it was Amanda's only lead.

"Did he ever get physical with you?" Gus patted Olivia's cheek, much more briskly than he had done to his son, when she didn't answer. "Hm? Pin you to the wall and force himself on you, maybe? I saw the way he looked at you. Your little backside twitching in those snug jeans you used to wear. Can't say I'd blame him if he—"

"No." Olivia's voice crackled like long-dead autumn leaves. "Never."

Gus made a noncommittal sound, vaguely disappointed. He reached out and glided his hand up the thigh Olivia was trying to close against the other. The flesh there was smudged, but Amanda couldn't tell what the dark splotches were—blood, feces, bruises? Any were possible, all were likely. The Sandman passed them by, coasting his palm over the crest of one hip, into the valley of Olivia's side, and up the plain of her arm. He looked to be mapping her out, like a land surveyor deciding where to begin.

"That is a shame," he said, trailing his fingers back and forth along Olivia's collarbone. He rested his hand on her shoulder when she attempted to turn onto her side. After a weak shrug failed to shake him off, she gave up and was still. "You could have given him some lovely babies. Of course, he probably would have walked away from you regardless. And now you've got those four precious angels waiting for you at home, not even suspecting that it was their last morning with Mommy."

Tutting softly when Olivia began to cry, Gus petted her ratty braid, which hung over her shoulder like the head of a mink stole. "Do you think they'll feel like you abandoned them?" he asked in an idle tone. He pieced at something among the loose strands of hair at her neck. "Do you think they'll hate you for the rest of their lives, Olivia?"

"Goddamn sonuvabitch." Amanda bit her knuckles hard enough to draw blood. She was distantly aware that she should feel it, but she did not. This sad*stic motherf*cker was going straight for Olivia's weakest spots: her abandonment issues, her fear that the kids would stop loving her for some reason. How he knew her vulnerabilities so well was the scariest part.

No, that Olivia might believe him—that was the scariest part. She could withstand some of the most heinous tortures imaginable, but there was no way she would survive losing her children's love, trust, and devotion. Without it, she would probably give up completely.

Finally, Gus freed whatever it was he'd been digging for at the nape of Olivia's neck. He brought it forth pinched lengthwise between his thumb and forefinger like a gem to be studied in the light. Not quite, but close; it was the little pillar with each of the kids' names on all four sides, which hung from the necklace Amanda had given Olivia last Christmas. The captain hadn't taken it off since. Amanda often glanced into her office and saw her absently stroking the rose-gold pendant with a fingertip or two. Their babies always brought her such comfort.

"Sweet." Gus closed the pillar into his fist and yanked, snapping the chain from around Olivia's neck. Her body jerked as if she'd been shocked with defibrillator paddles. He dangled the glinting charm above her for a moment, making certain she focused on it before he tucked it away in his jacket pocket. "I'll hold onto this for safekeeping. You won't need it where you're going."

"Wh-where?" Olivia whispered. Still trying to ascertain what was to be done with her, probably in hopes of getting away or calling for help. Still doing her job, after everything she had already been through. "Where are you t-taking me?"

Something vivid and frightening flashed in the visible eye of Gus's profile. Olivia saw it too, and she drew in a sharp breath, as if she knew what was coming next. And maybe she did; it had happened to her before. So damn much of this had happened to her before.

His calm, almost pleasant exterior gone, the Sandman revealed his true face then: a hard, cruel sneer, the muscles twitching with an underlying rage so big and relentless it was terrifying. And it was focused entirely on Olivia. She cringed from the hands that reached for her, but they went around her neck and began to squeeze with a casual indifference Amanda couldn't reconcile to what she was seeing.

Seconds went by before she realized her wife was being strangled, that Olivia wasn't crying out because shecouldn't.

. . .

Chapter 13: Tilt

Notes:

I'm not actually superstitious about the number 13, but I like the idea of leaving it out of this story, and this chapter is a continuation of the previous one, so calling it 12b just works. I know the past several chapters have been really rough and everyone's anxious for Liv to be saved—that's some of why I tried to include other action outside of the shipping container, so it's not all just focused on the assault. At the same time, that is the crux of the story, so it needed to be there and it needed to be bad and not glossed over. I'm still really torn between where to put chapter breaks to give everyone breathing time (... no pun intended, with this chapter), but also not drag anything out. I hope y'all are hanging in there. *group hug* And I'll just get this out of the way now: TRIGGER WARNING for rape, sexual violence, choking, and references to child abuse.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12b.

Tilt

. . .

"Oh, God. Oh, Jesus." Amanda glanced around the room in a panic, looking for a weapon to hit the man with, anything to get his hands off of— "Oh, Liv." She clawed at her own neck, as if she might somehow pry him away from Olivia by sheer force of will. By the supposed psychic connection that was proving to be a load of bullsh*t, just like the false sense of security they had let themselves fall into.

Or Amanda had, at least. Olivia wanted her and the kids close last night. She'd been on guard this morning in the bagel shop, too. Had she known she was going to die today? That it would be the last time she'd hold Amanda's hand or play with her hair until she fell asleep? The last time nursing Samantha or hearing Matilda say her sleepy goodnight I-love-yous to everyone, including the dogs. The last time getting a big, noisy smooch on the lips from Jesse, and a less demonstrative but extra tight hug from Noah.

"LET HER GO, YOU f*ckING ANIMAL!" Amanda screamed at the screen, the words ripping out of her with such guttural force she thought he might actually hear her. Wherever he was.

The Sandman went on choking Olivia, paying no mind to the useless blonde shouting at a laptop, X amount of miles away. He dodged the captain's outstretched hands, which shot up to push at his cheeks and chin, unable to find purchase enough to gouge his eyes or deliver an uppercut. He didn't even blink when she began slapping frantically at his biceps, her face turning a garish shade of red, her mouth open in a silent gag.

With a bit more pressure he would likely break Olivia's hyoid bone, an injury found most commonly in victims of strangulation. (Yeah, the dead ones.) It was oxygen deprivation that ultimately killed them, not the broken bone. Olivia could still survive, even with the fracture, though she might experience inability to swallow or airway obstruction. But she would be alive. Amanda didn't care what condition she got her wife back in, just as long as she was alive.

Olivia was fading fast. She gripped at the Sandman's hands, trying to pry his fingers away from her throat, but her eyes were beginning to flutter, rolling aimlessly behind the lids. Her face was the color of a ripe plum, the vein in her forehead startlingly prominent. Her arms sagged a little more with each second that passed.

"Come on, baby, fight," Amanda said in a small, whimpering voice she didn't recognize as her own. She briefly wondered who had let a child into the room, but the thought disappeared before it fully formed. Her only lasting thoughts were of Olivia, whom she was watching slip away.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. They were supposed to grow old together, outliving everyone except their children, and then going together, on the same day, in the same bed, their old lady hands intertwined. Amanda didn't know how to exist in the world anymore without Olivia by her side.

"Breathe," said the strange, childish voice, even more tearful than before. Amanda didn't care where it was coming from, as long as Olivia obeyed its request. Expecting her to fight in such a weakened state, to breathe when the air was being choked from her lungs, seemed unfair, callous almost. But she had to.

Amanda repeated the commands—fightandbreathe—a second, third, fourth time, until she was practically yelling them at Olivia with the same fury she had directed at Gus. She picked up the laptop by its sides and shook it viciously, only catching herself at the last second before hurtling it across the room. "Goddammit, Liv, just— just—"

The captain closed her eyes and didn't open them again, her body going limp in Gus's hands. She drifted to sleep that way sometimes, nodding off in bed with her nose in a book, glasses on, dark hair bunched around her on the pillow like a sleeping princess. Or a body in a casket.

Oh my God, she's dead! He killed her, Fin! He killed Liv! He killed my—Amanda thought she must be screaming, but her ears were ringing like they had the last time she'd been shot. She couldn't make sense of what Fin was saying or how he had gotten there, either. He deposited the laptop on the table with one hand, the other arm looped behind Amanda, lowering her into the desk chair. His lips moved without sound, until he finally said the one thing she was willing to hear.

"She ain't dead."

"What?"

Fin nodded grimly to the screen, where Olivia was indeed stirring and the Sandman was undoing the front of his pants. "Wasn't long enough to kill her. He just wanted to put her out while he . . . " The sergeant swallowed hard and didn't go on. He shook his lowered head, drew back his fist, and drove it down against the tabletop with enough force to break his knuckles. "Goddamn. I hate this motherf*cker."

The momentary rush of euphoria Amanda felt at seeing her wife move turned into a flood of guilt and despair when she realized what Fin meant. Gus didn't intend to kill Olivia—not with a million dollars on the line—just render her unconscious for the rape, which he began now, as smoothly as if he were entering a lover. Of course it was easier when Olivia wasn't struggling and had already been lubed up for him. He was more vulture than sandman, waiting for others to make the kill so he could swoop in and pick the bones clean.

A deep frown furrowed the captain's brow, her eyelids twitching rapidly but having difficulty parting. She mumbled something unintelligible, head lolling side to side, then gave a mighty cough and took a ragged, wheezing breath, like an asthmatic without an inhaler. At last her eyes squinted open, although perhaps it would have been better if they had stayed shut. When she brought Gus into focus, leaning over her and pinning both wrists above her head, she gasped and tried to jerk to back, succeeding only in bucking against the desk.

"G-g-get off," she croaked, barely above a whisper. So much damage could be done to the throat and larynx via manual strangulation, and Amanda had heard that telltale rasp in the voice of countless DV victims over the years. Including her own mother's.

She'd never expected to hear her wife sounding like that; it was bad enough imagining what it had been like for Olivia in the aftermath of being choked by Serena Benson. The bitch hadn't even taken Olivia to the hospital afterward to check for underlying injuries, opting instead to tuck the traumatized fifteen-year-old into bed with her and hold her until she cried herself to sleep.

Sometimes Amanda wondered if that incident—attempted murder, to be precise—had contributed to Olivia's change of vocal pitch in recent years. What would this one result in, assuming the captain survived it? Strangulation also had high incidences of stroke, brain injury, blood clots, respiratory issues . . .

"Try again," Gus told Olivia, gathering both of her wrists into one hand and returning his free hand to her neck. He forked it against her windpipe, bearing down hard, though she had barely regained enough consciousness or strength to resist beyond a few spasmodic jerks of the arms and shoulders.

Inches from the captain's face, he studied her intently as she slipped back under, his rocking hips picking up speed. It wasn't just about conditioning her to respond appropriately; the sad*stic f*cker was getting off on depriving Olivia of air. On having the power to end her life or restore it with the touch of a hand.Oh, Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream . . .

"Jesus Christ." Amanda gripped the armrests of her chair as if she were on a roller coaster. She pictured herself standing up and heaving it through the plate glass wall to the interview room. She thought about punching the table, as the sergeant had done, but if she started that, she probably wouldn't stop. It was like being in a straitjacket, this sitting here dreaming about all the actions she couldn't take. Soon she really would go insane. "I'm gonna kill him, Fin. I'm gonna f*ckin' hunt him down and kill him."

Fin gave no indication whether or not he had heard. His jaw was clenched so tightly he probably couldn't have spoken, even if he wanted to. His fists were knuckle-down on the table, hard enough to leave indentations. In all the years Amanda had known him, she'd never seen him look so much like he might be willing to kill someone with his bare hands. And like he would succeed.

Ten seconds was all it took to render Olivia unconscious, ten more for Gus to revive her with a vicious thrust, a vicious squeeze at her breasts. (Fin looked away.) She whimpered this time and expelled a single feeble cough, but her terror at waking to find she was being raped had dissipated. Now she shook her head so faintly it was almost imperceptible. Air puffed from her lips until she managed to form one raspy word: "Please."

"Please what, Olivia? Please f*ck you harder? Faster? You'll have to be more specific." Gus twitched the corner of his mouth in what must have been his version of a smile. It went no further on his dead profile. Amanda could tell he was conventionally attractive, hawk-featured and well-dressed, but to her, he looked like the worst monster of them all.

He looked like the sandman, bringer of nightmares and infinite sleep.

With a great deal of effort, forcing tears from her eyes and a few more fruitless attempts at speech from her lips, Olivia finally choked out a shakynothat sounded more like a question than a refusal. "Please no?"

The Sandman shook his head as if he had been let down by someone for whom he'd had high hopes. Someone who just hadn't learned her lesson yet. "Wrong answer," he said flatly, and lowered his hand toward Olivia again. Her eyes widened as it clamped heavily over her mouth, the thumb pinching her nose shut against the side of the forefinger. Her face looked so small beneath the large, unforgiving grasp.

"f*ck." Amanda muttered the curse below her breath, then held it in—the swearing and the breathing—not wanting to do either while her wife was unable to even gasp for air.

It took longer to suffocate than it did to die from lack of blood to the brain, but Olivia's panicked state and the previous choking had already drained her oxygen supply. She faded quickly, the frantic jerks of her head slowing to a sleepy nod, before Amanda's lungs even started to burn. Her huge brown eyes, twice their normal size in her frightened, partially covered face, rolled to white. Horribly, sickeningly, Amanda thought of the blank spaces between rotating symbols in slot machine reels. Her gorge rose without warning, and she would have vomited right there on the keyboard if Olivia's eyelids hadn't closed over the sclera.

"Stop," she gritted through her teeth, when Gus didn't immediately release Olivia and let her breathe. So many times Amanda had woken in the middle of the night and squinted through the darkness to see the rise and fall of her sleeping wife's chest, not content until she was positive the comforter had moved, that there had been the tiniest of sighs. So many times she had dreamed that she'd failed to resuscitate Olivia that day in the Mangler's lair. "Goddamn you, let her go!" She slapped the table on both sides of the laptop, ready to use her fists next, if Gus didn't listen.

"He will," Fin said, though he didn't sound convinced. "She ain't no good to him dead, or . . . "

Brain damaged? In a vegetative state? Drooling into a paper cup? Before Fin could elaborate, the other man took his hand away from Olivia's face, and finding her unresponsive, pumped harder. When that didn't work, he shook her by the chin, cuffed her lightly on the cheek, blew in her face. He muttered what sounded like, "Come on, bitch, quit playing possum," and butted the heel of his palm twice against her temple.

On the third blow, Olivia's eyes cracked open barely enough to part her lashes. Amanda sank back against her chair, clutching her chest and gulping at the air as if she were the one who had gone without it for at least fifteen seconds. Not long in the grand scheme of things, but a significant interruption after repeated loss of consciousness and respiration. She didn't know how much more Olivia could take without eventually not waking up at all.

"She's strong," Fin said, as if he were reading Amanda's mind. Or just her trembling hands and the tears that now came as spontaneously as blinking. Breathing. She wasn't even wiping them away anymore. "Liv's been through a helluva lot—"

"Please do not say she's been through worse," Amanda snapped. Fin was the last person she wanted to take out her anger and fear on, but he was also the easiest target right then. He'd been working with Olivia when Amanda was still an undergraduate and the police academy was just a distant twinkle in her eye.

He had been there to stop Lowell Harris as the CO orally sodomized Olivia; he'd been first on the scene with Amaro when they found Olivia in that beach house, shellshocked and clutching a bloody iron bar; and he had burst into the warehouse with EMTs and half the force behind him after the Mangler nearly succeeded in slashing Olivia's throat.

Always a day late and a dollar short was Sergeant Tutuola. At least when it came to protecting Olivia. Yeah, he had her back, all right.

"You don't know half of what she's been through, so just shut your damn mouth." Amanda crossed her arms over her chest, refusing to look at Fin—refusing to look anywhere but at the livestream. It felt good to be mean, especially in defense of her wife, whom she had failed so tremendously. "She shouldn't have to keep surviving this sh*t."

"That's not what I was going to—"

"Shh." Amanda waved her hand to silence the sergeant when Olivia, still not fully lucid after the last bout of asphyxiation, began to mumble something to the man above her, raping her. At first it wasn't loud enough to make out, but the captain kept repeating the same broken phrase until a few of the words were detectable.

"Mah . . . me. Suh-sorry. Um sorr— sorry, Mom. Me, I'm . . . "

I'm sorry, Mommy.

Amanda's insides crumbled then, the fury that had just bolstered her gone in an instant, and she clapped both hands over her mouth to keep a sob from escaping. Olivia was apologizing to her mother. The mother who had shoved her headfirst into a brick wall and, while she was on the floor, bleeding and probably concussed, climbed on top of Olivia to strangle her.

It was probably better that the captain had regressed to that moment, instead of being present for this one, but it tore so viciously at Amanda's heart she felt as though a bullet had ripped through her chest this time, rather than the shoulder or the abdomen. She clamped a hand over her heart, like that would stop the blood from pouring out. But the wound was too grievous, and she would surely die. She'd already died a thousand times since Olivia had been thrown into that van.

Her one consolation was that Gus and his merry band of rapists likely wouldn't understand what Olivia was saying. Amanda had only pieced it together because she was accustomed to her wife mumbling in her sleep. The captain usually spoke to her rapists at nighttime, mostly pleading, often crying, and sometimes apologizing, as she did now. But this was the first time Amanda had heard Olivia talk to her mother. She looked so small and frightened, as she must have at fifteen, with Serena choking the life out of her.

"What's that?" Gus asked, an ear inclined in Olivia's direction. He slowed his thrusting to a rhythm more suited to conversation. "You'll have to speak up, my dear. And I better not hear another refusal from these lovely pink lips." He squeezed Olivia's cheeks with the same hand he'd used to strangle and smother her, forming her mouth into a fishlike pucker. Another time, another place, it would have been cute, but now it was disturbingly sad*stic and cruel. "Agreed?"

Olivia had regained enough awareness—specifically when the Sandman grabbed her face—to give a small, affirmative nod. "Y-yes," she said in a sandpaper-whisper, exaggerated by her bowed lips. They were indeed very pink, the skin around them puffy and inflamed from having two different dicks shoved into her mouth. (If you think that's bad, wait till you see the other pair, said a voice in Amanda's head; she cringed inwardly, desperate never to hear it again.)

"Smart girl. Now, what is so important you just had to interrupt our special moment to say?" Gus still had Olivia's wrists pinned above her head, her fingers loosely curled, like an insect that died on its back, legs furling inward. She didn't have any fight left in her. When he let go of her face, stroking the hair from her temples and forehead with the fondness of a lover—or a father—Amanda shuddered, her insides churning; Olivia didn't react at all.

"I don't . . . " The captain furrowed her brow as if she were studying a perplexing case file full of holes and inconsistencies. "Don't remember."

Amanda tugged anxiously on her bottom lip, praying that Sandberg would accept the reply. In all likelihood, Olivia truly could not remember what she'd been mumbling while half conscious and struggling just to stay alive. She was not a convincing liar at the best of times, and certainly not while suffering and terrorized, but if the Sandman couldn't detect her honest tone or, hell, just decided he didn't like her answer, he would use it as an excuse to hurt her even worse.

Luckily, it appeared he had already lost interest by the time Olivia looked to him with trepidation, obviously fearing a reprisal as well. She winced when he made eye contact, his hips hitching at a slow and deliberate pace, reminding her where he was and what he was doing. As if she'd forgotten. "Oh well," Gus said, with such phony good cheer it sent a shiver down Amanda's spine. Men like him only sounded like that when they were planning something. "I guess you just need a way to keep that mouth of yours busy."

The meaning was clear from his inflection and the way he grazed his fingers over Olivia's lips, slipping his thumb inside her cheek like she was a prize catch to be lifted, photographed, displayed over a mantle. But until he stepped back from Olivia and rolled her onto her side at the edge of the desk, she didn't seem to register his intentions. When she did, she began to cry weakly, a sound so frail it had less substance than Samantha's first cries as a newborn.

Chin quivering rapidly, Olivia followed the Sandman with her eyes, tracking his progress as he rounded in front of her. She kept her gaze trained on his face, never letting it fall to his waistline, where he was exposed and fully erect. "I . . . I just wanna go home," she rasped, when he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "I want my family."

"Your family is dead. Your wife would never be able to look at you or touch you the same way again after seeing this. And your kids would never trust you to protect them anymore—not when you can't even protect yourself." Gus slid his hand behind Olivia's head, fisting her roughly by the hair. "My boys and I are your new family, at least until you go to your forever home. And any decent pet should be housebroken before she's sold."

The Sandman jerked on Olivia's hair, snapping her head back, her lips parting slightly in reflex. He rubbed the tip of his penis against them, trying to push his way in, yanking harder at her hair when he couldn't. "Open up like a good girl. This is your life now, Olivia, and you better get used to it."

She fended him off for only a moment more, her clenched jaw no match for his powerful grip as he wrenched it open and put his co*ck in her mouth. Simple as that. Hand in glove, sword in sheath, gun in holster. He took his time with it, more than the other men had, which meant he didn't pound away at Olivia's gag reflex and practically choke her to death. But it also meant he blocked her airway longer with each thrust, withholding the relief Olivia strained and wept and moaned for.

"Man, just let her breathe," Fin said, his voice distant in Amanda's ears. She had tuned out the sergeant and the rest of her surroundings, focusing so intently on the video feed that it overwhelmed her vision, narrowing the field around it like she was peering through a keyhole. Like Alice outside the door to Wonderland, first too large to get through, then too small. Perhaps if Amanda cried hard enough, her tears would become an ocean and carry her to wherever Olivia was being held. (And raped and tortured and strangled . . . )

It had worked for Alice.

"Breathe, baby, breathe," Amanda chanted under her breath as she watched Olivia fighting to stay conscious—and losing.

The captain's face had that same sickly purple hue as when Gus's hands were around her neck, squeezing, but this time she couldn't sputter or wheeze or mouth a silent plea. (Breathe, baby. Please breathe.) She simply faded out, like the end of a song, her hand dropping from where it had clutched at the back of Sandberg's jacket. It dangled lifelessly over the edge of the desk. (Breathe for me, Liv. Come on, baby . . .)

Amanda exhaled heavily, as if the blockage had been in her throat, when Gus eased off and shook Olivia by the hair to wake her. The dullness in her eyes as she gazed up at the man—he tilted back her head so that his face was the first thing she saw, upon waking—chilled Amanda to the bone. Olivia didn't seem to register what was happening anymore, and each subsequent fade out and fade in resulted in the same blank stare. Gus might as well have been giving her a routine dental exam rather than committing oral sodomy, for all the recognition in that look.

He put her out with his dick twice more, manly man that he was, and must have derived some sort of pleasure from it, because he was still hard when he withdrew from her mouth. "I think you're finally catching on," he said approvingly, when Olivia just lay there taking short, gasping breaths, and didn't attempt to speak. She hunched her shoulder to hide her breasts from view, but that was the only indication that Olivia Benson, as Amanda knew her, still existed.

It turned out that Olivia needn't have bothered with the modesty; Gus lifted her by the waist, drawing a hoarse cry as his arm tightened around something painful, and deposited her flat on her stomach, bent over the desk. She turned her face toward the camera, pressing her cheek to the desktop, and shut her eyes tight, as if she knew what was coming. And she probably did—Amanda knew, felt it in the pit of her stomach, like she was on a drop tower about to release. Her muscles clenched in preparation, but the bottom still dropped out, her stomach in free fall, when Gus stepped behind Olivia.

The proper term, used by hookers, p*rn stars, teenagers, and a couple of the guys Amanda had dated, was going "around the world": penetrating all three orifices during a single session of sex. Amanda had done it for fun once, but not with her wife. She doubted Olivia had ever done it at all, until now—Gus greased his fingers in the tub of Vaseline that was still open on the desk, swiped them between Olivia's buttocks, and entered her without ceremony.

He didn't grunt and groan like the other men. If not for the excruciating pain that twisted Olivia's features into a mask of suffering, it would have been difficult to tell if he was even inside. But as it always did, Olivia's face told the full story, and there was no questioning that she was being hurt again. Terribly hurt, though she didn't make a sound to express it, either. The silence was worse than the sobbing and the screams. Standing at the gates of hell and hearing nothing beyond was far more terrifying than any symphony of torture.

And yet there were no words to say when Amanda turned to Fin and saw her own helplessness reflected back at her. They watched in total silence as the Sandman completed the rape. He hardly broke a sweat, even when he burrowed his hands between Olivia and the desk, gripping her breasts and using them to pull her against him, her ass colliding with his pelvis; she bit into the side of her hand and never once opened her eyes as he jerked her back and forth, rattling the entire desk beneath them.

When he finally came, the only indications were a hunch in his shoulders and the ceasing of that maddening squeak from the rickety old desk. Beyond a faint groan, Olivia barely reacted to him pulling out, though it must have hurt tremendously. She tried to tuck in her bottom, winced, and sagged in defeat, looking as though she might collapse onto the floor.

Gus held her up with a hand on her back, the other producing a cloth from his pants pocket. He used it to wipe off his dick before zipping up, then folded the dirty side neatly onto itself and pocketed the rag again. Fastidious little f*cker that he was. Meanwhile, his sem*n and that of four other men oozed out of Olivia, stained pink with her blood, and crusted on her skin like the glaze on a doughnut.

The vivid, vile mental image finally sent Amanda scrambling for the wastebasket. She snatched it up and stuck her face inside the brim just in time, though most of what she expelled was clear liquid and sticky saliva that had to be spat out forcefully. Globs of spittle clung to her lips and chin nevertheless. She brushed it off with the sleeve of Olivia's sweatshirt, dropping back into her seat and stowing the wastebasket next to her feet. Just in case.

That was how she knew the video was deeply affecting Fin as well. He didn't ask if she was all right, or even acknowledge that he'd heard or seen her puking into the garbage. His eyes were locked on Olivia, who lay draped over the desk like it was a life raft, and crying silently, the tears trickling from her unblinking eyes as if she was unaware they fell. She trembled uncontrollably, and each attempt to swallow was tentative, laborious.

"She's so cold," Amanda said in a broken whisper, her hand going to the screen on instinct, covering her wife's nude and battered body. She looked anxiously at Fin. "Maybe they've got her in some kind of refrigerated unit? Or— or a cellar? Have you checked that out?"

"She's probably in shock, Amanda," Fin said gently, resting a hand on her shoulder. It felt like he was preparing to break some difficult news ("I'm sorry, Mrs. Rollins-Benson, your wife didn't make it . . . "), and she shrugged him off at once. "You'd see her breath if it was that cold. And theirs. Plus, those big studio lights are hot beating down on you."

"Fine, if you're so all-knowing then you tell me—where the hell is she, Sergeant? You got any other ideas, or you just lettin' Garland do all the work for you?" Amanda infused the questions with every ounce of hatred she had for the men on the screen. It felt awful speaking to Fin that way, but it was better than the awful of seeing her wife be violently raped over and over.

"I don't know where these bastards took her any more than you do. But I got our best guys on it. Kat's hunting down that broad from prison you told her about. And Ihadto inform the chief, Rollins, you know that. I'm lucky he's even letting me work this case myself, being Liv's friend for so long." He cast a sorrowful glance at the laptop, swallowed hard. "I hate dealing with the Feds, but it'll be good to have—"

"The Feds? You brought the FBI into this? What the hell, Fin, they'll take over everything. And get in the way. They don't care about finding some cop." Amanda gestured to Olivia, shivering inside a featureless box (a garage, maybe? Another damn warehouse?) that could be any number of places throughout the city. Or beyond. "They don't care about Liv like we do."

"It wasn't my choice. Garland called them in. Told you that already." Fin said the last part so softly Amanda almost didn't hear. She did vaguely recall him mentioning the feebs getting involved, but she had been too preoccupied by the livestream—by watching her wife beg, suffer, bleed—for the information to sink in. "She's being held by a known sex trafficker who's moved vics across state lines, it's a federal case. And it's more eyes and better equipment. Trust me, they wanna get these f*ckers, too. Anybody who sees this sh*t would."

Amanda gave a dull nod, pretending to agree so he would stop talking. He was probably right; the more people looking for Olivia, the better. And the FBI did have better tracking software and a farther reach than the NYPD. But something else Fin had said echoed in Amanda's ears and turned her stomach. "More eyes," she murmured to herself. She grazed the pad of her thumb along the onscreen image of Olivia's back, unable to move her hand away and expose her captain, her wife, again.

Too many people had seen Olivia being assaulted already. Each new pair of eyes was just one more person she would have to add to an already tragically long list of violators.

"Huh?" Fin asked.

"Nothing."

"You okay?"

Amanda tried to scoff, but it lacked conviction. "What do you think? My wife just got gang banged and strangled nearly to death. Would you be okay if it was Phoebe lying on that desk?"

"No. I'd probably be going outta my mind." Fin twisted absently at his engagement ring, then caught himself and made a fist with that hand. "That's why I'm asking. You didn't take the pills the EMT left—"

"I ain't taking some sh*t to calm me down when Liv can't even—" Amanda bit her bottom lip, unable to continue without succumbing to the lump in her throat. She shook her head instead, refusing the sedatives and the tears.

"Okay, I hear you. But you can't keep going on like this, either. It ain't healthy. What about . . . what about your therapist? I could call her for you. Someone should be here with you when I can't."

"Oh Christ, I do not need you to call my shrink like I'm some mental patient off her meds. Jesus, Fin." Amanda shot an incredulous look at her old partner, angry that he would suggest such a thing. He thought therapy was an even bigger sham than she did—or she had, at one time. "Besides that, she's out of the country till next month. Bali or somewhere. Must be nice."

If Amanda were in Bali right now, Olivia would be with her, instead of naked and draped over a desk, looking half dead and fully shattered. f*ck Hanover and her meditation retreat. No amount of spiritual guidance or special interview techniques was going to rescue Olivia from the hell she was in, and it sure as sh*t wouldn't make Amanda feel any better.

"You need to talk to someone, Amanda. What about—"

"Fine, I'll call Carisi," Amanda snapped, tossing out the first name that came to mind. She had no intentions of calling anyone, least of all the former detective who sometimes still looked at her with a bit too much longing. Talking would only distract her from Olivia, and the current conversation had already done too much of that. "Or Daphne. Just get off my back about it, I've got enough to worry about as it is."

Fin sighed and looked to the screen. He had more to say, that much was obvious just from the sound of his agitated breathing, but he kept it to himself. "Yeah, okay. I should get back out there. Are you gonna be all ri—"

"Go. I'm fine. Make sure you check out the Bronx. The Sandberg kid went to school there, so it's probably close to home." Amanda narrowed her eyes at the boy's father Gus, who had left off stroking Olivia's skin with admiration to huddle up with the other men, as if they were discussing football strategies. "Daddy might still be operating out of that area."

"Yeah, we're already on it." The sergeant was halfway to the door when he glanced back, prepared to add something he no doubt meant to be helpful, though nothing of the sort would hold much water at present. Whatever it had been, he never got to share, because two things happened at once: first, the men on the screen broke their huddle and converged on Olivia like a wolf pack on a wounded deer.

And second, a piercing voice Amanda hadn't heard in years and only recognized by the thick accent—nothing like the coarse ones in this city, but very much like the drawls of Atlanta—rang out in the squad room.

"Sweet baby Jesus. Who's in charge around here while that poor little girl is waiting on y'all to get up off your asses and bring her home?"

. . .

Chapter 14: F5

Notes:

Did someone say "Dana Lewis"? :D She's a favorite character of mine (Marcia Gay Harden is in-freaking-credible), and I was bummed out she got such a raw, sh*tty deal on the show. It never added up to me, so here's my interpretation of events. Hope you guys like it. Trigger warnings are a bit more mild on this one, too: still mentions of rape/sexual violence, but they're more like flashes. In other good news, my schedule has opened up recently, so I should be able to keep a more consistent posting schedule from now on.

Chapter Text

The winds are getting stronger
And the sky is falling through
And you ain't got much longer
Til the rage rips off the roof
I'm a tornado... and I'm coming after you...

- "Tornado," Little Big Town

Chapter 14.

F5

. . .

After years spent infiltrating hate groups and terrorist cells, you developed a strong stomach. Dealing with the slime of the earth, befriending them and being welcomed into the fold, you had to. If there was a single doubt in your mind, they smelled it on you—and you could kiss your sorry ass goodbye.

Dana Lewis had built an entire career around that ability to put aside her morals and sometimes her conscience (the still, small voice Mama had always talked about), to shapeshift and become that which she was not. There were moments when she had almost lost her way, after witnessing the atrocities humans were capable of, and suffering a few of them herself.

But she had stayed the course through it all, everything from living and working among white supremacists who thought nothing of spitting on a child of color (she had developed stomach ulcers during that case), to her own rape by a man she still had nightmares about from time to time. Getting arrested for murder so she could be sent to Bedford Hills Correctional and take down a powerful criminal network, which consisted of COs, prisoners, and outside sources alike, had been no walk in the park, either.

She'd taken part in a prison riot, literally been shanked by an inmate who just didn't like her face, and witnessed three murders during the Bedford stretch.

Yet, in all that time, and in her years of undercover work since then, Dana had never seen anything as devastating or as gut-wrenching as the scene unfolding on the flat-screen a few yards away. After the rape, she had specifically avoided cases involving sex crimes, but you could never escape it altogether. Sooner or later, some scumbag raped some defenseless girl, and Dana couldn't just turn tail and run.

The horrors she encountered while busting human trafficking rings were many, but she didn't know those people. No matter how unlivable the conditions, how unspeakable the abuse, she could go home at night, feed her fish, and mostly forget the victims' faces by the time she dozed off in her nice warm bed. There were too many to remember them all.

But this face belonged to Olivia Benson. Though they hadn't spoken in years—not since Dana led the younger woman to believe she was guilty of the murder she had framed herself for—she considered Olivia a friend. Shelikedthe policewoman, respected her even, and there were precious few people left whom she could say that about.

In another life, Dana might even have liked Olivia as more than a friend.

She closed her eyes and gathered herself just as one of the men on the screen pushed Olivia's head towards his erect penis, while two of the others penetrated her from the front and the back. Dana expected screaming, muffled cries, sounds of a tussle—the Olivia Benson she had known was one helluva fighter, God love her—but she heard nothing beyond the men's lewd panting and jeering.

For a moment she felt the weight of a two hundred and twenty pound man on top of her, and then it was gone. She opened her eyes just to be sure, but all she saw was her old friend, who had dedicated her whole life to protecting women from similar degradation, being torn apart. It was enough to make you lose your faith in humanity, if you even had any left to begin with. She had seriously begun to doubt hers, and she was quickly losing confidence in the operation of this squad room as well.

Assistant Director Danvers hadn't had time to fill Dana in on what to expect upon arrival at Manhattan SVU, only that their captain had been abducted by Dreamland, the title some irreverent twerp of a field agent had slapped on the trafficking ring headed by Gustav Sandberg, AKA The Sandman. He wasn't her division's prime target—the head of the snake that needed to be lopped off, else it keep thriving—but he had risen to the top spot in Manhattan after John Drake got himself killed in a courtroom shootout with police.

That news was bad enough to make Dana break her pledge not to set foot in the one-six again. After the murder rap, she'd lost the few friends she had, and convinced herself it was better if Olivia never find out that Dana had lied to and manipulated her for the job. A couple of Christmases ago, while feeling nostalgic and lonesome for a family that didn't exist, she had almost broken down and called Olivia, but after a little preparatory digging, she discovered that the other woman was now Captain Benson and a mother of two. No way would Dana interfere—or try to compete—with that.

But the call from Chief Garland, fielded by Dana's boss and relayed to her section, sealed it. She had gathered her team and raced to the precinct, stopping just short of jumping on her motorcycle and yelling for them to meet her there as she sped away. Entering the squad room to find Olivia naked on a television screen, already in the throes of a nasty gang rape (not surprising; Dreamland didn't waste any time turning out new girls), was bad enough. It was the cops standing around like a bunch of mourners, though, watching their boss get f*cked seven ways to Sunday, and no one giving orders, that really pissed Dana off.

f*cking amateur hour at the NYPD, ladies and gents.

She was about to crank up the volume and the bitchiness on her previous inquiry—who was running this sh*t show?—when the door to what she vaguely recalled as an interview room swung open. "What the hell?" asked Detective Tutuola, gaping at her as if she were Jesus Christ arisen from the tomb.

Dana usually did enjoy making an entrance, but now was not the time. Without giving the detective a chance to do much more than step aside, she plowed into the room at full force. Though she lacked the height advantage, she was stout and bullheaded, a combo that had carried her through Quantico and prison. Men and inmates, it turned out, did not know how to handle a woman they couldn't intimidate.

"Long story. Detective Tutuola." Dana tipped him a brief nod. She had always liked the man, and she would have preferred giving him the courtesy of an explanation. But as her daddy used to say, want in one hand and sh*t in the other. "Who has seniority in this—"

"What the f*ck are you doing here?"

A female voice this time. Dana hadn't noticed anyone else in the room, a gross oversight that was totally unlike her. She chalked it up to being shaken by what she'd seen in the bullpen, and turned with a sharp retort on her lips. It died out when she saw the little blond detective she just barely recalled from her last summons to the precinct. Dana couldn't remember the girl's name (Roland, maybe?), but she did remember the hero worship in those blue eyes every time they were fixed on Olivia Benson.

It had amused Dana—Benson was woefully oblivious to the adoration—and annoyed her at the same time—if any cute, sassy Southern girl got to make eyes at Olivia, it should be Dana herself. She'd just never found the right moment. And now . . . Olivia looked like a boneless, lifeless rag doll the men were twisting and posing for their sick pleasure.

The blonde had been watching the rape on a laptop, which her eyes kept straying back to, and she looked as if she'd recently done some heavy-duty bawling. Her entire face was puffy and red as fire. She looked like a grief-stricken child sitting there in that oversized NYPD sweatshirt, and Dana softened her expression accordingly.

"I'm here to help you get your captain back alive, Detective," she said. Expecting that to be that, she glanced to Fin, who now regarded her with less apostolic amazement and more officerial suspicion. But before she could continue, the little blond girl had to put in her two cents again.

"Like hell ya are. She sent your ass to prison for killin' a pregnant woman. I don't know how you got out already, but you ain't FBI anymore, sister. So just turn your baby-killer ass around and get the hell outta here. Go on, git." The detective swiped at a stack of files in front of her, scattering them across the table. They coughed out several loose sheets of paper that flapped in Dana's direction like oncoming birds.

Well, the girl had sass, Dana would give her that. And the accent was pure Georgia sticks if she had ever heard one. They probably had some kinfolk in common; she had lots of family over that way. But Southern roots and the possibility of being related weren't enough to get on Dana's good side, especially with an attitude like that.

"Now, you listen here, babysister, I'm—"

"Hold up, hold up." Detective Tutuola raised his hands, one palm facing the blonde, the other pointed at Dana. There was an authoritative tone to his voice that she didn't recall hearing during their past encounters. "I think she's still FBI, Rollins. I dunno how. But check out the jacket, and she's got a squad out there." He jerked a nod at the plate glass window and the other agents setting up headquarters in the outer room. "And since I'm Liv's second, I gotta ask: how the hellareyou here, Lewis?"

Rollins. That was the blonde's name. And Tutuola had moved up the ranks since last time; good for him, he was a solid cop. "Look, Detective, Sergeant—" Fin answered Dana's questioning glance with an affirmative nod. "It's a long story. Suffice it to say, I'm obviously not a murderin' baby killer. I needed to get into prison undercover, and it had to be believable. Now that assignment is over, and I'm on to the next."

"She's not a goddamn assignment," Rollins snarled, shooting out of her chair like she was spring loaded. She stood quivering with fury from her white-blond head to her clunky tennis shoes—odd attire for an on-duty detective—and appeared for a moment as if she might launch across the table herself and throttle Dana.

Instead, she cast a forlorn look at the laptop, where the men were switching positions, laughing and jostling Olivia between them in a macabre, feverish orgy, and choked back a sob. "She's my wife," the blonde said in a thick, catching voice, then crouched beside the table, gripping the ledge, and rested her forehead on her hands. She shook her head and cried with such vehemence it sounded as if she were laughing hysterically. "She's not your g-goddamn assignment, she's m-my— she's my—"

The rest was swallowed up by tears, but Dana had heard the important part. Wide-eyed, she glanced to Sergeant Tutuola and received another nod of confirmation. "They just celebrated their one-year anniversary a couple months ago," he said in a hushed tone. "Got a new baby and three other little kids at home."

"Oh my Jesus." Dana's hands flew to her open mouth, covering the gap with her fingers. She was almost never left speechless, but that had done it. The horrors on the video feed were awful enough on their own; knowing they were happening to Olivia Benson was ten times worse; knowing they were happening to a mother who had four little ones depending on her was unfathomable.

And Olivia was married. To a woman. Any fantasies Dana had about riding in on a white horse to rescue the captain were swiftly and efficiently snuffed out. She prided herself on not being the jealous type—territorial, yes, but nothing so petty as jealousy—yet in that moment, she felt stung and somehow betrayed by her friend. She'd thought they would go on married to the job and dancing around their attraction to each other for at least the rest of their careers, if not their lives.

One look at the wretched creature on the laptop screen and the gutted wife below, and Dana was back on track. She wouldn't mourn the loss of that dream life any more than all the other lives she might have lived, real or imagined.

No, ma'am, she would not.

"My God. I had no idea. That is just—" Dana shook her head grimly. There truly were no words for it; anything she chose would have sounded like she was making light of the situation. And that was unacceptable. "I'm so sorry, Detective Rollins . . . "

"Amanda," the sergeant said softly, when Dana looked back for assistance.

"I'm so sorry, Amanda. This must be the worst kind of hell for you. I didn't mean to imply that Bens— that your wife is just another case. I assure you, she is not." Dana bent down and gathered the handful of papers the detective had knocked onto the floor. She stood and placed them on the table carefully, as if it were Amanda she was handling and not the rap sheets of those devils hurting Olivia. "I have the utmost respect for her, and I'll do everything in my power to get her back to you and your babies."

Amanda had turned her cheek against the back of her hands, peering over at the livestream and taking deep, juddering breaths. She tried to exhale steadily, doing some sort of breathing exercise, but she had already worked herself into a state, like a child who couldn't come down from a tantrum. "H-how'm I suh-supposed to trust y-you?" she asked, between the heaving and sniffling. "You're a liar."

After a glimpse at the screen, where a guy with more tattoos and piercings than unmarked skin was wiping his ejacul*te off of Olivia's face with a cloth, Dana gentled her voice another octave. "Honey, I don't think you have much choice. All I can do to prove I'm legit is bust my ass to find your girl. And that's what I'm here to do."

Dana considered adding that, even if she were a jilted ex who had murdered her lover's girlfriend and their unborn child, she was still the best damn G-woman to step foot out of Virginia. She nixed the idea as quick as it came. Neither cop was in the mood for her bravado just then, and despite what schoolmates and colleagues had always thought of her, she did know how to rein in her larger than life personality.

Sniffing hard, Amanda rose to her feet like the air intake had boosted her. She was a skinny little thing, the only baby weight that remained concentrated to her breasts. (Dana assumed that meant breastfeeding, though she honestly couldn't say; she'd never done such a thing—or had children, for that matter.) "Ok-kay. What do you need from m-me?" the detective asked, her eyes locked on Olivia.

The captain looked as though she had deserted her body entirely, and it wasn't any wonder, with what the men were doing to it. The kid in the cap had joined in now, too. The Sandman presided over all, sometimes instructing, sometimes participating, but always making sure Olivia's face was turned to the camera.

Dana kept her eyes on him. The others were just puppets getting their strings pulled, albeit willingly. Gus Sandberg, however, was the puppeteer in this theater of the damned. There might be financiers and artistic directors with far more power than he, but in that lonely, lowly room with Olivia Benson? He was god.

"Tell me everything you know about that f*cker in the leather jacket," Dana said, pointing to Gus. "And how he ended up with your captain."

Unfortunately, neither Amanda or Fin knew much about the man known throughout the criminal circuit as The Sandman—less than Dana, in fact. He had been on the FBI's radar for some time, though it was in the past seven years that his empire had grown to troubling proportions. He'd also become far more difficult to catch, in part because he was key to bringing down the bigger fish. If the Bureau brought him in, they risked scaring off a supplier whose reach was global, not just Manhattan based.

In the meantime, the smaller fish had gotten away.

The cops had far more information on Sandberg's goons, which included two of his sons. No big shocker there, these guys loved to pass on their legacies of sin and corruption. But it was the muscular Latino man that showed the most promise as being a lead. Firstly, because Amanda had a connection to him (Dana got the sense that the sergeant and detective were leaving out parts of the story, but trusted that they weren't withholding anything critical—not with Olivia's life on the line), and secondly, becausehehad connections.

Sondra Vaughn ran her own little criminal enterprise out of Sealview Correctional, and everybody knew it. Everybody except the NYPD, it seemed. To be fair, it was out of the one-six's jurisdiction, and until now, there hadn't been any reason for the incarcerated woman to come to the attention of Manhattan SVU a second time. As for Anton Nadari, Vaughn's ex-lover, he was living the high life from his luxury cell in Sing Sing. Money really could get you everything, including special treatment in prison. Couldn't stop you from being a lowlife, though; Nadari had as much pull now as he did on the outside, if not more.

"You're looking into this Riva guy, then?" Dana asked, studying his mugshot on paper instead of his likeness on screen. He was the one currently in Benson's mouth. "And his association with Vaughn?"

"Got one of our officers on her way to Sealview now," said Tutuola. He only glanced at the livestream sparingly and for the briefest of moments. He cleared his throat and balled his hands together at chest level each time. "Might already be there. She's good. If Vaughn's involved, Kat'll get it out of her."

"She's involved," Amanda said darkly. Her eyes hadn't left the video feed of her tortured wife the entire time she'd detailed where the investigation stood. "This is her MO. Rape as revenge. It's the kind of crime women think up."

Hell hath no fury, Dana thought, but kept that tidbit to herself. It was obvious from every word out of Amanda's mouth, every tearful shudder, every heartsick expression as she guarded the laptop like a junkyard dog, that she blamed herself for her wife's predicament. And she was right about Vaughn—women weren't typically the criminal masterminds, but when they were, God help the poor soul who wronged them. Or that poor soul's wife.

"No disrespect to your officer, but how 'bout we send one of my guys out to Sealview to help lean on Vaughn?" Dana wasn't really asking—she had the authority to do it, and she would send someone, with or without the cops' approval—but it was better to stay on good terms with the people you had to work alongside of. Especially when one of them was personally involved in your case. "Might sweat it out of her if she thinks she's facing criminal charges."

The sergeant and detective gave their consent, and after Dana whistled out the door for Agent Marquez and instructed him to assist Officer Tamin in her interrogation at Sealview, she turned back to them and took a deep breath.

"Okay, here's what I know," she said, mostly addressing Fin. The Rollins girl was lost in the video stream again. "Your captain was abducted by a group of traffickers my people call Dreamland. They're located in Manhattan, but harder to lure out than those fellas in Afghanistan. The leader, the one y'all know as Sandman, is extra slippery. Moves more product in and out of this city than you would believe. Y'all took down Johnny Drake, I followed that trial . . . "

Actually, she'd still been in Bedford at the time, but she had seen the newspaper articles and news coverage that mentioned Manhattan SVU as the squad that unseated Johnny D from his throne as king pimp of New York City. After the undercover gig had ended and Dana eventually got involved in the trafficking division, she had retroactively studied the case, just to get a feel for what she was going up against.

"Well, Sandberg is just as bad, if not worse. His girls—" Dana caught herself about to say something that would be deeply insensitive to bring up in front of the spouse. (If Amanda couldn't stand to hear her wife called an assignment, she sure as sh*t wouldn't be able handle the news that many of Sandberg's girls were so psychologically damaged they ended up committing suicide, even after rescue.) She rerouted as quickly as if she were cutting a sharp corner on her chopper.

"He gets 'em from all over, 'cause he has some serious connections. That's actually how I ended up on this case. Sandberg might have a lot of clout here in the city, but even he's kissing someone else's ring. Got a guy we're looking for—"

"What'd you just say?" Amanda asked out of nowhere. It was the first indication she'd given that she heard anything other than Olivia's occasional muffled cries, which sounded much the same as the noises torture victims made after a round of waterboarding—not that Dana had ever participated. Same concept, though: the men were drowning Olivia on dry land.

"That we're looking for a guy—"

Amanda shook her head and made an impatient gesture for Dana to move it along. "No, the part about kissing a ring?" She pried her eyes away from the laptop long enough to glance over her shoulder, an odd expression on her pale face. It did look as if she had seen a ghost, but given her viewing material, that was understandable. "I've heard that somewhere before."

"Oh." Dana glanced at Fin, like he might know where this would lead. The sergeant was staring at Olivia's body—it was hard to reconcile the lifeless prop on the screen to vital, vibrant Olivia herself—and massaging his knuckles compulsively. "It's a saying," she said to Amanda, trying not to sound as impatient as she felt, standing there discussing fashion accessories. "And the guy really does wear a signet ring on his pinky. Celtic symbol of some kind. Likes to burn it into the skin of his girls. Been the only identifiable mark on some of them when they end up in the morgue."

Not until Amanda blanched a few shades whiter did Dana realize what she'd said. It was too late now to backtrack, and she wasn't the type to stutter and stammer after a faux pas. The best thing to do was just keep going. "He's a hard sumbitch to catch because he knows law enforcement like my mama knew the Bible. Thanks to you guys."

"Huh?" Fin finally looked away from his captain, his eyes a tumultuous black when they found Dana. Fairly calm on the outside, he was a raging storm within.

"He's one of yours. NYPD, that is." Dana hitched a thumb at the squad room, as if it housed the entire New York City police force in its walls. "Spent too long undercover with trafficker scum and it turned his head. Guess he sampled the merchandise one too many times and got a taste for it. Now he's the biggest cheese in the East Coast flesh trade. You can bet he had a hand in this." She gestured to the haggard, tear-stained, empty-eyed face on the laptop, then snatched her hand and her gaze away.

Sergeant Tutuola's lips curled into a sneer. "This asshole got a name? I'd like to find his training officer and rip off that dude's ball sack. Cram it down this other guy's throat when I find him."

Yes, Dana had always liked Mr. Tutuola. "Indeed he does. Fella by the name of Declan Murphy. Figures he'd be Irish, they're a bunch of—"

Before Dana could finish the less than P.C. sentence (she didn't really have anything against the Irish, and she doubted the man with the last name Tutuola and a penchant for ripping off ball sacks, and Rollins, the second most Southern female in the room, would take offense), Amanda spun her chair around so forcefully it bashed against the table.

"What the hell? Is this all a f*cking joke to you?" The detective was visibly seething, her chest heaving as if it contained a much larger creature about to claw its way out. And from the looks of it, that creature wanted to grab the nearest sharp object and jam it into Dana's carotid. "Fin, get her outta here. She's nothing but a damn liar. Prob'ly idn't even real FBI anymore, just here to get her kicks."

Deeply confused, Dana glanced at the sergeant for clarification. She had known reintegrating with the SVU squad would be tough, especially since the only one present whom she had history with was Fin, but she didn't anticipate being cussed at and thrown out of the room—at least not after they realized she was there to help.

"Rollins . . . " Fin spoke in Amanda's direction, though his eyes never left Dana's. He sounded wary, dubious, but he nodded as if he saw something in Dana's face that answered his questions. "I think she means it. There's no reason for her to lie about that. And it makes sense."

"Fin," Amanda said, the betrayal she felt evident in her rising tone. She flung her arms wide on either side of the chair. "How the hell does that make sense? Murphy's good police. He ain't some lowlife trafficker."

Fin cast an apologetic look at the detective. His elbows were tight to his sides, his hands still polishing each other like he was washing them. "I'm sorry, Amanda. I know you two got history. But I seen it plenty before. Watched a lot of good cops go bad working narcotics. They think they got it all under control until it bites 'em in the ass."

"That's drugs, it's not . . . " Amanda gestured at the laptop, looking mournfully back at it. She released a shuddering breath at the sight of Olivia surrounded by all those sweaty, grunting men. "Not this."

"You know how deep Murphy goes when he's UC. Remember all those girls who told us he pimped them out last time we arrested him? It's a thin line, and he probably crossed it one too many times."

"He said those girls were lyin'! He said he never touched them! He said—" A green tint finally put some color in Amanda's wan cheeks, and she glanced at the trash basket near her feet. She tucked her hair behind her ears several times, bending slightly forward as if she had a runner's cramp. "He's Jesse's daddy, Fin. He can't be a sex trafficker. He can't be responsible for this."

Brow knitted in concern for his colleague—who went on mutteringhe can't, he can'twhile clutching her stomach and repeatedly rocking forward in the swivel chair—the sergeant looked to Dana urgently. "Are you sure he really turned? Could he be trying not to blow his cover? We had a guy a few years back get accused of raping a prostitute, but it was a setup. Turned out he just went into the room with her and talked."

Dana had no idea what she'd walked into here at the one-six, but she got the feeling she wasn't going to make any friends during this assignment. "Negative. Murphy does a helluva lot more than talk to his girls. Bureau's had an eye on him for about eight years now. At first it looked like he was just building up his reputation, getting in good with the right folks, trying not to blow his cover, as you said. But then he came back from Serbia with a whole mess of girls supposedly rescued from a brothel there. My ass. He brought 'em back to the states to pimp 'em out himself. His communication with NYPD went dark around that time. Been AWOL ever since."

Met by absolute silence, except for the nauseating sounds coming from the laptop, Dana glanced back and forth between the cops. She might as well ask, or God knew how long they would all just be standing around like they were getting milked. "Who's Jesse?"

"She's Amanda's kid. And Liv's," Fin said quietly, when the detective made no attempt to answer. It looked as if she were crumbling on the inside, her slender frame outwardly sagging beneath the baggy sweatshirt. "Murphy's the . . . biological father. He was commanding officer of SVU for about two seconds."

The response was so unexpected, so awful, it took Dana a few moments to register what she had heard. She knew Murphy had gotten around quite a bit in his career—both of them—but she didn't recall reading anything about his stint with SVU, and she certainly hadn't come across any information about him having a daughter. With Olivia Benson's wife. He really was a chameleon, as his mandatory psych evals consistently stated.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph." Immediately after the words left her mouth, Dana bit her tongue out of habit. Her mama had always gotten after her for taking God's name in vain. She had a feeling The Big Man would forgive her this one (whowouldn'tswear after a revelation like that?), so she said a silent prayer of repentance to Mama and pushed on. "I had no idea y'all had worked that closely with him. Or that he—"

A hard, warning look from Amanda made Dana choose her next words carefully. "Had any personal stock in this . . . travesty."

They were the wrong words nonetheless.

"He doesn't," Amanda said hotly, practically rising from the chair in her vehemence. There was murder in her devil-blue eyes. "He's never even met her. Jesse. He doesn't give a damn about her or me. We got drunk and stupid one night, and I was— I used him. For my own reasons. But he used me too. He knew my—"

The detective couldn't seem to finish a full thought, let alone a full sentence. She raked her fingers through her disheveled blond hair, catching on snarls and yanking through them the way Dorothy Lewis used to comb bubblegum out of six-year-old Dana's pigtails.

"He's never reached out to you about his child?" Dana asked, trying not to sound dubious. Her own daddy had been a Virginia coal miner who died of black lung before he got to see her graduate the academy; she remembered him as a quiet, somber figure, but one whose love and dedication to his family never wavered. Even when he was in a hospital bed, coughing up blood and black mucus.

Not all fathers were that devoted, she knew. Still, it took a possessive and controlling sort to do the work Declan Murphy had appointed himself for, and men like that usually held onto their offspring and personal relationships with an iron fist. Especially the women. "Not even once?"

"Jesse ismykid. Mine and Liv's." Amanda brought her fist hard against her chest, then even harder against the table. "He doesn't have any claim on her, we dissolved his parental rights when Liv adopted her." She gasped the second she heard herself, hand flying to her mouth, eyes flying to the laptop screen. "You don't think that's why this is happening? He wouldn't. He only reached out to me the once, before Jess was even born, and then he disappeared back to . . . Serbia. Oh, Jesus."

Dana clasped her hands behind her back, waiting grimly as the poor little blonde put the pieces together for herself. She did in fact think that was precisely whythiswas happening to Olivia. The captain had become so much collateral damage (and if the men didn't give her a break soon, this might become a recovery mission, rather than an abduction case). Best to let Detective Rollins come around to the idea on her own.

"Oh, Jesus," Amanda said again, and did not feel the need to bite her tongue. She kept tearing at her hair, though. Several strands were entangled around her fingers like golden cobwebs. "He went there to bring back girls to pimp out. The sonuvabitch gave me his phone number in case I needed anything, then went back tothat?"

The detective's head lolled backward, her eyes on the ceiling, and for a second it looked as if she were about to direct a prayer heavenward. "If he is doing this because he thinks I took Jesse away from him, then it's my fault. That . . . Liv." Her hand wavered in front of the screen at which she pointed. "I talked her into dissolving his rights. I told her it wouldn't matter. I told her it wasn't the same as her growing up without a daddy. I con-convinced her— I said it would all be okay."

Despite speaking out loud, Amanda clearly was not talking to anyone in the room. She began to sob again, tears streaming along her temples and into her hairline. She took huge, gasping breaths, coughing them out, until she had to tip her head back down or risk choking. Her hand was still outstretched at the laptop, and she touched Olivia's tortured body with her fingertips.

The men appeared to have finished with the captain, at least for the moment, and mingled in the corner of the shot like addicts chatting after an NA meeting. Olivia was left to languish belly-down on the desk where they had just been raping her. From the looks of it, she didn't even have the strength to lift her head.

Fin observed the scene—Amanda trying to reach out to her wife, Olivia in such profound shock she could hardly blink—with deep sorrow, shaking his head as if he couldn't believe the injustice of it all. "I'm sorry, Amanda," he said, and gestured for Dana to follow him out of the room. "I gotta go talk with Agent Lewis some more. See if we can figure this thing out. I'll update you as soon as—"

"Oh my God, what's he doing?" Amanda leaned forward and squinted at the screen like an old, myopic woman whose hearing was also failing—she didn't appear to have heard Fin at all. And it wasn't any wonder. Gus Sandberg was approaching Olivia with a knife similar to the ones the black ops guys used. Small, efficient, and deadly. "Oh my God. Don't you f*cking touch her, you son of a bitch!"

The wife went on railing at the Sandman, her sergeant trying to no avail to quiet her, but for Dana it all faded into background noise. She was certain she was about to see Olivia being raped with that knife, and the thought made her insides feel loose and watery. Try as she might to keep the voice at bay, she heard it whisper,You got a velvet throat, honey. She shook it from her head and found herself backing towards the door, preparing to run.

But the room and all its occupants suddenly froze as Sandberg descended with the knife, each stroke of the blade swift and brutal. Olivia didn't even cry out, although she probably couldn't with her head at that angle. Sandberg had not used the knife to penetrate her, but instead grabbed Olivia's long braid, jerked her head back with it, and began sawing through the hair like he was cutting rope. "Christ Almighty," Dana breathed, halfway between relief and horror. Amanda was moaning as if the blade had plunged into her gut.

Seven or eight inches of hair came free in the man's hand with only a few quick swipes—that knife was damn sharp—and Olivia's head whiplashed forward from the abrupt separation. Her body jerked once in response, like she was dreaming about falling, then settled bonelessly back against the desk. She whimpered only when Sandberg trailed the frayed ends of the braid along the back of her shoulders and commented, "I like your tattoo, Olivia. It suits you. I'm sorry about your hair, but I have my orders. It will make a lovely souvenir for your wife, don't you think?"

Olivia flinched back when he shook the severed plait in her face, prompting her to answer. She mouthed what looked like a yes, her nod even fainter, and let her eyes drift shut against anything else that might be shoved into her face. It reminded Dana of the way small children thought they couldn't be seen if their eyes were closed.

She wished she could close her eyes and block out this miserable damn mess too. But she had a job to do, and if she did it well enough, Olivia would be freed from the hell she was in. (Nice try, Lewis. You know she will never be free of this, even if you get her out alive. The hell is inside her now, same as it is in y—)

"Sergeant." Perhaps Dana spoke too abruptly, but she needed to get out of the small, confining room and into the bullpen where she could bark orders and lead the charge, whenever that might be. She felt for Amanda, she really did, but the detective was useless to the investigation right now—a distraught and sobbing spouse, more hindrance than help. Frankly, she didn't even belong at the precinct until this was over. "May I have a word?"

Manhattan SVU was already pushing the limits of protocol just by allowing Fin, a longtime colleague of Olivia's, to head the search for its captain. Dana would let that one slide because it was a small division and they needed all the help they could get, but the hysterical wife had to go.

She said as much to the sergeant after he told Amanda he would be back to check on her soon (no response) and reluctantly bowed out of the room. "Detective Rollins should not be here, Sergeant. She'd be better off at home with her kids than seeing this." Dana gestured to the flat-screen on the wall, but she could have pointed at any nearby electronic device. Olivia's haunted, hollow eyes stared out from all of them.

"I know. But you try making Rollins do something she don't wanna do." Fin quickly put up a hand to stop Dana when she reached for the interview room door, prepared to take on the task. "Hold up. She ain't gonna listen to you. She's already been through hell with Liv. You can't keep those two apart, I'm tellin' ya. If she's here, at least we can keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn't go off looking for Liv by herself."

Dana raised her eyebrows, as if the idea of a female officer taking matters into her own hands was unheard of, though she had done just that on numerous occasions. She'd gone after her own rapist and would have killed him if not for her badly trembling hands and that jackass Stabler taking the bullet instead. She still wished she hadn't missed.

What might she be willing to do in Amanda's place? To rescue—and avenge—the woman she loved?

"And these dumbf*cks contacted her first, so we need her here in case they try again. Or in case they decide to grab her next." Fin cast a troubled glance back at his detective, visible through the plate glass, still weeping and tearing at her hair like Jewish mourners rending their clothes at a funeral. "I know she ain't okay, but she'd be worse at home. And I'm gonna call someone for her. She ain't gonna like it, but . . . "

"Okay, Sergeant. You convinced me. I'll leave her be." Dana cuffed the man lightly on the arm, trying for her usual camaraderie and ease, but only able to muster a halfhearted smile. "Let's you and me find Benson."

Fin nodded and fell into step with her. "Hey, Lewis?"

"Yeah?"

"Just call me Fin."

. . .

Chapter 15: Funny Games

Notes:

Figures I would brag about being able to post more consistently, then get roped into helping someone move and end up posting late again. Sorry, guys. I really did try to get home all day to have this up sooner. And it's a shorter one. But I am considering posting the next chapter early, if there's interest. Let me know. :) This one's not as graphic, either, but I'll include a mild trigger warning for mentions of rape/sexual violence.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15.

Funny Games

. . .

Sondra Vaughn gazed mildly across the table at the female officer and the G-man. A casual observer might have mistaken the interaction as an agreeable one, just a trio of friends shooting the bull, or whatever they did on the outside these days. Sondra's orange jumpsuit and the metal loop she was handcuffed to in the table probably would have given her away, though.

Despite the interruption to her viewing party with Parker, she was in a good mood. So far, Phase One had played out even better than she'd hoped. At first it had been somewhat difficult to watch, especially when the Benson woman was still present enough to react strongly to the harsher stimuli. She was tougher than Sondra would have expected, based on the candids of her with her kids. And truth be told, Sondra had never viewed any of the rapes she'd ordered before. She almost felt sorry for the pretty captain.

But that wore off the longer the rape went on, Olivia's decompensation to a whimpering, rung-out rag making it easier to forget she was real. Eventually it was like watching p*rn, just a lot of dicks going into various holes, a lot of over the top moaning that kept Parker frantically thumbing at the volume control on his phone. Sondra had surprised him—no more than she surprised herself—by getting turned on while Gus choked and raped Amanda's wife at the same time; she'd let him finger her till she came, her eyes barely leaving the screen.

It must have been the thrill of victory, of dominating by proxy, and knowing that the bitch detective was suffering terribly, that made her so horny. Even now she was wet just thinking about it. She smiled at the dark-haired girl who studied her with narrowed eyes and kept sighing impatiently. Officer Tamin of SVU, she had introduced herself, not bothering to get up when Sondra entered the room usually reserved for inmates and their lawyers. A colleague of Amanda Rollins, then. That had piqued Sondra's interest.

She was a bit disappointed that they had connected the abduction to her so quickly, but her old pal Rollins hadn't been stupid. Reckless and immature, yes, but not stupid. That was all right, though. Sondra was smarter. She could stall and throw these kids so far off the scent they would never even come close to finding Benson.

They were both young, early thirties at best. It was almost too easy. If Rollins herself had shown up, that might have been a challenge—Sondra wouldn't have been able to contain her gloating. She was watching Olivia take it from three guys at once (and two alternates) when the walkie on Parker's utility belt crackled to life, the warden requesting that someone in D block escort Vaughn to interview room one. Parker had practically sh*t himself running away, although he did promise to keep watching the livestream and bring her updates as soon as it was safe.

It might not be for a while, but she was satisfied with what she had seen. Even if the whole plan unraveled from here, she'd already won. She had her justice, and anything else that worked in her favor after this was just icing.

Her old friend Gus and his boys were probably still spreading their icing all over the Benson woman that very moment. Sondra smiled at the thought—and the pun—and waited for one of her visitors to break. She could see it in their faces, and in the antsy movements of the girl officer. Probably hoped she'd be the one to crack the case and rescue her unfortunate boss.

Good luck, little girl.

"You're in an awfully cheerful mood for somebody who's in prison," Tamin finally said. She began that incessant tapping with her pen again, the end thwacking her open notepad.

Small, repetitive noises usually irritated Sondra—she had once incited Anton to shoot a macaw that perched outside their villa bedroom every morning in Brazil—but this one she would tolerate. It sounded like the steady ticking of a clock, which reminded her of the time that must be passing so terribly slowly for Amanda and her poor, dear wife.

"I didn't realize that was against the rules." Sondra shrugged lightly, though not indifferently. She had a reputation for being cool and calculating, but today she was Little Miss Sunshine. Innocent as can be.

This time it was the boy agent who spoke. "It's not. It's just unusual coming from an inmate who got herself transferred to a high-security wing for stabbing another prisoner." He looked up from Sondra's criminal file, open beneath his folded hands on the table. He smiled. "And earned herself a longer sentence. That doesn't sound like someone who has much to be cheerful about."

The little sh*t was trying to rile her up so she would make a mistake, but it wasn't going to work. Sondra didn't make mistakes when she was angry, she just got crueler. "I had a lot of issues with self-control back then. I've learned how to manage it, through vigilance, counseling, and prayer. I'm not the same person anymore."

Tamin snorted. "Seriously? You found Jesus in The Hole, so now you don't set women up to be raped anymore? That what you're going with?"

A silent but delightful exchange took place between Sondra's guests after that brief outburst; the boy, it seemed, did not want the girl to reveal the nature of their visit quite so soon, and he appeared to nudge her under the table. The girl didn't give a damn about establishing rapport with the prisoner, and she jerked away from his knee or foot, scowling. It was like sitting at the third-grade lunch table, and Sondra was enjoying every minute.

"I've regretted that every day since it happened," she said, playing up the repentant brown eyes and heavy heart. In reality, she no longer recalled the names of any of the women whose rapes she'd ordered, including the one that landed her in this dump. The only name that mattered now was Olivia Benson, but they would have to rip out Sondra's fingernails one by one with pliers before she would implicate herself.

"That poor woman. Not a day goes by when I don't wish I could apologize to her. I know it would never make up for what she went through, but if I could give her even the smallest bit of peace . . . " Sondra hung her head in shame, though she was really just hiding a smile. She deserved a f*cking Oscar for her performance. She would probably be the first Black woman to win the award while behind bars. Maybe they would send a camera crew and roll out a red carpet in the exercise yard.

"Cut the crap, lady. We know you're not some reformed sinner, or whatever you're trying to sell us. You probably got half this prison in your back pocket." Tamin jabbed her pen into the notepad, impressing her point. "And we don't have time to sit here while you pretend to be Mother Theresa. My boss is out there suffering somewhere, thanks to you. Tell us where she is so we can go get her. And call off your goons while you're at it."

"Officer," Marquez said sharply, glaring at Tamin like he wanted to throttle her. Just like poor, sweet Captain Benson when Gus put it in her. The girl returned the glare, looking as though she had some choice words for her male counterpart, but she held her tongue for the time being.

This good agent, bad cop routine was almost as entertaining as the livestream on Parker's phone. Sondra wouldn't have had the patience for such amateur league bullsh*t on the outside, but the venerable halls of Sealview had lowered her standards somewhat. She gave it a few more moments, letting them stew in their young, impetuous juices, then widened her eyes in shock.

"Your boss?" she asked, perhaps going a little overboard with the breathless dismay. For some reason, she couldn't stop picturing Vivien Leigh inGone with the Wind. She hadn't watched the movie since she was a kid, before its White-ass propaganda ever occurred to her, but she had always loved that spoiled, bitchy Scarlett O'Hara. "Something happened to her? That's terrible. I don't know anything about that, though. I don't even know who your boss is."

And frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

"Like hell you don't. She's the same commanding officer who was in charge of SVU when Detective Rollins took down your shady little gambling club and your lowlife boyfriend." Officer Tamin felt pretty confident that mentioning the club and Anton would get a big reaction, that much was obvious from the way her face fell when Sondra remained serene. "She's captain now, and a damn good one. So, unless you want every cop in Manhattan up your ass for the next however long, you better start talking."

Sondra had to hand it to the girl—that was a great line. Vivid imagery and just crude enough to be funny. It was something Sondra might have said herself during the days of running Anton's club and handling the deadbeat gambling addicts who thought they could cheat her out of what they owed. She wondered if the officer knew that Detective Rollins, whom she spoke of with such esteem, was one of those deadbeat cheaters. And a dirty snitch.

"I'm not sure what to tell you, Officer, I didn't meet your captain back then. I have no idea what she even looks like."

Not so pretty anymore, Sondra added silently, lips pressed into a prim, thin line. If she wasn't careful, she was going to get overconfident and make one of her clever remarks out loud, and then she'd really be screwed. Best to dial it down just a notch and let Tamin be the one who said too much.

"How is Amanda these days?" she queried, hoping for a reference to how the blond bitch was doing today specifically. "She and I worked well together before she stabbed me in the back. Not that I hold it against her. She had to play the good girl to keep her job, I get it. I do hope she's gotten help for her . . . habits. For her children's sake."

Luckily Tamin was busy trying to process the information—she didn't know about Rollins' darker side after all—and didn't notice Sondra's slip about the kids. Agent Marquez, however, eyed her with suspicion.

"How do you know she has children?" he asked, and again scanned the file in front of him. He had sharp little hawk eyes and they darted over the lines like he was hunting field mice. "You've been in prison for eight years. Detective Rollins' children are . . ."

"Younger than that," said Tamin smugly, when Marquez looked to her for an answer. As if that proved anything.

And anyway, it was a lie, or at least not the full truth. Sondra knew the Rollins-Benson boy would be nine in a few months. But from what information Parker had gathered for her on the kids, she also knew the boy was the adopted son of Benson. So, technically not Amanda's kid at all. The little blond girl was Amanda's eldest, and she wasn't even seven yet.

Disappointed she couldn't answer the trick question, Sondra gave a small sigh, passing it off as weariness of being misunderstood. "It was just an assumption. Eight years is a long time, and Detective Rollins is probably in her forties by now? She's an attractive woman who was rather . . . free with herself when I met her. I'd be more surprised if shedidn'thave a few kids."

"Is that because you had a child out of wedlock?" Marquez asked, his inflection never changing one way or the other. He was reading Sondra's information off a sheet inside the file as if it were no more riveting than a takeout menu. As if Nessa were just an anecdote. That baby Sondra once had in prison. "A child who died two years ago, along with her uncle, your older brother?"

For a moment, the room was awash in red and Sondra pictured herself lunging across the table to strangle the solemn young agent with the chain from her cuffs. The little prick wanted to hit her where it hurt to try and trip her up again, and he had almost succeeded. With effort, she swallowed the retort that sprang to her lips—the Rollins bitch would soon know what it was like to lose her entire family too—and forced her fists open, flattening her palms on the table.

"I don't see how that's relevant," she said evenly. Hardly the tone of a grieving mother, but she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing that pain. She said a silent prayer to Nessa, in hopes her little girl—her little girl who should be eight years old now—understood that not a day went by where Mommy didn't love and miss her. None of this would be happening otherwise. "Nessa and Royce were killed by a drunk driver. That's who I blame for their deaths, not Ms. Rollins. I would never wish something like that on another mother."

That had come to her like divine inspiration, and though it was gall to the throat to speak it aloud, in her heart she thanked sweet Nessa for sending the perfect words at the perfect moment. At least one part was true: if she ever found out who the drunk asshole was that had taken her daughter and brother away, she would end him too. For now, though, the Rollins-Benson family would suffice.

"No one said anything about you blaming her for their deaths," Tamin noted, practically pouncing on the detail like a fox diving into the snow for prey. "What makes you think that's what this is about?"

"It was implied when he brought up my child in connection with Amanda." Sondra lifted a gesture at Marquez, annoyed when the cuffs cut it short. She had taken a few acting classes to fulfill her arts requirements, but not one of them had taught her how to express herself while chained to a table. She folded her hands in front of her to discourage their use. "I don't see how they pertain to each other. Or your missing captain. She is why you're here, isn't she?"

"You know damn well that's why we're here. And I think you know exactly where she is, too."

Not exactly, no. Sondra had met Gus Sandberg a few times through Anton, but it was always on their turf. She'd heard them discussing shipping yards and knew Sandberg liked to store his "goods" in spaces along the waterfront—it made for easier smuggling and attracted little attention, because shipping containersbelongedin shipping yards—but in which spaces, Sondra was never made privy. She wasn't even sure Anton knew.

"Tell us, and you might be able to avoid federal charges," said the humorless agent, that rat bastard who had no qualms bringing up someone's dead child to get her talking. "That's a lot more time behind bars, Ms. Vaughn. Probably in a facility far more restrictive than this one."

And no qualms using scare tactics, the little sh*t.

"I have no idea where she is," Sondra said, once again relying on the truth to balance out her lies. The kids could have fun sorting out which was which when this was over. "How would I, when I'm locked up in here? And why would I go after some woman I've never met and know nothing about, instead of the one who put me in here?"

"Come now, Ms. Vaughn, you and I both know that prison doesn't hinder the savvier criminals. It just makes them more creative. And with connections like yours and Nadari's, I'm sure you've had no problem carrying out all sorts of misdeeds from inside these walls." Marquez waited expectantly, as if he thought she might start listing all the laws she'd broken since getting tossed into Sealview.

Good to see he hadn't lost his youthful idealism. Tamin, on the other hand, was getting more impatient by the minute, and she scoffed at Marquez's open-ended accusation and his belief that Sondra would spontaneously confess if he stared her down long enough. "You trying to tell me you don't know Liv— my captain and Rollins are married?" the officer demanded, sitting forward at the table. "Bullsh*t. It's your MO, lady. Set the wife up to be raped as payback for—"

"Officer." Marquez's tone was so clipped, he sounded like a drill sergeant giving orders at muster. "May I have a word with you?"

Tamin gazed at him in disbelief. "Uh, can it wait, I'm a little—"

"No, I'm afraid it can't. A word."

It was impossible not to smile as they wandered over to the farthest corner, Tamin slouching along reluctantly, preparing to get chewed out for being too impulsive or divulging too much information, or whatever was getting to Marquez. Sondra had lucked out, getting questioned by two people who obviously didn't know how to work together. Made her job—lying her ass off—that much easier. The agent's mention of her outside contacts had been a little too spot-on for Sondra's taste. And she didn't like that the girl cop had figured out why Benson was the target, rather than the Rollins bitch.

But they were still just grasping at straws, ultimately. They had no way of connecting her to Olivia Benson's abduction. She had taken down her shrine of Rollins-Benson photographs from the wall of her cell, storing them inside a pre-existing hole (she may have widened it a bit) she'd found along the side seam of her mattress, and only taking them out for a look when her cellmate was asleep or working in the wood shop. As for Gus Sandberg and his goons, Sondra had not made contact directly and Sandberg kept his transactions top secret, especially from his underlings. They might get caught and spill what little they knew, but Gus would not—no one could catch The Sandman.

That just left Parks. Sondra was confident that he would not be a problem. For one thing, he was crazy about her, but even more reassuring was his involvement in the crime. He had been her go-between with that fauxhawked friend of his and Sandberg from the beginning, and he couldn't give up Sondra without implicating himself. All the same, she didn't fully trust him not to get caught and try to take her down with him. If that happened, she had every intention of pinning the whole thing on him. Matthew Parker was the one with a long-standing vendetta against Benson, the one who had stalked her and her family, and the one who set up the abduction with his trafficker pals.

Sondra Vaughn was just an innocent woman Parker wanted to pin the crime on because of her history with the victim's wife.

It was almost too perfect.

She schooled her features and kept her hands placidly folded while the investigators returned from gesticulating in the corner. The Tamin girl was pissed and glowering, the boy agent red-faced and stiffer than before. He kept straightening the papers in Sondra's file by tapping them against the folder. "I apologize for the interruption," he said to no one in particular, though his and the cop's refusal to look at each other must mean it was for Sondra.

"It's fine. I don't have anywhere to be." Sondra shrugged. She did want to get back to her cell eventually, in case Parker returned with some more video footage, but with any luck, he was recording what she missed. It would be kind of like watching the Super Bowl after it aired, but she would take what she could get.

In the meantime, talking to Tamin and Marquez was her very own halftime show. "And it's just so senseless and terrible, what's happening to Detective Rollins' wife. I didn't know they were married. And she's been raped?"

Sondra shook her head at the tragedy of it all. "If there's anything I can do to help the poor woman, please let me know."

. . .

Chapter 16: Once Upon a Dream

Notes:

So, I'm a doofus. I totally thought my posting schedule was Monday/Wednesday, until one of y'all pointed out it's Monday/Thursday. So technically the last update was already the early one, but what the hell, I mentioned an early update and that's what you're getting. Also, I'm thoroughly enjoying the theories and conjecture I've seen popping up in the comments. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that a couple of you hit the nail on the head, while others are way off (some interesting concepts, though!), lol. As always, thanks for reading and reviewing. Chapter Trigger Warning: graphic aftermath of an assault.

Chapter Text

And I know it's true that visions are seldom all they seem
But if I know you, I know what you'll do
You'll love me at once, the way you did once . . .

- "Once Upon a Dream," Sleeping Beauty

Chapter 16.

Once Upon a Dream

. . .

Time came and went, just as the men had. She was only aware of its passage because the sounds of construction stopped and started again (second break, or a shift change?), then halted altogether. A day's work done. She could see the weary, lucky construction workers in their hard hats, eagerly tramping to their cars so they could get home for dinner with their families. But it was all inside her head, of course; there were no windows in this place, this box.

This tomb.

She must have lain there for hours, her cheek against the rusty metal desktop. For a time she had drifted off. It seemed like only seconds, but it had been long enough for her to dream she was lying on the dinner table at home, about to be carved like Easter ham and served to Amanda, their children, and the dogs, who licked their chops in anticipation. She'd flinched awake and almost rolled off the desk just as the electric knife buzzed to life—the hands that held it belonged to Lewis and every other man who had raped her—inches away from cutting groin to sternum.

When she tried to lift her head, it was too heavy and she let it thump back down on the desk. Even that little bit of effort was exhausting, and Olivia allowed herself to drift for a few moments or a few hours—there really was no difference here in The Box, where time meant nothing. Where she meant nothing.

She woke again, desperately wanting three things: to be clothed, a drink of water, and her wife. The latter, she couldn't think of without weeping, though it hurt her throat badly to cry. How she longed for Amanda to wrap her in a warm, safe embrace; to take away the pain not just in her flaming throat but in every square inch of her body. Amanda always knew how to stop the hurting, whether it was mental or physical. Amanda would come for her, would help her to heal, just as she always did . . .

"Manda," Olivia whispered, sliding back into unconsciousness before the full name had left her lips.

Manda, where are you?she asked in her dream. But there was no answer, only bright, endless space above which she floated, looking down on various scenes from throughout her life, like a scrolling timeline. Like the funhouse rides at Coney Island that conveyed you past odd and whimsical sights along a winding track.

Some of the scenes were incredible: finding Noah in the dresser drawer of that fleabag motel, and knowing he was hers from the very moment she picked him up; kissing Amanda for the first time, and finally understanding what it was to be home; her three precious little girls who brought her joy and laughter every single day, and more than made up for her own lost childhood.

But the worst moments were there as well. She saw Serena doing things that shocked and horrified her, mostly because she had forgotten they happened. Somehow, she saw her father and, though it was impossible, she recognized his scent, his smile, as if she'd actually known him all along. Lowell Harris and Calvin were there, forcing themselves into her mouth, between her breasts.

And Lewis . . . she saw everything he had done to her with stark clarity, as if it were acted out beneath a surgical light. Not just the things she had let herself remember, or the lies she'd told herself—and everyone else—because they were what she could live with, but the whole ugly truth. He had been inside much more than just her head. It should have been a life-shattering revelation, but after what she'd been through inside The Box, it felt like little more than a practice run. Lewis couldn't even keep it up long enough to leave a mark.

Then he put the revolver to his temple, said it would be the last thing she thought about before she died, and pulled the trigger.

That was when Olivia knew she must be dying. Of all the memories that had filtered by, the one of Lewis blowing his brains out was the most vivid. She felt his blood, warm on her cheek, copper in her mouth. Smelled his bowels let loose. Felt her legs start to go, then lock at the knee because
(her body still did what he wanted it to do, even when he was dead)
of the duct tape. His come dripped out of her, nauseatingly sticky.

Except that last part had never happened, at least not with Lewis. And though her legs were terribly numb and stiff beneath her, they weren't taped to table legs like she'd thought; they seemed to be dangling off the edge of something. The stink of excrement and the taste of blood were real, and as Olivia came to, she raised her head as high as she could, remembering.

A desk—no,thedesk she'd been repeatedly raped on—was the thing her legs dangled from. At some point she had crawled onto it after they left her there, bent over the metal frame like she was in a pillory. The stench was from the slop bucket she had seen (and smelled) upon arrival to The Box, and the blood she tasted was her own. As for the come, there were five possible donors, although by now the wetness she felt was probably just more of her own blood seeping out of her.

It was that thought which made her want to drift away again, but fearing she wouldn't return next time—This is the last thing you're gonna think about before you die—she forced her eyes wide. They had left one of the tripod lights on, and she winced back from the brightness as if it were a sharp, glancing blade. Everything hurt, including her eyes, which were raw and irritated from so much crying. Oh God, and her throat. She thought they might have taken a cheese grater to it. When they weren't using it on her privates.

"Ow," she whimpered and croaked, crashing to her elbow when the arm she propped up on gave out. The pain came not from her arm, although that felt as weak and breakable as a toothpick, but from the daggers in her side. She tried to estimate how many ribs were broken, and could only conclude that it surpassed the amount of fractures and pain from the first Lewis attack.

By the time she turned from her stomach onto her side, she was too winded to continue. Just the idea of sitting up was an impossible, insurmountable task that made her want to lie back on the desk and stay there until they—be it the men or Amanda and the rest of her squad—came for her. But she wouldn't offer herself up like that to those monsters, and she couldn't bear for Amanda or any of her fellow officers to find her that way.

Steeling herself and huffing each breath, Olivia threw her weight forward and used the same momentum to sit upright. Her guts wrenched and she half expected to hear metal grinding on metal, like scrap cars being crushed flat by a compactor. That's how her insides felt each time she moved. It tore the air from her lungs and a soft whining from her throat that she didn't bother to silence, though she despised the sound.

What did it matter, with no one else around to hear it?

"Fu- f*ck ow." She had made it to a seated position at the edge of the desk, but the final push to stand was as daunting as a skydiving leap from an airplane. If her legs didn't hold, she would end up on her hands and knees, a place she had already been far too many times today. Even with no one there to see, she refused to crawl naked and bleeding across the filthy floor like some pathetic, dying creature.

"Get up," she rasped, willing herself to lower both feet to the ground.Get up. Get up. Get up. Her hands were the problem though, refusing to release the steadying ledge behind her when she was almost ambulatory. She changed the order to, "Let go," and repeated it until she would have been screaming—if she'd had the voice to do it. Why cling to something she had been horribly violated on top of? Why wouldn't her bodylisten?

In her anger and frustration, she managed to pry her hands free and found herself wavering on her feet, arms out for balance, like a toddler taking its first steps. Astonishingly, her legs didn't buckle beneath her, though they were wobbly and weak. If not for the occasional jog through the park with Amanda, she wouldn't have had that much strength left in them.

"Jesus," she gasped, clutching her side with every hobbling step she took. It didn't occur to her that she was looking for something until she felt some kind of cloth underfoot. Her heart sank to find it was the youth-size cat shirt the Kid had shoved into her face earlier. Back when she still thought she'd make it out of here without being raped.

She flicked the shirt aside with her foot, as far as she dared, and cast around for her own. They had taken some of her clothes—the Kid was twirling her yoga pants in the air like a cowboy with a lasso on his way out the door, and Little Brother followed close behind, imitating him with Olivia's bra—but they hadn't bothered with the shirt. "Leave it, got as much ji*zz on it as she does," one of them had commented to the other.

It did have ji*zz on it, and quite a bit of blood, both of which had dried to a stiff crust. Olivia just barely made it upright with the shirt in hand, after bending her knees enough to stretch an arm down and grab it. She cringed putting it on, as much from the stains as from the pain that went into pulling the shirt onto her head and stuffing her arms through the holes. "Oh f*ck," she whispered, her left shoulder twanging at the motion. She felt its reverberation throughout her entire body.

But at least the bite marks and rashlike redness on her aching breasts were covered. The shirt hem exposed part of her ass and enough of her genitals that she had the urge to tug it down in the front like the sheepish girl on the poster of an Eighties' sex comedy. Her pubic hair was matted with blood and more sem*n. The pain between her legs was raw, consuming fire.

Putting on the shirt had exhausted her and she longed to sit, if for no other reason than to stop the continuous trickle of blood that ran down the insides of her thighs. Just when she thought she might give up and crumple to the floor like the rest of the trash, she spotted the black wad a few feet away. It might as well have been a few miles, but she limped in that direction, getting there in twice the time it normally would have taken.

The memory of Driver tearing off her underwear was so vivid and so visceral that, at first, Olivia couldn't make herself pick up the tattered bottoms. They might not even be wearable if she did manage to pluck them off the floor, instead of snatching her hand back like she'd almost touched a dead rodent. After several attempts, she finally gritted her teeth, seized the star-spangled fabric, yelped in pain, and staggered against the nearest wall for support.

Stepping into the ragged panties was harder than picking them up, and Olivia nearly pitched over several times, until she managed to thread a leg through one hole and stretch the waistband enough to hook the other leg. The Driver had ripped out most of one side seam, but the elastic around the leg opening was still intact and, except for a loose flap of material that exposed her hip, the underwear stayed in place.

She tried not to think about the injuries that made even the soft cotton gusset feel abrasive and constricting to her ravaged privates. Nevertheless, the diagnoses floated up from the back of her mind on their own: vagin*l and anal tears, bruised cl*tor*s, bruised cervix, a potentially nasty infection from switching orifices, any number of potentially nasty STDs, because the men hadn't worn condoms.

She desperately wanted to relieve her bladder, partly in hopes that the urine would kill off some of the bacteria she was undoubtedly crawling in, but she wasn't going near that goddamned bucket. Not yet. That was her excuse, anyway—willfulness, dignity, strength. To be honest, she feared the searing pain that was inevitable with genital injuries. Wiping seemed unimaginable. She thought of all the women she'd discouraged from urinating until after they had received a rape kit, and she despised herself for it.

Of course, she probably had enough DNA evidence on her skin and inside her mouth to make the same IDs that vagin*l and anal swabs would yield. The taste of bile mixed with her blood made Olivia fear she would vomit again, an ordeal her body—or at least her ribs—surely could not withstand. But the feeling passed quickly and without incident. She didn't have anything left to expel. Even her tears felt dried up for good. All she had was the blood that slithered out of her, soiling her panties as if she were menstruating again.

Perhaps if she were, she might have been able to take the vitamin supplements to help her breastfeed Samantha naturally. She might have even been able to carry her youngest daughter and spare Amanda the trauma of being ripped apart and stitched back together. The husband stitch was a real thing Olivia had read about while doing research for an undergrad essay, and years ago she had testified against a doctor who gave several unwitting new mothers the extra vagin*l suture after childbirth to "tighten them up" for their hubbies. How many stitches would it take to tighten her back up, Olivia wondered.

After a minute or two of standing there in a daze, contemplating everything from the memory of Sammie crowning to why Serena hadn't delivered Olivia on her own and smothered the newborn baby girl when she had the chance, Olivia realized she might have a head injury. She hadn't taken a hard enough blow to do serious damage, probably just a mild concussion. But she hated the way her brain skipped from one line of thought to the next, like she was mentally channel surfing. It made planning difficult.

"Come on, puss*cat," she murmured, only half aware that she was speaking out loud, and even less aware she had quoted one of her rapists. Something about that nickname struck her as odd, but it was probably just the immense terror she was in while hearing it. Her own name had sounded monstrous coming from the lips of those awful men. "Move your ass."

That got her going, though she didn't know where to, until she was pushing and pulling at the wall the men had exited through. Not finding a door of any kind, she began to wonder if she truly had lost her mind, but a seam down the center of the wall reminded her that both sides opened outward by an exterior latch. She dug her fingernails into the crack and pried with every bit of strength she could muster, her heart throwing out a wild kick when she felt something start to give.

It turned out to be her fingernails, three of them snapping off close to the quick. She hissed and instinctively stuck the fingers in her mouth, then gagged at the feeling of flesh on her tongue. "Oh, God," she moaned wetly, hunching forward to let the hot gush of saliva spill from her mouth. It dripped in ropey tendrils from her lips, like the wavering fronds of a willow tree. Nothing else accompanied it, and she spat forcefully to be rid of the strings that clung, cobweb-sticky.

Olivia wasn't getting out. The Box only had one exit, and it was sealed tight against her. If she had the strength to ram it with her shoulder, she might get it open, or if they hadn't taken her shoes (they had; she'd watched the Crier launch the Nikes into the lot outside with two expert kicks, like a soccer player scoring a double goal), she might be able to kick her way out. But barefoot and barely able to rotate either shoulder, let alone use them as battering rams, it was hopeless.

She slumped her back against the wall, bent her knees, and shoved as hard as she could, walking backwards like she was pushing a boulder. All it produced was a weak grunt and more splinters in the bottom of her feet from sliding across the wood floor. Infuriated, exhausted, and afraid of never leaving the hell pit where she had already died a thousand times, she rounded her back and slammed it against the wall, over and over, until she thought her bones might crack.

There were baboons that, trapped and petrified, would heave themselves against the inside of their cages, essentially bashing their own brains in attempting to escape. As Olivia threw herself into the wall, a silent enraged scream on her lips, she knew how those desperate primates must feel, preferring death to whatever Man had in store for them. "Let me out, you f*cking bastards," she tried to shout, her voice crackling and popping like a scratchy old record. She turned and pounded on the nonexistent door, her fists and her mind gone numb with the effort.

How long she stood there raging at an invisible enemy, she couldn't say. When she finally came back to herself, she had sagged to the floor in a broken, sobbing heap and she stayed like that for a good, long while, too emotionally and physically spent to resume her search for a way out. It was a waste of energy, anyway. She needed to conserve her strength for whatever came next. Whatever Man had in store.

"But I just wanna go home," she whispered, gazing at her surroundings as if she were the shell-shocked survivor of a bomb blast. Her eyes fell upon the wall opposite the desk and she felt a wave of revulsion so strong, she almost doubled up with it. That was where the Kid's imaginary studio audience resided, and he had spoken to them so convincingly throughout the rape, Olivia had begun to think someone actually was watching the whole thing.

Maybe there were more of the traffickers watching from a peephole she couldn't make out or, more likely, another location, which meant a hidden camera. Maybe her buyer wanted video beforehand to be certain of what he was purchasing, like a horse being sold across seas. The thought was too awful to entertain—she would rather be dead than know that some asshole watched her being raped, and probably got off on it—and she pushed it away.

Sitting up and taking a guarded breath that still made her wince, Olivia instinctively reached to smooth back her hair, a habit she had acquired young because her heavy locks got in the way of most serious undertakings. She gasped and jerked her hand back when she felt how much of the hair was gone. Since that offhand remark of Amanda's that made her decide to grow out her shoulder-length mane three years ago, she had only gotten the ends trimmed every few months to keep it looking sleek and healthy.

The now missing braid was the longest her hair had ever been, and it was one of the few physical aspects of herself that Olivia had felt true confidence in. She'd thought that was gone forever after Lewis, when the hair was just a reminder of him grabbing it, dousing it, rubbing himself off in it. But Amanda had loved it so much, touching it with an almost reverence in those early months of their relationship—and often still did, especially after treating it less than gently that awful New Year's Eve the year before last—that it became healing. Amanda had healed so many of Olivia's hurts, and not just the ones from Lewis.

Fighting back tears at the loss of something so meaningful, to her and to her wife, she raked her fingers through the strands that were now well above her shoulders and dragged herself to her knees. It took several long, arduous moments and several painful and unsuccessful attempts, but she eventually made it onto her feet. She hadn't a clue where she was going until her feet were taking her there.

The Sandman had cut her braid with his vorpal little knife going snicker-snack, that she recalled with absolute clarity. Perhaps the men had gotten sloppy, left behind one of the other implements they had used on her, or threatened to. (Other than the cattle prod that got shoved into her mouth, there had been no foreign object penetration, at least she could say that much.) She wouldn't hold out hope for the knife—Gus didn't forget things—but maybe the prod or the pliers . . . . She could do some damage with either of those, should the men return.

(They would most certainly return.)

There was nothing. Not even the damn spoon she'd watched the Kid use to crush up their drugs. The most lethal-looking item she saw among the plentiful garbage she nudged aside with her feet was a plastic fork with the middle tines broken, so that it resembled vampire fangs. She couldn't bring herself to search the desk drawers, or even get very close to the metallic carcass itself. She gave it a wide berth, as if she were skirting a sleeping lion.

Nice kitty, she thought, and wondered why such a thing should come to her right then. Just another example of her brain not working properly for the time being, she supposed. Ignoring the strange but familiar phrase, she shuffled over to her last resort—the stained and tattered mattress partially covered in fast-food wrappers and mildewed newspapers. It looked as though black mold had formed on some of the pages, and Olivia tried to guide them aside with her foot without touching the toxic fungus.

The process was slow, and she had to pause and catch her breath every few seconds, but eventually she cleared off the pitiful bed. When she gazed down at it, counting the brown spots (some overlapped, creating an ombré effect) that looked like coffee spills, although they were certainly not from coffee, she couldn't figure out for the life of her why it had seemed like such an important task just seconds before.

Perhaps she had meant to dissect the mattress for one of its springs, the closest thing to a deadly weapon at her disposal. But in spite of its shoddy exterior, the pad was fairly intact and she would have to tear the thing apart with her bare hands to get inside. Then find a way to pry a piece of steel from its frame, not to mention straighten it out so it could be wielded properly. Just thinking about each step left Olivia weary and overwhelmed. Her legs were on the verge of giving out, anyway.

That's when she realized she had cleaned off the bed with the intention of lying down on it. God help her, she was so exhausted that even the mystery crud that darkened the seams in the padding didn't deter her. Lice, bedbugs, fleas, she warned herself, and that didn't dissuade her, either. She was covered in human bite marks, what harm would a few bug bites do?

Before the question had fully formed in her brain, and as she was kneeling on the pad, tugging at one of the threadbare blankets from the bundle she'd kicked aside, half a dozen large co*ckroaches scurried from their disrupted home. Olivia shrank back from the outpouring, her cry of disgust little more than a whistle in her throat. She heaved the blanket edge away from her, retreated to the farthest corner of the bed, and huddled there, watching for the insects as if they might regroup, turn, and attack.

Bugs weren't a particular fear of hers—she didn't like them, but wasn't phobic—but the sight of those skittering brown bodies filled her with revulsion and paranoia that she felt them crawling all over her mostly exposed skin. Her first solo apartment outside of the Siena dorms had been one step above hovel and infested with co*ckroaches. She'd kept shoes by her bed specifically for hurling at the ugly little f*ckers, and after the third or fourth time of waking up to one trundling across her pillow, she had finally complained over the phone to her mother.

"Well, you're not moving back in here, so I suggest you deal with it," Serena had replied bluntly. She never did pull punches where her only daughter was concerned. "You're a grownup now, Olivia. You can't just depend on Mommy to take care of things for you anymore."

When have Ieverdepended on you for anything?Olivia wanted to shout. She had stared at the handset in disbelief, thought about slamming it down on the cradle and never speaking to the boozy, slurring old bitch again. Instead, she'd forced a tight smile and replied, "I know, Mom. Just thought I should tell you in case a few of the really big ones carry me away in the night."

Yeah, like five of them. And oh, the things they will do to me, Mommy. You can't even imagine. They make Joe Hollister look like the Good Humor man. Isn't that what you always wanted for me? The reason you hurt me, let all those men hurt me—so I would know how it felt? You took away my childhood, my innocence, because he took away your sense of safety, your freedom. Did it satisfy you, I wonder, to get one over on Hollister by abusing his little girl? Does this satisfy you now, Mom, seeing me like this? Is this what it takes to finally give you peace?

"Is it?" Olivia asked aloud, and started at the sound of her own voice.

The roaches were gone, scattered to the four corners of the earth (or maybe just The Box, it was hard for her to distinguish between the two right then), or escaped through some crevice too small to see in the shadows outside the lone tripod light. There must be several cracks, actually; all at once, she could feel the chilly night air seeping into the storage container, grasping at her scratches, burns, and bruises with icy fingers. It had been a mild May, that was true, but it was still springtime in New York. Nights were cold, especially with a breeze coming off the water.

No sooner had she noticed the change in temperature inside the container than she realized she was already shivering uncontrollably. Some of it was the shock of being assaulted and sustaining God only knew what kind of internal damage, but that didn't account for the goose flesh creeping along her bare thighs, snaking up her bare arms. A deep, bone-rattling, teeth-chattering quake went through her, and she knew she was in trouble. Even when she and Amanda had been running for their lives in the snow-limed woods of the Catskills, she hadn't felt the cold so profoundly.

They couldn't mean to leave her there to freeze all night, could they? Just as the thought crossed her mind, her eyes fell on the bucket and the insidious dark stains where the wood had rotted around it; she looked at the desk with its lame legs that put it slightly off kilter; she looked at her own legs, the thighs streaked with blood and forming dark, finger-shaped bruises, the crotch of her bedraggled panties wet-black with a smattering of crimson stars.

Of course they meant it. Some of the threats might have gone unfulfilled, but for the most part, they had kept their word about what they planned to do. What frightened her most about that was the threats to her wife and children. Amanda would take every precaution to keep their children safe, the men would not get to them (would they?). But Amanda herself . . .

Pained by all the awful possibilities that came to mind, Olivia couldn't finish the scenario. She would rather spend the rest of her life here, passing each day in the same manner as this one, than have Amanda go through any of the tortures she had experienced over the past few hours. But God, the thought of being trapped inside The Box for another hour, let alone days, was too much to bear.

She told herself to get up and move, to keep warm by searching for a way out—battering the goddamn doors down with one of the heavy-looking tripod lights, if nothing else—and when she found it, to run. To never stop running until she was back with her family, back in Amanda's arms.

Then she saw Amanda up ahead, laughing with the kids, capering with the dogs, and waving for Olivia to join them. She was wearing a dress Olivia had never seen before, long and flowing like her unfettered blond hair. The strands shone gold in the sunlight, and as Olivia drifted to sleep on a filthy mattress on the floor of a large metal box, her hand slid into Amanda's inside the dream, fitting like a glove.

Together, they strolled home in the endless spring sunshine.

. . .

Chapter 17: Hello From the Other Side

Notes:

I'm so sorry, you guys. I really did think my rl schedule was about to improve, but the past two weeks have been some of the craziest and worst of my life: a breakup, betrayal, an autism assessment, pet death, a car accident (no one but my car got hurt), a really bad edible trip, less than two hours sleep in the past 24 hours, oh and I have to shop for and bake most/all the desserts for Thanksgiving. To say my head is spinning would be an understatement. I had planned to split this chapter up into three, but here's a double-feature to make up for the extreme lateness. Also, I made more cover arts for part 3, as well. Check them out at the top and bottom of this page. Trigger Warnings: Sexual assault and violence. (P.S. It's mentioned in this chapter that Liv isn't wearing her watch, even though in the Ch 3 I wrote her checking her watch behind Amanda's head; my explanation is that Liv was checking the time on her phone and Amanda just assumed it was the watch.)

Chapter Text

Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (8)

Chapter 17.

Hello From the Other Side

. . .

It was a silly song and one Amanda didn't know all the lyrics to, but she warbled it at the top of her lungs anyway, just to get a rise out of her wife and kids: "We'll sing in the sunshine, we'll laugh every day . . . Oh, something-something the sunshine, then I'll be on my way . . ."

"I will literally pay you to stop," Olivia said, cringing as if she'd heard nails slashed across a chalkboard. She cupped a hand over Sammie's tiny ear, the other side pressed to her shoulder. "You're scaring the children."

"Hush up, you love my voice," Amanda countered in a lofty, self-important tone, though she knew for a fact it was true. Olivia often turned down the radio in favor of hearing Amanda's rendition of whichever track was playing. And the kids requested Mama songs all the time. As a matter of fact—

Amanda looked back at the path where, moments before, Noah and Jesse had traipsed along behind their meandering mothers, flanked by both dogs and chattering happily about some musical they couldn't wait to see. The little group was gone now, which seemed odd since they were walking through the park and the kids (and dogs) knew to stay within eye- and earshot. They must've gone home, she thought, satisfied with the conclusion.

"Looks like it's just you, me, and the babi—" She turned to Olivia, only to discover her arms empty, Sammie Grace no longer cuddled to her chest. Even the pink Carter's blankie that was draped around the baby had vanished into thin air. Something wasn't right here . . .

"Mama, I'm cold," said Tilly, the one child who remained. Indeed, her little hand felt like an ice cube in Amanda's, and when Amanda glanced down to check on her, she recoiled from whatever it was that walked beside her. Itlookedlike her Tilly-Billy, sounded like her too, but the skin was a lurid shade of blue—it resembled the floaters who occasionally bobbled up in the Hudson—and the features were much too congealed, as if they were molded from wax.

The Tilly-Thing gazed up at Amanda with sightless, socketless eyes. "I want to go home. Carry me?"

It took all of Amanda's strength not to fling her daughter's hand away, grab Olivia's, and get herself and her wife as far from the child-shaped abomination as possible. "S-sure, peanut," she stammered, then bent to scoop the little girl into her arms. It was Matilda, after all; the sweetest little angel God ever put on Earth. (If Amanda believed in such things anymore. She couldn't remember why she did not.)

But when she stood, her arms were empty. The monstrous imitation of Tilly had disappeared, leaving behind nothing but blue vapor that winked out like a candle flame. "Where'd she go?" Amanda asked, then noticed Olivia walking ahead. She trotted to catch up, the sack of bagels in her hand extraordinarily heavy. "Liv, wait up! You didn't eat anything yet. Here, have one of—"

Suddenly, Olivia rounded on her, dark eyes flashing, dark hair fanning around her shoulders. It continued twirling, even when she didn't, and the strands were so long they wrapped around her neck like a maypole. Or a noose. "You let them take her," she accused, the fluffy clouds transforming to black thunderheads behind her. Lightning split the sky. "You were supposed to protect her! Why didn't you protect her, Amanda? She's so alone. Do you even care?"

The storm had whipped itself into a frenzy, threatening to destroy everything in its path, but somehow Amanda withstood the powerful wind, the pelting rain. It tore at her clothes one minute, plastered them to her body the next. Olivia only wore a soiled white t-shirt and a pair of ragged black panties. She must be freezing.

"Of course I care," Amanda shouted above the freight-train roar of thunder. "I'm sorry, Liv. I do care!"

"Then do something, goddammit."

"I will," Amanda mumbled, jerking from sleep at the sound of herself talking in the empty room. The only other occupant was the digital image of Olivia, curled up in the fetal position on a disgusting mattress, that filled the laptop screen. Amanda gasped, her head shooting up from the table, where she had rested it moments ago—except, checking the clock on the wall, she saw that three hours had passed—planning to watch Olivia's fitful, shivering slumber.

The captain had lost her battle with consciousness late the night before, drifting off while she was still seated upright. She hadn't even gotten the chance to cover up with the sorry excuse for a blanket she'd scrounged from the junk around the bed, once the bugs fled its folds. Instead, her head lolled the way Jesse's and Matilda's had when they fell asleep in their highchairs, her arms snapping out to catch her each time she leaned too far sideways. Amanda had yearned so strongly to guide her wife into a restful repose, she physically ached inside.

After a while, Olivia found it for herself, wilting bonelessly onto the mattress like one of those clocks in the Salvador Dali painting. Only, you couldn't see a clock's breath as the night drew on, or see its teeth chattering while it huddled into a ball, trying to find warmth. Amanda had willed her over and over to reach for the blanket—it wasn't the time to be squeamish of bugs—and finally, sometime after two in the morning, Olivia had felt around blindly for the ratty old thing, pulled it over herself, and slept again. It looked like she was covered in a morgue sheet.

That was around the time Amanda realized she hadn't peed in over fifteen hours, and hurried to the bathroom, doing everything one-handed as she watched the live feed from her phone in the opposite hand. Fin hadn't said a word, just followed her with sad, tired eyes as she came and went. She thought about telling him to go home to Phoebe, but why should he get to crawl into bed and hold his sort-of wife while Amanda had to watch hers probably dying of hypothermia or internal bleeding? Maybe both.

Now it was 7:30 AM, and Amanda had broken her promise not to leave Olivia alone for even a second, even if she was asleep and there was nothing else to be done right then. Angry that Fin, whom Amanda had asked to wake her if she started to doze, hadn't kept up his end of the bargain, she grabbed for her phone and fired off a snippy text:

Thnx for letting me go to sleep, Sarge. V. restful. She wake up at all? Any word from Kat & the Fed?

She noticed that the cell battery was low (not in the red yet, but less than thirty percent) and would need to be charged soon. More than likely she had an extra charger in her desk or locker, but she went through those things the way Jesse went through bobby-pins. A few short steps away, she was guaranteed to find a spare power cord—probably several, color coded and folded up neatly with rubber bands cinched around their middles—in Olivia's desk drawer. Amanda loved to tease her that the desk was her equivalent of Mary Poppins' carpetbag.One of these days you're gonna pull a penguin in a bow tie out of there, aren't you?

Then yesterday, instead of rummaging through a magical desk, Olivia had been raped on top of one.

It still didn't seem real or possible. The revelation from Dana Lewis that Declan Murphy might somehow be involved only made the whole situation even more surreal. Her brain wouldn't accept the information at first, but it had begun to make a strange and terrifying sort of sense the longer she let it sink in. She had known something was off about Murphy that February seven years ago, when they had hauled him in as a sex trafficker after nearly blowing his cover at a Super Bowl party fueled by sex, drugs, and underage girls.

Not only were the girls full of stories about the man they called Lucky (as in Charms, because most of them were too young and uneducated to recognize an Irish accent, outside of the one belonging to a cartoon leprechaun), who they claimed had pimped them out and in some cases, raped them himself, but Murphy had been far more intense than Amanda remembered from his turn as SVU commanding officer. She'd briefly wondered if he was hooked on one of the hard drugs that got passed around like candy by the men he was emulating, but outside of demanding a urine sample for drug testing, she wouldn't have gotten an answer.

Honestly, she hadn't wanted to know. She had still been coming off the Patton trial and the emotions and self-loathing it dredged up, plus getting back into the swing of things at work after the Joyful Heart Foundation yoga retreat Olivia had encouraged her to take. She might have overstated her recovery a little upon returning, but she had so wanted to see that pride on Olivia's face to hear that she was trying. And when she had it—when the sergeant smiled at her over their diner coffees and congratulated her on a job well done—then Amanda had known for sure what she'd started to suspect while meditating on the summit of that Costa Rican volcano: she was in love with her boss.

Of course, she had denied it and buried the feelings deep, never expecting all the disastrous and dangerous ways they would resurface until she finally let them out. One of those ways had been falling into bed with Murphy, whom she didn't love, care about, or even particularly like. He was a warm body when she couldn't have the one she really wanted. Olivia had been a new mother, her attention divided between Noah and work (and God help Amanda, she had resented that little baby for a while for stealing Olivia's focus), and didn't have time for a relationship. But Lord, she looked damn good during that Super Bowl sting, and Amanda had needed to scratch that itch.

Nine months later she had Jesse and wouldn't change that for anything in the world, but she had chosen to overlook some major red flags from Murphy back then, she saw that now. Stupidly, she'd told herself it was just his bad boy UC persona that attracted her, and she wouldn'treally get excited by the prospect of sleeping with someone like that. Someone Olivia would disapprove of so heartily . . . Someone who would disappear back into the ether, never to be heard from again . . . .

Her need to rebel, to fill the emptiness inside herself with meaningless sex, and to get Olivia's attention, had caused this. She was the reason her wife was shivering on another bed, in another monster's lair, after the most brutal and sustained gang assault Amanda had ever seen. It was unfathomable. It made her wish she were dead.

And it wasn't over. A new day had dawned outside the interview room window, as bright and lovely as the day before, and that meant the men had gotten a full night to rest and recharge for their next visit with Olivia. Amanda found herself hoping they had more women to torture, just so they wouldn't have time to spend the day with her wife again. The thought was so shameful and so all-consuming, a vibration from her phone sent her pulse through the roof, as if it were a gunshot rather than a text message.

Looked like u needed it. I kept watch. She's been in n out, mostly out. K + fed still trying to crack Vaughn. IP a no-go. Lewis tracking Murphy.

And a second later:

U should eat.

Amanda squeezed her phone, fighting the urge to hurl it across the room at the one-way mirror. At first glance, she'd mistaken the Lewis in that sentence for William Lewis, not Dana. And what good were the feebs if they weren't capable of tracing an IP address, for Christ sakes? Amanda had done it many times, and when she couldn't, she damn well found another way in, even if it meant breaking down the door herself.

She didn't want any goddamn food, either. How was she supposed to stomach anything, knowing that Olivia hadn't eaten in over twenty-four hours? If she had to fast until the captain was returned to her, then so be it. But oh God, oh Jesus—

Sammie. Amanda couldn't remember if her baby (our baby) had enough milk in the fridge for another full day. She thought so, but if this nightmare stretched on any longer than that, she might need Lucy to bring the baby to the precinct for feedings. She had the pump, and there were plenty of officers she could send out on milk delivery duty—the kids were not to set foot inside the precinct while Olivia was plastered on every monitor, not even baby Samantha—but Amanda didn't want to risk losing that connection with her youngest daughter. It was so important to Olivia.

Deleting the text she had already started (Not hungry), she thumbed inI need the spare to Liv's officeand sent it to Fin. He showed up a few moments later, dangling his copy of the key Olivia kept on a keychain with Matilda's old teether and the peach charm she had bought during a bathroom break in a Georgia gas station. Amanda's knees were bouncing anxiously as she glanced between her dwindling cell battery and the computer screen. "'Bout time," she muttered, standing and swiping the key from the table when Fin slid it across.

Fin ignored the remark, nodding at the door that joined the interview room to Olivia's office. "Whadda you need? Something I can get for you?" He was eyeing her hands, which tremored while she tried to fit the key into the doorknob, its teeth skidding from the slot with each jab. She nearly lost her grip on the phone, turned sideways to view the livestream in full screen.

Rattled by the close call and frustrated that she couldn't even open a damn door, she threw back her head and released a sound that was part scream, part growl through her clenched teeth. "I just need a f*cking charger for my phone, is that too much to ask?" she said, looking up at the ceiling as hot tears spilled from the corners of her eyes. She was addressing a god she didn't believe in again, but at the same time, there was nowhere for her anger at him to go if he didn't exist.

The quandary made her brain hurt and only added to her exhaustion. Bringing her head forward against the door with a soft thump, she slapped the palm holding the key against the wood and cried in earnest. "Is that too goddamn much to ask?"

"Nah, it's not. Here, give it to me. I'll get you a charger, Amanda." Gently, Fin removed the key from beneath her palm, turned her by the shoulders, and urged her back toward the table. (It reminded Amanda of a father sending his daughter off to bed, and that made her cry harder.) "Go on and sit down."

She wanted to protest, to say that she didn't need him to baby her, but he had the door open now, and even just the smell of Olivia's office—that cinnamon potpourri the captain liked, something floral,her—was too much. Amanda backed away, unable to look inside and not see her there. Instead, she returned to her seat at the table just in time to see what appeared to be sunlight streaming over Olivia from somewhere off camera. For a moment, she wondered if there was a window Olivia had overlooked during her search for a way out last night, but the sound of plodding footsteps on the floorboards stopped Amanda's heart.

"No," she exhaled. She swiped the moisture from her eyes with the back of her hand and leaned in, anticipating which one of the men would appear on the screen. (Please, not all of them again.) "No, no, no, no, no. Wake up, Liv." He had sidled right up to Olivia's bedside, and stood above her, gazing down with his head tilted to one side like he was studying an ant hill, teeming with activity, that he planned to stomp on with his heavy boots.

Nicholas Angelov, the one they called Angel. The one Amanda called evil incarnate. It was impossible to measure the cruelty of Olivia's five attackers and label one the worst, but if they were arranged on a pie chart, Amanda had no doubt Angel's slice would be the largest. He had been the one to enjoy hurting Olivia the most; oh, Riva and Sandberg Jr. had their fun, the special needs boy emulated what he saw, and Gus didn't even consider Olivia to be human. But Angel.

His objective was pain. Amanda got the distinct impression that the only thing he would prefer to do more than rape Olivia was kill her. That was the look he gave the sleeping captain now as he drew back a boot and drove it soundly into the mattress, just inches from where Olivia's dark head lay, hair fanned in uneven hanks around her. "Wake up, puss," he announced loudly, nudging her with the toe of his kicking boot. "Time for kitty to have her morning cream."

Cold, stark terror clutched Amanda's heart in its icy fist when her wife didn't immediately stir. Covering her mouth with both hands, prepared to scream into them if Angel rolled the body on the mattress over to reveal that Olivia was dead, Amanda instead choked out a sob. Groggy and disoriented, but very much alive, Olivia struggled to open her eyes and keep them open. She squinted at the man looming over her as if she had never seen him before. "Wha?" she rasped in a voice so thin Amanda could just barely hear it through the speaker. It sounded like the grooves that hissed at the end of a record.

As much as Amanda wanted Olivia awake, the fear of what Angel had planned made her wish the captain had stayed asleep. But it was too late now; the man crouched down beside the bed, his numerous piercings glinting in the sunlight that streamed in through whatever entrance he'd left open. (It wasn't underground, then, and the beams didn't waver, so they weren't on the water, either.) Sneering his silver-toothed sneer, he surveyed the scrap of blanket Olivia had huddled under all night.

"I don't remember anyone giving you permission to use that," he said, poking his finger into one of the holes probably chewed out of the material by mice. The damn thing resembled, in size and condition, the scraggly old baby's blanket Frannie had slept on while being crate trained, and still wouldn't allow to be thrown away. "Your little co*ckroach friends tell you it was all right?"

"I-I was cold," Olivia said, shying from the touch on the blanket. She forced herself fully awake, attempting to sit up, but making it no further than lifting her head and dropping it back again. The moan she exhaled was so weak it barely made it past her lips, and she winced as if even that small effort caused terrible pain. Her eyes remained squeezed shut while she breathed through it, mentally preparing to try again.

Before she got the chance, the platinum-haired monster squatting at her bedside grabbed the blanket and yanked it off of Olivia. He twirled it like a matador cape, making her flinch and cower from the flapping overhead, then flung it aside in a tangled heap. "You're cold?" he asked in a pouty, mocking tone. He reached for his zipper with the hand not holding the bottled water and another object Amanda couldn't identify. "I know just how to warm you up, little kitty. Why don't you turn over—"

That lit a fire under Olivia and she rolled onto her elbow, heaving herself forward with it, at the same time rocking upward and onto her backside. It all happened in slow-motion, her movements stiff and disjointed, and when she scuttled backward in a crab walk, she only found enough strength to reach the corner of the mattress. Dropping heavily onto her rear, panting as if she'd jogged up several flights of stairs, she gave her badly disheveled head an adamant shake.

"Not cold," she husked, speaking at the loudest volume she seemed able to produce. Still no more than a harsh whisper. It sounded like she was wearing a tracheostomy tube.

Despite the assertion, she was trembling violently and kept tugging on the hem of her t-shirt, trying to hook it over her knees to prevent Angelov from seeing anything tantalizing. The shirt wasn't stretchy or baggy enough to provide adequate coverage, and each time she pulled it down, the V-neck exposed more of her breasts. Even over the livestream, her dusky-rose nipples were visible beneath the veneer of the thin shirt. Angelov grinned luridly at her losing battle.

"That's not what them big titt*es are telling me," he said, with a pointed glance at Olivia's chest. He took a handful of his crotch and shook it at her, as if wielding his erect penis. "Unless you just didn't get enough of my wood yesterday, you filthy slu*t. That it? Finally got a taste of some real meat, and now it's what you crave, huh?"

Anxiously, Amanda twisted the wedding ring on her finger, turning the gemstones inward to dig into her palm as she made a fist and brought it down hard on the table. "Motherf*cker," she said in a vicious whisper, angry tears pricking her eyes. If she ever got her hands on Nicholas Angelov, she would show him exactly what they did down South with live meat. Mountain oysters were a goddamn delicacy, served at many a Rollins family reunion.

"What is it? What's wrong?" asked Fin, striding back into the room at a speed he reserved for emergencies only. A power adapter dangled from the neatly folded white cord in his hand, prevented from unraveling by a neatly looped rubber band. He tossed it onto the table and leaned over Amanda's shoulder to see for himself when she didn't answer.

"N-no, please." Olivia hugged the t-shirt to her chest the way Matilda hugged her lovies—any one of a thousand stuffed animals the little girl couldn't sleep without—at bedtime. It left her lower half unprotected, save for the ruins of her underwear, hanging from her hips in starry black shreds. She pinched her knees together awkwardly, resembling a calf whose legs collapsed inward during its first steps. "I don't— don't want that."

"Don't want . . . what?" Angelov turned his head, ear inclined, prompting Olivia for more. As if they already had a rapport, or an inside joke she'd left out.

And the worst part was that she knew exactly what he expected of her. "Y-your big . . . your big, yum-yummy co*ck," Olivia said, mouthing most of it, choking on the rest. She visibly steeled herself for him to lash out at the denial, and reeled back so forcefully she almost toppled over when he threw something at her instead.

The package rolled down her thigh and fell dead on the floor at her knees. She stared at it in horror—and then, growing confusion. Whatever she had expected to find, a snack pack of powdered donuts was not it. She drew her knees aside as if it were a stick of dynamite she didn't want to risk bumping. Amanda couldn't blame her; it felt like a trick, this act of generosity from the man who had also delighted in rubbing his pierced co*ck on every inch of Olivia's body.

If a mangled roll of mini Donettes could be called generous. Amanda ate the things like they were going out of style—especially while she was carrying Samantha—but Olivia seldom did more than kiss the powdered sugar from her lips, with that satisfied littleMmmshe gave even when their kisses weren't laced in confection. She claimed that actually eating the donuts made her teeth hurt. Amanda suspected that meant they were another of the foods Olivia had subsisted on as a kid, when she had to steal food or starve (before the starving was voluntary), and consequently couldn't stomach as an adult.

"I'm not hungry," Olivia said, and though it was a common phrase for her, there was probably some truth in it. Amanda's stomach was so twisted up in knots, her throat so constricted, the thought of food made her nauseated. "May I just have the water?" She gestured warily to the bottle in Angelov's hand, looking as if she was prepared to duck, should he launch it at her. "Please."

Something in the request struck Angel as funny, and he stood to his feet, laughing. "Boss sent me in here to feed you, bitch. Either you eat the donuts or my dick, it's up to you." He twisted the cap of the bottled water, breaking the seal. "Choose dick and I might give you a great big sip first . . . "

Olivia gazed longingly at the proffered drink, but she picked up the donuts instead and tried to peel apart the cellophane sleeve at one end. Neither her fingers nor the wrapper would cooperate, and after wrestling with it for several seconds, the package split partway down the side, expelling the first three donuts in opposite directions. Two landed on the floor, one on the mattress, and a misting of powder drifted into Olivia's lap like snow.

"Spoiled c*nt. Quit wasting food." Angelov wandered around the mattress to inspect the scattered treats. He squished one beneath the toe of his boot, grinding it like a large, resilient bug. He swiped the sole against the floorboards, as if he were scraping off dog sh*t. "I oughta make you eat it anyway."

Thankfully, he didn't, and Olivia knew better than to respond. She took a small, tentative bite of the donut she'd plucked from the package and kept her eyes on it as she chewed, rather than look at the man standing over her. Swallowing appeared difficult and painful, an audible click coming from her throat as she forced the bite down. She chased it with another smaller nibble, then peered sidelong at Angelov's feet.

"Where are we?" she asked, and had to repeat herself when the first try was too rusty. Gingerly, she cleared her throat, though it didn't help much. "Are we still in the City?"

Amanda's heart began to hammer double-time, the blood in her ears matching it, beat for beat. Not for one second did she expect the man to answer, but she doubted Olivia did, either. Asking something like that, on the off chance that pertinent details would be revealed, might mean the captain was aware of the camera. "Good girl," Amanda said, giving the table a punctuating thump of her fist. "Oh, good girl. Tell me where you are, baby."

"What's it to you?" Angelov asked. He motioned at the open entrance and the streaming sunlight. "Planning to run? You won't get very far."

Olivia chanced a look toward the outside, which she had avoided so far. She gulped on donut mush and coughed behind closed lips a few times. "I didn't recognize the dock—"

"Hey." Angelov snapped his tattooed fingers like he was scolding a naughty puppy. "Shut the f*ck up and eat your donuts. You talk about it anymore, I'll put your face through that wall. You'll have a great view, then."

"Of what, shipping containers? Construction?" A smirk was detectable in the remains of Olivia's voice, if not on her lips. The questions were definitely deliberate and, though they weren't much to go on (docks, shipping containers, and construction were prevalent throughout the City), Amanda felt a glimmer of hope at their asking. Triumph, even. Battered and traumatized as she was—bloody and bruised and shuddering convulsively—Olivia was still in there.

But the triumph was short-lived. Angelov moved quickly and savagely, springing forward to snatch the package from Olivia and empty the last two donuts into his hand; he smashed them into Olivia's face, smearing them back and forth like the old pie-in-the-kisser gag from outdated game shows. Ghostly white streaks painted her forehead and cheeks, the crumbly insides of the sweets clumping in her eyelashes and sprinkling down like large, ungainly snowflakes.

The captain took a deep whooping breath through her mouth when Angelov finally gave off scrubbing fried dough and powdered sugar against her lips. She spluttered on the paste it had formed, coughing and wheezing until tears and mucus traced ghoulish tracks down her new mask. She looked like the ashen victim of a volcanic eruption. The dead in Pompeii were forever frozen in similar defensive postures, their faces also twisted in agony and terror. The killer ash and gases of Mt. Vesuvius had nothing on Nicholas Angelov.

"I told you to shut your fat f*cking mouth," he growled in Olivia's ear, a hand clamped to the back of her head to keep her from turning it. He reached out with his free hand and snagged the donut that had fallen on the mattress, threatening to cram it between Olivia's parted, gasping lips. (Water, she mouthed.Water.) "Are you going to quit asking annoying questions and being a mouthy bitch, or do I have to shove this down your throat and get the duct tape?"

Olivia shook her head as best she could with him holding it, her breath coming in fits and starts. "No more," she managed to croak between ragged, racking coughs. A sliver of blood from her split lip stained the powder bright red, and somewhere in the back of Amanda's mind, she remembered a conversation they once had about Snow White and how she'd been conjured with a drop of blood and a mother's wish . . .

Only to fall prey to evil and be sentenced to eternal sleep. And where was her one true love while it all transpired? Watching on a laptop, safe and warm in a police precinct.

"Wat— water." Tears streamed from Olivia's plaintive brown eyes, even larger and darker beneath all the powder, but it was difficult to tell if the moisture was a result of the coughing, the donut crumbs, or the captain's need for: "Water. Please."

"You want this?" Angelov picked up the bottled water he had dropped during the impromptu attack, and trailed the capped end to and fro in front of Olivia. When she nodded eagerly and grabbed for the bottle, he jerked it back and put the cap to his chin for a contemplative pose. "What'll you give me for it? Will you give me a kiss? Haven't been able to stop thinking about those pretty lips of yours since what they did to me yesterday, puss*cat."

"Y-you forced—" The rest was drowned out by another round of hacking, so intense it set Olivia's cheeks aflame behind the powder and doubled her forward, clutching her side. When she peered up at her caretaker again, like a worshipper looking into the face of a terrible, vengeful god, her eyes strayed to the plastic bottle in his hand. She swallowed hard, but could not control the residual coughs that threatened to set her off once more.

"Kiss?" Angelov flipped the bottle impressively around his arm and caught it in his other hand, as if he were flair bartending. The bastard would be coordinated. "Or no kiss, no water? And I tell Gus about the mess you made with your breakfast. He doesn't like it when the girls—"

"Kiss." Olivia's voice was so small. The vowels were mostly silent, the consonants sticking in her throat and needing to be pushed out. Amanda's cousin Mindy had stuttered badly as a kid, and it had sounded a lot like that. Min eventually outgrew it, but how did you outgrow something like this? What if Olivia never did? Lewis had kissed her on the mouth, a detail Amanda gathered (like so many of the details from those dark days) by hearing Olivia talk about it in her sleep. Cry about it, and wake needing Amanda to hold her.

God, Amanda just wanted to hold her.

Nicholas Angelov, good old Nicky boy, sighed as though he had a big decision to make. He regarded the water and then Olivia, his lip curled in that non-smile he wore the majority of the time. "All right, I'll give you one small sip first. You gotta moisten those things up before I'll get near 'em." He uncapped the bottle, but pulled it away at the last second when Olivia leaned in, craning her neck to get at it. "Just one."

Nodding assent, Olivia groped at the bottle with her lips at its approach and gulped down the water as fervently as Sammie on the nipple first thing in the morning. It was the way a lamb suckled, its head tipped back, exposing a vulnerable throat, body poised to follow the food source wherever it went. Unfortunately for Olivia, hers departed much too soon, and she spurted out part of the mouthful she was left with.

"That's more than a sip, you damn camel," said Angelov, eyeing the barely depleted bottle. He shook his head in disappointment, first at the water level and then at the front of Olivia's shirt, stippled with moisture.

"You really want it that bad? More than the kiss?"

It was all too contrived for Amanda's liking. He wouldn't just give Olivia another drink and forget about his bribed kiss, and the captain knew it too. She gazed at him with uncertainty, not answering for several moments. In the end, though, her thirst was greater than her fear. "Yes," she mouthed, and licked her lips in anticipation. She was on her knees, face upturned, every muscle in her body tensed for that next sip. Poor little lamb.

With no more ceremony than a shrug of the shoulder, Angel upended the bottle over Olivia's head, dousing her hair, her face, and her t-shirt in a few expert flicks of the wrist. He snapped the leftover droplets at her like a priest dispersing holy water during an exorcism. Having grown up Southern Baptist, Amanda was more acquainted with the laying on of hands to get the demons out—and he did that, too.

Before Olivia had caught her breath, torn away by the cold deluge of water, Angelov was on her. He covered her open mouth with his, plunging his tongue so deep she gagged. Her fists went up reflexively, but after pounding and pushing at his shoulders to no avail, she tried to pry his arms from around her. His hands, splayed at her lower back and the back of her head, didn't budge, and she managed only to writhe in his ironclad embrace.

Amanda thought of the footage from wild animal documentaries, where the apex predator set upon smaller, weaker prey, sometimes consuming it in just a few large bites. She often wondered why the film crew didn't intervene on the smaller animal's behalf. What kind of heartless person just sat back and watched something like that? Now she knew that she was no different. When the lion attacked, she watched like it was a goddamned documentary.Sexual Predators in Action: Unrated Edition.

A moment later, Angel pinned Olivia to the floor and yanked down her panties. Then he was raping her again, with so little effort he might have been wrestling a stubborn fitted sheet into place. The sheet crumpled and curled in at the edges and eventually went still beneath him, yielding to his every move, his every thrust. Olivia either couldn't cry out or wouldn't, her silence lasting long after the kiss had ended. She didn't blink once, the muck on her cheeks from the wet powder giving the appearance of strange gray tears. She looked like one of those Mary statues that, according to the religious nuts, wept olive oil. Or blood.

"At least we know she's on a dock . . . somewhere," Amanda said thinly. She had forgotten Fin was still in the room until she noticed his hand on her shoulder, offering awkward pats as Angelov manipulated Olivia to maximize his pleasure. "With shipping containers and construction. That's gotta be helpful, right? You should send out some of those concerned citizens who are just standing around with their dicks in their hands out there to start searching. Make themselves useful instead of beating off to rape p*rn of my wife."

"Amanda. That ain't what they're doing, and you know it." Fin's voice was light, but his hand was heavy and so was the look he gave her. At least it looked that way from the corner of her eye. "Everybody's working hard to find her. And I get it, you're pissed that you can't help. I would be too. You just gotta . . . let us do our thing and trust that everybody out there's giving it their best. We can't search every dock in the city—"

"Why the hell not? And look. Look here at the sunlight." Amanda tapped her finger rapidly against the screen (in the upper right-hand corner, Nicholas Angelov went on f*cking her wife on the wet and filthy donut-strewn floor), leaving a ghost-trail of imprints on the display. They evaporated in front of her eyes. "Can't we . . . I dunno, figure out what direction it's coming from and use that to pinpoint a location? What is that, like a forty-five degree slant, so northeast, which is probably somewhere near Hell Gate—"

"Hey. Rollins. Slow down." Fin gestured as if he were trying to prevent Amanda from speeding headlong off of a cliff, but he didn't return the hand she shrugged from her shoulder. He was acting like she was being irrational, or perhaps a bit manic, and it only made her angrier and more impatient. "I think you need a break from this. Why don't you go get some rack time, come back after you've had a chance to process a little?"

Rather than dignify the suggestion with a response, Amanda remained fixated on the screen, pretending Fin had in fact left the room this time. Angel was finishing with Olivia, tucking his penis into his pants and zipping up as he backed off of her, smiling like a john after a cheap roll in the sack. The captain folded in on herself like the pillbugs Amanda had poked with a stick when she was a kid, flicking them across the yard when she grew bored of their retiring behavior.

"Okay then, will you at least eat something from the vending machine if I bring it to you?" asked the sergeant, refusing to be ignored. As a teenager, Amanda had always gotten pissed when her mother dismissed her attempts at giving the silent treatment and talked to her like they were best friends. She huffed just as deeply now as she had back then. "How about some peanut butter crackers or—"

"Yes, peanut butter crackers are fine, Fin," Amanda said in a loud, hasty tone. She hated losing her patience with him, but at the moment she had a pretty damn good excuse. Olivia's rapist had left her alone again, shutting out the sunlight and taking with him the one source of warmth Olivia had found the night before: the shabby blanket. The captain was curled on her side, underwear still around her ankles. "And a coffee, I need some caffeine."

The dubious expression on Fin's face made it clear he did not agree with that assessment. "You sure about that? You seem pretty wound up as it is. Maybe lay off the caffeine for a while, you think?"

A second before she was about to say no, she didn't think so in the least, Amanda glanced down to see her knees bouncing wildly just below the table, her fingernails clacking like a busy typist's on the arms of the chair. She quieted her hands and her jiggling legs, folding them tightly together in an unnaturally stiff pose. Her posture was never that good at any other time. "Suit yourself. Forget the coffee, forget the crackers. I'll just wait for the next guy to show up and rape my wife, that'll keep me awake as well as the caffeine would."

Unable to tolerate Fin's troubled expression, even though she wasn't looking at him—she felt it boring into the back of her head the longer she sat there—Amanda occupied herself with the charger he had delivered. She could barely make her fingers cooperate enough to untwist the rubber band and let the cord spring free, crimped and unwieldy. It took several tries before she got the connector into the port of her phone, and she had wheeled her chair over to the nearest outlet when Fin finally spoke up again.

"I get that you're going through some heavy sh*t right now, Amanda. And I know you're just trying to hold it together. But I gotta do my job, and part of that is making sure you don't crack up. I'll bring you the crackers and the coffee, but you gotta gimme a reason to let you stay here watching this sh*t, otherwise I'm sending you home. I called someone for you. Either you talk to him when he gets here, or you're out."

"Him who? Did you call Carisi? I said I would—" Amanda sat up from plugging in the adapter and rotated the desk chair to face the sergeant, only to discover he had already gone. Oh well, she was about to lie, anyway. She no more intended to call Carisi now than she had when she first mentioned him as someone who could offer support.

They had a decent friendship since his move to the ADA's office, but their lives had gone in radically different directions these past few years. He was no longer her confidant, and she didn't want him anywhere near this. In some ways, he would always just be the boy with the silly mustache in her mind. Besides, without a badge, there wasn't much help he could offer for a case like this.

There didn't seem to be much help anyone could offer.

"I'll find you, baby," she murmured to Olivia, who had unfurled from her protective ball to pull up her underwear and drag herself onto the mattress. It reminded Amanda of one of her father's old hunting dogs that had gotten hit by a car and dragged itself home, unable to use its hind legs. Daddy had called the poor thing lame and put it out of its misery with a bullet between the eyes. "If I have to search every goddamn dock in the state myself, I'll find you. Just hang in there for me, darlin'."

"Amanda? What did you say?" a confused voice asked, and for a split-second, Amanda thought Olivia had responded to her. Then she realized it was Lucy answering the call she had sent without being fully aware of what she was doing. Maybe Fin was right; maybe shedidneed to talk to someone before she ended up completely losing her sanity.

"Hey, Lucy. Never mind, how are the kids?"

It should have felt good hearing about Noah and Jesse destroying the kitchen to make Sunday pancakes, and Matilda insisting she could change Sammie's diaper herself, but Amanda had to cover her mouth to keep from sobbing as she listened. She couldn't look away from the laptop screen. The mother of her children was seated in squalor, with blood-encrusted thighs, her hair and t-shirt soaked through as she shivered uncontrollably—and in the background, the kids were giggling. ("Is that Mommy or Mama?" Jesse called. "Tell them to come home for pancakes!")

"How's Liv?" Lucy asked in a hushed voice, after shooing the kids into a different room. "Have the kidnappers made any demands or anything yet?"

Only for the heart and soul to be ripped out of me, Amanda thought, stroking the livestream image of Olivia with her thumb. Only for everything that I have, and all that I am, so much of it because of her. Because of who she's made me and everything she's given. That's all.

She didn't say it, of course. Lucy had been told no more than was absolutely necessary for her and the kids' safety: Olivia had been kidnapped by some dangerous people, and no one but NYPD was to be trusted. If Jesus Christ himself came to the door, inquiring about the Rollins-Benson children, Lucy was not to let him in.

Amanda hadn't wanted to frighten the nanny with words like "possible sex traffickers," nor would she ever mention the live broadcast of Olivia's repeated assaults, but the girl was bright and she knew all too well the dangers that came with her bosses' jobs. The fact that she even knew to inquire about the kidnappers' demands proved she had a leg up on the average babysitter.

"There hasn't been much change since yesterday. We're still . . . " Amanda made a useless gesture that the nanny couldn't see or hear. She thought about how in tune she and Olivia were; so much so that Amanda could picture the captain's facial expressions and hand gestures, even when they were speaking over the phone. She knew her wife by heart. "We're still trying to figure out where they're holding her. I'm sure— we'll get her back soon."

A long pause from the other end of the line made it clear the nanny wasn't falling for Amanda's lame, stilted pep talk. But, on top of being a good nanny and savvy employee, the younger woman was also tactful and didn't ask anymore questions. She assured Amanda that there was plenty enough breast milk to last Sammie until the following day, and further plans could be arranged then, if it came to that—and it definitely would not, they both agreed with too much certainty.

"Hey, thanks, Luce," Amanda said, as they prepared to sign off. The kids were giggling in the background again, presumably at Frannie, who sounded as though she had the zoomies. Poor girl hadn't gotten her daily jog yesterday or this morning. "I'll call Daph to help with the dogs. She and Carisi are the only ones—"

"—I'm allowed to let in without a badge," Lucy finished lightly. "Don't worry, Amanda, I know the drill. I promise. Just focus on finding Liv."

The frustration of being able to see Olivia, being able to hear the soft hitches of breath that surely meant she was crying—she had turned her face away from the camera, almost purposely, as if she didn't wish to be seen at such a private moment, as if she sensed how many eyes were on her—but not being able to go to her, tofindher, hit Amanda all at once. "Tell the kids . . . Give them a hug from me and mommy," she said in a strained voice, and ended the call abruptly.

Releasing a shaky breath, she tried all the tricks to stave off the tears: deep, calming respiration, looking skyward and fanning her bottom lashes, snapping her wrist with the rubber band from around the phone cord. She cried anyway, a brief torrential downpour amid the hurricane of emotions that had been raging over the past twenty-four hours.

Twenty-four hours without Olivia. Maybe only twenty-one or twenty-two at this point, but still too long. It probably felt like an eternity to Olivia herself, stuck in what was essentially a large cell, no windows to provide an estimate of the passage of time. People had psychotic breaks over less, sitting in The Hole and conversing with co*ckroaches just to have the connection to another living being that humans so desperately required.

"Of all the days for you to forget your watch," Amanda said softly, chiding the woman on the screen with fondness, the way she would have—in happier times—if Olivia could actually hear her. She forced a tearful laugh that came out as a nasal whine, and she cut it short immediately. What right did she have to sit around sniveling while Olivia was the one suffering? It wouldn't bring the captain home.

Neither would calling Daphne, but at least it gave Amanda a task and made it feel like she was participating in her wife's rescue. Even if it was only asking the clerk to help with the dogs, that still took some of the responsibility off Lucy's shoulders, in turn giving her more time with the kids and making their mothers' absences less pronounced. With the kids and the dogs taken care of, then Amanda could really concentrate.

She could find a way to get Olivia back alive.

The moment Daphne answered, her tone bright and chirpy, Amanda's throat closed up, eyes brimming with fresh, hot tears. For a moment, she cried soundlessly into the mic, her mouth open wide, the way a heartbroken child cried when their sadness was too big for words, sounds, breathing. She considered hanging up, letting her friend go about her day as if it were any other. As if the world wasn't crashing down around her.

It was too late for that, though. Daphne might be a jokester and a shameless flirt, but she was also perceptive as hell when it came to Amanda. The only person who knew Amanda better was Olivia, and sometimes they were so intertwined with each other it could be difficult to tell where one of them ended and the other began. Daphne had become a sounding board of sorts, able to offer a little perspective when blind love wasn't enough.

"Mandy Lou? What's going on? Are you— I can barely hear you. Hello?"

That stupid nickname succeeded only in making Amanda cry harder, and she held the phone away from her mouth, unable to respond. She must have made more noise than she thought, however, because Daphne's pitch suddenly rose by an octave and something clattered in the background as if it had been dropped or flung aside. "Amanda? Honey, are you crying? What's wrong? Oh my God, is it one of the kids? Is it the baby?"

The other woman's mounting panic had a reverse effect on Amanda, calming her enough to take a stuttering breath and find her voice under all the emotion that had choked it out. "Not the kids, Daph," she said, stuffy and waterlogged. She sounded as if her lungs were full of sea water. Come to think of it, watching Olivia be tortured, watching her weep—cold and alone, half-dressed and hurting—was like drowning on dry land. Being waterboarded couldn't be any worse. "It's Liv. She's . . . something real bad happened. I can't— oh, Daphne, it's so bad."

"Oh, God. No, no, no. Not Liv. What happened? Is she—" On the opposite end of the phone, Daphne's breath caught audibly. The connection she and Amanda shared went both ways, and Amanda knew that light gasp had prevented the clerk from asking if Olivia was dead, like Meredith. "Is she hurt? Are you at the hospital?"

"She's hurt." God, she was so horribly hurt. Amanda pressed her palm to the MacBook screen, covering Olivia's hunkered form, and bowed her head. The televangelists that seemed to be required viewing in the South, and who were as prominent as Fresh Prince or Zack Morris in Amanda's childhood television experience, had always encouraged the audience to stretch their hands towards the TV during prayer.

She'd tried it once, begging Jesus to make her daddy stop hurting her mama. Dean had sent Beth Anne to the emergency room the next day. Amanda didn't pray now, at least not to Jesus. To Olivia she silently promised,I'll find you.Please don't give up,I'll find you.

"She's hurt, but we're not at the hospital," Amanda said, wondering why her voice was so flat, then realizing her head was still bowed, eyes closed.

It would have been nice to stay like that forever, to drift off and wake in a few hours to find this was all just a dream—Olivia smiling at her from across the pillow, calling her sunshine, even though she was anything but in the morning. Instead, she opened her eyes in time to see her wife slowly limping toward what looked like the edge of a bucket in the corner of the screen. Partial view or not, it didn't take a genius to figure out what the receptacle was for, especially when Olivia clapped a hand over her nose and mouth, as if she were about to be sick.

"Why aren't you at the hospital? Where is she? Amanda, you're scaring me. Where's Liv?"

The captain turned away from the rancid bucket, squatted over it, and hissed loudly through her teeth as she released a brief stream of urine. Most of it took place off camera, just the sound effects and peripheral glimpses of movement telling the story. Apparently none of the men had a bathroom fetish, thank God.

"I don't know where she is," Amanda said, interrupting another barrage of frantic questions from Daphne. "Some guys jumped us on our way home. They took her. They just . . . took her right out of my arms."

Not entirely accurate, but that was how it felt. It was bereavement; Amanda was utterly, unimaginably bereft. ("Ow," Olivia cried under her breath, though she was alone. She couldn't even bear to hear herself reacting to the burning pain. Amanda knew it from giving birth to Samantha; it had hurt to relieve herself for weeks after.)

"What? Oh my God. What guys?" Static crackled on the line as if Daphne were on the move.

It crossed Amanda's mind to lie, to downplay the urgency of the situation and spare her friend the awful details, but she wouldn't minimize Olivia's experience that way. And Daphne was a grown woman who worked in the family courts and heard her share of stories about trafficked kids. She often asked Amanda how she dealt with similar cases day in and day out.

Someone's gotta help them, Daph, was Amanda's usual response.I just try to remember that I get to go home to my family after, and I thank the Lord they're all safe.

"There's a group of them." A heaviness settled over Amanda as she said the words. It was difficult to hold her head up, let alone speak. She felt like she could sink into the earth, become part of it—that field of ripening grain from the poem they recited at funerals. What a load of bull that was. Dead was dead, pretty lies didn't change it. "Five . . . so far. They're— they're traffickers. I think they took Liv as some kind of payback for me. For mistakes I've made."

A lengthy pause. Then: "Traffickers? You mean, like, the sex trade?"

"Yeah. That's what I mean. They're recording what they're doing to her. Sent— sent me the link so I could watch." Amanda's vision shimmered, her throat clenched. Olivia was shuffling from one wall to the next, holding her lower abdomen, wincing with each step, and searching again for some way out. Trapped in a box, probably bleeding internally (certainly externally), and brutalized beyond belief, the captain was doing more to aid in her own rescue than Amanda was, just sitting here wringing her hands. If she didn't get out of this room soon and do something to help, she really would lose her mind.

The thought instantly filled her with guilt. She could leave her cage, but Olivia couldn't leave hers; she could call a friend for help, but Olivia had no one. Even the co*ckroaches were long gone.

"—terrible. Are they . . . " Daphne didn't know how to ask the rest. As open and honest as their friendship was, Amanda still hadn't told the clerk about Olivia's multiple assaults. In fact, the only other person she had revealed them to was her therapist. She talked about them more and in greater detail than her own assault, or so Dr. Hanover had pointed out during a session.You seem to have a more vivid image of your wife's traumatic experiences than your own. Why do you think that is?

Gee, doc, I don't know, maybe because that's the nature of trauma—the not remembering. Amanda hadn't said it. Hadn't wanted to "explore" why she was so keen to unravel Olivia's issues, to replay the captain's worst moments over and over again, but barely acknowledged Atlanta, Patton, Daddy, or Mama. They had long ago forgiven each other for that awful night of Amanda's relapse, but sometimes Olivia's small, tearful words still haunted her:I think you like me a little broken.

Was that why she had let this happen? Did she need Olivia to be hurting and dependent on her in order to feel secure in their relationship? But God, no, not like this. Sheneverwould have wished for something like this to make Olivia need her.

"Amanda?"

"Yes, they're . . . assaulting her. They— they were with her for hours yesterday. And one of them came back a little while ago." Amanda longed to get up and pace the room, as Olivia was doing on screen, but the cord to the phone charger didn't stretch that far. It was as though everything she touched had conspired to keep her and her wife apart. "They're breaking her in for someone who wants to buy her, they said. They cut her hair, Daph."

Why that should be the part of the attack she focused on, out of all the sad*stic things the men had done, and why it should be that detail that made Daphne burst into tears, Amanda didn't know. But the image of Gus Sandberg sawing off Olivia's braid and saying it would be a good souvenir for her wife was seared permanently into Amanda's brain. It raised a question she didn't want answered: what would the Sandman decide to cut off next?

"Oh, 'Manda, I'm so sorry. Oh my God, you have to find her." There was more, but it was unintelligible as Daphne cried with a fervency she normally reserved for laughter. She could be difficult to understand then too, racked by giddy, breathless amusem*nt rather than the sobs that came through the phone now.

Somewhere amid the emotional outpouring, Amanda detected the name Mere, and then she understood why Olivia's hair being cut off bothered her friend so much. Meredith Ashton's gray, eyeless face and beautiful shorn locks had waited behind Amanda's closed lids for weeks after that night in the Catskills. It was still just below the surface for Daphne from the sound of it. "Why? Who would do that to you guys?" asked the clerk, swiping loudly under her nose. "Who'd want to hurt Liv like that?"

The father of my child, Amanda thought, unable to say the words out loud. And a woman whose baby I threatened to shoot. Either or, take your pick.

Maybe if she didn't put it out there, it wouldn't be true.

"I don't know for sure," she said, trying not to lie to her friend. Lies had gotten her here—gotten Liv into the hellhole she couldn't find a way out of, no matter which wall she pushed on, or rested her head on and cried—in the first place. Lies, gambling, and meaningless sex: a trifecta of vices that earned Amanda this grand f*cking prize. "I've put a lot of people behind bars. Pissed off a lot of folks. There's a couple possibilities we're looking into."

"God. I just . . . I can't believe it's happening to Liv. Are you at the precinct? Should I come be with you or—"

"No. Don't come to the precinct." It was too sharp, but Amanda did want to sugarcoat it and chance Daphne deciding to stop by. The little clerk adored Olivia to the point of worshipfulness, and when Olivia got home (if she gets home, corrected an internal voice Amanda instantly shot dead) she would need someone who still treated her like that; who didn't see her getting piledriven by five men every time they looked at her. "They wouldn't let you up here right now, anyway. Place is full of cops and FBI. You could do me a favor, though."

"Anything."

"Would you go over to my place and take the dogs for a walk or to the park, or something? Lucy's there with the kids, and I don't want her dragging them out if she doesn't have to." Amanda explained about the security detail and why it was safer if the kids were at home. And, when Daphne agreed to look in on the dogs, it was with the stipulation that she behave normally around the children and their nanny, and make no mention of their missing mother.

"I promise," said Daphne, solemnly. "Find Liv, okay?"

"I will. Thanks, Daph."

Staring at her phone for several moments after the call ended, Amanda tried to remember if there was anyone else she should contact. Everyone who worked closely with Olivia already knew more about her abduction than they had any right to, and that also took care of the majority of her friends, other than Daphne. Barba would want to hop the soonest flight to JFK, but he only got to know if Olivia decided to tell him herself. And there was no way in hell Amanda would call Alex f*cking Cabot. The former attorney couldn't possibly have over a million a dollars just lying around—could she?—and even if she did, trying to renegotiate with Gus and his men might get the captain killed.

Suddenly Amanda understood the dilemma her wife had faced after the bank shooting that hospitalized her a little over a year ago. Except, Olivia didn't have an annoying, infuriating mother to reach out to; she had no family to pray for her safe return, to offer assistance in the aftermath, to reminisce with about the good old days—before all the rapes, all the unspeakable sadness. Amanda had never felt Olivia's absence of family as keenly as she did in that moment, holding her phone with no one to call. No one who cared.

"No one who cares," she repeated out loud to herself and sat forward, overwhelmed by a feeling that something was on the tip of her tongue.

No, at the tips of her fingers, not her tongue. She scrolled through the contacts on her phone, heart thudding wildly, until she came upon the number she'd only dialed once in the seven years since it was given to her. Toward the bottom, under M for Murphy. Last time she had tried it, while attempting to contact Declan about signing over his parental rights on Jesse, she had gotten a recording that said the number was out of service. But maybe now . . .

"We're sorry, you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error—"

"f*ck," Amanda exhaled, forcing out the breath she'd been holding in. She jabbed at the screen, ending the call, and let her phone clatter onto the tabletop. It had been a stupid idea anyway. What did she plan to say if he had picked up? Hey, pretty sure you're the kingpin of sex traffickers now, but could you tell your goons to quit raping my wife?

"You okay?" Fin asked, shuffling into the room with a steaming mug in one hand and several bags of chips and crackers clustered in the other, like a food vendor at Yankee Stadium.

"Dandy." Amanda watched him unload the coffee and snacks onto the table, feeling distant and removed from the scene, as if it were just another livestream she was sitting in on. But it must be real, because she could smell the coffee, earthy and piquant, and she felt a pang of hunger as Fin spread out the vending machine fare for a better look.

"Wasn't sure which you'd want," he explained, gazing on intently, as though she were IDing a suspect in a photo array. He had brought every type of peanut butter cracker available—the regular kind, the gross cheesy Keebler ones, and a bag of Nutter Butter bites—and several flavors of potato chips, including sour cream and onion, barbecue, and garden salsa Sun Chips. A pack of Skittles, Amanda's go-to dessert on working lunch days, lay among the selections.

She didn't want any of it, but if it got Fin off her back, she could choke down a few bites. Thinking of Olivia being forced to eat those f*cking powdered donuts, which Amanda loved and ate on the regular, she plucked her least favorite snack from the pile—the peanut butter cheese crackers—and tore open the cellophane on one end. "Thanks," she muttered, nibbling the corner of a cracker she normally would have consumed in two bites. It tasted at least three years old. "Any news?"

"Tamin and Marquez are taking another run at Vaughn. Kat says . . . "

"What?" Amanda glanced up from absently turning the once-square treat between her fingers like a coin (or a poker chip) when the sergeant trailed off. "What did she say, Fin?"

Sighing, Fin swiped up the bag of barbecue chips, split the seal, and began munching. He had never been a stress eater to Amanda's knowledge, but he chewed nervously now, stealing glances at the laptop, and spoke with his mouth full. "She says Vaughn's having fun with it. Pretending she's all innocent and reformed. Acting concerned about you and Liv."

Amanda gave a dark, mirthless bark of laughter. "Please tell me they're not falling for that sh*t. That's what she does—bats those big brown eyes and acts like she's harmless, but she's really the one who's twisting the knife in your back. Even had me feeling sorry for her there for a while." On the screen, Olivia was taking inventory of her injuries, tenderly touching different parts of her body—lips, jaw, neck, ribs, thighs—and wincing away from each, her eyes closed for a long time. She did that when she couldn't bear to look or listen anymore. When it was all just too much.

"Sondra Vaughn is a f*cking sociopath," Amanda said, and tossed the peanut butter cracker onto the table. It cracked down the middle and sputtered out orange crumbs. She reached for the coffee and held the mug at the bottom, letting it burn. "She was back then, and she still is now. Those kinds don't reform."

"Yeah, I know. And so do they, that's why they're still down there grilling her." Fin mulled on one of the aromatic crisps he was shoveling into his mouth from the dwindling bag. Chip shards and barbecue seasoning flecked his goatee and stained his fingertips, but he refrained from licking the latter. "You, uh, you know her kid died?"

The hot sip Amanda was trying to siphon from the mug a little at a time went down all at once, scalding her tongue and her esophagus. Beyond a reflexive cough, she barely noticed or reacted to the pain. It was nothing compared to the pain her wife felt. Olivia couldn't even sit down on the mattress without gasping as if it were a bed of nails she was lowering onto. "What? No. When? I never heard anything about that."

"Couple years. She and her uncle got hit by a drunk driver when the kid was six. Vaughn got more time on her sentence for almost killing another inmate after that." Fin stroked his goatee, not in thought but to shed the crumbs that had accumulated there. He dusted his hands together, sprinkling seasoning on the tabletop, then swiping it absently onto the floor. It was the most nervous Amanda had ever seen him. "She's got a reputation in the prison. You get on her bad side, you're gonna know it. They put her in the high-risk wing, but until she's ruled out as having anything to do with this—" He motioned to the video feed without looking at it. "—they're keeping her in solitary."

"I didn't know," Amanda said hollowly, staring at the screen through the steam from her coffee. It tickled her to no end when Olivia's hot drinks fogged up her glasses, momentarily blinding the captain and making her heave an exasperated sigh. At least it used to. Thinking about it now, Amanda couldn't even crack a smile. "'Bout her kid or any of it. Jesus, six years old. That's Jesse's age. Just a baby."

Fin's hand came to rest on Amanda's shoulder, and she caught another whiff of the barbecue chips he'd inhaled. "Hey. That ain't your fault. There's nothing you could've done about it either way. And it sure ain't no excuse if she's involved in this."

Glancing sidelong at Fin's engagement ring and his gritty, scented fingers, Amanda dropped her shoulder and scooted her chair away from him. "Think I don't know that already? I ain't looking for excuses for that crazy bitch. I don't care what happened to her damn kid. I should've put it down myself when I had the chance."

For several long seconds, Fin remained silent with his hand poised like he was still holding onto her, fingers slightly curled. Finally he balled them in a fist and dropped it to his thigh. "That's just your anger talking. You wouldn't be able to live with yourself if you'd done that." He sounded as though he wasn't entirely sure if that were the case, and Amanda made no attempt to answer one way or the other.

He was probably right, but at the moment Amanda didn't care about being the bigger person or the mother of an infant who couldn't bear to think about harming another baby. She didn't care about her vow to protect and serve. She was hurting, and if she could have taken something away from Sondra Vaughn—destroyed something the woman loved the way Olivia was being destroyed—she would have done it in a heartbeat. One of the few sermons from Amanda's childhood that had actually stuck was An Eye for an Eye.

"Has Lew— Dana found anything yet?" Amanda asked, when she was sure she could speak again without her voice trembling in rage. Olivia had reached for the plastic bottle Angelov left behind, and she upended it to her lips, trying to drain out any leftover drops of moisture. If she got any, Amanda couldn't tell, and the way Olivia sighed and let the bottle drop to the floor made her think not. "Anything about Murphy or his whereabouts?"

"She's following up on some leads from CIs. Feds have a few in the brothels around town, but you know how it goes with those girls."

Yeah, Amanda did know. They lived fast and died faster, most of them never making it out of the life before drugs or their pimp or a dissatisfied john's temper got the best of them. Five seconds later, a new girl was ready to take the old one's place, and no one ever noticed the difference. They weren't known for their honesty, either, or so Amanda had told herself when five of Timmer's girls had implicated Declan Murphy as one of the men who helped break them in. Their stories had been so similar, it was easy to dismiss them as scripted.

But that didn't explain how or when they had collaborated—they were kept separate after the Super Bowl bust—or why they would single out Murphy, whom they knew as just another pimp and not an undercover officer. Amanda had reasoned that it was like Brian Cassidy being framed for rape by a prostitute whose boyfriend was out for money. If Olivia could believe in Cassidy and support him through all that,andcontinue sleeping with him, why couldn't Amanda do the same thing for Murphy?

She had let her idiotic f*cking hero-worship, not to mention her desire to get laid (and possibly make Benson jealous in the process), blind her to the truth once again. And just look at what it got her. Olivia was shivering harder than ever, her wet hair and t-shirt clinging to her face, her breasts. She flicked the heavy tendrils aside, wincing at the sharp movement, and peeled the shirt away from her chest compulsively. Every effort to huddle into a warm, safe ball was defeated by pain that made her flinch and whimper just tucking her legs in. Eventually she gave up, leaned stiffly against the wall behind her, and shut her eyes to the bleak surroundings—her only escape.

"Rumor is Murphy's in Belarus right now," Fin was saying, a dark quality to his voice and expression. He ducked his head for a moment, averting an intense gaze from the screen. From Olivia. "Dana knows someone in Minsk who might be able to locate him."

"Lemme guess, he's rounding up more girls to ship back to the states and do this to." Amanda nodded dully at her wife and set her mug aside, the coffee nearly untouched. She couldn't stomach it right now. None of it.

"Probably, yeah."

"Jesus Christ, Fin, how'd I miss it? It was staring me right in the face, and I just . . . " Amanda's gesture faded along with the sentence. She was so goddamned exhausted she didn't think she could keep going. Every inch of her body ached, most likely from tension and dropping onto the pavement while being tased the day before—but it was more than that, too. She was feeling Olivia's pain again; that had to be why she felt so bone-weary she could barely hold her head up. Something in her pelvic area burned as if she had a UTI. "Maybe if I'd paid closer attention, none of this would be happening."

"Nah. We all missed it with Murphy." Fin hesitated before softly adding the next part, "Even Liv."

"This ain't her fault," Amanda snapped, turning a ferocious look on her sergeant. Her anger was disproportionate to what he had said, she knew, but she had to let it out somehow. It scorched her insides the way the coffee had scorched her tongue. "Don't you put this on her."

"I'm not. I'm not." Fin's hands went up, palms open and empty, showing he wasn't a threat. It was the way you approached knife-wielding EDPs and snarling dogs. "It's not on her at all. But it ain't on you either, Amanda. You couldn'ta known he'd do something like this. And even if we had thrown his hairy ass in prison back then, there's still a strong chance this would have happened. If Vaughn's involved, she'd have found a way to get to you and Liv, with or without Murphy. Someone else would be running the show, that's all."

That very well could be true, but it didn't make Amanda feel any better—A) because Olivia hadn't dealt as closely with Murphy, and therefore had fewer warning signs to ignore than Amanda did; and B) she was responsible for putting Vaughn behind bars and, in some small way, for the death of the woman's little girl. Any way you sliced it, Amanda had a hand in what was happening to her wife. It was nice of Fin to deny it, but she knew the truth, ugly though it might be.

"Yeah." Amanda left it at that, not interested in hearing him defend her any further. Someone had to be to blame for this ongoing nightmare, and if you really thought about it, she was the common denominator it all came down to. She was the one who put Olivia in the worst danger of her life time and time again.

Just as Amanda was hoping the sergeant would get the hint from her silence and return to the squad room, leaving her to stew and self-castigate in peace, Olivia's eyes sprung open as if she'd just remembered she left the coffee pot running at home. She sat forward and appeared to listen to some distant sound the camera wasn't picking up on. Then she looked directly at the lens, an almost wistful expression on her tired, wan face, like she was preparing for a difficult goodbye.

"What is she doing? Baby, what're you doing?" Amanda asked, her throat tightening and producing a shrill pitch as she watched Olivia struggle to stand, to limp closer to the camera.

The captain still couldn't see a recording device, her eyes scanning whatever concealed it (a wall, Amanda presumed) and straying past the lens several times. Finally she settled on a general vicinity, and spoke. "If anyone's watching this, please send help. I'm in a shipping container. There's . . . so many."

Her voice was gravel and rust, a ring of dark bruises encircling her neck like a dirty noose. Her lips were so dry they were flaking, the split down the middle glistening with fresh blood. She kept both arms crossed in front of her chest in a protective X, hands curved over her shoulders. "Some kind of port near the water, I don't know which . . . " Tears of frustration filled Olivia's eyes and she gazed around helplessly, shaking her head.

"I couldn't see the skyline. There's a construction site nearby." The last part came out rushed, and the captain glanced over her shoulder, eyes gone wide and fearful, as if she expected to see a ghost. Or a sandman. "We went over some bridges. Jersey, maybe. sh*t, they're coming. Please help, I—"

The rest was lost to a screech of door hinges and a flood of sunshine that spilled over Olivia like a holy light from above, blinding her with its glory. The figure that stepped forth from the light, though somewhat reticulan in shadow, was anything but divine; it was that tall, lanky piece of sh*t named Liam Sandberg, and he was carrying the same length of pipe or whatever the thing was that Olivia had been threatened with yesterday.

"Bitch, what the hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded, his tone harsh but strangely playful. He sounded like he was imitating an abusive husband from some dumb movie, about to yell at his wife to make him a sandwich. He smacked the pipe-thing against his open palm. "You better sit your rank ass down and shut your fat mouth, unless you want another taste of old Sparky here."

Old Sparky wasn't a very helpful description, but the connotations and the pipe-thing's overall shape made Amanda pretty confident she was looking at some sort of jury-rigged taser. It made sense. Little Liam Sandberg liked to shock women, and Amanda had the prong-shaped burns to prove it.

"I know you're recording me," said Olivia, backing away from the younger man too quickly. She bumped into the desk where most of yesterday's assault had taken place, and upon seeing what it was, shrank back from it like she'd wandered too close to a rabid dog. "They'll know where the video is coming from if you put it online. Wouldn't it be better to just let me go, and you can get out of here before they show up?"

Amanda longed to wipe the smug, sh*tty smile off the little punk's face as he taunted Olivia with false starts toward her, stamping his foot and twitching his shoulders while she dodged side to side, ready to flee in the opposite direction from which he came. "They? You still think you got friends out there who will magically appear and save you? Hate to break it to you, honey, no one's coming. No one gives a f*ck about you. If they did, they would've been here yesterday to keep us from doing you raw and nasty. Over and over and over . . . "

"Don't listen to him," Fin said in a low, confidential tone, as if he were interrupting Amanda mid-interrogation. "He's just messing with her head. Wants her to feel hopeless so they can control her better."

"I know that," Amanda said sharply. Did Fin really think that, after all this time, she didn't understand how guys like this operated? Did he really think she wouldn't feel guilty no matter what he said to the contrary? Or that Olivia, alone and terrorized, after so many devastating experiences where no one did come for her, wouldn't believe every single word? "Don't you think I damn well know that?"

Before Fin could respond, Liam Sandberg took a running leap at Olivia, his open plaid shirt billowing out behind him like a cape. Or at least that was how it appeared from the angle of the camera. He had actually pounced on top of the desk in front of her, his checkered Vans squeaking on the metal. He struck a corny surfing pose, and when Olivia stumbled backward in an attempt to get away from him, landing heavily on her rump on the floor, he called out in an equally dumb surfer dude voice, "Whoa, bruh, wipeout. Where'd you learn to hang ten, man?"

If Amanda had her gun and could have shot him dead through the screen right then, she would have done it, no questions asked. Her next best option, besides heaving the laptop across the room, was to slam her fist down on the uneaten pack of cheese crackers, pulverizing its contents. She did it once, twice, three times, four—and on the fifth pounding, when she realized she couldn't stop, Fin cupped a hand over her fist, gently but firmly keeping it still.

"That ain't gonna help her," he said.

Will anything, Amanda wondered. Will anything help her when this is over? She thought she might have said it out loud, but Fin didn't answer, so maybe not. It didn't matter anyway, because this was far from over: the Sandman's son hopped down from the desk (it shuddered like the Tin Man inThe Wizard of Oz) with the heavy, graceless dismount of a clunky teenager, and strode toward Olivia. Seated on the floor, she scooted backward on her hands, dragging her legs as if they were paralyzed, and cringed in agony every inch of the way.

Not that there were many inches to go. A few more, and she was backed against a wall, nowhere else to hide. With a Herculean amount of effort, she forced herself onto her feet by bending both knees and pushing up, her back sliding along the corrugated metal wall. Liam Sandberg watched as if he were impressed by the feat of strength, his head bobbing in approval. He opened his mouth for some sarcastic comment or another, but shut it in favor of staring down Olivia, whose gaze bore through him.

Gradually, his eyes grew wider and wider, until they bulged with fake horror. Then he jerked forward, throwing out his arms and yelling, "RAHHH!" like a kid trying to scare the willies out of someone. A very large, terrifying kid. And it worked—Olivia recoiled the way she sometimes did at the sound of a car horn blaring. Her knuckles clanged on the container wall when she threw her hands back in surprise, but it was Liam who got the real shock of his life when she kicked out at him, connecting high on his inner thigh.

It wasn't his groin, but it was close and he leapt back with a little shriek, clutching at his privates. Olivia wasted no time, skirting past him and hurrying for the open door at the fastest hobble she could likely manage in her condition. Amanda willed her to go faster, to push through the pain and just f*cking run. It was the worst, most selfish feeling she could imagine, to be angry at her wife for not ignoring the probable broken bones, internal injuries, and extensive anogenital tearing that were slowing her down. And yet Amanda wanted to scream at her like Liam Sandberg had:RUN.

Olivia might have made it outside the container if not for Nicholas Angelov, materializing from inside a flare of sun. Ra, an angry god come to earth as man to smite the infidels. He had Olivia in his sights—she stopped short, her gasp an emphysemic wheeze—but it was the other man-monster who, recovered from his close-call, approached her from behind and cracked her skull open.

At least that was how it sounded when Sandman Jr. smashed the taser baton across the back of Olivia's head, sending her sprawling facedown onto the floor. Other than a muffledhmphshe made no sound, though it hurt like hell to watch (even Fin gave a pained hum) and had to be ten times worse to experience firsthand. "Lord Jesus," Amanda whispered, holding the back of her own head. Her brain was on fire. She couldn't survive this. They had just gone for bagels, and now her wife was going to die right in front of her.

"f*ck," Liam Sandberg hollered, landing a sound kick to the middle of Olivia's back when she moaned and attempted to sit up, clutching her head. Laid out flat again, she didn't try to move this time, but the crazy bastard Sandberg pinned her to the floor anyway, one of his Vans planted square on her back. Size twelve, easy. "I was gonna be nice and let you off with a warning, but you had to go and get physical. And trying to run? Seriously? My mentally impaired brother can run faster than you. Learns faster, too. And we never had to beat it into him like I'm gonna do to you."

He raised the baton high, ready to bring it down on Olivia's skull again, in what would surely be the coup de grâce, but Angelov grabbed his wrist in midair. "Easy, junior. You kill her, your daddy eats a mill and probably kills you too. And if he doesn't, I will. You can zap her, you can f*ck her, but you're not beating her f*cking brains in like that other girl. Got me?"

Junior looked like he wanted to be the one who killed Angelov right then, visibly seething as he yanked his wrist free. For a moment, gaze flicking anxiously back and forth between the two men, Amanda was on the demented angel's side. The side of the man who had just raped her wife not twenty minutes earlier.

"Yeah, man, I got you," said Liam Sandberg, laughing off the murderous anger that disappeared much too abruptly. "We're good. We're copacetic. No kitty killy, just zappy f*cky." He took his foot off Olivia's back—she exhaled heavily and coughed, but kept her face turned to the floor, a protective hand splayed behind her head—and he lowered his weapon, gesturing as if it had all been a big joke.

He was still smiling, his eyes empty (those buggy serial-killer eyes), when he jabbed the taser prongs into Olivia's exposed lower back like he was using a trash-picking stick and depressed the trigger. Olivia's entire body jerked and went rigid as the current passed through her, God only knew how many volts flowing out of that modified torture device. Amanda had gotten lucky, the shock she'd received was regulated for use by law enforcement.

Even so, her nerve endings tingled, an odd hot-cold sensation flooding her skin, as she watched the captain convulsing. The sound of the taser reminded her of those outdoor bug zappers that were the soundtrack of her childhood summers, along with cicada song and Dean Rollins' earth-shattering beer belches from the front porch. And Olivia was the pretty brown moth getting fried when she flew too close to the ultraviolet light.

"For f*ck's sake, give her a minute," Amanda said, on the verge of shouting. She wanted to grab the stick and shove it up Liam Sandberg's rapist ass; she watched. "That's too much! She can't handle it, you f*ck—"

Sandberg let up on the trigger and raised the charged end like it was the barrel of a shotgun, blowing across the pronged tip. If there were any kind of justice in the world, a stray current would travel through the mist of his saliva and orally electrocute him, but of course it didn't. There was no justice in this. Even if they got Olivia out of there alive and put all the animals responsible for her abduction and torture in prison, it wouldn't be enough. The men would go about their lives behind bars, probably bragging about the lady cop they did raw and nasty, and their misdeeds would live on forever through the Internet.

The only justice would be in Olivia rising from the floor, where she lay in a limp, motionless heap, wresting the taser from Liam Sandberg, and beating him and Angel to death with it; in her strolling from the shipping container, streaked in their blood instead of just her own, and hunting down the other men, picking them off one at a time; in her return home, resuming normal life, all the while arranging the deaths of Sondra Vaughn and Declan Murphy from behind the comfort of her desk, blameless. That's how it happened in the movies.

You kill 'em all, baby, Amanda urged her wife silently. But Olivia didn't move or make a sound, let alone get up and massacre seven people with her bare hands. The realization—Olivia had been still for way too long—sent a fresh wave of panic through Amanda, and she sat forward, palms flat on either side of the laptop, and strained to see if the captain was breathing. "Is she breathing, Fin?" she demanded, as if her sergeant had some inside information he was withholding. "Oh my God, I can't tell, is she breathing?"

"I don't—"

Olivia answered them with a dry cough when Angelov, holding up his hand to stop Sandberg from dosing her again, nudged her shoulder with the toe of his boot. In spite of the brief sign of life, he wedged the boot under her shoulder and used it to roll her over. "Better ease up for a while," he said, regarding her with a dispassionate eye as she lay there, half-conscious and panting. She moaned at the sound of his voice, but couldn't quite find his face with her wandering gaze. "You probably melted part of her brain with all that juice. Give her some time to recover before you do permanent damage."

"How the f*ck is that fair?" Liam demanded, standing above Olivia on the opposite side and looking down at her with the same cold indifference. They might as well have been examining a dead rat in the subway, arguing over who should pick it up by the tail and toss it in the trash. "You get to come in here and f*ck her skan* ass, but I have to back off? Nah, bro, she needs to learn that, from now on, the only reason she gets to open her big mouth is when there's a dick in it."

That brought Olivia into focus, and she gave another feeble groan, slowly shaking her head as the young man undid his zipper. Her eyes scrunched shut against the sight, reminding Amanda of sweet little Matilda, who thought she was invisible if she closed her eyes during games of hide and seek. Olivia always acted so surprised when the three-year-old, in full view of the seekers, popped open her blue lilac eyes and squealed in delight that she'd tricked her mommies.

Nicholas Angelov shrugged and turned for the exit. "If you're into half-dead bitches sucking you off, go for it. Just don't overdo it and suffocate her. I'm not gonna run back in here to save your ass every time you lose it. You kill her, you're on your own with the Sandy Man." On that note, he ambled out of the shipping container like Alex and his droogs strolling away from a little of the old ultraviolence in A Clockwork Orange.

Heaving a disgusted sigh, Liam cast an accusatory glance at Olivia, as if she were ruining all his fun with her inability to withstand a more sustained torture. "The way my dad talked about you, I thought you'd be something special," he said, lip curled. "But you're as weak and pathetic as the rest of them." He hawked loudly, snorting nasal mucus into his throat, and spat a large wad of phlegm and saliva onto Olivia's chest where it was exposed by her V-neck t-shirt.

Then, almost boredly, he touched the fanged end of the taser to the slimy deposit on Olivia's bare skin, and gave her a short, parting zap. "Don't try talking to the camera anymore, or else I'll come back in here and drill you so hard I'll put a hole in this floor." He booted Olivia's feet aside on his way out, even though they weren't in his path. His whistling trailed from the room, silenced altogether when he closed the doors, blotting out the brilliant May sunshine.

"Oh, Liv," Amanda whispered, touching her wife through the screen. She looked so small and defenseless curled up on the floor like that. Shewassmall and defenseless in that moment. It made Amanda ache, body and soul, to see her so alone, so defeated. The only sign that Olivia was still in there was a trembling hand reaching for a wadded scrap of cloth to wipe her chest. "Yeah, baby, that's a good idea. Go ahead and clean up."

"I'm gonna go back out there and make sure they're looking at ports in Jersey," Fin said quietly.

"By the water. With lots of shipping containers and a construction site nearby." Amanda kept her eyes on Olivia, who made no attempt to move onto the mattress once she had dried off the Sandberg kid's saliva. She merely lay on the floor beside the bed, like she was part of the surrounding trash. Amanda willed her to at least roll over onto the padding, but Olivia didn't budge. "Tell them to hurry, Fin. I don't think she can take much more."

The sergeant looked as though he wanted to say something, but kept it to himself, nodding instead. At least until he made it to the door. "Hey, um, Lindstrom will be here soon, so, uh, just a heads up."

"Lindstrom? Why the hell is he—" Amanda cut herself off, realizing her friend must have called Olivia's psychiatrist—thehimwho Fin had mentioned earlier—in lieu of the vacationing Dr. Hanover. She whirled around in her chair, prepared to tell Fin to call the man back and rescind the invitation immediately; to never presume they were close enough for him to make such decisions for her. But he was already out of the room, headed for the clutch of cops and agents gathered at one of the desks.

"f*cking hell," she muttered, because not only was Fin long gone, but she also spotted Peter Lindstrom wandering into the squad room at that precise moment.

Amanda could count on one hand the number of times she had spoken to the curious little man, though she didn't remember when was the last time she'd seen him in person. His appearance hadn't changed from what she could tell at that distance. He still reminded her of a tortoise without a shell. And now he was toting a leather medical bag like the ones doctors carried in the days when they did house calls.

Christ, Fin, what did you do?

. . .

Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (9)

Hell Hath No Fury - chief_johnson (10)

. . .

Chapter 18: The Sixth Man

Notes:

Thanks to everyone for the kind words and encouragement after my previous author's note. I'm hanging in, but man, am I tired. Helping care for a litter of newborn puppies is not for the faint of heart, I can tell you that. Anyway, I'm posting way off-schedule again, but tomorrow and Thursday at least will be super busy and I'm not confident I'll find the time to update then. So here's another long chapter that will hopefully tide you over. Hang in there with me, y'all. I know this part of the story has been going on for quite a while, but it's not something I felt I could or should rush. And it is nearing a different phase of the story... soonish. Honestly, I haven't read these chapters since I wrote them, which was about 2 1/2 years ago for this part, so I can't guarantee how many chapters it will be until we get to the next stuff, but trust that it's coming. Giving this one a mild trigger warning for mentions of sexual assault, just to be on the safe side. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the states who celebrates.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18.

The Sixth Man

. . .

To Lindstrom's credit, he was appropriately taken aback when he caught a glimpse of his patient on the screen that Fin and the others were watching. His expression, initially wide-eyed shock (he put a hand over his heart), darkened almost to a glower the longer he stood back and observed. He had a creepy quality that Amanda wasn't fond of, though she couldn't put her finger on exactly what it was, and the glare didn't help. But his reaction made him seem human and proved that he cared for Olivia's welfare.

Amanda still didn't want to talk to him. If she wasn't glued to her seat and determined not to leave Olivia alone, she would have ducked into the captain's office, then continued on to interrogation, hopefully managing to slip out of the squad room entirely. She stayed in her chair, glancing from her wife to the man who was approaching the interview room, after Fin pointed him in the right direction.

"f*ck," Amanda whispered, foolishly, selfishly wishing that Olivia was here with her, to field the psychiatrist's questions and act as a buffer if the interaction got too heated. Ashamed to be putting her raped and battered wife in that position, even if it was an imaginary one, Amanda cast an apologetic look at the laptop.I'm sorry, she mouthed, and stroked Olivia's huddled form with the pad of her finger. The captain was quaking from head to toe again. Amanda longed to pick her up, place her gently on the mattress, cover her with warm—

"Amanda?" The voice from the doorway was level and pleasant, if a bit didactic. It was a voice intended for educational cartoons on PBS; not a Mr. Rogers drowse, but mellow enough for the part of an animated tortoise who carried around a doctor's bag and made house calls.

Amanda missed Hanover already.

"Hey, Doc," she said flatly. Without turning around, she beckoned him in with a salute-like flick of the fingers. "Come to see the show? I didn't figure you for the type to be into torture p*rn. Guess you never can tell about some folks, huh?"

The man didn't respond—the comments were rhetorical anyway—and when Amanda cast a sidelong glance at him, he was watching her with a solemn expression she took for disapproval. It silenced any other smartass remarks that might have followed. Not because Lindstrom intimidated her in the least, but because she knew Olivia would be upset with her for disrespecting the esteemed therapist. He had helped Olivia through some very dark times and probably thought he could do the same for Amanda.

Indeed, he rounded the table and gestured to the chair opposite her, asking her permission to be seated. She liked that he chose a chair across from her, where he wouldn't be able to see the laptop screen, and she tipped her head in assent. He took a seat somewhat fastidiously, as if he might pull out a handkerchief and dust off the chair first, then he placed the medical bag on the table with a discreet hand. He laced his fingers together on the tabletop and fixed another somber look on Amanda. This time she saw the concern etched into his features, along with the wrinkles.

"How are you?" he asked pointedly. Not just a passing question with a bottled response (I'm fine, wife's being held captive and brutalized, but other than that. You?), but one which anticipated a real answer.

"You saw her. How do you think I am?"

Close enough.

Lindstrom studied Amanda with a gaze so steady it was disconcerting. Sometimes Dr. Hanover did that too, although it felt like less of a violation with her, since she was getting paid. "You don't look well, Amanda. Your sergeant is very concerned about you. He said you would be angry that I'm here. I'm sorry to see that's the case, but I wanted to come, anyway. Olivia wouldn't want you to be alone right now."

Hearing her wife's name cut like a knife, particularly while Olivia was crying and hugging herself for warmth, and Amanda shot a hard look at the man, unmoved by his speech. "I'm not alone, in case you missed the room full of badges out there. And I talked to a couple of my friends on the phone a little while ago. Hell, I'm livin' it up compared to—" Her voice caught, and she had to clear her throat in order to continue. "Compared to what Liv's going through. She's the one who's all alone."

"She is," he agreed, sadness passing over his already weathered face. He obviously cared a great deal for Olivia. Amanda caught herself wondering if he harbored feelings for her wife—everyone seemed to—but she quickly snuffed out the idea. Now was not the time to let her jealousy rear its ugly head; no one was having amorous thoughts about Olivia right then (except maybe a few hundred sickos on the Internet).

The doctor canted his head thoughtfully. "But I don't think she would want you to suffer along with her. Olivia speaks of you often, and her greatest hope for you is that you're happy, safe, and cared for."

Yeah, that sounded like Olivia. Her Liv.

"Well, I'm not, okay? How the hell could I be happy right now? Fin tell you what they been doing to her?" Amanda's voice gave out on the final note, but she pressed on, angry tears in her eyes. It felt even better to rage at him than at Fin, one of her oldest friends since transferring to New York. She tried not to think about what her wife would say. "Right before you got here, one of them cold co*cked her with a taser baton hard enough to crack her skull. Then he kicked her in the back and spat on her like she was . . ."

A lump formed in Amanda's throat, burning like hot stone. She swallowed laboriously, only able to choke it down after three attempts. "And the guy who stopped him from hurting her worse? He raped her on the filthy f*cking floor 'bout twenty minutes before that. You wanna hear what they did to her yesterday? All five of them taking turns on her for hours until she was half dead and just lay there, letting them do whatever they wanted to her?

"So, no, Doc, I'm not f*cking happy or safe or whatever bill of goods you came in here to sell me. I feel like my guts are being ripped out, fried up, and fed to me like motherf*cking fried okra. And if you ask me to elaborate on that or some other shrinky-dink bullsh*t, I swear to God . . . "

Unflinching, Lindstrom listened to the whole rant (towards the end, it sounded frighteningly similar to one of Dean Rollins' drunken ramblings), his expression so passive it infuriated Amanda even more. How could he sit there with that blank look on his stupid cartoon tortoise face after she'd just described the horrors Olivia was being subjected to? He should be at least a little upset that years of hard work with his star patient were going down the drain. Maybe he was happy she would never get better after this. He could go on treating her, ad infinitum.

"Amanda, when is the last time you slept? Or ate something?" He was looking at Amanda as if he were examining her retinas with an ophthalmology tool. "Or took your eyes off that computer screen? Your pupils are dilated—"

"If you're suggesting I'm on something—"

"I'm not," Lindstrom interrupted, calmly but with a fatherly firmness that made Amanda want to scream. He was no father to her. "It can be a sign of extreme distress. PTSD, panic attacks, and the like. It's perfectly understandable in your situation, but it's also dangerous for you to keep operating at this level of anxiety. If you continue this way, I fear for your mental and physical health. How will you be able to care for Olivia if— when she comes home, if you yourself are unwell?"

Amanda didn't have an answer for that, sarcastic or otherwise. She snatched up the bag of mini Nutter Butters from the haul Fin had left on the table and tore the corner off too forcefully. The crinkly plastic split deep down the side, nearly dispersing the contents in every direction. "f*ck," she muttered, scooping up the escaped cookies at the last second. She threw too many of them in her mouth, but refused to spit them out while Lindstrom's eyes were on her.

It was better this way. He couldn't expect her to talk with her mouth full of peanut butter and shortbread. Unfortunately, he still expected her to listen. "Not only that, but you've your children to think of as well. The younger two might not be able to make sense of what's happening, but the older two are going to have questions and concerns. They'll be looking to you for reassurance, and if you continue to push yourself like this, it will be nearly impossible for you to provide that for them. Have you thought about what to say when they ask after Olivia?"

Amanda chewed until her jaw grew tired, avoiding an answer for as long as possible. She hated him for bringing her children into this. Logically she knew she would have to give them some kind of explanation for Mommy's absence—and her own—when she next saw them. It wasn't fair to saddle Lucy and Auntie Daph with lying to the kids for her.

And he was right about Noah and Jesse; Tilly and Sammie would just be happy to have their mommies to cuddle, but their older siblings would want to knowwhy. Why had Mommy and Mama gone to work on the weekend and not come home for days? Why was Mama so sad and red? Why was Mommy in hospital again, and can we go see her, please oh please, Mama?

The peanut butter cookie mash went down Amanda's throat in a large painful lump. She coughed and took a sip of the coffee that had gone lukewarm since Fin delivered it in a mug she didn't recognize. If she got sick from drinking after someone else, so be it. She couldn't possibly feel any worse than she did right now, her eyes on Olivia, who hadn't gotten her morning coffee. Just her morning beating and sexual assault.

"I'm not telling them anything yet," Amanda said, and set the coffee down too hard, slopping some onto the table. She swiped at it briskly and swiped that on the leg of her pants. And that's that. "I don't even know if their mother is ever coming home, so—" She felt the admission like a gunshot, unable to actually hear it for the ringing in her ears. Of course she had known it before this (Oh God! Liv might never be coming home!), but to say it out loud gave it form, gave it life.

Had she just doomed her wife to die? She wanted to believe in God again so she could pray for a retraction. Grandmama Brooks would say the Good Lord wasn't a gumball machine you dropped a quarter into and got your prize, but Amanda was desperate enough to try it. Hell, she'd go into Olivia's office and pray to the little Buddha snow globe on the desk, if there was a chance he might hear and intervene on her behalf.

Please, she thought to anyone who might be listening.

Dr. Lindstrom was looking at her strangely, and she realized he was waiting for her to finish what she'd been saying. For the life of her, Amanda couldn't remember how she'd planned to conclude. "I'll figure something out when I see them," she said dully. "They're my kids, I know how to talk to them, okay?"

"I'm sure you do." Lindstrom nodded, sincerity in his wrinkled tortoise face. He offered a faint smile. "Olivia's mentioned how wonderful you are with them. It sounds as though you've really taken to the role of 'Mama,' and also become somewhat of the disciplinarian in the household."

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Amanda demanded, his pronunciation of the wordsmamaanddisciplinarianputting her on alert. She had a pretty good idea of what he was driving at—she had indeed started correcting and punishing the kids, as needed, more frequently in the past several months—and she resented the implications that Olivia had discussed her parenting style with the man. "Liv tell you I'm too much of a hard-ass with them? 'Cause I ain't. She's just so—"

Breaking off there, Amanda bit her tongue before she could say the captain was too soft, too lenient. Too afraid to be cross with their children when they acted up, fearing it might cost her their love. And who could blame her? When you grew up trying your damnedest to win your mother's love, only to be rejected and made to feel intrinsically wrong at every turn, how could you not internalize the idea that you were unlovable? Or that scolding your children would make them feel as worthless and burdensome as you did at that age? It was the same reason Amanda couldn't stand it when the kids saw their mommy hurt or crying.

"It's just real hard for her to get after them for acting up," Amanda said, with less vehemence than before. She couldn't speak of Olivia in anger at the moment. Even if the anger was directed at someone else. (The captain appeared to have drifted into a light, fitful sleep, her body jerking violently each time her muscles began to relax.) "Because of how she was raised. So, it's my job and I do it the way I see fit. It's not like I'm mean to them. They're good kids, I barely even have to raise my voice for them to listen."

"Olivia didn't say you were mean, no. On the contrary, she's expressed great relief that she has someone to co-parent with, and she seems to admire your ease with the children." Lindstrom's gaze trailed toward the leather bag beside him, as if there were something inside it that might tell a different story from the big happy family tale Olivia had spun. "But we've also spoken of the difficulties you two have encountered in your relationship: PTSD, childhood abuse, anger issues, addiction . . . "

And there it was. He wanted to paint Amanda as the abusive, hotheaded spouse, just like everyone else did. Fine, okay, so she had a temper. She had crossed the line a few times with Olivia, but she would sooner cut off her hand than raise it to her wife.

Why couldn't people stay the hell out of their private life? It wasn't anybody else's business what went on behind the closed doors of her marriage, least of all this strange little man who probably had the hots for Olivia. Or did, before getting a look at her bruised, broken, barely dressed form crumpled on the floor like a used tissue.

The tattered underwear would haunt Amanda till her dying day.

"My concern is that this current trauma will reawaken some past behaviors which could prove . . . detrimental to you, to Olivia, and to your children."

Amanda wished he would just speak like a normal person, for Christ's sake. He had beady eyes, she noticed, as they gazed intently at her. Maybe he reminded her more of a rat than a mild-mannered tortoise. A tortoise kept to itself and didn't offer unsolicited marital advice. Rats poked their noses where they didn't belong, whiskers twitching.

"Why don't you say what you mean?" she asked sharply, narrowing her eyes to slits. She imagined they looked like snake eyes, the kind you spotted in the grass, seconds before a deadly strike—not the duds you rolled in a game of craps. Both were unlucky, but one was far more dangerous than the other. Especially for a curious, foraging rat. "You think my wife being abducted and ripped apart in front of me is going to push me over the edge, right? That I'm gonna go home and, what, beat the livin' snot out of my kids and dogs? Hit a few gambling clubs on my way to shoot up a mall or park or something?"

Lindstrom's mild expression never faltered, nor did his gaze stray from hers. Amanda was being sarcastic about the possibility of a violent outburst if she went off the deep end, but the longer he stared at her, the clearer it became that that was exactly what he insinuated.

"Christ A'mighty, I wasn't serious," she scoffed, slumping back heavily in her chair, arms crossed. It was the same posture that had gotten her through high school and all the lectures about abstinence, underage drinking and smoking, GPA, and inking obscene doodles into the margins of exam booklets. "I'm not a psychopath. I've only—"

She was about to say she'd only killed three people in the line of duty, and one—Esther Labott—had been an accidental shooting. Another was an intruder in her home, attacking her sister (or so she'd been led to believe when she pulled the trigger); and the last was Calvin Arliss, whose final act on earth was slashing a straight razor across Olivia's neck and almost taking her down with him. Not exactly "good shoots," least of all Esther, the biggest f*ck-up of Amanda's career and forever a scar on her soul, but by no means a random killing spree, either.

"I wouldn't do something like that," she said flatly.

"But you do own a gun." Lindstrom spoke slowly, as if he were giving her time to catch up with a difficult concept. A cop with a gun—inconceivable. "And you've had to use it before. On someone who had hurt Olivia, and before that, on a man who was hurting your sister, yes?"

Amanda hated how much he knew about her. It made sense; she had told her therapist details about Olivia that she would never share with anyone else. And both of those shootings had taken place before they were a couple, so of course Olivia had discussed them with her psychiatrist at the time. Nevertheless, Amanda was unsettled having personal information recited back to her by someone who was little more than a stranger. Thankfully he didn't seem to know about Esther. She might not have been able to restrain herself if he'd brought that up in his measured, PBS voice.

"Yeah, so? You sayin' I should've let that freak go on slashing at Liv with a razor? Let him rape h— let Jeff rape my little sister right there on my living room rug?"

"No, I'm not suggesting you reacted inappropriately. You had every right to defend your loved ones—"

"Damn straight I did," Amanda said, but couldn't look at the Olivia-shaped heap on the screen just then. God, she had let her wife down so utterly and completely this time. She was supposed to be the brave white knight who protected Olivia from all the evil in the world—that was the lame-ass fairytale she'd told herself and been stupid enough to believe—and instead she had led Olivia straight to the gates of hell.

"But in both of those instances, you took the life of someone who was a threat. I'm concerned how you'll handle this situation, with no one you can immediately defend Olivia against." Dr. Lindstrom donned another of the thoughtful expressions from his repertoire. It was his tell, designed to coax the patient into considering his words and their response.

All it did was make Amanda want to punch him.

"You mean who'm I gonna kill to rescue her this time?" she asked, plucking a Nutter Butter from the pack and tossing it into her mouth like popcorn. It tasted of nothing. Of emptiness so profound she almost spat it back out. With effort, she choked it down after a few hasty crunches. "Because I'm such a trigger-happy hothead who kills anyone that looks at my wife funny?"

"Are you having suicidal thoughts, Amanda?"

Caught off guard, Amanda laughed out loud. She regretted it at once. There was nowhere for the sound to go, with the room's flat acoustics, and it died off quickly. But she cast an apologetic glance at Olivia, as if the captain might have heard. Honestly she didn't know if Olivia was able to hear much of anything, after all the abuse she had sustained; Amanda herself had to concentrate on words extra hard just to make them make sense. What had the doctor asked? Was she having suicidal thoughts?

Jesus.

"No. Why the hell would I kill myself?" she demanded, annoyed that he would even ask that question. She had never been suicidal in her life—not as a kid, growing up in an abusive household, where screamed curses and shattering glass were her nighttime lullabies; not as a teenager, being gossiped about by the whole school, including the teachers ("Easy-Ass Amanda" had not been invented by her peers); not as an adult, struggling with addiction, anger management issues, and sexual assault.

Truth be told, she liked living way too much to give it up. Suicide was a coward's way out, as far as she was concerned. It was something flaky housewives attempted, traumatizing the two little girls who discovered them in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor, as a lame last ditch effort to make their husbands notice them. Besides, Amanda had too much to lose these days, and she would never put that burden on her kids. Or her wife . . .

"I'm no good to Liv and the kids if I'm dead," she said, and thought better of the next cookie bite before it went into her mouth. She chucked it back into the bag, brushing her fingers together with finality. "I have no plans to eat my gun. I don't even have my gun on me right now. So, you can write that in your little psych eval and be on your way."

She had left out the part about her and Olivia's guns being locked up safe at home, where she could easily access them, but he was a smart guy who knew how cops operated. And she didn't want to bring up questions about when she would be returning home, mostly because she didn't have the answers. With Olivia gone, it was as though Amanda had lost her compass—her true north—and wandered alone beneath the stars. How had Olivia put it when she placed the lighthouse charm around Amanda's neck three birthdays ago?

I was unmoored. Drifting out there with nothing to hold onto. . .

Yeah, that pretty much summed it up. Except Amanda wasn't just unmoored, she was sinking beneath the dark, blank surface of the water, underneath all those directionless stars. It was filling her mouth and lungs, her eyes, nose, shoes. And there were no answers.

"Amanda?"

"What?" She'd heard Lindstrom ask her something, but it hadn't registered in her brain. Now she knew how Olivia felt during those times she zoned out and missed whole conversations, didn't see the light turn green, or had no clue what had happened in an episode of television they'd just watched. It seemed charmingly absentminded in those moments, but there was nothing charming about it, Amanda realized. It was like being dropped into a foreign country where you didn't speak the language.

"I said this isn't a psych eval, not in the official sense, anyway. I'm here as a favor to Fin, and to Olivia. I can't clear you for duty." Lindstrom's hand curved around the clasped doctor's bag, his index finger tapping at the soft leather. "And frankly, based on what I'm seeing so far, I wouldn't, even if I could. I think you're a danger to yourself and possibly to others, and I'd urge you strongly against carrying a firearm any time soon."

Amanda blinked at the man, mystified. And then, as his words sank in, in mounting rage. "What the f*ck are you talking about? I'm literally just sitting here, watching my wife being raped over and over again. How the hell am I a danger to anyone? I can't even leave this room because I don't want her to be alone in that hellhole. You saw the shape she's in. You think it's so easy to see her like that, why don't you come around here and watch for five or ten minutes. That's pro'ly how long it'll be till they're raping her again. Come on over here and watch her cry, watch her cower and beg while they laugh and ram it in her some more. Then we'll see how much of a danger you think I am, doctor."

Not until she had finished did Amanda realize she was standing, balled fists planted on the table as she leaned forward menacingly, glaring at the slim little man and his unreadable face. Her breathing was rapid and heavy, as if she'd just gotten back from a long run in the bitter cold. She hadn't been for a proper run since Sammie's birth, and the nine months before that; she probably wouldn't make it more than a block without getting winded now. Why hadn't she kept in shape, beyond the occasional low-intensity jog? If she had, maybe she could have protected Olivia better.

"Are you aware of how many threats you've made in the short time that I've been here?" Dr. Lindstrom asked. He showed no signs of intimidation, but his hand hadn't left the safety and familiarity of his leather bag, either. For a moment, Amanda wondered if he had smuggled in a gun of his own for protection, then she remembered that he couldn't have made it past security with something like that in his bag. "This is at least the fourth or fifth. I understand that you're distraught and enraged by what's happening to Olivia, but if there's a chance you'll follow through on the violence you're alluding to, I can't in good conscience say you belong on this or any other case."

"Well, it's a good thing you're just my wife's therapist and have no say-so then, idn't it?" Amanda sneered at him and at the bag he held onto like a security blanket. Must be nice to have something to cling to for comfort when you needed it most. Hers was in a shipping container somewhere in Jersey, shivering on the cold hard ground. And any comfort item for Olivia had long ago been stripped away by the hands of vicious men.

"Everything all right in here?" Fin asked, poking his head into the room and eyeing Amanda's aggressive stance warily. "'Cause it sounds like you could use a break. Rollins, why don't you go splash some cold water on your face or something?"

Amanda snorted, refusing to budge, despite the burning in her shoulders from holding the stiff, hunched posture. "Why, so y'all can talk about what a loose cannon I am behind my back? What a dangerous whack job I am to myself and others? Hell no. Why'd you have to drag him into this anyway, Fin? He's a civilian and shouldn't even be here while all this is going on."

After a brief look over his shoulder, Fin stepped into the room and eased the door shut behind. He moved slowly, which wasn't unusual itself, but the excessive care he took with each gesture wasn't like him. He looked like a monk drifting about a monastery, upholding his vow of silence. Until:

"You shouldn't even be here, either, Amanda. I called him 'cause I thought he might talk some sense into you. Get you to go home and be with your kids. You can't do anything here. You're kind of— you're kind of a distraction for everybody else. Look, I ain't tryna be a dick, that's just how it is."

"Oh, I'm sorry." Amanda put on a pantomime of deep dismay, splaying a hand to her chest and drawing back in slack-jawed shock. "I'm so sorry that watching my wife get gang raped and sodomized is inconvenient for you. For them. Maybe if y'all did your f*cking jobs 'stead of acting like a bunch of rookies on your first day out, Liv'd be safe in a hospital bed right now. And I'd be with her, instead of trapped in this goddamn glass box like a zoo animal."

As she ranted, Amanda paced, truly feeling as if she were caged against her will. She and Olivia had taken the kids to Central Park Zoo last summer, and the snow leopards had paced the perimeter of their enclosure in much the same manner. In fact, while the three munchkins were oohing and ahhing over the cubs, which were indeed adorable, Olivia had leaned in and murmured in Amanda's ear, "See that slinky one who looks like she wants to eat us? Keeps twitching her tail? Reminds me of you, my little snow leopard."

Then she had kissed the rim of Amanda's ear and, sneaking a glance around to make sure no other zoo-goers were about, patted her fondly on the rear.

The memory took Amanda's breath away, and she stopped short in front of Fin, momentarily teetering off balance as if she might faint. Her knees did start to give, her vision fading to gray
(the color of the city in daylight . . . the color of the box Olivia was trapped in . . . her city girl . . .)
but when Fin caught her and stood her upright, she shoved him by the shoulder, tearing herself from his grip.

"Keep off me! You f*cking traitor." She slapped at his shoulder again, butting it with the heel of her palm. "You call some shrink on me because you can't kick me out yourself? Some sergeant you are. I don't know why Liv ever wanted you for the job in the first place. You mighta been tough sh*t in your day, but now you're just a weak old man who should've retired years ago. If I was sergeant, she'd be home by now."

It infuriated Amanda that, no matter the insults she hurled, no matter how hard she shoved, Fin did not budge or attempt to defend himself. He simply gazed at her with sorrowful amber eyes, taking the abuse—and worse, pitying her for it. She balled her hands into fists at her side, a hot pressure building up inside her, pushing to get out at the temples, behind the eyes. She was either going to explode into a million pieces or she was about to punch one of the best friends and partners she'd ever had.

"Someone's coming," said Lindstrom, the wary note in his voice snapping Amanda back to reality.

The heat that simmered just beneath her skin evaporated so abruptly, it left her feeling cold and empty, as if she'd had a vital organ removed, and awoke sliced open on the gurney. She glanced past Fin to see who was approaching, and indeed, Dana Lewis was out there in the bullpen, conferring with her fellow agents like she owned the place. But no one appeared to be headed for the interview room, and Amanda whipped around fiercely, ready to confront the psychiatrist for lying.

Dr. Lindstrom had slanted the laptop toward himself, keeping an eye on Olivia while Amanda's back was turned. He indicated the video display, which had brightened considerably, natural light pouring in on Olivia's crumpled body, revealing the caked-on blood and bruises that decorated her arms and legs in ugly, lurid shades. She looked like a piece of rotten fruit. And stretched across the floor at her back, an alien shadow fell, some giant, misshapen underworld creature come to claim its human bride.

When it slunk deeper inside the shipping container, drawing shut the doors and blotting out the sun, the creature proved not to be a hideous demon—at least not outwardly—but a man like all the others. Frightening enough on its own, but even more so because this one was new.

Amanda had never seen him before, at least as far as she could tell with his back to the camera and the baseball cap pulled low on his brow. He wasn't brawny enough for Riva, and much too muscular to be the younger Sandberg kid. He had Liam Sandberg's height, but the physique of an older man, probably in his fifties. It wasn't the Sandberg father, either—that man, who had preened like a co*ckroach after each time he f*cked Olivia, wouldn't be caught dead in the dumpy jeans, denim jacket and dirty sneakers this guy was wearing. That only left Angelov, and there wasn't a fauxhawk, tattoo, or piercing in sight.

Another stranger, come to call on Olivia Benson. At this rate, the captain would be broken in in no time.

He sauntered up to Olivia and stood above her, surveying the length of her like he was lusting over a cherry red sports car. With the toe of his hangdog sneaker, he nudged lightly at her back. When that failed to get a reaction, he squatted next to her on his haunches and peered around her shoulder, dusting away strands of dark hair to reveal her face. He mumbled something that sounded like "still the same," then clasped Olivia's shoulder and shook it.

"Wake up, kitty cat," he said loudly, ducking his head closer to the woman prone at his feet. He trailed his fingers up and down her arm the way Amanda did while she held Olivia after they made love. Nearing Olivia's hip, he gave that a shake too, and glided his hand farther in to stroke something obscured by their positions. It didn't take a genius to figure it out, based on his bobbing elbow and the weak groan from Olivia. "Here kitty, kitty, kitty . . . "

Christ, what was the cat thing about? It made Amanda's skin crawl just listening to it, and with the added visual of his pumping arm, and the imagined one of what his hand was doing in front, her stomach lurched dangerously. The handful of crackers and sips of coffee were catching up with her. She was going to have to vomit again at some point, but this wasn't the time. Not with Olivia being violated by a sixth man who had yet to show his face. He must have been aware of the camera's placement, because he kept the back of his red cap to it the whole time.

"Dun . . . fram . . . " Olivia mumbled, several more unintelligible words following. She took a while to open her eyes and look up at the man crouched over her, and the reaction was just as delayed. At first she merely stared, trying to bring him into focus, her eyes rolling and widening, lids blinking, as if they weren't properly wired. Then, a moment of confusion as she got a better look at him. And finally, that pure and utter terror when it all came flooding back to her.

She tried to scramble away from him, but only managed to drag herself sideways on one elbow, her bare feet scuffing uselessly on the crude flooring. Panicking, she felt around in the rubbish beside the mattress, finding nothing more helpful than a remote control for some electronic device or another. She threw it at the man and missed, despite their close proximity. Olivia never missed.

"Don— don't touch," she husked, pushing at his arm where it encircled her hip. He let her shoo him away with little effort, and though his face still wasn't visible, something about his jaunty posture suggested he was grinning. Kitty cat was playing hard to get. "Leave me 'lone."

"Just as uppity as you ever were," said the man, too cheerful for the words he was speaking. He wiggled his fingers at Olivia, taunting her the way Amanda did with spidery movements, threatening tickle torture. He jerked his hand back, dodging the swipe she took at it, then playfully poked her side and upper thigh as she clawed the floor, squirming toward a freedom that didn't exist. "Filled out some since then, I see. Not that I'm complaining. Most of it's tit anyway, and that's A-okay by me."

"Who is this f*cker?" Amanda asked, more to herself than anyone in the room. The man obviously knew Olivia from a previous encounter, at least a few years prior by the sound of it, but Amanda couldn't place the voice or the stature. It wasn't Murphy, thank God, although it might have been better if it was; surely Murphy wouldn't abuse Olivia himself, even if he had orchestrated the living nightmare she was in. (Right?) "Show your face, you f*cking coward."

"Knows how to duck the camera," Fin observed. He started to say something else, but let it drift off without further explanation.

Amanda squinted at the bastard in the stupid red cap. A list of sports teams with red uniforms and logos ran through her brain like the crawl at the bottom of ESPN: Cincinnati Reds, Ohio State, Cardinals, Red Sox, Braves . . . . The more logos and titles she conjured, the more certain she became that she could identify this piece of sh*t if he would just: "Turn your goddamn head, you son of a bitch," she snarled.

When he suddenly obeyed, she started back in surprise, hand on her chest, and gasped. She knew who he was. Not a name, nor did she recognize the face that appeared in profile for no more than half a second, but the words above it—Make Americ—were impossible to forget. It was the man in the MAGA hat who had been filming her and Olivia yesterday.

"f*ck me, I've seen that guy before," she said, storming over to stab a finger to the screen, as if which guy she meant might be in question. "He was in the crowd after they grabbed Liv. Taking video. That's the hat I saw."

She looked eagerly to Fin, pointed adamantly. It wasn't like she had just cracked the case wide open, she knew that, but it had to be an important detail. For Olivia's sake, it had to be. When the sergeant gave her a dubious frown and said, "I don't know, Rollins. A lotta people have that hat. Means they're stupid, doesn't mean they're all in on this," she heaved a frustrated sigh. Why couldn't he see how significant this was? Why the hell didn't hedo something?

"But . . . he does look kinda familiar," said Fin, rubbing his goatee in thought. Lips compressed, he shook his head, he squinted. He stepped forward for a closer look and rubbed his beard some more. "Feel like I seen him somewhere, I just can't place him."

"Well, maybe you should try harder." Amanda picked up the laptop and shoved the edge of the keyboard into Fin's chest. She hadn't intended to be that rough about it, but she didn't care if it hurt or not. Someone needed to take this situation as seriously as she did, and if she had to get physical—get mean—to get the point across, then so be it. "Seeing as how Liv's entire f*cking life depends on it. Who the hell is he, Fin? Don't just stand there shrugging your shoulders. Look at him!"

"Amanda, perhaps you should—"

Fin put out his hand to Dr. Lindstrom, who had gotten to his feet as if he might be required to break up a fistfight at any moment. The doctor was still clutching his damn bag, resembling a scandalized old lady clutching her purse. He lowered it slowly, falling silent and fading into the background again, at Fin's behest. "I said he's familiar, not that I can ID him for sure," said Fin, carefully placing the MacBook back on the table. "But let me see if I can get a better look at him, okay?"

"Have you met him or do you just know him from a mugshot or a lineup?" Amanda asked, peering over his shoulder as he leaned in, studying the man in the cap. She didn't want to hear any excuses about not being able to make an ID; if Fin was at all worth his salt as a cop, he'd damn well figure it out.

But Red Hat wasn't cooperating this time, and he kept his face from view as he scooped up Olivia under the armpits and hefted her onto the mattress she was dragging herself toward, inch by agonizing inch. She cried out at being handled with little concern for her injuries, grunting as if she'd been gut punched when he dropped her unceremoniously onto the pad. It was too much to hope that his intentions weren't ignoble; head down, he circled Olivia and grabbed her wrists, pulling her fully onto the bedding, then returned to kick her ankles apart and stand between them.

"I don't know." Fin growled in frustration, swiping a dismissive gesture at Red Hat, like he was telling him to get lost. "This mofo won't show me his face. Can't tell nothing from the back of some dude's head. Come on, man, quit hiding behind your damn—"

"You," Olivia gasped, struggling to catch her breath. She sounded asthmatic, though Amanda had never known her to have such a problem. It would make sense, with all her focus on calming exercises and mindful breathing. Amanda had just never thought to ask. Maybe now she would never find out. "I-I know you. Who . . . wh-where?"

"What, when, why, how?" Red Hat laughed at the unamusing joke, and bunted Olivia's feet away each time one or the other tried to sneak around his legs to join its mate. It became a game for a moment, Olivia trying to close her legs, while he slung them open with the top of his sneakered foot. Eventually she gave up, panting and clutching her side as if she'd run a marathon, and tugged down on the hem of her t-shirt, trying to cover herself that way. The underwear was a loose flap between her legs.

"Not surprised you don't remember," said the man. He had grown tired of the game as well, and co*cked his head to watch as Olivia struggled to maintain some modesty. Even after everything the other men had done to her, she still didn't want this one to see her body. "You were a bitch back then, too. Strutting around like you owned the place. Twitching your little tail at me just to see what I'd do. Thought you were too good for me, didn't you, kitty cat?"

"Dammit, Fin. Who the f*ck is he?" Amanda brought her fist down on the table, commanding an answer. Her pulse was galloping faster than the race horses she used to bet on, and if she didn't find out this guy's name soon, her heart would probably explode in her chest. His ID might be just the break in the case they needed; Olivia's return hinged on Fin summoning up a single goddamn name, but by all means, take your time, Sergeant. No need for urgency whatsoever. "They know each other from somewhere. Is he someone she put away? A dirty cop? Why the hell's he calling her kitty cat?"

"I don't know, Amanda, can you just shut up and let me think?" Fin flicked an annoyed glance at her, the sudden appearance of his temper jarring. He seldom lost his cool with anyone, least of all Amanda. He knew it, too, his features softening quickly, his voice following suit. "If I have seen him, it's been a really long time ago. Liv doesn't even remember who he is, so—"

Blocking the rest out, Amanda zeroed in on Red Hat, aiming every ounce of hatred and fury she possessed—for him, for the other five rapist pigs, for the helplessness she felt, for everything she had watched her wife endure the past two days, for the weakness that prevented her from stopping it (probably inherited from her mama), for MAGA hats and motherf*cking Donald J. Trump—at the back of his head.

Her eyes felt laser-hot, she stared so hard, and she momentarily entertained the image of blowing his skull to bits with the laser beams. Melting his brain to something that resembled cream of mushroom soup. Or just simply vaporizing the bastard in a puff of smoke. But fantasizing about killing him wasn't helping Olivia. His intentions were obvious, even to the dazed captain, who kept a wary eye on the vicinity of his waistband.

If something didn't give soon, if they just kept sitting here watching and upping the viewership of this hellacious reality show, Olivia was going to be raped by a sixth perpetrator.

"Give us a name, darlin'," Amanda whispered, trying to send as much love to Olivia as she had sent hate to the sixth man. "Please. Just something to go on. Just say his name so we can ID him and find you."

"How did y-you know wh-where I am?" Olivia asked. Propped on her elbows, she glanced at her surroundings, and Amanda could hear her thoughts as clearly as if she'd spoken them aloud:Idon't even know where I am. "Are you the— the buyer?"

That was an excellent question, although unlikely—no way this guy had a million dollars to spare—and Amanda was silently commending her wife for trying to pump him for information when Dana Lewis' sharp twang filled the room, like the drone of cicadas in summertime. It was a pungent sound, overpowering, and it reminded Amanda of woodsmoke, permeating everything in its path.

"Y'all know who this horse's ass is? My guys can't get a good enough shot for facial recognition unless he turns that big nut on his shoulders and, hopefully, takes off the gimme cap. Think our girl can knock it off for him?" Just a head and a pair of shoulders poking through the doorway, Dana addressed the laptop screen as if Olivia herself were sitting right there at the table. "Whadda ya say, Cap'n? Help us out a little?"

Obviously the agent didn't really expect Olivia to aid in her own defense like that, but Dana's brassy entrance, not to mention calling Olivia "our girl" and speaking to her video image, irked Amanda deeply. There was noourabout it—Olivia was hers, period—and Dana had no business talking to the captain while she was absent; that type of prayerful discourse should be reserved for Amanda alone.

The irreverence of it all was too much, and she shot a venomous glare at Dana, warning her not to open her big mouth again. "Shut the hell up and maybe we can hear who it is," Amanda growled, pointing at the man as he laughed at Olivia's question and claimed he was not the buyer. It annoyed her that Dana stepped into the room to listen, but at least she heeded the warning and kept her trap shut.

"I know the buyer, though," Red Hat went on, boastful. He grazed the back of Olivia's calf idly with the toe of his sneaker. "I'm a liaison for— them. That's how I got in here. You're pretty exclusive property, believe it or not. Real top-shelf stuff. I wasn't sure they'd let me have a taste, but I go way back with one of the guys and I was instrumental in getting you here, so—"

"Quit yapping, and do her already," boomed a voice from the doorway, which had cracked open, emitting a cone of sunlight into the shipping container. "I said you could have her for an hour, not all damn day. You're not even supposed to be here, so snap it up."

"All right, Nicky, geez—"

"No names, you f*ck! And no more pillow talk. Screw the bitch or get the hell out." The slamming door resonated throughout the small space, rattling the walls and pixelating the onscreen image. For a moment, the entire room was a blur, with two human-shaped smears, one on the ground and one standing over her, in the top corner.

Of course that was when the smear in the red cap turned and yelled over his shoulder, "f*ck sakes, just cut the feed, man. It's not like they don't know what's happening to her by now. Goddamn."

The video resumed crystal-clear focus as Red Hat turned back to Olivia, shaking his head. "Nothing like rushing a guy and giving him performance anxiety, am I right? Just kidding. I can always get it up, especially with a ripe bitch like you. Been a long time coming." He bent down to tug at Olivia's ruined panties. "Let's get these off."

"The prison," Olivia said, her voice splintering like rotted wood, leaving only ragged edges. And barely any sound. She slapped at his hands, tried to scoot backward on the mattress, and mouthed something that might have been "roped" or "groped," but hadn't the clarity or volume to adequately decipher.

Just as she was about to say something else—Amanda felt certain it was a name, saw the flash of recognition in her wife's eyes—the man grabbed Olivia by the hips, yanking her toward him. The last thing Amanda saw before the livestream ended was Olivia's face, twisted in pain and fear, as the man climbed on top of her.

Two or three seconds of dead silence hung over the precinct before it burst into activity, officers and agents alike scrambling to get the lost captain back, even if it was only digitally. Shouting, cursing, calling out orders. But the silence stretched on for Amanda, the voices around her falling on deaf ears while she stared in disbelief at the browser window where Olivia had been, now plastered in banner ads for underage p*rn, hidden sex cams (Totally Live!), BDSM requests, and bestial*ty.

At first she couldn't comprehend what had happened, and then, when it sunk in that she'd lost Olivia again, their connection severed as swiftly as it had been yesterday morning, possibly forever this time, she became witness to her own damnation.

"No. No, no, no, no," she heard herself repeating, though she was unable to reconcile the voice inside her head with the one outside it. She might as well have been yelling into an echo chamber, no way to tell where one sound began and the other ended. No way to tell where she began or ended.

This felt like her ending.

"Oh Jesus, what did they do? Why did it cut off?" Amanda punched random keys on the laptop keyboard, no rhyme or reason to the combinations she chose. Amid her growing panic, she forgot everything she knew about ethical hacking. She tapped at the space bar like she was sending Morse code, and slammed her fist down on it when nothing happened. "We gotta get her back. I promised I wouldn't leave her alone. Fin, help me, we gotta get her back."

Fin's eyes were too wide for his face, giving him an almost gaunt appearance. For the first time Amanda could remember, she noticed they were golden in the light, and she thought of the Buddha in the snow globe on Olivia's desk. But her sergeant was no holy man or prophet. He only shook his head lamely, his gaze downcast, as useless as the little gold statue in its glass bubble. "I don't think we can, Amanda. We ain't even been able to trace the IP address on that thing. How can we bring it back on?"

Truthfully? Unless one of the Dreamland men restored the feed, there was no way to pull up the video, no matter how good the FBI white hats supposedly were. Amanda knew that, and it wasn't fair to blame Fin for something he had no control over, but her anger toward his resigned attitude, his acceptance that Olivia was just gone, flashed white-hot in her already feverish, sleep-deprived brain.

"That the best you can do? Shrug it off like she's nothing? Some guy you know but can't identify is raping her right now, and you just wanna go about your day until maybe they make contact again, maybe not. Jesus, you're f*cking useless. All of you." Amanda had resumed pacing the length of the table, clenching and unclenching her fists, absently cracking her knuckles. "This is all so f*cking useless."

She stopped beside the laptop, gave it a long hard look, then picked it up and heaved it at the wall beneath the one-way mirror. It arced past Lindstrom, who started back in surprise, and collided at one hinged corner, ricocheting onto the floor. It clapped shut like a clamshell. The result was rather anticlimactic—no shattering glass or plumes of smoke—but Fin yelled, "Hey!" and that was all the encouragement Amanda needed.

With a sweep of her arm, she sent the vending machine snacks hurtling off the table like lemmings over a cliff. She swiped the Dreamland rap sheets with a precision she could never duplicate, papers cascading in a perfect, airy spiral. The coffee mug cracked impressively against the one-way, displacing its handle and trailing a streamer of dark roast that hit the glass with an aromatic splat.

Not until she lifted her chair and threw it at the street-facing windows did a pair of strong arms wrap around her from behind, hemming her in like a straitjacket. "Let me go, goddammit! Liv needs me! We have to get her back," Amanda bellowed, grunting and writhing to get free. When that didn't work, she kicked out her feet, trying to throw her captor off balance. And when that didn't work either, she reverse headbutted them. Someone groaned, and then Amanda was loose and thrashing. She saw blood when she punched the person who ran at her.

More groaning.

"Child's done lost her mind," said a wet, nasally voice, muffled by a hand.

"Rollins, hey! You gotta chill. Come on, sit down before you hurt yourself," said another. A chair wheeled into view and Amanda grabbed the arms, preparing to send it the way of the first one, still hunched over by the file cabinets like a school kid during a tornado drill.

"I don't wanna f*cking sit. I gotta get to Liv. Lemme go, I gotta get out of here. She needs me. Get the f*ck off me, or I'll—" Amanda ended the sentence with a grunt, trying to wrench her arms out of the grasps that held her at both sides, forcing her down toward the chair.

Her mama loved to tell the story of four-year-old Mandy Rollins fighting like the dickens not to get a shot during a pediatric visit:It took three nurses and the doctor to hold her down. They said they'd never seen a child put up such a fuss over a little ol' needle before, especially such a tiny, angelic-looking thing like my Mandy. It was meant as a commentary on the trials and tribulations of raising a willful kid, but Amanda had always listened with pride. Even at four they hadn't been able to control her or keep her down.

They weren't going to at forty-two, either. She fought with every ounce of the irrational rage and recklessness that had seen her twisting and turning in impossible shapes, and at one point, kicking a nurse across the room, that day at the pediatrician. But in the end, she got the shot.

She looked down at her bicep, and up at Lindstrom as he retracted the syringe, its contents already disseminating into her bloodstream. Her muscles began to relax a second later, turning her limbs to limp spaghetti noodles. It was as if she'd been hit with the opposite effect of yesterday's taser blast. "What the hell did you do?" she asked, tongue thick and sluggish in her mouth. She sounded like a warped cassette tape played at a slow speed. "The f*ck'd you gi' me?"

"I'm sorry," said Lindstrom, gazing down with a sad, benign expression. A religious painting of some lowly saint whose duty it was to minister to mere mortals. "This will help you rest. Try not to fight it."

My ass, Amanda thought, but no words came out. She couldn't have fought whatever drug he'd administered, even if she wanted to (God, she wanted to), because it was already pulling her under, into darkness. She made one last attempt to sit up and tell the psychiatrist that she would have his ass and his license for sedating her against her will; that she had never liked him anyway, and she didn't trust him with her wife; that she wanted to kill him for dragging her away from Olivia like this. But she remained slumped in the chair, chin drifting closer and closer to her chest.

Her last thought was that she finally knew what Dr. Lindstrom had in his medical bag.

. . .

Chapter 19: Karma Is a Cat

Notes:

Hey, guys. I considered holding this chapter back and posting it later as, like, a "deleted scene" or something, but there's some details in it that are referenced throughout the story, so I decided against it. And that's not to say it's not a good chapter—I like it a lot, actually, but it's much with the darkness and I'm trying really hard to get y'all to some daylight here, lol. My hatred for Gus, Sondra, and all these assholes is considerable, I promise, and I want them to suffer accordingly. Trigger Warnings: graphic depictions of sexual assault, including gang rape; child abuse and suicidal ideation. Thanks to all for your continued readership and feedback.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19.

Karma Is a Cat

. . .

It was that word ripe. A description for fruit, for strong odors, like a baby's diaper ("Phew, girl, you are ripe," Amanda often announced while toting Samantha to the changing table). It could apply to cheese or beer, to animals ready for slaughter, and funnily enough, to being drunk. Sometimes it was used to describe c*nts and bitches too.

As in,I can go for hours with a ripe little c*nt like you. Fourteen years had passed since Lowell Harris grunted that line, now infamous in Olivia's brain, while he forced his dick down her throat. In the years since, she'd come to wish he had used less unique phrasing, particularly that piquant little adjectiveripe. She couldn't shake it. She thought about how Serena would laugh: her cop daughter picking apart a rapist's word choice like she was deconstructing Keats or something.

That just made it all the more vivid in Olivia's memory. She could smell him—taste him—every time that damn line went through her head. So when she heard it repeated by the guy in the MAGA hat, right before he shucked off the scrap of fabric that used to be her underwear, she instantly made the connection. The phrasing was different, but the sentiment the same.I can always get it up, especially with a ripe bitch like you. Olivia was a ripe, rapeable c*nt bitch all the boys couldn't wait to f*ck.

She did wonder if it was a comment on her age. Although, she had been younger than Harris at the time, physically fit, limber, and at an age some would consider her sexual prime, so probably not. (It occasionally crossed her mind that he was referring to her scent, but that was too awful to dwell on.)

This man whose name she couldn't recall, but whose erection she clearly remembered pressing against her ass while he restrained her over a prison lunch table, wasn't that much younger than she was. A couple years at most. And she only knew that from studying his jacket before and after Sealview; guard or not, prison had aged him. He still had that crooked nose—a break which hadn't healed properly, from the looks of it—and that gash in his face, meant to be a smile.

And he still wanted to follow in the footsteps of his long-dead buddy, enough so that he had adopted Harris' favorite adjective as his own.

Son of a bitch, what was his damn name?

"The prison," Olivia managed to rasp before her voice gave out. Her throat felt like she had swallowed a handful of razor blades, her neck so stiff and sore she could barely turn her head. She feared that some irreversible damage had been done to her larynx. No doubt it had been done to her soul. "Sealview. You— you groped me."

It had gone beyond that, his middle and ring finger sneaking into the seam of her backside, glancing across her labia as he commented on her workout. That was what had sent her into attack mode, after Huang specifically told her she couldn't react to the injustices she witnessed or experienced herself. Her ass got grabbed plenty on the job, especially during undercover gigs—hell, that one guy had gotten to second base with her, his hand on her breast like he was picking low-hanging fruit—but Parker's fingers in her nether regions was not what she'd signed on for.

Parker. That was this dirtbag's name. The women at Sealview had called him Parker the Poker, because his dick always managed to poke you in one place or another whenever he got close. Olivia had been so certain he was their perp, and obviously he'd taken up the torch for Harris since then, that she was blindsided when the real attack came.

Afterward, she'd been too shaken to pursue charges against the man who now teased her, stroking the insides of her thighs, drawing his hand back each time she batted at it, stroking higher when it returned. Her case against Harris hadn't gone through, so why subject herself to the humiliation of describing the base and petty assaults by Parker, who at least had never forced his dick into her mouth?

Why hadn't she stopped to consider that he might escalate? Of course he would, they always did when they were left unchecked. And without Harris there to call the shots and poach his game, Parker had flourished into a full-fledged rapist and sex trafficker in his own right. God, how could she have been so stupid? Surely this mistake would be her last. Surely it had cost her everything.

"Parker," she said, trying to whisper loudly enough for the camera to pick it up. The type of people who tuned in to these guerrilla p*rn videos probably wouldn't contact the police or listen to the victim's pleas for help, but maybe someone out there still had a shred of humanity. And if not, she might at least ID one of her attackers posthumously, should NYPD find the recordings. The only way she could bear to think of anyone she knew seeing the footage was if she was already dead and there was no other way to get justice. "Mark— Matt Parker."

"Well, looky there." Parker sounded delighted that she remembered him, as if he were an old student of hers, expecting to have been forgotten in a sea of academic faces. "Guess I made a lasting impression on you after all, huh, kitty cat?"

No, not kitty cat. Kitty Kat. That was where the disgusting nickname had come from—Katrina Rae Lewis, her undercover alias at Sealview Correctional. She was desensitized to the name now, because of Officer Tamin, and she'd forgotten the handful of times Parker had called her by the nickname during her stint in the prison, usually meowing after her like a damn cat in heat. That meant the Crier (or Angel or Nicky, or whatever the hell he went by) had picked up the name from Parker, and it wasn't just some quality they had both seen in her.

Her relief was tempered by Parker's hands trying to slide under her t-shirt and the realization that she still didn't know who was behind her abduction. Harris had died years ago, leaving behind only a couple of estranged siblings that didn't care enough to show up for his trial or his burial, let alone exact revenge in his name. No one had mourned William Lewis, either. And Calvin had killed everyone who might have loved him or Amelia enough to hold a grudge against Olivia. The Mesners wererelievedthat Henry was locked away again . . .

All of Olivia's monsters were accounted for. Or so she had thought, until she met six new ones.

"What stuck with you the most, would you say?" Parker asked, his tone so conversational anyone watching might think it was normal discourse between friends. If not for the half-dressed woman on the floor, brown blood crusted on her thighs, black blood crusted on her shirt. "Was it when I copped a feel at intake or when I restrained you for inciting a riot? Gotta hand it to you, you did keep things lively. You've mellowed out a little since then." He looked her up and down, and smoothed a hand along her body, not playing keep away anymore. "But I bet you're still a great f*ck."

f*ck you, she thought, but couldn't make her lips say it. Words were a precious commodity for her now, and not one to be wasted on repartee or comebacks. If they thought it meant they had broken her—and maybe they had—then so be it. She was too weak to fight back, her throat too ravaged to speak above a whisper, leaving her with few other options than the pathetic, degrading one she chose.

"Please don't do this," she begged, tears leaking onto her cheeks. She didn't have the energy to cry hard, but her eyes had kept up a slow and steady stream since yesterday. Almost as if it were her natural state. "Help me, Parker. I need— need you." Her touch-and-go voice was a blessing then, the last few words not reaching her ears as she mouthed them. His hands were partially cupped to her bare ass, and she was asking him for help. It was one of the more debasing moments she'd had since this whole thing began.

The gash appeared where Parker's smile should be. He shook his head as if he thought she was a real piece of work, but he also looked mildly charmed. Like she had strolled over to flirt with him at a bar. "Aww, don't be giving me those big doe eyes like Vaughny does. I'm a sucker for that sh*t, you know. Most guys are, although you probably found that out before you went full Ellen, huh?"

Olivia stared at him, confused by the names. He was massaging the tops of her thighs, delving in a little deeper each time, and talking to her about people she didn't know. She took his wrists and tried to pry them in opposite directions, but they didn't budge an inch. When she brought her thighs together, he forced them apart. They were too sore from being forced open for hours yesterday, she could hardly move them. She felt like a wishbone, cracked up the center.

"You bagged a hottie, though, I'll give you that. A little small up top, but you more than make up for it." Parker flashed an actual smile this time, and it was no more pleasant than the gash. He smoothed a hand over Olivia's breasts, one at a time, buffing with his palm until her nipples were erect. He tweaked them through her t-shirt, admiring his handiwork. "I'd offer to eat you out, since that's what you're into, but you're kind of a mess. Down here."

He swiped two fingers up the middle of Olivia's vulva and showed them to her, like he was doing the white glove test on a mantel. Judging from his disgust, she hadn't passed. He paid no attention to her squirming bottom half, pinning her with a hand at her pelvis, as he dried his fingers on her shirt. Trying to buck him off only succeeded in making him bear down harder, pressing against whatever internal injuries she'd already incurred.

"That's what you get," he said, giving an indifferent shrug when she yelped in pain, sounding like a kicked dog. He did slide his hand higher, applying the pressure to her abdomen instead of her reproductive organs. Not that she believed he had any knowledge of female anatomy, or cared at all about hers if he did.

"Anyway. You're not as bad as some of the broads we get at the prison. They come in at intake smelling like BO, their periods, pot, my high school jockstrap. Sometimes all at once. Weigh about five hundred pounds too. Makes you wonder where a guy's supposed to stick it, you know?" Parker lifted the bottom of Olivia's t-shirt like he was peering underneath, looking for a place to stick it. Unnecessary, since the hem barely covered her genitals in this position, but he didn't seem to mind the discrepancy.

"Most of them look like butch-ass lesbos," he went on, sliding his hand up Olivia's shirt to stroke her belly. The worst part was that it felt good compared to the violence she'd endured so far. No—the worst part was that she didn't try to get away. She had finally accepted that this was happening. "Like that bulldyke onOrange is the New Black. No offense to your people. Thank God you're a real woman, though. You and Vaughn. Wish I had gotten to you sooner, before menopause dried you out, but I'll get you nice and slick here in a second. They leave that Vaseline nearby?"

Olivia only heard bits and pieces of what he was saying (someone named Vaughn or Von, menopause, Vaseline) her brain doing what it had always done, preserving her sanity by tuning out the ugliest moments. The irony that this ability she'd acquired at a young age, to disappear inside herself during a trauma, made her an unreliable witness—an unreliable victim—was not lost on her.

Most of her account of the Lewis maelstrom had been cobbled together from half-memories, guesswork and likelihoods, and details gleaned from the case file, her doctor's report, and the rape kit. She couldn't even have said with absolute certainty that there was no rape, if not for the inconclusive results of that kit. Inconclusive meant that, while there were no obvious signs of forcible penetration and no evidence of sem*n or spermicide in the vagin*l canal, there was room for interpretation based on her other injuries. Her interpretation was an unequivocal no. Her body would have told her if that had happened.

Never mind that it had hidden so many other offenses from her over the years.

His hands on her bare breasts, kneading. It occurred to her that he was saying something about still working at the prison ("—usually handjobs or blowies, can't really do her right there in the cell, you know?"), but why that was important she couldn't exactly say. Pinching and twisting, jolts of pain shooting through her nipples, into breast tissue, more raw now than they had ever been from nursing Samantha. Oh my God, she would never get to hold her baby girl again, would she?

Don't cry, he said. Hate it when women cry, he said.

A belt unbuckled, pants unzipped. Olivia's version of Pavlov's bell. She didn't salivate, though; nor did she try to get away, the response she had trained herself for so diligently, since that very first warning her mother had given her about men who liked to do The Bad Thing to little girls. It turned out her learned response—after all those dry runs and close calls, after yesterday's crash course in torture and assault—was pure catatonia.

Her eyelashes barely fluttered, she scarcely took a breath, when he entered her. He must not have found the jelly, because she was anything but slick, his large, clammy penis tugging at her skin, opening the wounds that were stitched together with blood and dried sem*n. Even that failed to pull her back from the halfway world she'd slipped into, where his words ("Not as tight as my Vaughny," "At least lift your hips a little") were a foreign language she didn't understand, his tongue in her mouth didn't gag her, and she felt nothing below the waist.

"Oh, kitty cat," he murmured, leaning back to look her in the face while he thrust. Occasionally he rotated his hips like he was trying to make it pleasurable for her too. The joke was on him—she didn't feel a damn thing. "Pretty little kitty."

The halfway world was nice, it was safe and far removed from the shipping container, with all its horrors and indignities, but Olivia knew eventually she would have to return to reality. Her children and Amanda weren't in this place, and she couldn't stay anywhere they were not. A world of misery and pain, of being bought and sold and raped daily, was still better than one without her family in it.

So she tethered herself. She let in some of the pain, some of Parker's disgusting grunts and moans ("Gonna fill you up with so much come, it'll be up to those pretty eyeballs"), and some of the despair that grounded her in the body she kept trying to leave behind. Whereas her mind had been sluggish and uncooperative before, she now became hyperalert and made a connection she hadn't even known she was aware of.

He was talking about Sondra Vaughn. While he f*cked Olivia and groaned about her big, juicy titt*es, her just right c*nt—he'd decided that her supposed elasticity, though lacking the snug fit of his Vaughny, was perfectly co*ck-sized—her gold-dust skin, he was waxing poetic about the woman she remembered from Amanda's mandatory reports.

Olivia had been far too pissed, and far too busy learning how to command a squad, to attend the trial. Because of Amanda's recklessness and addiction, Olivia had been forced to lie, something she loathed doing, and she'd looked incompetent in front of her new bosses for not being able to control one of her detectives. Of course she remembered that case. Not only had she almost fired Amanda over it—had wanted to, badly—a move that would have proved fatal, at least for their relationship, she clearly recalled that Vaughn was sentenced to Sealview.

Her stomach had dropped, upon reading the name of the prison. Images flooded back in a rush: a bone-colored mattress mottled with the stains of various bodily fluids; Harris' baton rattling across chain link, a black phallus, a godlike finger, pointing directly at her; the mole, the size of a 9mm bullet hole, at the base of his shaft; her neon orange uniform, blinding in her peripheral vision as his penis breached her lips.

That hellhole, though far behind her, even back then, was never quite out of her thoughts. She'd felt a bit sorry for Vaughn, who not only had to live there, but also give birth in such a godforsaken place. Then Olivia had remembered that Sondra Vaughn had orchestrated the rape of an innocent woman, just to prove a point, and her sympathy vanished.

She tried to resurrect a mental image of the woman she was being compared to, but all she could picture was an abundance of dark, curly hair and a vulpine expression that looked cold and calculating, even in mugshot. Was it just a coincidence that two random people from her past were apparently now lovers and somehow both involved in her current hell on earth? Was her exhausted and shell-shocked brain forming patterns that weren't actually there?

For the sake of argument, she concocted a theory: Parker met Sondra Vaughn at Sealview and they bonded over their mutual hatred of Olivia—Parker never did get over being rebuffed by her, denied a piece of her, or losing his partner-in-rape, Lowell Harris, because of her—putting together an elaborate revenge plot. Vaughn had executed them before, weaponizing rape just to make a point. She could use Parker as a go-between, God knew she'd have the contacts for something like this. The snake's head was rarely cut off a crime ring by tossing a few of its higher-ups into prison, and even if it was, those criminals always knew ten more who were willing to do their bidding on the outside.

In a perverted bit of poetic justice, they had even timed their plan so that Olivia was abducted on the same day she'd been taken by William Lewis, nine years earlier.

It was f*cking brilliant.

And also too f*cking crazy to be true. Olivia had never even met Vaughn in person, let alone angered her enough to warrant payback this extreme. And how would she or Parker know anything about Lewis? They would have had to follow the trial, and Olivia refused to believe that she'd unknowingly been tracked for years by someone other than Calvin Arliss. None of that explained the buyer, either. Who was it? Whom had she wronged so horribly that they wanted her to suffer like this? Someone with a million dollars to spare?

"Squeeze my ass," Parker said, breathless and sweating so profusely it dripped onto Olivia's forehead, her lips, her neck. The salt of him permeated her mouth as, below, he drove in harder. When she didn't obey the order, he grabbed her nipple and twisted as if he meant to rend it from the breast. He caught the hand that shot out in reflex and clapped it to his buttock, then did the same to the other hand, the other cheek. "Squeeze."

What choice did she have? He was nearing the edge anyway, and maybe he would finish sooner if she complied. Olivia squeezed, digging her nails into coarse-haired flesh and proving at least one of her theories to be true: he came a second later. It didn't make it to her eyeballs, as promised, but she did feel it inside of her like a glob of phlegm, squirmy on her inner walls. Parker groaned and kept pumping as if he were in a p*rno.

And he probably was.

What did the girls do in those things, she couldn't remember. In the very minimal amount of legitimate p*rn Olivia had actually viewed, they always seemed to be screaming and wailing as if they were being hacked to pieces. Mouths open like baby birds waiting on worms, their bodies contorted into unnatural shapes. A series of holes from which men derived pleasure. That was what she'd been reduced to, so she might as well put it to good use.

As she squeezed him harder, sinking her nails into his ass cheeks as deeply as they would go, hands tightening with the steadiness of a blood pressure cuff, her mind was void of anything, even malice. She heard him bark at her tocut it out, bitch, but she held on the way she had clung to the iron bar after beating Lewis. They'd had to pry it from her hands, which retained its shape, her fists hollowed, fingers curved into talons like a hawk without a perch, until Amaro put her in the squad car.

She was that hawk again, its grip reflex triggered, and the more Parker struggled to pull her off, the harder she dug in her claws.

"Let go, stupid c*nt," Parker snarled, flopping out of her like a slimy, dead fish. He clamped onto both of her wrists and shoved them toward her, dragging her nails across his skin so roughly they drew blood. She couldn't see it, but she knew that it was there. His DNA inside her, under her fingernails. A good cop always collected evidence. "f*ck!"

He hit her in the face for it, the blow snapping her head sharply to one side. It stunned but didn't surprise her. The only surprise was that it had taken one of them so long to finally go for her face. He had a decent right hook; she thought her cheekbone might be broken. Her brain felt loose in her skull, as if it were bouncing off the sides like the white dot inPong. He loomed above her on all fours, an angry-looking blur she had to blink several times to bring into focus. The MAGA hat sharpened first. He hadn't taken it off for the rape.

"Ah, sh*t. Look what you went and made me do," Parker lamented, gazing down with something that resembled concern. He clicked his tongue, taking her by the chin and turning her face to inspect the damage. "I'm gonna get my ass chewed now. Buyer wanted your face spotless. Oh well, your eyes still show. I'll just tell— uh, him I had to get you under control somehow. In fact . . . "

Sitting back on his haunches, Parker tucked himself back into his slouched jeans, without bothering to zip or button them. Instead, he unthreaded his belt from the loops, the fake leather whispering
(warnings?)
secrets when he whisked it free.Run, it told her.Get up off of this goddamn mattress while you still can. You fought him off before, you can do it again. If you lie here much longer, you will die. Move, bitch!

Olivia's body wouldn't cooperate. She saw herself launching up from the dirty pallet, elbowing Parker in the face or perhaps planting her foot in his crotch, and making a run for the unlocked door. The others would be waiting on the outside, but maybe they would be preoccupied enough for her to sneak past. With any luck, the keys would still be in the van, and she could drive right out of this valley of death, find the main road, and go straight to the closest police station. She would walk it if she had to, though her gait was probably severely diminished from having her legs forced open for long periods of time, multiple penetrations in multiple locations, and the beatings.

But no matter how clearly she pictured each step of her escape, she couldn't make herself go through with it. She could barely even sit up on her own, let alone take down Parker and make a quick exit. Her best bet was to talk him out of whatever he had in mind for that belt—and it didn't take a genius to figure that part out, the way he halved the band, holding an end in both fists and snapping it taut.

"What are you doing?" she asked weakly, shrinking from his touch when he worked a hand under her back, the other under her ass, like spatulas about to flip a pancake. She made herself into deadweight as he struggled to turn her over. "What do you want?"

She had asked Lowell Harris that very same question, knowing perfectly well what the answer was. But you stalled in whatever way you could, asked whatever came to mind, when you were trying to prevent the inevitable. Part of the reason Lewis hadn't raped her at the beach house—at least not with his penis—was because she had kept him talking. He had loved a mindf*ck just as much as the real kind, that Lewis.

Parker wasn't nearly as cerebral. "You and the wife aren't into BDSM, eh? I'm surprised, she keeps a pretty tight leash on you. Barely ever lets you out of her sight, always got a hand on you, leading you around. I thought for sure you were the sub. You should be used to getting spanked, kitty cat." He lifted in earnest then, easily rolling Olivia onto her belly, despite all efforts to remain on her back.

Truthfully, the few times she and Amanda toyed around with a Dom/sub dynamic in the bedroom, she had been the submissive partner. But they seldom took it further than some playfully given orders that may or may not be followed (they almost always were), depending on Olivia's preference and comfort level. The only time she'd been the aggressor during sex was with Cassidy, a few months after Lewis, when she forced herself to initiate intercourse as proof that she wasfine. Would have happened sooner, if not for the sling.

"No, don't," she said, looking back at Parker pleadingly. He was standing now, slapping the looped belt into his other palm, observing her bare, aching backside, and grinning. She longed to pull her shirt down over her ass, but her arms wouldn't bend that way, especially the left. Just turning her head to see him was almost impossible. "Please. I'll . . . I'll be a good girl. Good kitty. You're— you're so strong, you'll hurt me."

The words tasted as vile as the come she had swallowed by the mouthful yesterday, a bitter, viscous whey that she'd been unable to prevent from sliding down her esophagus. She spat and vomited out as much of it as she could, but eventually her stomach and throat had refused to give up any more. The flavor of it was still on her tongue, mixed in with the donuts and whatever Parker had eaten for breakfast. Some kind of sausage. Olivia would never be able to stomach the meat links again.

Parker looked down at her with surprise, which gave way to curiosity and something that might have been sympathy. He lowered the belt to his side, where it hung against his leg, a headless noose. "You afraid of me, kitty?" he asked, as if the thought had never occurred to him. A woman frightened of the man who had just raped her, imagine that. "Afraid big, bad Parksy will forget his own strength and whip you to death like a stubborn horse?"

Oh, he was poking fun at her. That made more sense than his sudden contrition. Reading social cues was so difficult in these situations. Cruel men didn't play by the rules, and Olivia's mind, which knew how to navigate the breathtaking drops and corkscrew turns of cruelty if not emulate them, wasn't quite up to snuff at the moment. Helplessness and vulnerability were her safest options, the ones most readily available to her. No sense in not playing the victim when that's exactly what you were.

"Yes," she rasped, nodding against her scrunched up shoulder, the way her sweet Tilly did when she was feeling bashful. Olivia made herself small to match the smallness of her voice. It hadn't worked with Harris—with any of them, actually—but maybe Parker would be the exception. A rapist with a heart. "The others . . . so violent. You don't h-have to beat me, I'll do— I'll do whatever you want. Just please don't make it hurt."

Head tilted pityingly, Parker listened as if he were in fact considering the plight of a small, despondent child. The frightened voice on the phone, calling for help from some dirty basem*nt with flowers and a picket fence painted on the wall.He hurts me a lot. And then his friends hurt me so he can take his pictures.Oh God, she really had come full circle. How long until they buried her alive, just like little Maria?

"Anything I want, huh?" Intrigued, Parker cropped himself lightly on the thigh with his belt. He had that velvety tone men always got right before they suggested you degrade yourself in some way for their pleasure. Take it in your mouth, up the ass. Their smooth, liquid words slickening the path, for when they slipped it in. "That's quite an offer. I mean, you'll do what I want, irregardless. But it's better if you're a willing participant. I had to force Vaughn at first, but now she gets off as much as I do."

Sure she does, Olivia thought. And it's regardless, you f*cking idiot. Outwardly she nodded like it made perfect sense. But when he crouched down beside her to test her receptivity, tucking a scribble of dark hair behind her ear, she instinctively shrank from his touch. At the last second, she managed not to turn her face away, but the damage was already done. His expression went stony for one fleeting moment, then softened to saccharine the next. He stroked the back of her head with a heavy hand, gliding it down to her back in a repetitive petting motion.

"Purr for me," he said, leaning in to murmur the instruction near her exposed ear. He went on petting.

"What?" Olivia blinked at him stupidly. Of all the things she imagined him making her do, that hadn't even crossed her mind. It had to be a joke. She had heard of a case where the victim was forced to whinny like a horse for her attackers, and there were countless instances of men putting dog collars on the women they tortured, but purring was a new one. She hated George Huang for giving her that goddamn name; she hated Kat Tamin for carrying it on.

"You said you'd be a good kitty. Well, good kitties get their backs rubbed and scratched." Parker prodded around her shoulder blades, sawed his nails back and forth along her spine. He walked his fingers up and down, hitting every sore spot on the way. "And that makes them purr. I want to hear you do it. Purr for me like a good kitty, and I won't use the belt on you."

Olivia inwardly cringed each time he made contact with her skin, but she did her best not to let it show. Now, though, the bastard wanted her to purr for him as if she enjoyed his rough-skinned fingertips and calloused palms scraping her already tender flesh. She wouldn't. He'd asked the one thing of her that she couldn't do.

"I— I don't know how," she said lamely. Days ago, she had played dolls and stuffies with her middle daughters, entertaining them with animal noises for each species of plush toy they owned, including a fluffy white Persian cat. Jesse quickly caught on to blowing air over her tongue to vibrate it against the roof of her mouth, although much spittle was involved. But Matilda didn't yet have the dexterity and could only make the sound by flapping her little lips like a motorboat.I can do it, Mommy! I can do it!

She'd wanted to teach her children so many other things before she had to leave them. She thought she would at least see them all graduate, maybe watch the older two get married, start families of their own. She might even hold her grandchild one day. Strange how quickly your dreams changed. Now she could scarcely imagine a world outside of this one—The Box—or how she would fit back into it again. If she ever did return to her children, it would be as an Olivia they had never met.

"Oh, come on," Parker was saying, his dubious expression giving him a double chin. He wasn't overweight, but he had filled out since their last encounter, and the squatting stance was proving too much for his knees. They crackled like Styrofoam when he pushed to his feet, grunting. "Everybody knows how to purr. Especially kitty cats."

Olivia shrugged, her eyes following the belt that dangled at his side like a strop. She asked Amanda to take Noah to the barber for his haircuts these days, fearing what her own reaction might be if someone brought out a straight razor. But the tools of Calvin Arliss' trade found her no matter where she was, it seemed.

"Bet your pretty little wifey makes you do it all the time. You telling me, when she's down there eating you out like a blond piranha, it doesn't get you purring just a little bit?" Parker smiled to himself, enjoying the imagery he had conjured. When he noticed Olivia's distaste, he held the belt buckle to his crotch, waggling the strap suggestively. "Her tongue rough or soft? Must feel good dragging across your cl*t, over and over. She's kinda small, but those tiny girls pack a big punch, don't they? She ever make you squirt, or—"

"Stop." Olivia shuddered, her revulsion so strong it rippled beneath her skin, inside her stomach. It made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. If he said one more word about Amanda, about their lovemaking, which was as sacred to Olivia as any religion—itwasher religion—she would lose her mind. They had already taken almost everything else from her; he didn't get to take the sweet, intimate memories she had made with her wife. Her little pretty. "Just stop. I'll do it."

The gash in Parker's face appeared and he gave an eager wave of invitation. Let's hear it. "Thatsa good kitty. Show me what that pretty pink tongue can do. Like this . . . " He demonstrated, lips parted, tongue trilling his palate, creating a sound like distant helicopter blades. The oddly soothing patter of heavy artillery hitting water, the hum of drones and military tanks. Inside of Parker's mouth, a war raged.

Olivia's first attempts produced little more than a puff of air, as if she were blowing on dandelion fluff or a bubble wand. Her children were forever putting things near her lips for her to blow on. What she wouldn't give to be at the park with them right now, laughing at the white fuzzies in Amanda's pale hair, almost indistinguishable from the blond, the dogs biting the bubbles midair.Not so much, they'll get the sh*ts, Amanda would say.Language, love, Olivia reminded, pecking her lips, piecing floaties from fine golden strands.Love is the only language I speak, baby. And they were laughing again, the kids and the dogs joining in on Amanda's efforts to kiss Olivia silly.

But her mouth was too dry to make the noise. Her tongue kept sticking to the roof of her mouth instead of vibrating with the air she pushed out. She tried saying the wordpurrand rolling the R's. She was good at that, had picked it up quickly in Spanish class. Now it caught in the back of her throat, a glottal stop that sounded more Arabic than Latin. "Can't," she whispered, failing even to clear her throat productively. "Need water."

Parker's shoulders sank, his animated expression settling to neutral, his crooked features like an off-center picture frame that threw off the whole wall. Only one nostril flared when he sniffed resignedly. He wiped the other with the back of his wrist, the belt a dead black adder in his hand. Oh, but it could still bite. Its fanged tooth glinted in the crook of his fist. "Well, that's too bad. I only give good, happy puss*es something to drink. Great big saucers of cream for them to lap up while they purr and purr."

Olivia shook her head adamantly. His cream was already seeping out of her, puslike. "Water."

"Okay, fine. You don't want to play that game, how's about a new one?" Parker took the belt by the notched end, winding it around his hand a few times, as if preparing for a street brawl. He let the buckle and a good eighteen inches of the strap swing free. The adder had sprung to life, ready to strike. "You make it past five lashes without whining like a little bitch, and I'll get you some water. Deal?"

He didn't wait for an answer, the hammered silver buckle, shaped like the letter P, whistling as it hurtled skyward in a wide arc, then plunged downward at a sheer drop. The cracking sound it made against Olivia's back was so spectacular, it was as disorienting as a gong going off in her ears. In her whole body. It reverberated up her spine, ping-ponged around in her neurons, and finally exploded in fireworks of multicolored pain behind her eyelids.

"Oh," she cried, a scream in her head, though barely a gasp when it left her lips.Oh, dear Jesus. She had yet to catch her breath from the first lash when the second came down at the back of her shoulder, just as brutal. A third and a fourth landed near the base of her spine, her buttock. The fifth was a searing stripe across the backs of her thighs. Oh, she breathed again, thanking Jesus it was over, that no more flesh would be gouged from her body like paint chips by that silver prong at the center of the buckle. Every inch of her backside felt torn open and raw.

But Parker was not a man of his word. Not surprising, really, if you considered the source. He surpassed five strokes, going on to six, seven, eight. By the time he stopped hacking at her with the belt, like it was a machete and she a dense patch of rainforest, Olivia had counted eleven lashes. An odd number to end on. Why not twelve? Better yet, twenty? As she took inventory of her stinging, singing flesh, she realized he had probably just run out of places to hit her. Of course, he could turn her over and start on the front . . .

"Phew, think I worked up some thirst myself, with that one," he announced, winded. He stooped forward, hands on his knees, panting like those guys in the park who wanted you to know they had just jogged three miles, weren't they manly and oh-so-fit? From what Olivia could see through her tears and from the corner of her eye, he was a bit flush in the cheeks. Maybe he would have a heart attack and drop down right there beside her on the floor. She willed it to be so, eager to look into his eyes and watch him take his last breath.

But he didn't clutch his chest or drop to his knees. He didn't fall, reaching out to her for help, for pity. Things she would deny him. Instead, he droned on about needing a drink until the Crier—she recognized him by voice alone now—called out from the open doorway: "You slipped it to her yet, or what? Don't tell me you been in here talking her ear off this whole time."

Not the whole time, no. Olivia shook her head, or the closest thing to it she could manage, a twitch, a flicker, willing him to take a better look at her and see what Parker had done. She hated relying on one monster to protect her from another, but right then she didn't have much of a choice. At least Crier didn't say one thing and do something entirely different. As much as he enjoyed hurting her, she was still property in his eyes, and you didn't damage the property you were trying to sell. Not with a million dollars at stake.

"Nah, just a little pillow talk. She gave me a real sweet welcome, didn't you, Miss Kitty?" Parker trailed the tapered end of the belt up the inside of Olivia's thighs, making her jump when it grazed skin. He brought it higher, bobbing it like a feathered cat toy, teasing between her legs where there was so much pain. Though not as much as between her buttocks, where the faux leather slithered its tail next, catching on sticky blood and whatever else had congealed there. "Had me purring like a kitten right along with her."

"Yeah, well, Gus'll be back soon, so—" The Crier's voice had drawn closer, and when he came into Olivia's limited field of vision, it grew louder still, until he was almost shouting. "What the f*ck did you do, Park?" he demanded, surveying her back, the side of her face not turned to the floor. "I leave you in here with her for half an hour, and now she looks like she went through a meat grinder. I told you not to f*ck with her face, man. The boss is already getting antsy that he hasn't heard from the buyer yet. You better hope and pray that bruise don't depreciate her value any, otherwise you'll end up at the bottom of the Bay wearing cement shoes, buddy boy."

On the outskirts of conscious thought, where meaning and logic faded into the fog between the worlds—reality and not—Olivia heard him mention the Bay. She peered sidelong, willing him to be more specific. There were multiple bays throughout New York and New Jersey, if that was indeed where they had taken her. Were she to wager a guess, she would go with Newark Bay, based on the drive to get here and what she had (or hadn't) seen in her glimpse of the surroundings. But that didn't give her much hope. If it was Newark Bay, she might well be smack dab in the middle of one of the biggest, busiest container shipping facilities in the US.

They could ship her anywhere, at any moment, and Amanda would never be able to find her. Even if they didn't, looking for a particular shipping container in such a huge shipyard would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Then again, the area had seemed too remote to be Port Newark-Elizabeth. She hadn't heard enough activity outside for it to be a hub of that extent. Just that relentless pounding, whirring, and drilling from the construction site.

She focused on a spot on the floor when the Crier's gaze fell on her, as though he sensed her listening in, calculating. If she played dead long enough, her chances of overhearing something of value were much greater than if she stared him down, acting tough. They had beaten and f*cked all the toughness out of her, anyway. For lack of a better simile, she felt as weak as a newborn kitten, lying there on her stomach, her back and insides seeping.

"Relax," Parker said to his friend, not nearly as blasé as he was attempting to sound. A nervous little giggle gave him away. "I'm here on behalf of the buyer, who is otherwise detained for the moment. There's nothing to worry about. Deal's still on, and it's not like I gave her a black eye or anything. I had to get her under control. And she— well, the buyer isn't going to see this part anyway. I doubt they'll even notice, when they do get back."

"Hope not, for your sake." The Crier didn't come across all that sincere, but he did crouch down to examine the wounds on Olivia's back, from the buckle. He gave an appreciative hum, reminding her of a medical examiner who enjoyed his job a little too much. "And it's your lucky day, 'cause I turned the camera off when you were first dicking around with her. I guess you can convince Gus that she hurt herself there. Ran into your elbow or something. But there's no explaining away these—what are they, P shapes? What the hell'd you hit her with, you sick f*ck?"

Olivia tuned out the men as Parker proudly displayed his belt buckle and they went on laughing, talking about what a great piece of ass she was, and trading verbal slaps on the back as congratulations for tearing up that puss* with a capital P. She floated in the hazy gray place that was Reality But Not, their voices a buzz somewhere beneath her, like the electric drills across the water. She thought of Amanda, how the poor thing was probably going out of her mind with worry. If their roles were reversed—well, Olivia couldn't even imagine. Her one consolation was that she'd been the target, not her wife.

Not until she heard Parker mention tag teaming did she reluctantly drift back down into the body that wasn't hers anymore. (Had it ever been? Over the years, she had often wondered.) They were looking at her with grim, hungry eyes, like coyotes watching a slab of meat before setting upon it. They couldn't possibly still want her, the shape she was in.

Could they?

"I did promise you an hour," said the Crier. He clicked his tongue piercing against his front teeth a few times, debating with himself. Maybe he would have given a different answer if Olivia hadn't glanced up at him then, pleading, hoping the ripening bruise on her cheek would discourage him from giving Parker another turn with her. From taking another for himself.

But the second she caught his eye, she saw him decide. It cinched like a padlock behind his flat, colorless irises, no key to open it up again. "All right, but let's do her someplace besides the mattress. It smells like the ass-end of a menstruating skunk. Tell you what, these bitches start to get nasty in a day or two. Worse than leftover shrimp. Probably have to turn the hose on this one after today's regimen."

They crutch-carried her to the desk that listed to one side in the beam from the tripod light, and started raping her there. Oral, vagin*l. Intermixed so she eventually lost track of who was inside her, where. She complied with each order—"Balls too, suck 'em, bitch," "Push your ass into me, keep them hips up, oh f*ck yeah, I bet you were one prime c*nt in your day"—hoping it would be over sooner that way. It went on for years, eons. An eternity of bitches and c*nts, of penises hurting her, gagging her, hammering, drilling.

At least she didn't have to take it up the ass this time. Or so she believed, until they started a game called puss* in the Middle, their version of Monkey in the Middle. As far as Olivia could tell, it simply involved her crawling on all fours, mewing like a cat, and being mounted from behind when one of the men "caught" her. She did not like the game. It made her want to die.

Parker must have won, because it was he who turned Olivia over, straddled her legs, and shinnied up her body like an arborist. She was merely the diseased oak he worked to fell, hacking off dead limbs, stripping away bark like leprous skin. Her t-shirt, no longer white but speckled in dirt and veined with blood, lay in a whipped-cream dollop on the floor, inches from her head. She reached for it, thinking of the ice cream sundaes the kids loved to make at home—Jesse's strange concoctions of Oreo crumbs and strawberry syrup, Noah's snowy peaks of Reddi-wip that practically touched the sky—and got her hand snatched away by Crier. He pinned it above her head with the other.

Holding her for Parker, though she didn't resist. A knee between her legs, knocking them apart. It rammed into her genitals, stars exploding there and in her vision. Among them was her mother's face, bright as the sun in its fury, a spittle of comets and asteroids spewing from her lips. Destructive, burning things that pelted Olivia like stones, tearing at flesh and bone.

The memory had been resurrected in therapy not that long ago, but she wondered if this reenactment—Parker battering her with his knee, to make way for his co*ck—would have reawakened it anyway. Every time she thought she'd recovered from a past trauma, another popped up to take its place, whether a forgotten incident from childhood or a new violation such as this. A vicious cycle, an infinite loop of violence. Begetting and begetting and begetting.

How had Serena put it, simulating her own rape on her eight-year-old daughter?This is what happens when you walk home late at night. This is what your precious daddy would do to you. This is what I went through to get you. This is what they do to women who think they're invincible.

Turned out, she hadn't been wrong or crazy after all. Olivia had been born of this, for this, and her mother had just been preparing her to fulfill her destiny. The way royals trained their offspring to ascend the throne. Spread your legs and accept the crown. And so she did, because there was nothing easier in the world than giving in to your fate when it came for you. You either fought like hell or accepted it, and all of Olivia's fight was gone. Too exhausted and dried out to cry or speak, she turned her face away and waited for the men to be done.

Twenty or thirty minutes later, Olivia realized the Crier was gone, her wrists no longer pinned above her head. At first, it frightened her that she couldn't remember when he'd left, when Parker had dragged her back to the mattress to hold her like a lover after an evening of passionate sex, or what had been done to her in the meantime. But then again, it was probably better that way—not knowing.

She used to think it would be torturous not being able to remember your own assault, but after Lewis and Calvin, she knew the real torture was obsessing over the memories you did retain. If she had her preference now, she'd rather be drugged to the gills and oblivious to every word, every touch, every sight and smell. All those women who were raped while they were unconscious didn't know how lucky they had it.

"Hey, I think it's only fair that I let you know," said Parker, tracing patterns on Olivia's upper arm, so gentle it was almost loving. He turned to look at her, their heads close together, hers cushioned in the crook of his arm. It was the most comfortable she'd been since yesterday morning, despite being tucked naked against the side of her most recent rapist. "'Cause you've been real sweet to me this afternoon. Me and Vaughn are gonna take real good care of the kid. She wants the baby now, but the redhead—what's her name, Madeline? She'd probably be easiest to grab. Either way, you don't have to worry. I'll treat whichever one we end up with like my own."

Olivia stared at him for several seconds, trying to make sense of the sounds coming from his mouth. She was mostly picking up on tones, sometimes every other word, but he gave her a moment to let it fall into place, to let it sink in and percolate, and she finally understood: he was talking about her children. Threatening to take them away, as Gus had done upon their introduction. Why couldn't these monsters leave her babies alone? She would submit to being raped a thousand times over, if it meant protecting them.

"Tilly," she said, her voice a husk, like the shed skin of a snake or an insect. Fragile and easy to crush if handled too roughly. "Tilly. She's— she's a baby too. Don't take her. Please. Stay away from my family."

Parker put on a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. He stroked Olivia's forehead too roughly, pushing back her hair and kissing her there so soundly it made a loud smacking noise in the small, boxy room. "You don't have a family anymore," he murmured, too intimate, too warm. It felt like being suffocated, those words and his heavy hands holding her down, his eyes. God, she couldn't breathe, the way he looked at her. "Forget about them, it'll be easier if you do. You're no good to them now, anyway. I give it six months before you check out. Normal rape f*cks you up enough as it is, but this gang bang sh*t? Being trafficked? Seen it time and again at the prison. You broads never get over things like that.

"Even if you make it out alive, you'll have too much psychological damage to be a good mom to your kids. The baby'll be better off with me and Vaughn." He stroked Olivia's forehead idly with his thumb, a dreamy note in his voice. He wasn't speaking to her anymore. "She'll have two stable parents, and a daddy, instead of two lesbos. No offense. It's just . . . little girl needs a father, y'know?"

He had a point. Olivia had spent the better part of her childhood wishing for a daddy to come whisk her away from the abuse, the name-calling, the neglect, the fear. She would rather be dead than to pass that on to her children. Her little girls weren't going to grow up searching for men to fill that void, and falling for the first guy who made them feel special. Who proposed so he could have sex with them whenever he wanted. Who promised to be there, always, then left without so much as a goodbye. If Parker could prevent that from happening . . .

The thought was such a shock to Olivia's system, she almost sat bolt upright. Or would have, if she wasn't pinned by his hands. Those hands were never going to touch her daughters—or her son—as long as she was breathing. She would kill this man, in his stupid MAGA hat with his stupid sleazy smile, if she had to. His belt had gone by the wayside when he and the Crier hauled her over to the desk, and she gazed at it intently, willing it to slither the last few inches into her outstretched palm.

She pictured grabbing it up like a real adder, by the tail like on Animal Planet, and wrapping it around Parker's thick neck. It would only take a minute or two, less if she placed it properly and found the strength to pull it tight. But the image of herself, legs wrapped around his waist, belt noosed around his neck from behind, barely had time to solidify in her mind before Parker was getting to his feet and zipping his jeans. He did it the cavalier way guy's zipped up in front of urinals, after draining the snake.

"I gotta get back," he said with some reluctance. His gaze held a hint of longing when he looked down at her, as if she were the lover he must depart from because his wife called. It shamed Olivia just to think it, even though there was no wife as far as she knew, and she had not willingly participated in the affair. "Your people have been interrogating Vaughn since yesterday, and she's probably getting real anxious about what she's missing. Better go see if I can help her out. Maybe I'll come visit you again, kitty cat. You were definitely worth the wait."

She kept expecting him to remember the belt and put it back on, but she almost forgot it herself at the mention of her people. If her squad was questioning Vaughn at the prison, that meant they were on the right track. Cracking perps was difficult and the ones who were already in prison were sometimes the hardest to draw out—they already had nothing to lose. But she was also confident in her team's ability to find answers and bring the vic home. Parker was probably right, it was probably too late for her. The next woman might be more lucky, though.

She waited until he was gone to reach for the belt he'd left behind, inching it toward the mattress by the P-shaped buckle, tucking it underneath. He may not have held up his end of the deal about getting her some water, but he'd unknowingly left her with another way out besides dying of thirst. If the moment came when she was sure she would not be reunited with Amanda and their children, she would drag herself to the desk, loop the belt through the top drawer handle, latch the ends around her neck, and lean into the arms of sweet oblivion.

For now, it felt good to have a plan. She was a captain, a mother, and she knew how to prepare ahead.

Carefully she gathered her dirty, crumpled t-shirt to her, wincing with the effort of stretching out her arm. It took a good fifteen or twenty seconds to get the shirt over her head and down her chest. She didn't bother with the panties; they were somewhere amid the garbage and she didn't have the energy to look, let alone put them on. Perhaps later, when she woke up.

She slept hard on the thin mattress, the belt a serpentine lump underneath her, comforting, and she didn't dream.

. . .

Chapter 20: This Woman's Work

Notes:

I was trying to get this update ready to post yesterday, as an early surprise, but it didn't work out that way. However. This chapter and the next were originally a single, 23-page chapter, and I might be persuaded to post the second half earlier than Monday... just sayin'. :-D Also, I received an anon message on ff.net for "The Devil's Cut" that I'm going to reply to in the comments over there, for *this* story. For reasons. I usually delete the trolls who talk sh*t, but this one accused me of arrogance, and I'm not just letting that go. I don't think there's much need for a trigger warning this time, unless being drugged against one's will gets to you. Okay, here we go. Enjoy.

(P.S. It was brought to my attention by dahllaz that this story wasn't showing at the top of the page after my last update. I don't know if that's been happening consistently, but I'm going to try and sort it out. Just a heads-up, in case you've had trouble finding the new chapters.)

Chapter Text

Chapter 20.

This Woman's Work

. . .

The nose would heal, Dana didn't much care about that. She had grown up a tomboy in rural Virginia, two older brothers, scrappy as all get out; she was used to broken noses. And you didn't build a career as a ball-busting FBI agent or serve time in prison, posing as a murderer of innocent pregnant ladies, without getting socked in the face a few times.

Honestly, she could have popped her crooked schnoz back into place herself and kept right on working, but somebody needed to be with Rollins when she woke up. The detective was going to be madder than an old wet hen once the drugs wore off, and Dana couldn't exactly blame her. It had been a rotten trick by that beady little shrink to sedate her like that, against her will. He had claimed it was for her own safety, and that of everyone in the squad room, but in Dana's opinion it was no different than the age-old practice of deeming women "hysterical" and drugging them into submission.

She was here for selfish reasons, though. She had needed to get away from the precinct and especially from the live feed of Olivia Benson being beaten and raped. The video had ended abruptly, right before the altercation, leaving everyone to stare at the black void on their screens in stunned silence, but it would likely be restored. Those men were not amateurs, nothing they did was by accident, and everything was designed to inflict the most suffering—for Olivia and their audience—as possible.

In the meantime, Dana's colleagues were poring over the previous footage, analyzing background noise, enlarging screen captures, replaying conversation in search of missed clues, all in hopes of pinpointing a location. It was too much. The longer she watched it play out, the deeper she receded into memories of her own assault. Following leads on Declan Murphy's whereabouts had been a good distraction for a while, but there were only so many dead ends you could go down before admitting you were on a wild goose chase.

Maybe Amanda had the right idea after all. Dana watched her sleeping heavily on the gurney, chin slumped to her chest, and wished she could be that oblivious to the passage of time. Every minute Olivia was held captive, the likelihood of getting her back diminished by that much more. How long until they ran out of minutes? Until Olivia did? Despite years of not being in contact with the captain, Dana had taken great comfort in knowing that somewhere in New York City, justice and empathy thrived, and it had a fantastic head of hair to go with it.

She couldn't imagine looking out at the Manhattan skyline if Olivia was no longer under it. She couldn't imagine how devastating it must be, as a wife, to watch the woman you loved, the mother of your children, being violently tortured, her beautiful body used and defiled. Vandalized like a highway underpass, blood and sem*n the tagging medium of choice.

All of Dana's spouses and children were unique to her UC personas, and she enjoyed making up lives for them. She'd liked being married to Amos the best, he never gave her any guff. Stephanie had been fun, though. She challenged Dana, drove her crazy, but they always found something to laugh about together. Jordy and Cash were into every school sport imaginable, Nellie got good grades but was shy like her father. Sometimes Dana missed them, those fictional families she used to believe were as good as the real thing.

Then again, look what the real thing got you, she thought, sighing as Amanda slept on. The shrink said the sedation would wear off in about an hour, and that had come and gone twenty minutes ago. If Dana sat there much longer, watching the steady rise and fall of Amanda's chest, the dripping of her IV, the blips from the pulse oximeter, she would probably go crazy and need to be sedated too. She got up to stretch her legs, stiff from the uncomfortable hospital chair, and bent down to touch her toes. That always got her blood going.

When she stood upright again, Amanda had begun to stir, her hand feeling the catheter in her arm, though she hadn't opened her eyes yet. The detective frowned, gliding the length of slender tubing between her fingers, and slowly parting her lids to peer at what she was holding. "S'this?" she mumbled, speaking more to herself than to Dana, who had yet to catch her eye.

"The sedation can make you dehydrated," Dana said, moving slowly toward the bed. Last time she rushed at Amanda, she ended up with blood gushing from her nostrils. For someone so slight, the little blonde packed one helluva punch. Dana was shorter, but rock solid and thicker around the middle, thanks to menopause. Even so, she had reeled back on her Steve Madden loafers with that hit. "You were lookin' a mite peaked when we got here, so they hooked you up to an IV."

"They did?" Amanda traced her eyes along the tubing, no thicker than a cooked spaghetti noodle and twice as curvy, as if she had never seen such a contraption before. The sedative could cause confusion too, Lindstrom had warned. "Don't remember. Just one minute I's talking to y'all and watching the livestream— oh, God, Liv. How long have I been out? Did they find her? Is she okay?"

"Hey, slow your roll there, Detective." Dana snapped her fingers for Amanda to stop trying to rip off the surgical tape from the crook of her arm. When that didn't work, she stepped forward and cupped a hand over the catheter. "You need to take it easy, otherwise you'll be on your ass. And I ain't waiting around while you recover from that."

The joke fell flat as Amanda glanced around the room like she was looking for an escape route. Her strength hadn't returned just yet, but it was filtering back slowly, like the drip from the saline bag, and soon she would be putting up a much heartier struggle. "You've been out for 'bout an hour and a half," Dana said quickly, hoping to allay some of the girl's concerns. Although probably not many. "Olivia is . . . we still haven't found her, I'm sorry. Since the feed went dead, there's been no new attempts at contact. Sergeant Tutuola's been keeping me apprised via text. Last was five minutes ago."

Amanda fought valiantly for several more seconds, prying at Dana's fingers and huffing in frustration each time they closed around her arm again. "Lemme go, you f*ckin—" Flumping back against the pillow elevated behind her head by the upright bed, she let out a low, animalistic growl, like something feral and ferocious that had gotten its leg caught in a trap. "Bitch. I h-hafta go to her. Hafta— she . . . she needs me."

In that moment, Dana saw clearly what had so appealed to Olivia about the spunky little blonde that she'd gone and married her. Amanda was muscling her way through a haze of ketamine and fatigue just to watch over the captain in whatever capacity she could, her desperation so stark, so unabashed, it was almost embarrassing. That kind of loyalty was hard to come by; Dana certainly hadn't found it, although years of UC work would do that to you. Couldn't be loyal to someone whose persona changed every five minutes.

Detective Rollins loved Olivia in that fierce and consuming way that most people only dreamed about finding in a partner. Well, good for Olivia. She deserved it, and God knew she'd need it if she ever made it back home. "I know, darlin'," said Dana, easing off Amanda's arm with a few awkward pats. She wasn't great with the affection, probably another reason they weren't lining up for a chance at Dana Karen Lewis. "But until they initiate contact with us again—"

"Don't call me that." Amanda's head was tipped back to gaze at the ceiling, her irises a flat blue that matched her flat voice. She blinked and suddenly her eyes were awash with tears. "That's what I call her. I ain't your darlin'."

Cringing, Dana mentally kicked herself for the pet name. It was common in the South, versatile enough to use on men, women, and children, and no one took offense. Her big mouth always seemed to get her into trouble, though, even when she wasn't being rude or abrasive. She just had that knack. "Sorry, I didn't realize—"

"Did you say I was sedated? As in, drugged?" Amanda sat forward, looking directly at Dana. Her irises swam in the surrounding white pools of sclera, the pupils not quite back to normal yet. She looked a bit like David Bowie, with his strange asymmetric dilation. She had his intensity too, all of it focused on Dana. "Was it that bastard Lindstrom? Did he do this to me?"

The detective was getting riled up again, and Dana felt for her. Born in the mid sixties, she had narrowly missed the era of men making women's mental health decisions for them, but her mama and a few aunts had suffered through the psychiatric treatment for difficult, high strung women. Apparently Lindstrom hadn't gotten the memo that the fifties were over. Women could be as loud, and maybe even a little violent, as they saw fit.

"Yeah, he, uh, got kinda freewheeling with that syringe. Thought you were gonna hurt someone, supposedly. Your sergeant was not a happy camper." Might as well keep Fin in her good graces, Dana decided. And he had been visibly upset with the shrink as he hefted Amanda's limp body onto the desk chair. "He asked Lindstrom to leave, which I think was Fin-speak for 'get the hell out of my squad room.'"

Amanda gave a derisive sniff. "Shouldn't have called him in the first place, if that's how he felt about it. What happened to you?" She tapped the side of her nose when Dana tilted her head, questioning.

"Oh. This?" Dana touched the splint, a small piece of plastic shaped like a Bioré pore-cleansing strip and held in place by medical tape. She had tried to refuse the damn thing, insisting she'd broken her nose enough times to perform her own rhinoplasty, but the doctor insisted. She held no illusions about the appearance of her nose—it had been her least favorite feature long before the breaks, its snubbed tip and asymmetrical nostrils the bane of her existence—but at least the guy cared that it healed properly. "This is nothing. I've gotten worse fractures sneezing. You should see the other guy."

"Sorry," Amanda said with a deep, weary sigh. She flexed her knuckles, as if they still held the residual pain of smashing into Dana's approaching face. It had been one hell of a right hook. "Did I headbutt someone too?" She rubbed the back of her head, grimacing. Dana had used the defense move on a few sleazebag perps herself, including a nearly seven-foot-tall white supremacist who outweighed her by two hundred pounds, and she well remembered the brain-thudding throb that followed.

Wincing, she gave an apologetic nod. "Let's just say Sergeant Tutuola will be a little fuller around the lips for the next week or so. I think the goatee absorbed some of the blow." On the outside, at least. She had heard the unmistakable clack of teeth, a sound you didn't forget once you'd heard them gnashing together during enhanced interrogation techniques, seconds before the equally unmistakable sound of her nasal bone and cartilage crunching like Styrofoam.

"Good," said Amanda, her icy features hardening to frosted steel. All at once, she halted the careful probing of her injuries as if the pain had magically disappeared. More than likely, she had simply resolved herself to it, as Dana would have. As Olivia seemed to have done in that sad*stic horror movie she was trapped in. "Serves him right for siccing goddamn Lindstrom on me like I'm some kind of . . . "

Some kind of what, she didn't finish, but Dana got the gist. She doubted it would do much good to point out that Fin hadn't personally sicced the therapist on Amanda—the odd little man had taken that liberty all by himself—not when the detective was determined she knew where to place the blame. Besides, Dana had a feeling that reasoning with an angry Amanda Rollins was like reasoning with a hornet. A nest of them, freshly kicked.

"I'm gonna kill that sonuvabitch." Amanda's jaw tightened with resolve, and she glanced sidelong at Dana, daring her to say differently.

Normally, Dana wouldn't have; she made off-the-cuff remarks like that all the time, everyone did. But something about the way the wordkillsprang from Amanda's tongue, as singular as a launched grenade, was troubling. Dana might never have watched her wife going through the worst kind of hell imaginable, but she had survived her own sexual assault and, in a blind fury of grief and trauma, very nearly murdered the assailant. Amanda had the same vengeful look in her eye that Dana had glimpsed in the mirror after completing her own rape kit.

"It isn't Fin you should be—"

"I'm not talking about my damn sergeant," Amanda snapped. "I'm talking about the turtle-looking motherf*cker who stuck me. He had no right. I mighta found Liv by now if I wasn't lying in some goddamn hospital bed. Christ. Who the f*ck's he think he is? I never should've let Liv go to him. I'm making her switch therapists soon as I get home."

Dana could pinpoint the exact moment Amanda noticed the incongruity of her words—the detective froze in her fussing with the hospital blanket, went a little dead behind the eyes, and then her tired, pretty face crumpled in on itself. She began to weep with bitter, racking sobs that almost sounded like laughter, until you saw the anguish in her red face, in the clawed hands scratching at the blanket. A Bible verse Dana hadn't heard since she was a teenager, her mama's good little Pentecostal girl, came back to her unbidden:

They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew something or other, if memory served. Dana had always liked the verse, the idea of Jesus and his angels tossing folks out of Heaven, onto their keisters, appealing to her not-quite-so Christian affinity for seeing the bad guys get theirs.I don't know about you, Daney, her daddy used to say.You're either gonna be a fearsome protector or a fearsome troublemaker someday. Cain't rightly say which just yet.

Luckily it had been the former option, but that didn't make her job any easier. She hated seeing women cry, particularly the tough ones like Amanda Rollins. She knew the shame and embarrassment that went with it. The feeling of failure that you were proving all the men right, women were too emotional for the job. She cleared her throat and patted Amanda awkwardly on the back. Why hadn't she just returned to the precinct instead of staying behind to play nursemaid?

Lord Almighty, she hated this case.

"Hey, now. Let's, uh . . . let's keep it together here, dar— honey." Dana winced at her incompetence. There was a reason she didn't have children. Or a spouse. Or even a dog. She tried to imagine what Olivia would say in her place—Olivia who wore her heart on her sleeve and had shown compassion and tenderness to Dana, despite believing she was a cold-blooded killer of pregnant kindergarten teachers—but all she came up with was a sentiment too lame for a greeting card: "Don't give up hope yet. She's a fighter."

It's always darkest before the dawn. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. May the force be with you.

It was all so senseless and there were no good words, certainly not any Dana could summon up on short notice. She pressed her lips together, blocking any more meaningless platitudes from spilling out, but the damage was already done.

"Not like this, she ain't," Amanda cried, the words harsh and jagged in her convulsing throat. "You weren't h-here, you didn't see. All the other times, what it did to her. Harris and Lewis. Calvin. The stuff fr-from when she was a kid. It took her so long to recover. Even if I g-get her back, she ain't gonna be my Liv anymore. Don't you understand, I already lost her for good. She might as well be—"

She swallowed the rest with an audible gulp, though Dana heard it just as plainly as if it were spoken. The Olivia they both knew and loved might as well be dead. Not a wish, but a deduction based on years of experience. People often didn't recover from a trauma of this magnitude, and those who did were fundamentally and irrevocably changed—it's why gang rape was such an effective weapon in war zones. Racking up kills without the body count.

Detective Rollins was in mourning. A widow whose spouse wasn't yet in the ground.

"You listen to me, little girl," said Dana, leaning both hands on the hospital bed and fixing Amanda with a severe look. She might not know how to comfort a devastated wife, but she knew damn well how to talk to a soldier giving up in the heat of battle. "That woman is not dead, and don't you ever come to me with that fatalistic bullsh*t again. She's only lost to you if you let her go. I seen plenty of ladies survive something this bad or worse, and yes, it's an unthinkable tragedy and some don't recover, but the brave ones do. And there ain't nobody braver than your wife. So, you don't throw in the towel tillshedoes, ya hear?"

Gradually Amanda's expression changed from total despondence to mild surprise, probably at being spoken to like a kid getting scolded by a strict teacher, and finally settled on something resembling resolve. She nodded, pawing the tears from her face and pinching a drip of snot from her nostrils. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right," she said, sniffing loudly and rubbing the heel of her palm under her nose. "My head's just . . . " She spread her hands near either side of her head and shook them, suggesting a frenetic, static-filled brain.

"Yeah. Ketamine'll do that to you." Dana patted Amanda's arm, and this time it wasn't forced. She had suffered terrible sleep paralysis for months after her assault, waking up convinced she'd been drugged again and was incapable of moving. As an added bonus, he was always on top of her, murmuring about her velvet throat. For a long time, it was a raw, gravelly throat from all the sobbing and retching she did on those sleepless, feverish nights. "That feeling will wear off soon, but you'll probably have one sumbitch of a hangover."

"Great. I can hardly wait." Amanda closed her eyes and leaned back on the headrest. It lasted all of two seconds before she sat forward, tore the IV catheter from her arm with two brisk yanks that snapped the medical tape and sent up a little geyser of blood like red oil, and threw aside the thin bedclothes. "Screw it. I gotta get out of here. Going back to the precinct and see what I can do. I'm the one those bastards want to be in contact with, anyway."

"I'm not so sure that's a wise—" At the last moment, Dana sidestepped the oncoming blonde, narrowly escaping being plowed down by a hundred and twenty-five pounds moving at full speed ahead. Well, okay then. Amanda was right about the kidnappers; they were more interested in tormenting her than the NYPD, making her presence beneficial to the investigation. Just not to her mental health.

But when had Dana ever stopped to consider the negative impact of a case before jumping in headfirst? When had any law enforcement officer worth her salt? Sometimes you just bit the bullet and did it, regardless of your health or your sanity.

"Hey, hotfoot," she called, grabbing her blazer off the visitor's chair and hurrying after Amanda, who was making a beeline for the exit. "Wait up, I'm coming with."

The one-six was still in a tailspin when they returned. Grown men in uniforms looked shell-shocked, and the women wore subdued, faraway expressions, bruise-like smudges under their eyes as if they hadn't slept in days. Many of them stared at Amanda, parting like the Red Sea to let her through as she headed for SVU at a fast clip. The squad room wasn't much better, with officers and agents alike half-dead on their feet, guzzling coffee and searching for clues that weren't there.

Normally, Dana would have enjoyed ragging on NYPD for not being the well-oiled machine that was the Bureau. But not while a cop was missing. When a fellow agent was in jeopardy, the FBI banded together as well, doing whatever it took to help their brother or sister in need. She had pulled many an all-nighter, sometimes several in a row, to find agents who had disappeared from the grid. Most made it back in one piece, but some weren't as lucky—those were the ones that haunted Dana and put that hollow-eyed look on the other agents' faces.

She saw that same look in some of the cops' faces now, including Sergeant Tutuola's. The poor man seemed smaller than he had been just a few hours ago, his complexion taken on a sallow hue, and the threads of gray hair in his goatee much more pronounced. His tired eyes widened at Dana and Amanda's approach, and Dana held her breath, anticipating the worst as Amanda went straight for him. Her nose was already throbbing, she had no desire to break up any more altercations today.

But the detective didn't launch herself at Fin, nor did she acknowledge his swollen bottom lip, which resembled the ridiculously Botoxed kissers of the Kardashian wannabes who populated Noho and Tribeca. In fact, Amanda barely acknowledged the sergeant at all, beyond a gruff, "Where we at?"

Fin hesitated, as if contemplating telling Amanda she shouldn't be there (Don't do it, man, Dana thought at him), but thankfully, he checked the urge and gestured to the flat-screen on the wall. The same one where Dana got her first eyeful of the horrors that were befalling poor Captain Benson. Now the screen was ominously blank, a few randomly dispersed links in red its only signs of life. An afterimage of the letters floated in Dana's vision when she looked away.

"Ain't heard nothing back since they cut the feed two hours ago," said Fin. "TARU and the Feds have been searching the darknet for any info or a location, but you know how that goes. Like looking for a needle in a haystack of p*rn and puppy mutilation. One of the audio guys thinks he's got it narrowed down to a port on the Jersey side, based on a boat horn or something in the background, but it could be one of several."

"So? Did you send out search teams?" Amanda didn't sound like she was asking. She glared at Fin, ready to criticize whichever answer he gave. Her legs weren't entirely steady beneath her yet, and she still wavered a little in her thick-soled tennis shoes. But she stood her ground, demanding that the sergeant give her what she wanted.

"We don't have the manpower for that, Rollins," Fin said softly, wearily. He had the tone of someone with a monster headache, measured and wincing, as if he were speaking inside a hushed cathedral and didn't want his voice to carry. "You've seen the size of those container yards. There's thousands of them things. We'd be searching for days, maybe even weeks, and by then—" He broke it off there and sighed, too late to prevent his meaning from coming across.

"They ain't gonna kill her. She's worth nothing to them if she's dead, remember?" Amanda choked on the last part, a click in her throat as she swallowed with increasing effort. She had to be about as dry as drought season in the Texas panhandle. Dana made a mental note to offer her some water when this confrontation was through. "And what good's a force of forty thousand if you can't utilize them to find a missing high-ranking officer? Is it because she's a woman? Because she's queer? Because she's got her twenty in and they want her gone, anyway?"

Fin shook his head doggedly. "It's not anything like that, you know that. We can't assign every single officer in the NYPD to one case, no matter who it's for. Garland's got as many people on this as he could muster. We're doing everything we can."

The desk beside Amanda rattled when she kicked the leg, scoffing. A few heads turned, but the eyes averted quickly at a glare and a snap of the fingers from Dana. Sometimes, being a woman in charge wasn't all that different than being a grumpy schoolteacher. Fewer spitballs aimed at the back of your head, lots more fingers flipping you the bird. Olivia must know what that was like, having her own squad to wrangle. Then again, knowing Benson, she was probably a fair and benevolent boss, who commanded the respect and loyalty of her team, as she did with most everyone.

"Maybe I oughta just go out and look for her myself," said Amanda. She sounded a bit like a sulking teenager, but if anyone had earned that right, it was the woman whose wife was being sold as a sex slave. "Better than sticking around here and getting drugged against my will again."

"I had no idea he was going to do that," Fin said, just earnest enough to be convincing. "I swear, Amanda, I wouldn'ta called him if I thought—"

"Save it. All I care about is getting Liv back, that's what we should be focused on. I'm assuming you sent Dr. Kevorkian home?" Amanda didn't wait for an answer, instead backing toward the interview room that had become her personal headquarters. "Good. Next time, don't bother me unless you've got something on my wife." With that, she executed a wobbling about-face and disappeared into the room.

"I'll talk to her," Dana said when Fin glanced her way, looking as though he was at a loss how to handle his detective. As a woman who herself was often too much for people to handle, Dana sympathized—with Fin and with Amanda. She wouldn't pick sides, though. There was no winner in this inhuman game they were being forced to play. "Girl to girl."

. . .

Chapter 21: Talking to Ghosts

Notes:

Okay, y'all, here's the follow-up to chapter 20 a little early because I'm weak and you talked me into it. :P Seriously, though, thank you, thank you, thank you for continuing to read and review (and shoot down the anon trolls) with me. I'll just get the Trigger Warnings out of the way right now: gang rape and torture, although not quite as graphic or sustained as in some of the previous chapters. Don't lose heart, guys, I scrolled ahead this time to be sure and we are quickly approaching an inflection point to this part of the story. Deep breaths. We're almost there.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21.

Talking to Ghosts

. . .

The interview room was eerily quiet compared to the squad room. No one had removed the laptop that Amanda smashed, and it lay in the middle of the floor like a black cat that had curled in on itself to die. Dana went to it, picked it up, transferred it to the table. Thinking better of it, she pushed closed the cracked, equally dead screen a second after opening it. "Dr. Kevorkian?" she asked, hiking up an eyebrow. She hadn't heard that name in years, and Amanda didn't look old enough to remember the case.

"Huh? Oh. It's all I could think of." Amanda glanced up from her cell phone, on the table where she'd left it before getting ambushed. She shrugged and resumed scrolling through a cascade of messages that looked like email. "Goddammit," she muttered, reaching the bottom and starting over again. She held up her finger for silence, despite the quiet of the room. The messages ticked by like numbers onThe Price is Rightwheel. Landed on a big red zero. "Goddammit."

"They'll get back with you. These guys are all the same." Dana tried to sound more confident than she felt. The only thing men like the ones holding Olivia captive had in common was their unpredictability. And so far, nothing about this case had been common or predictable. Luckily, Dana was a better liar than she was a comforter. "Just give 'em a minute, they're probably chomping at the bit to be showing off again."

Amanda let her phone thump against the tabletop. She picked it back up a second later, scrolled some more. "Yeah, and in the meantime, they're doing God knows what to her. The livestream was bad enough, what are they doing to her now that even they won't show?" She opened an email and muffled a sob when the photo attachment displayed on the screen—Olivia, wide-eyed and frightened, thick duct tape slashed across the bottom half of her face.

"You can't think like that, Rol—"

"Can't I?" Amanda demanded, holding the cell phone image out for Dana to view up-close. She snatched it back quickly and held it to her breast, protective, as if she had revealed something precious and secret. Something that was hers alone. "You think these are the nice sex traffickers? Yesterday and this morning were just a fluke, huh, and now they're treatin' her like she's at some f*cking resort?"

This kid had a lot of sass. Dana got the feeling they could have been good friends, had they met under different circ*mstances. "No, that's not what I meant. But they're saving the worst parts for you. If they turned the cameras off, it's because they want some downtime. It's their intermission. I know it's hard to believe, but Olivia's probably safer with the cameras off than with them on."

Most of that was true; nevertheless, Dana held her breath as she waited for a response. She really did want to say something to put Amanda's mind at ease, or as at ease as it could be, but so far nothing seemed to come out right. It just reinforced Dana's belief that she wasn't meant to be close with other people. The only truly significant relationships she'd had were with people who didn't even know her real name or occupation. And Olivia Benson.

"Yeah." Amanda looked doubtful, but she did place her phone on the table and stack her hands on top. Though most of her color had returned and she didn't appear jittery anymore, her eyes had a hangdog heaviness that made it seem like the lids were weighted. If she rested her forehead against her folded hands, she would be out within seconds. She sat up straighter, cleared her throat, blinked. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Can't make torture p*rn if you don't film it, huh?"

The corner of Dana's mouth quirked with sympathy, rather than humor. She eyed one of the other office chairs congregating around the table, and decided to take a chance. Wheeling the chair around to Amanda's side of the table, she settled in next to her, hitching her trousers at the knee, and propped her elbows on the same spot. "Tell me something," she requested, tapping Amanda's knee with her knuckle. "Anything. Let me hear all 'bout them babies you and Liv got at home. What is it, ten of 'em? And a newborn? Y'all are crazier than a sh*thouse rat."

That actually earned a small chuckle from Amanda, but she cut it off, swift as the head of a chicken on the chopping block, her expression gone sullen and dark. But mostly just unbearably sad. "I don't want to talk about them right now. Can't. Not while their mama's . . . " She let the conclusion fade, along with her focus, staring off into the middle distance. "I haven't even seen or talked to them since yesterday morning. What kind of mother does that? Just ups and bails on her kids? I'm as bad as Serena."

"I don't know who that is, but I'm willing to bet she never went through half of what you're going through right now. Doesn't make you a bad mama." Dana was no authority on the subject—her mother had been a saint; no, really, she had her own church pew at the First Assembly dedicated in her name, Dotty Lee, everyone called it The Dot—but it didn't take an expert to see how devoted Amanda was to her wife and kids. "It wouldn't do them any good to see you this upset anyhow. You're protecting them by not exposing them to it."

Amanda gave a noncommittal shrug, a noncommittal grunt. It didn't even seem like she was listening, until she heaved a sigh and said, "Shoulda protected her better, is what I shoulda done. None of this would be happening if I'd done my job and not let them get at her. sh*t, I just keep failing her."

"Hon, they tased you. Doesn't matter who you are or what the job description, they still woulda grabbed her up—"

"You don't know! You don't get it, I . . . " Amanda slumped back in her seat as if she'd suddenly deflated. She swiveled the chair away from Dana and spoke in the direction of the opposite wall. "I vowed to keep her safe. I went to her damn dead alcoholic mother's grave and swore I'd never let anyone hurt her like that again. 'Course I just found out that bitch sexually assaulted her too, so maybe the vow doesn't count now?"

This time her laugh was bitter and not a laugh at all. She took a bite of the words, spat them out like rotten fruit. And then that laugh. "How stupid am I? Kept worrying about all the men I needed to protect her from, and it turns out to be another woman."

Dana found it difficult to follow along with Amanda's narrative, but she didn't want to interrupt while the detective was venting. Lord knew the poor child needed to let off steam somehow. The part about Olivia's mother sexually abusing her and being a damn dead alcoholic was shocking, though, and it must have come across loud and clear. Without turning for a glimpse of Dana's curious expression, Amanda went on as if she were talking to herself.

"'Bout a month ago, during an undercover gig with a therapist, Liv remembered her mother attacking her and simulating her own rape on Liv. She was only eight years old. And her father . . . the one time she met him, he sexually abused her, too. She was raped in that prison and by Lewis, even though she said she wasn't. Too ashamed. Melia and Calvin sexually assaulted her. Them an' Lewis, that was on my watch." Amanda jabbed her index finger on the table, bending the tip back painfully. "And now six other guys've done her. Probably more by the time this is over."

That was a hell of a lot of information to process all at once. It had taken Dana's breath away, especially the part about Olivia's parents. Years ago, Dana had picked up on Olivia not having any family—something about a brother she didn't meet until adulthood, maybe?—but Dana assumed she was a former foster kid or something. Hadn't wanted to pry. You were supposed to reciprocate when someone shared details about their family. Or, in Dana's case, lie your ass off.

"Jesus." She couldn't think of a worse swear than that. Taking the Lord's name in vain either got your mouth or behind smacked, where Dana came from. Sometimes both. "Her own mama did that to her? That's awful. I heard of plenty of daddies doing that to their kids, but not mamas. What a hellacious bitch."

Amanda nodded, head turned just enough for the twinge of irony to be visible at the corner of her mouth. She sighed or gave a huff of amusem*nt under her breath, hard to tell which. "Right? And despite it all, Liv still loves her. You believe that? I've tried to get her to be angry and stand up for—" Her throat caught and she cleared it abruptly, flicked the hair from her eyes, shot Dana an accusatory look, as if she'd been lured into revealing too much. "Anyway. She just doesn't have it in her. That hate."

That, Dana could absolutely believe. She might not know anything about the captain's tragic family, but you only had to spend a few moments with Olivia Benson to see she was all heart. Dana had expected it to be annoying at first. Instead, it had made her respect Olivia all the more. It was a dangerous way to exist, though, being that empathetic and accessible to everyone. You got used, cheated, abandoned. In the end, other people always let you down.

"Sometimes I think if her daddy had ever showed up again, she would've even forgiven him," Amanda said, the faraway tone returning to her voice. This time the sigh was unmistakable. "Wish she was more of a bitch, like me. And Vaughn. Maybe if she was a little meaner, these things wouldn't keep happening to . . . "

Amanda inhaled deeply through her nose and shook her head hard, as if dispelling the thoughts inside it. "Nah, that ain't true. I'm mean as a snake, and this is happening to herbecauseof me, so." She gestured for Dana to fill in the blank however she saw fit.

"I'm sure that's not true," Dana said. She tried to be as soft and sincere about it as Olivia would be, but it felt false. She opted not to reach over and squeeze Amanda's arm reassuringly. "You had no way of knowing that Murphy would do something like this, especially when he ran off to Serbia and left you high and dry, his baby in your belly."

"He didn't, though. Not really." Amanda turned to gaze out the windows that lined the back wall, her eye glazed over in profile. She appeared to be watching the scene she described. "He came back while I was pregnant. Stood right out there and offered to help in whatever way he could. However much I'd let him. I thought Jess would be better off without him. Thought we all would. Liv tried to tell me different, but I ignored her. What's she know about having a daddy, right? God, I'm such an idiot."

"I still say it's not your fault." Dana shrugged, as if it were just fact, though Amanda didn't glance around to see it. "He was half a world away, and y'all tried to hunt him down, didn't you say? He's the one who was off selling young girls into sex work. Nobody in their right mind would think that's good daddy material. Even him."

Amanda raked the hair back from her face with such vehemence it looked painful. "I wasn't talking about Declan f*cking Murphy, okay? I'm talking about Sondra Vaughn. She did this to get back at me. And don't try to explain it away. I appreciate that you wanna let me off the hook, I do, but that's not what I want or deserve. Vaughn wouldn't even know who Liv was if it weren't for me and my damn habit."

"Habit?" Dana ventured. The detective was still staring out the window, talking to ghosts. But Dana hated being in the dark, and she still couldn't make the connection between Olivia, Amanda, and a criminal like Vaughn.

"Gambling." Amanda tossed the word over her shoulder like she was spitting out tobacco juice. It hit with a similar splat, brown and ugly and pungent. "I'm an addict. Recovered. But back then . . . Vaughn was running an underground casino, and I got dimed as a cop. That's how I met Murphy. He was working undercover, and when Vaughn wanted to blackmail me into being her errand girl, he made me part of the operation. I got friendly with Vaughn, got her to trust me, then I sent her to prison while she was eight months pregnant. Now her kid's dead and she's taking it out on me and—"

The last part was a breathless, soundlessLiv. Amanda swallowed hard several times and shoved up from her seat to go pace in front of the windows. "Maybe they're working together again, or something? I don't know. But I do know this is Vaughn's MO—rape the wife to get back at the person who wronged her. And I sure as hell did."

It was one heck of a story, and Dana wished she had more time to process and refute it. She wasn't sure how sending Vaughn to prison made Amanda responsible for a kid's death, but criminals—especially the women—didn't need much incentive when it came to seeking revenge on the person they blamed for their troubles. Dana had seen it plenty in prison, sometimes had it directed at her (on one occasion, she'd been the instigator against a highly unpleasant and handsy CO), and knew that law enforcement officers were twice as likely as civilians to fall victim to it. It's why police and Feds needed special protection when they were incarcerated.

"Vaughn's not gonna crack, even if this is all her," Amanda murmured, sounding a bit like a mad scientist working on a complicated formula out loud. "No matter how hard Kat and your guy lean on her. She's got nothing to lose now. She was pregnant, with a Kahr K9 pointed at her belly, and she still tried to play me. They're never gonna break her. We need someone she's working with to give 'er up. A weak link. But who? Who's the patsy here, Lewis?"

An excellent question, and one Dana didn't have an answer for. There was no way in hell Murphy was the fall guy, if he turned out to be involved—and she didn't doubt for a second that he was—but there had to be a go-between, or several, who did the dirty work for him and for Vaughn. These guys didn't like to get their hands dirty; they were the gods who commanded the scurrying co*ckroaches known as Gus Sandberg and his Dreamlanders. But even those filth-loving, pestilence-spreading insects had underlings.

Amanda was right: they needed to find out who answered to the co*ckroaches.

Four hours later, they had made very little progress. Vaughn's visitors log and LUDs proved useless. She'd had only one or two visitors since the death of her brother and child, a handful of calls from her sister-in-law (most of them hang-ups on Vaughn's end), and no mail since turning down the grad student who wanted to interview her for a dissertation on women giving birth in prison. That meant the person who ranked below even the co*ckroaches was probably employed at the prison, or another inmate. With close to one thousand women housed in Sealview and upwards of two hundred and thirty correctional officers, not to mention regular staff without badges, it was a helluva dung heap to sift through.

They had narrowed it down to a pile of possibilities, which included several guards, an overly friendly member of the kitchen staff, a clergyman, and a slew of inmates who were known Vaughn lackeys, when Amanda got an email. An unceremonious ding, an intake of breath as the detective opened the new link, a frenzy while agents and cops synchronized all available electronics to the feed on Amanda's phone.

Finally they had Olivia back, but it was such a grim sight, Dana wondered which was worse—seeing her or not.

Although impossible, it looked like she had shed ten pounds in the past few hours. Her shirt, no longer white, hung in tatters like a castaway's or a corpse whose clothes rotted right off its body. The dirt and blood were caked so thickly to her skin, she resembled a burn victim, charred around the inner thighs, the buttocks, the hands, the neck. If any of it were fresh, Dana couldn't tell from where she sat, but it definitely did not appear as if the men had treated Olivia to a spa day while the cameras were off.

Honestly, the captain seemed to have given up. For a solid hour, she did little more than stare at the wall and tap her knuckle ceaselessly against the wood floor. An occasional raspy request for water was the only other sound she made, and those were met with a deep silence, a stillness that made her location feel even more remote. Trapped in the small, featureless room with no sunlight and no outside noise—no indication of life on the other side—she might as well have been floating in deep space or that uncharted part of the ocean known as the abyss. Out where only the strangest, most alien creatures could survive the pressure, the cold, the lack of oxygen. Places man wasn't meant to go.

"Just breathe," Dana whispered to the screen. She was unaware she had spoken out loud until Amanda glanced up with a questioning grunt.Hm?Dana shook her head, not wanting to explain that the longer she watched Olivia confined inside that box—the shipping container or the darknet browser, take your pick—the harder it was to take a full breath. She didn't usually experience claustrophobia, but she was pretty sure that's what this was. Her pits were soaked through.

She fanned herself with one of the files from the No pile, a woman Vaughn had sent to the infirmary with a filed-down toothbrush in her gut, and peered at the dossier Amanda was currently engrossed by. Some doofy-faced guard named Parker, probably couldn't find his ass with both hands and a map. Dana had almost tossed him onto the No's, based on that mouthbreather expression alone, but Amanda intercepted the employee record at the last second and had been poring over it ever since.

"He good for something this involved?" Dana tilted her head, squinted. The photo ID still just looked like Gomer Pyle to her.

"Huh? Oh, I don't know. Maybe?" Amanda licked the pad of her thumb and shuffled absently through the pages. "He's got some priors, a DV charge and possession. Couldn't hold down a job till he got to Sealview. He'd've been there when Liv— when she was undercover at the prison, but it's a big place. Odds of him knowing her are pro'ly slim. But . . . "

"But?"

Amanda extended the black and white picture, only a step removed from a mugshot itself, her fingers angled low on his brow. She had been the one to request hard copies of the Sealview records, unwilling to use her replacement laptop for anything but watching over Olivia. "What do you think? Pretend it's a MAGA hat instead of my hand. He could be the other guy, right? Number six?"

"Hmm." Dana was reluctant to answer one way or the other. If she agreed, she might be giving Amanda false hope, telling her what she wanted to hear. And if she said a flat-out no, she'd be ripping that hope away. Trying to settle on something halfway in-between, she gave a light, noncommittal shrug. "Could be, I reckon. Although, every one of them sonsabitches looks alike, so I wouldn't put all your eggs in one basket just yet."

"Not putting my eggs anywhere," Amanda mumbled, chucking the file onto the Yes pile. She heaved a sigh and studied the livestream intently, though nothing had changed. Olivia was still curled up on that sorry excuse of a mattress, tapping out a metronomic rhythm on the floor and periodically requesting a drink of water. Amanda kept time with the tapping, her fingernail ticking the tabletop like a dripping faucet. "Wish she was here," she said, after a while. "She'd have this all figured out by now."

That was unlikely, considering they had half the cops in the city and some of the best field agents Dana had ever worked with on this case—and Olivia's location was still unknown—but she held her tongue. Amanda's longing was for her wife's return, not some magical detecting skill only the captain possessed. "You really are crazy 'bout her, huh?"

The pronouncement took them both by surprise, Amanda for its seemingly random delivery, and Dana for her own interest in someone else's private life. Years of UC work had taught her how to keep things on the surface. You didn't ask personal questions and you didn't get close to the people around you, unless the investigation required it. The last was a lesson she'd learned from Olivia, actually. She had caught herself missing her detective friend after sending Olivia off to godforsaken Oregon, and again, while trying to return to normal life after the rape. She'd buried herself in her work until the feeling eventually subsided.

Amanda hesitated for no more than half a second, then said with complete conviction, "Yeah, I am." Her lips twitched up momentarily in a sad, nostalgic smile. "She's the best thing that ever happened to me, 'sides my kids. And I only have them 'cause of her. She— she saved my life in so many ways, showed me what a good mama looks like . . . " The smile faded, Amanda's eyes glistening with fresh tears. Grief turned her irises to brilliant sapphire.

"She deserves better than this," she concluded, her features set in stone. A tilt of her head toward the laptop was the only indication she hadn't hardened to marble, like that bust of the veiled Virgin Mary in some cathedral up north somewhere. "I owe her so much better than this. She trusted me to protect her, and all I do is keep letting her down again and again. Why didn't they just take me instead? I could've gotten away from them and—"

Whatever came next dissolved into tearful gibberish that Dana didn't need an interpreter to understand. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression. The detective was running the gamut of the five stages—minus acceptance—and returning to the starting line each time, to begin anew. She would be going in circles for all eternity at this rate.

Dana wanted to say that the Olivia Benson she knew would never depend on someone else as fully as Amanda made it sound; that it didn't matter how clever or strong or fearless you thought you were, sometimes you just couldn't get away. But it wouldn't have done much good, not with the frame of mind Amanda was in. And besides, at the exact moment Dana parted her lips to speak, the door to Olivia's cell screeched open.

The rape was short and perfunctory, as if they were carrying out an everyday task. Washing their hands before dinner, taking the dog out to piddle on the lawn. Three men this time, Riva holding Olivia for the older Sandberg kid, while the younger boy, the simple one named Xander, stood back watching and grinning inanely. Then vice versa, Junior giving Riva and his fat mushroom dick a turn. Xander applauded his efforts, which produced a fat wad of come the color of cheese curds. It seeped down Olivia's stomach, gathering in the creases where thigh met groin. She looked as if her limbs had broken off and been glued carelessly back on with too much Elmer's.

What worried Dana the most was the hose. It was just your regular garden variety, the glossy green kind her mama had used to water the clematis and her prize roses. If there had been a pressure wash attachment, or if it were a fire hose, that would be real cause for alarm—those goddamn things could strip off skin straight down to the bone. This one had a power nozzle, but nothing to suggest a robust water source. And yet. There was a lot of damage you could do with a hose like that, and it didn't necessarily involve high water pressure.

"What are they gonna do with that?" Amanda asked, voice muffled behind the fingers she had interlocked over her mouth as she watched her wife being assaulted yet again. (Dana had already lost count of how many times.) "What the f*ck are they gonna do with that, Dana?"

Waterboarding was a strong possibility. Rectal rehydration, lashing the soles of the feet, douching and forcing the detainee to hold their water, Dana had seen it all. One man had been hung upside down and sprayed with a hose until he nearly drowned in his own vomit. Another had simply been strung up by the neck with the hose and died, his feet swaying in a graceful dance long after he stopped kicking. Oh, the things they could do with that simple garden hose. Amanda had no idea.

"I dunno, honey," Dana replied, realizing her hand was on Amanda's shoulder. She left it there and wasn't shrugged off. They were both watching the screen too intently, the woman lying limp at the men's feet, her grimy t-shirt barely covering her breasts, everything below the waist fully exposed. Olivia turned onto her side, legs together, and pulled up her knees, hiding as much as she could. "It's hard telling with these sh*tbirds. Maybe you shouldn't be here for it. Go on, get you some fresh air. I'll stay with her."

It came as no surprise when Amanda ignored Dana completely, refusing to budge. She decided not to press, though. She might end up with something more vital than her nose broken if she pestered the detective any further. No doubt Dana could tough out whatever Amanda threw at her—possibly literally—but it was better not to stir the pot. Besides, the men were preparing the hose for whatever nefarious purpose they had in mind, and neither she nor Amanda could look away.

"Bad news, Cap," said Liam Sandberg, who wielded the nozzle, a urine-like flow of water trickling from the holes in its snout. Of course the little punk was controlling this. Had to show off for Daddy and prove himself a worthy successor. He tossed the nozzle playfully from hand to hand, posturing for Olivia, though her face was turned to the mattress, hidden from view. "Your buyer is playing hard to get. Hasn't contacted us all day, just sent that rat-faced flunky you cozied up to earlier. My pops is getting impatient, thinks maybe the guy's gonna renege."

Damn fool mispronouncedrenegeas re-nedge. Dana bit back a scornful laugh. Now was not the time.

"And if that happens?" Liam squatted down beside Olivia, gathering a clump of short, stringy hair like he was sifting through loose soil, and guiding it away from her face. It revealed her eyes, black as boreholes in the center, the sclera startlingly white around them. Her terror had gone beyond mere mortal fear to someplace primal. Someplace it had taken thousands of years of evolution to drain out of us. "After all the trouble we went through to get you?"

Liam clucked his tongue rapidly. "Oh, poor little Livvy. You see, my dad? He really likes you, but he likes his money a lot more. And if he has to eat one million dollars because of you? Man, there's no telling what'll happen. I mean, he'll still sell you, but it'll be to some third-rate dealer in whatever country there's a demand for old white ladies. Guess we could thin you out some, that'd probably help."

"Nah, don't want her to lose any of that tit," said Carlos Riva, his sole contribution so far, besides his parchment-colored stump of a penis. "That's the best part of her. Well, okay, second best." He licked his lips wolfishly, his tongue as ugly and blunt as his manhood, and winked at Olivia's wide, unblinking eyes.

"I like her face," Xander chimed in, the tone of the conversation completely lost on him. "She's pretty. Just not when she tries to kick me. Then I get real mad and want to call her bad names."

The older Sandberg listened indulgently, smiling at his little brother. "Oh yeah, bud? What kind of names? Pretend she just kicked you and called you 'retard,' what would you do to her?"

"Like the big kids used to. And Uncle Lars." Xander balled his hands into fists at his sides, his slack, boyish features clouding over with darkness. He looked even more like Liam in that moment. An identical rage brewed within them, practically turning them into twins. "He hit me and said, 'Retards don't belong in this family.' Remember that, Liam? Dad was so mad! Me too. And then Uncle Lars didn't come around anymore 'cause Dad took care of him."

Dana made a mental note to check on Lars Sandberg. She wouldn't be surprised to find him in death records, his manner of departure listed as several thousand gallons of water and a pair of concrete shoes. If the body was ever found at all. Violence within crime families was rare—they had some kind of strange code when it came to blood relation—though not unheard of. Brother killing brother was one of the oldest stories in the book.

"Yeah, bud, I remember. But what about her?" Liam nudged Olivia's protruding backside with the toe of his Converse sneaker, eliciting a small yelp. Olivia reached down to cover the spot with her hand, in turn eliciting a laugh from Liam. "She thinks you're a retard too—"

"I don't," Olivia rasped.

The strong, assertive voice Dana recalled her friend having was gone. It had always amused her how someone so resonant, so commanding could turn it right around, speaking more softly and soothingly than a lullaby. She'd never quite mastered that art herself (Dana had only two volumes: loud and louder). Olivia would probably never have that same vocal control again. "I don't think that," she half mouthed, half whispered.

Overriding the objection, Liam shoved his brother forward, disguising it as a brisk clap to the shoulder. "Tell this bitch what you think of her, Xandman. Come on, she's just like Uncle Lars. Don't let her get away with it, tell her." He repeated the incitingtell herseveral times, thumping Xander on the back of the shoulder after each repetition.

"She's— she's stupid!" the boy finally erupted, hurling the insult like an axe. But it was an unwieldy throw, sailing past the target to bury its head in the ground. Olivia didn't even flinch.

Amanda, on the other hand, held the sides of her head, elbows sharp as tent stakes on the table, and made a miserable sound that was part moan, part whimper. "She hates that word," she muttered, shaking her head, fretting her lower lip. "God, she hates it so much."

"Aw, come on, you can do better than that," Liam said, jabbing his index finger into Xander's ribs. The son of a bitch was literally prodding the kid into violence, and Dana longed to reach through the screen and throttle him by his skinny, reticulan neck. She didn't much sympathize with the younger one, either. Slow or not, he was a rapist like the rest of them. "Stupid isn't even a swear, unless you're a little preschool baby. Are you a little preschool baby, huh, Xan? Do you wear diapers, little baby?"

"No!" Xander began to pace in front of Olivia's crumpled form, fists battering his thighs and hips. "I don't need diapers no more, not even when I sleep! I'm not a retarded preschool baby, d-dammit. Dammit! Did this . . . thisbitchsay that about me? Stupid mean old bitch." He halted midway in his stride, glaring down at Olivia in sheer hatred, his chest heaving with it. "I oughta kill her."

His first kick was tentative, the way you tested a dead body, just to be sure. When there was little movement from Olivia—she turned her face against the arm curled beneath her head, spread the fingers of her other hand to shield her kicked belly—Xander took it as the go-ahead he needed. He began pummeling her with his Velcro sneakers, losing more control with every blow he landed, until he was raging like a toddler stomping on blocks that wouldn't stack.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," he screamed, driving his foot in again and again with such force he lost his balance and fell onto his backside.

The other men crowed with laughter while he floundered like a turtle in an overturned shell, unable to rock himself upright. Eventually, still giggling, Liam helped him stand and splayed a hand on his chest to keep him from charging Olivia. It looked like a scene in a zombie movie, the lead guy holding back a snarling, snapping undead thing as it reached for the quaking damsel. "Whoa there," said Liam, pushing Xander back with a grunt. "Sorry, pal, but I can't let you stomp her to death. We still gotta make some money off her skan* ass."

He slapped the nozzle of the hose against Xander's chest, holding it there for him to grab onto. "Here, I'll let you do the honors of cleaning her up. She smells like a dumpster someone sh*t in and died. Dirty little whor*'s even got come in her hair. You hose her down nice and pretty, okay, bro? Make her shine."

In the end, all three of the men took a turn spraying Olivia with the hose, the older two experimenting with the pressure settings and their target's response. The misting option made Olivia blink profusely, dewy-lashed, and turn away; the single high-pressure jet left red splotches on her skin and made her beg for them to stop. They didn't, not until Liam looked her over, from her mop of wet dark hair to her bare, dripping feet, and declared, "Fresh as a daisy."

Dana realized that some of what she'd thought was dirt were actually bruises. The captain was covered in them, her arms and legs a weather map of purples, blues, and sooty black. Rivers of blood were threaded throughout the painful landscape, some flowing anew, others draining off in watery streamlets. The t-shirt was translucent now, molded to Olivia's breasts and abdomen, leaving nothing to the imagination. She peeled it away from her chest, only for it to suck back to her skin like shrink wrap.

"Bit nippy in here, wouldn't you say, boys?" Liam commented, tossing an impish wink at Riva. The older man laughed at the inference, cupping his hands in front of his chest to imply a pair of plump female breasts. He tweaked the nipples like they were radio dials, vocalizing the fluctuating, insectile whine between stations.

The joke was lost on Xander Bergström, who had become distracted by the hose. Like a man casually watering his lawn in his Sunday pajamas, he sprayed down various objects in the room, including the fossilized remains of the ancient desk, the bucket brimming with human waste and black mold, and the rat nests of trash built up in the corners.

Olivia's mattress was already as soaked through as she was, otherwise the inch of standing water might have worsened conditions. She didn't seem to notice or care, her main concern concealing the hazy dark areola and erect nipples that so mesmerized—and entertained—the other men. She held the ropy gauze of her stretched-out shirt over her breasts, like a woman in a Raphael painting. Dana was surprised the men had let Olivia keep that article of clothing, but now she understood it was the visual aspect. They got a kick out seeing her try to hide inside of it.

"Why," Amanda said thinly, her fingers pressed to the screen, to Olivia's huddled, shivering likeness. The captain could barely keep herself seated upright, her body convulsing with pain and chills, but she wavered side to side in Amanda's hand, refusing to collapse in front of the men. "Why is this happening to you?"

The question was rhetorical, and Dana opted to keep quiet, though she knew the answer. That was the other form of water torture she'd forgotten—dousing a prisoner in cold water and cranking up the A/C. Very effective at inducing confessions and hypothermia. She doubted there was a functioning air conditioner in the shipping container, but there certainly wasn't a sufficient heat source, either. May in New York could be as cold as winter, come nightfall. Particularly on the waterfront.

Bastards were trying to freeze Olivia out, and to what end? She had no information for them, nothing of use except her body. Perhaps there was no answer to Amanda's question after all.

Why?

"Let's get him outta here before he electrocutes us," said Liam, socking Carlos Riva on his brawny arm and waggling a thumb at Xander, who was indeed inching the spray closer and closer to the tripod lights. He held the nozzle against his crotch, pretending to piss a hefty stream, as Liam had shown him while they hosed down Olivia.

At least they used water instead of the real thing, that was the one consolation Dana could think of. It was a common practice among rapists to urinate on the vic, like dogs asserting their dominance. She supposed these men didn't want to wallow in their own piss, since they were keeping their vic around for a while. A don't sh*t where you eat type of situation.

Once the men were gone, taking the hose and sloshing much of the water out with them, Olivia let herself sink against the wall behind her, head drooping like a top-heavy dahlia. The sun was a pallid bar on the wet floor as the door opened and closed on screen, and outside the precinct windows, it hung low in a sky the color of white eggplant. There was no warmth in that sky, and soon it would be a cool, moonless night. Inside and outside the container.

"She's gonna freeze to death," Amanda said, making Dana question whether or not she had spoken her own concerns about the temperature out loud. But Olivia's teeth were chattering, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that she was only going to get colder as the evening wore on.

"Nah, she's strong, healthy. It's not like they've got her locked up in a refrigeration unit, then I might worry." Dana sounded much more confident than she felt. The chances of the captain actually freezing to death were slim, but she could get a nasty case of hypothermia, and she was already suffering enough as it was. She looked like a bedraggled refugee, lost and bobbing on a makeshift raft in vast, open waters.

"Well, excuse me for not dancing a jig that she'll probably just freeze to death more slowly, then. And if you say it's a peaceful way to go, I swear to God, lady . . . " Amanda shot a death glare at Dana that left little doubt what the unspoken conclusion of that sentence entailed. A black eye to go with the broken nose was in Dana's near future if she didn't quit trying to look on the bright side. It was a relief, to be honest. She was getting on her own nerves with all the puss*footing and sugarcoating.

"Tell you what, Rollins," she said, rubbing her palms together and giving a brisk clap, like a gymnast chalking up before hitting the uneven bars. "I'm gonna get me something to eat. Whadda you want? My treat."

"Ain't hungry."

"Nah, I'm not buying that excuse. When's the last time you ate something? Yesterday? And what, just a few little old bites?" Dana made a tsking sound with her tongue, but didn't overdo it too much. She wanted to get a rise out of Amanda—the child had to eat, for gosh sakes, she was as skinny as a whippet—not get a fist in the face. Again. "I heard your belly gurgling earlier, you need to put something in it. So, what'll it be? Chinese? Pizza? Hamburgers?"

"I am not hungry," Amanda said, overpronouncing every word. "I can't eat while she's . . . I won't."

"Well, that's asinine. You're breastfeeding, right? And you got tased and sedated, all in the span of about twenty-four hours. Your body needs food, and not eating because she can't isn't gonna help either of you. You'll just be that much weaker when it's time to help her." Dana pointed at the fingers Amanda was still extending to the screen and Olivia. "Look at you, you're as shaky as she is. That poor girl is gonna need every bit of strength you got when she gets outta there, so you damn well better keep it up."

At first it didn't seem to have worked, and Dana sighed, preparing to go. The tough love approach had been successful earlier, but perhaps the detective was too far gone now to reach. Her hand was on the door handle when Amanda called after her, "Fine. Jesus. I'll eat your goddamned food. Just get me whatever you're having, I don't care."

The pizza was good, greasy and oozing cheese like a delicious infection. Dana scarfed down two large slices herself, although she did find it difficult to look at Olivia while she chewed. Amanda picked at a slice, rolling the soft dough into balls between her fingers, then placing them on her tongue to be swallowed like pills. She lost interest in the odd birdlike method about halfway through, finishing all but the crust in three enormous bites that bulged in her cheeks and her throat.

"Happy?" she asked around a final laborious mouthful. She tossed the crust back into the pizza box as if it were a chicken bone she'd sucked clean. A hearty belch which she didn't excuse herself for resounded in the smallish room.

Dana plucked up the discarded crust—the best part, in her opinion—and polished it off, nodding. She caught a glint of amusem*nt in Amanda's eyes, but it vanished just as nimbly as it had appeared. Olivia remained in their peripheral vision, her deep, shuddering breaths growing progressively louder. Night had fallen, and though her hair and t-shirt were mostly dry now, the shivering had not subsided. She talked to herself occasionally, mumbling things Dana didn't quite understand, but Amanda seemed to. They had their own secret language, the two policewomen.

"For now." Dana wiped garlicky grease from her fingers with a napkin the size of a playing card, swigged her co*ke. It was lukewarm and diluted, the ice slush long since melted by the heat from her palms. Yeah, well, people in Hell want ice water, she thought, her gaze wandering to Olivia. She decided not to complain about the drink. "Don't suppose I could talk you into getting some shuteye now, could I?"

Amanda didn't appear to be listening, but after a few moments of staring at the laptop, her eyes glazed over and unblinking, she spoke just above a whisper. As if she didn't want to disturb her wife, whose head kept lolling on the wall she was propped up against, eyelids drooping. "Doubt I'll ever sleep again."

Sleep deprivation, now there was a nasty interrogation technique. You could get someone to tell you anything—confess to anything—if they were tired enough. It only took a day or two for their cognitive function to break down, and by then you could convince them to walk into traffic if you were feeling particularly fractious. Not that Dana had ever done such a thing.

"Well, I don't know if I can make it that long, but how's about I keep you company for a few?" She purposely didn't specify for a few what—minutes, hours, days. No sense in reminding Amanda that they didn't know when or if Olivia would be returned to her; the detective definitely hadn't forgotten. "I can keep watch if you need a break or just want to rest your eyes. Any change, I'll sound the alarm first thing."

As expected, Amanda didn't relent on the matter of sleep, but she did nod her head for Dana to stay. "She'd hate it if she knew all those people out there were seeing her like this," she said, inclining her head at Olivia, at the officers and agents in the squad room. "Probably be upset if she knew I let you stay in here and watch with me. I just can't seem to give her the privacy she needs."

Dana didn't get the reference, and she didn't ask. It wasn't any of her business. "It's best to have every set of eyes on this right now. The more people involved, the better our chances of finding her. She understands that, same as I would. Same as you would." Never mind that testifying on the stand about her own rape was one of the hardest things Dana had ever done, almost as devastating as the violation itself. She couldn't imagine how it would feel finding out that her attack had been recorded, passed around, consumed like junk food.

"I guess," Amanda said, not sounding the least bit convinced. She pulled on a dripping scallop of mozzarella, stretching and snapping it apart like taffy. She mashed it between her fingers, contemplating the gummy wad as if she might take a bite, but smeared it on the inside of the pizza box instead. "Anyway. Thanks for staying. If somebody has to watch, pro'ly better it's you than a friend or someone who cares."

That one stung a little bit, Dana had to admit. But she let it go, reminding herself that Amanda wasn't thinking or speaking with much clarity at the moment. And she wasn't entirely off base, either—Dana hadn't been a friend to Olivia for quite a while now.

She hoped Olivia lived long enough for her to rectify that mistake.

. . .

Chapter 22: Autopsy of the Living

Notes:

Update time. Trigger Warning: References to suicide and rape.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22.

Autopsy of the Living

. . .

"Woman, how are you so damn toasty?" Amanda asked in a slightly accusatory tone, as if she suspected Olivia of false representation, or perhaps, witchcraft. Even though she was the one crawling under the covers with hands and feet as cold as death. Witches were abnormally cold in all the fairytales. "I swear you got a space heater hidden up in here."

"Manda!" Olivia's voice hit the closest octave to a squeal that it could reach. She pushed down on the icy hands Amanda had slid under her pajama top, clasping lightly at her breasts with fingers like icicles. It was like being felt up by Elsa of Arendelle.

Warm-blooded or not, Olivia got the shivers from that touch, her nipples pricking to attention. They were a bit tender from feeding Sammie, and even the satin of her Chinese pajamas was enough to trigger a reaction. Amanda's fingers practically sent her through the ceiling of their three-bedroom apartment. Which put her somewhere in the vicinity of their upstairs neighbor's hall closet. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack or just carbon-freeze me like Han Solo?"

Amanda went still as a statue herself, pausing her playfully bratty attempts to get at Olivia's warm bare skin. "Did you just make aStar Warsreference?"

"Don't look so surprised," Olivia said, showing off a little. There was more to her than penal codes and police stats, after all. "I saw the original releases before you were even born, Flyboy. And thanks to our oldest children and Disney Plus, I've watched everyStar Warsmovie, animated series, and documentary there is. Multiple times. I'd beat the pants off you atStar Warstrivia. I'd beat the pants off George Lucas atStar Warstrivia."

"Better not be beating off some old Obi-Wan-looking dude's pants," Amanda grumbled, feigning disapproval. When she had sulked her way close enough to steal a kiss, she snuck her hands down Olivia's pants, warming them on her backside as if it were a cozy wood stove, each cheek a plump burner. She nudged her feet in with Olivia's, soaking up the heat there too. "Didn't realize my wife was such a nerd. Such a hot, sexy nerd . . . "

They spent the rest of the night tradingStar Wars-related banter and saucy quips, and making love until they both needed to kick off the covers, bodies slick with sex and sweat.

It was a sweet memory, a warm one, and Olivia held it close as she trembled like a Parkinson's patient on the wet mattress. Most of the water left behind by Little Brother's unsupervised turn at the hose had since seeped through cracks in the floorboards, leaving the wood soft and dank as a marshland. Not that she had tried it out; she hadn't moved from the spot where the men dumped her after they finished. Some of it was the near-catatonia she slipped into whenever they raped her now, but it also hurt terribly to move.

The best she could manage for the time being was sinking onto the padding below, letting it cradle her in the fetal position her body naturally assumed in this fearful, lonely place. The kids still had their Bible pop-up books from Grammy Beth, and Tilly loved the story of Moses in his floating basket—pull the tab, and he bobbed right along on the page. That's how Olivia felt, infantile and abandoned, like baby Moses in the bulrushes, waterlogged, helpless. Waiting for someone to find her . . .

But she was going to freeze to death before that happened. She had never experienced cold like this. She'd quaked uncontrollably after Lewis—both times—but that had been shock more than an actual chill. Even winters in New York weren't this pervasive. True, they could kill you, but it would be quick and dirty, like getting hit by a Mack truck. This cold was a snakebite, spreading insidious through the bloodstream, shutting down organs as it went, a slow and excruciating death.

It stiffened her limbs, exaggerating the pain from having them wrenched and pulled into unnatural positions that even Noah's flexible frame couldn't replicate. She really should move them, it would help relieve some of the stiffness and might get her blood flowing enough to stave off hypothermia till morning. The storage container was warm approaching stifling during the day. (Thank God they hadn't abducted her in July or August, she would already be dead of heatstroke.) But just the thought of dragging herself upright and trying to stand was exhausting.

She would never make it as far as the bucket, let alone squatting over top of it. How her body had even produced enough urine for a full bladder, she couldn't say. Perhaps she had swallowed more water than she realized when they were hosing her down. It certainly wasn't from their generosity where sustenance was concerned. No one had fed her since the Crier and his powdered donuts this morning. Not that she could have kept anything down, anyway. Her stomach was a mess, gurgling and churning as if she had food poisoning.

What the hell, she was naked from the waist down, lying on a bed of filth, from which her last several rapes had probably been broadcast to God only knew how many people. She had no pride left. And maybe it would help her get warm.

Relaxing her pelvic floor muscles was no easy feat—whatever her injuries, they prevented her from passing urine normally. Her anticipation of the intense burning she had felt last time didn't help. It took several tries before she was able to let go, heat searing her groin, making her hiss. She was glad her face was turned away from the wall where the camera must be hidden, otherwise they would see her pained expression and might be able to guess at the cause. Still, she bit the heel of her palm to stifle a cry and to distract from the fire between her legs. It wasn't worth the fleeting warmth that trickled down her thighs, absorbed by the mattress before she could really benefit from it.

Now she was just lying in a puddle of her own piss, teeth chattering and a feeling like alcohol poured on paper cuts emanating from her privates. She didn't even try to keep at bay the memories of her mother, who wet herself more than a few times while passed out drunk over the years. Whether Olivia was eight or eighteen, it had fallen to her to clean Serena up, get her fed, get her sober.

Hell, Olivia was still doing it at twenty-eight. She would probably go on doing it until she was sixty-eight if her mother lived that long. She didn't know her family medical history, just that her grandparents had died in an automobile accident in their late fifties. Longevity could be hit or miss for her and Serena.

The thought of taking care of her mother for the next thirty-odd years, cleaning up vomit and piss that smelled like burnt tires, tolerating the abuse, both verbal and physical (Serena still slapped the hell out of her during arguments, despite their similar sizes), and wondering how the woman who birthed her could possibly hate her so damn much, made Olivia want to tear her own hair out at the roots.

It was hard enough being a rookie and waiting for the day the drunk woman stumbling into your squad room turned out to be your mother. Her one comfort was that Serena hated police precincts and probably wouldn't pay her an unexpected visit, unless she had an alcoholic blackout and didn't know what she was doing.

Unfortunately, that happened sometimes. Olivia had been eleven years old and relieved beyond words when Serena's Gremlin, a lemon-yellow rust bucket that almost gave you tetanus just looking at it, finally went to that great big junkyard in the sky. She'd sat in the passenger seat—back in the days when little kids could ride shotgun, no seatbelt—many times as Serena swerved down the road, unaware of her destination or even that she was driving. Certainly not conscious that her little girl was in the car, and terrified.

Then again, maybe she did know and just didn't care. Olivia's safety had never been her priority, and in fact, there were times when Olivia was pretty sure Serena actively wanted her dead.

And why not? Nobody wanted a constant reminder of the worst day of their life hanging around. Needing them, always needing. A few times, Olivia had considered doing Serena a favor and killing herself—specifically at age thirteen, when puberty struck, and with it Serena's disdain increased sevenfold; and at fifteen, after the choking, the man in the kitchen, Serena's suicide attempt, but before Daniel. Most recently she had wanted to die when Becky Hendrix threw her out of bed after Wilson walked in on them, then more or less accused Olivia of forcing herself on her.

The betrayal had been so acute, so steeped in all the worst things Olivia feared about herself—too aggressive, too needy, a drunk like her mother, a predator like her father, unnatural, damaged—she didn't even look at her reflection in the mirror for two weeks. She easily could have ended it right then, and probably would have, if not for the promise of graduating the academy and joining the force. She spent a brief time as a rookie acting reckless, indifferent to her own safety, and taking chances that paid off (she'd risen to detective quickly) but working with a partner meant having the other person's back, and you couldn't do that if you were wearing a target on yours.

This new guy Stabler seemed promising. He had an ego the size of Yonkers, but he was good police and had something like fifteen children. Olivia was still learning all their names, which were all very long and very Catholic. She liked to rib him about it, and especially about how whipped he was by his wife, though secretly she envied his big family, his happy marriage. Too often she caught herself hanging on every word of his stories about the twins, about the oldest one's brand new braces, about the middle one's scathing sense of humor. He didn't talk about the wife much, but Olivia liked that he didn't air their dirty laundry.

A real honest-to-God family man. Olivia hadn't known such a thing actually existed, and it fascinated her. Of course, she would never have that perfect family—mistakes like her didn't get them. But she loved her new job working SVU, the unit she'd aspired to be a part of since Karen Smythe first recommended it to her.You've got a way with the vics, Benson, especially the women and children. Use that.

As long as she had this job, she would be okay. She wasn't going to be one of those cops who got burnt out on the horrific nature of the crimes and transferred out after two years. She had spent her whole life living with that kind of trauma, and someone had to stand up for the people still trapped in it. So the job would be her spouse, the victims her children, the trauma what she ate, slept and breathed. And it didn't matter if she went home to a lonely, empty apartment for the rest of her life; SVU would always be there, welcoming her back with open arms, like what she imagined church was supposed to be. A place to atone for your sins.

Olivia's hand closed around something then, and it dropped her back into reality so abruptly she felt the return like a crash-landing. Parker's belt. It was tucked away under the mattress where she'd hidden it after he raped and beat her. Other things came back to her a little at a time as she squeezed the buckle, imprinting the P into her palm: her mother was long dead, more than twenty years now; Elliot was long gone too, eleven years and counting; and she was far closer to fifty-eight than twenty-eight.

She mourned none of it. The worst part, the one thing she absolutely could not abide, was that she had momentarily forgotten her wife and children. Even just for a second was too long. She must be going mad, for it to have happened at all. SVU would always be important to her, and it was the reason she had a family to begin with. But the job was no longer her whole world and one true love. She had those things in human form now. Their sweet names adorned the necklace that the Sandman had torn off of her yesterday. The necklace that was a gift from her one true love.

Amanda, where are you, she wondered as hard as she could, trying to send the thought out through the metal walls of the container. Rising into the nighttime air, to skitter along the wires that adorned the city like garland, pinging off the skyscrapers like hail on a tin roof. She imagined it striking the one-six in a dazzle of lightning and sparks, throbbing in the walls, in Amanda's sharp, intuitive brain. If anyone could follow her SOS and find her here, Amanda could.Please come get me, love. Please, I can't hold on much longer. I need you.

She might have spoken the words aloud, but it was difficult to tell. Besides the trauma, the injuries, and the cold, being trapped in a box without so much as a window to the outside was disorienting. She couldn't sense her body anymore, though it ached and shuddered all the same. She felt like one of those brains in a jar from bad sci-fi, sending impulses through electrodes and believing what they generated in her subconscious was real, thatshewas real.

She'd become that limbless, sightless, voiceless soldier from the Metallica video. Blown to pieces by heartless men. Except she had a way out that the soldier didn't. Clasped in the hand she couldn't feel was Parker's belt buckle, the leather strap beneath it a promise. A way out. If Amanda didn't come for her soon, she would use it. How she would find the strength to get it around her neck, around something else that could bear her weight, she didn't know. But she'd figure it out, she was good at that.

For the fourth time in her life, Olivia made up her mind to die. More than anything, she wanted to see Amanda and the kids again, but the longer this went on, the less likely it was she would be any good to them when she did get out. She might be too far gone already, lying there in her drying piss, contemplating suicide with calm detachment, relief almost.

Oh, Amanda, please hurry.

Sleepiness was a bad sign when you were hypothermic, if she remembered her survival training correctly. But she didn't fight it as it crept over her like smoke. Invisible and odorless as carbon monoxide. She breathed it in deep and let it carry her into oblivion. If she never woke up, at least it would spare her family the devastation of knowing she'd killed herself. At least they wouldn't hate her for leaving them.

On the third day, God was busy creating land and sea, calling forth the plants and trees from thin air; fruit and seed dripped from his divine tongue, dotting the earth like jewels.

On the third day, Jesus cast off his shroud and rose from the tomb, first appearing to Mary Magdalene, who some mistakenly believe was a whor*. But former prostitute or not, he entrusted her and his disciples to spread the Good News.

Then there was Three Dog Night singing "Joy to the World" and helping Jeremiah drink his mighty fine wine.

A lot could happen in three days (or nights), but on the dawn of the third morning of Olivia's captivity, Amanda felt no closer to rescuing her wife than she had lying on the sidewalk, watching her being dragged away. The image waited for Amanda in her dreams, and once again she hadn't slept more than a few minutes at a time, despite Dana's continued offers to relieve her for some rack time.

How could she sleep after listening to Olivia ask for her, plead with her to be saved?I can't hold on much longer. I need you.Oh, Amanda, please hurry. The voice was ravaged and vaguely slurred, but Amanda had heard it straining through tears like that before. She'd heard it slurred by alcohol, and uninhibited in sleep. The words were as clear to her as if Olivia had enunciated every syllable. She was losing hope of being found, which also meant losing hope in Amanda.

It was like watching Olivia drive off a cliff, the car bursting into flame on impact. It was like being sliced open and having your guts scooped out in front of you. Final. Irreversible.

Amanda had gone to the restroom, expecting to toss back up the one slice of pizza she'd eaten to placate Dana. But her stomach didn't revolt strongly enough, and she refused to make herself vomit. That was for bulimics and accidental overdosers. People who wanted to kill themselves slowly. No, if Amanda were going to do it, it would be too fast for anyone to stop her. A leap off a building, or a barrel under her chin. Final, irreversible.

An autopsy of the living.

She'd washed her hands raw to rid them of the greasy garlic that reminded her of working pizza joints in high school, trying to save up the cash for a car. Something to get her out of Loganville the second she graduated. Back then she had thought her life was hell. Now she knew the truth: hell wasn't something you went through yourself, it was seeing someone you loved suffering for you.

Returning to the interview room had proven difficult, Amanda's feet balking like stubborn saddled animals at carrying her there. Once inside she hung back at the exit for several moments, catching her breath as if she were about to do a deep-sea dive, when all she was really doing was approaching the laptop screen again.

Olivia hadn't moved from the position she'd been in when Amanda stepped out, half curled on her side, her garishly bruised neck at an odd angle. Her body the swirl in a conch shell, the mysterious Fibonacci pattern that could be found in everything from tree branches to galaxies. It shivered like the fragile light of a star, reaching out from a thousand years ago, already dead before its luminescence winked out of our night's sky.

By six in the morning, she still hadn't moved from that same golden ratio of sleep, that perfect balance she struck even now. If not for the shallow rise and fall of her chest, Amanda would have been certain she was dead. It would be just like Olivia Benson to die in a pose of absolute symmetry, as if divine hands had placed her just so. That was the way she lived.

But the breathing. Amanda held onto that, watching until her eyes ached and she could practically see through her sleeping wife's back. She held onto it when the trembling stopped too, a bad sign. Yes, it might mean a rise in body temperature—the sun was the color of watery egg yolk in the sky—but shivering also ceased when hypothermia increased from mild to moderate. So did the ability to stay conscious, and Olivia hadn't opened her eyes since ten or eleven o'clock the night before.

Now it was seven AM, and Amanda was torn between desperately wanting someone to rouse her wife and not wanting the men to go anywhere near her. Any time one of them entered the shipping container another rape occurred. It filled Amanda with guilt just wishing for the door to clang open. She'd taken to holding her breath for long intervals, and waiting. Waiting for the sound of the door, waiting for Olivia to unfurl in a catlike stretch, the way she did on lazy mornings.

So intent had Amanda become on the breathing exercise, and on the screen in front of her, she didn't realize it was her phone ringing until Dana answered it and elbowed her, a hand covering the microphone at the bottom. "Someone named Daphne," Dana whispered. "Says it's important. Want me to blow her off?" She ticked the cell back and forth in an eeny-meeny gesture.

Amanda was about to agree, when she remembered Daphne was currently taking care of the kids. A revolving door of babysitters had come and gone since Saturday, with Lucy and Daphne being the most consistent. It hadn't even occurred to Amanda that her best friend was probably missing work today, or that she should have asked the actual nanny to relieve Daphne. She couldn't think clearly enough to take care of her own damn kids right now.

"What's wrong?" she asked, grabbing the phone from Dana and bringing it to her ear so hard it was painful. "Are my kids okay?"

"They're okay," Daphne said quickly. She sounded startled by the abrupt questions, but there was nothing frantic or frightened in her voice. In fact, she was downright calm compared to Amanda, a disorienting reversal of their usual dynamic. "Everybody's fine, nothing's wrong. I just wanted to let you know that we're running a little low on, uh, breast milk. There's enough for today, I think, but I don't know if you need, like . . . time to prepare so you can make more, or what."

Poor Daphne was so clueless about breastfeeding and baby-related topics in general, it was laughable. Under normal circ*mstances, Amanda would have busted a gut at the suggestion in those words, as if she had an internal switch to flick and a warm-up period like a coffee maker, before she could produce her infant daughter's favorite brew. She recognized the humor now, but couldn't find the emotions to go with it. Just more sadness and maybe a little anger mixed in. She didn't have time for jokes.

"I'm not a cow who's gotta be milked at sunup, Daph," she snapped, too tired to worry about hurting her friend's feelings. Daphne was a grown woman, she could suck it up. "But yeah, I'll pump, make sure there's plenty, in case . . . " In case this dragged on for another three days or more, she was about to say. The words wouldn't come.I can't hold on much longer, Olivia had said.Please hurry.

"How is she?" Daphne asked quietly, her pitch lower than normal.

Something about the bright, bubbly clerk speaking so sedately made Amanda tear up, unable to respond for several beats. She swallowed hard, sniffed, flicked the hair off her shoulders. "She's hanging in. 'Bout as good as you'd expect, considering." On the screen, Olivia didn't move a muscle. Amanda squinted until she was certain the graying t-shirt was expanding and contracting, albeit infinitesimally. "They've left her alone so far this morning."

It was only 7:05 AM.

"Oh. That's . . . that's good." Daphne's end of the line rustled as if she were nodding. It went on much longer than needed. "How are you?"

Amanda didn't have to think about the answer at all, just opened her mouth and let it fall out: "Fine. I'm fine. Are the kids okay? They're not giving you too much trouble? How's the baby?" She would have continued, but her voice gave out onbaby. She'd gone almost forty-eight hours without holding her three-month-old daughter, without kissing her perfect hands and feet, without breathing in her pure pink scent, like undiluted innocence. That baby smell only lasted so long, and then it was gone forever.

Forty-eight hours and counting of Olivia missing out on Sammie's smell, Tilly's angelic giggles, Jesse's ridiculous sense of humor, Noah's thoughtful and artistic nature. The kids were such good medicine for her, a balm to so many of the wounds Amanda could never hope to soothe on her own. They were Olivia's chance at a childhood she'd never had, at experiencing a mother's love, and giving so freely what was denied her at their age. But would they ever be able to help her heal from this? Would they ever even see her again?

"—all okay. They've been perfect. Well, Jesse did use my lipstick to draw all over the shower walls, but it was a picture of me covered in hearts, so I couldn't be mad. At least I hope those were hearts." Daphne started to laugh, then remembered herself and cut it short at a single huff of air. "Sammie is the best goddaughter an aged lesbian with no childbearing prospects of her own could ask for. She likes Lucy more than me, but I'm okay with it. Wait till she discovers who takes her shopping."

A sad smile pulled at the corners of Amanda's lips, but the cables snapped loose like a kite string, the frayed ends drifting back to earth. The kite sailed away. "She loves you. They all do. Sam's just a mommy's girl." If she hadn't clamped her lips shut at the last second, a sob would have escaped and those would be the last coherent words she spoke for who knew how long. She had to hold it together. She couldn't crack up like she had done yesterday, otherwise they would probably strap her to a bed in Bellevue this time.

But it took every ounce of strength she had not to break down when Jesse's piping voice filtered through the speaker, demanding that Aunt Daph let her talk to whichever mommy was on the phone. "Hello? Is this Mama or Mommy?" she asked, as Daphne protested in the background, too late. ("She grabbed my phone, Amanda, I'm sorry," Daphne said somewhere nearby.)

"Jess—" Amanda cleared her throat, the first attempt too weak to be heard. "Jesse, you're not supposed to grab things from people. Be a good girl and give the phone back to Aunt Daph."

"Hi, Mama. I got to tell you some things first." Jesse took a deep breath, as if what she was about to say were of the utmost importance. She prefaced everything that way, and Amanda could easily picture her expression, straightforward and dead serious. "Frannie pooped in the kitchen, and Aunt Daph said a bad word. It was the s-h-i-t one. The 'partment was stinky all night! When are you coming home? I don't think she knows how to clean poop right."

"Thanks a lot, narc," said Daphne.

Chances were slim that Daphne, who had a rambunctious goldendoodle that "sh*ts like a man," didn't know how to clean up after a dog. And more than likely, Frannie was having accidents because of the sudden change in routine, but that only made Amanda feel worse. Either she neglected her children and pets, or she left her wife alone in hell. There were no good options.

"I'll be home just as soon as I can, peanut," she said, her throat constricting around the not-quite lie. Even if they got Olivia out, there was no telling how long she would be in the hospital after the brutality she'd endured so far. When Amanda was finally by her side again, she didn't think she would ever be able to leave it. "The smell will go away, okay? Ask Daphne to spray some Febreze, and try to help her keep track of when Fran needs to go out. Can you be a big girl and do that for me?"

Jesse sighed. "Okay, Mama. But when's Mommy coming home? Me and Tilly want her to play tea party. You can play too, but you have to dress up. And Noah wants her to walk him to school 'cause Lucy doesn't scare the big kids. I said I'd protect him like Supergirl, but he said I'm just a little kid. That's not right, though, is it, Mama? 'Cause girls can do anything, even if boys are bigger and stronger, huh?"

If only that were true, Amanda thought, gazing at her motionless wife. She'd thought she was Supergirl too, able to swoop in and rescue Olivia from any danger that crossed her path. The bigger, stronger boys. How wrong she had been. How stupid and arrogant. "You stay away from those boys, y'hear? Tell Noah to go to a teacher if the big kids bother him. And don't give Aunt Daphne anymore trouble. Now, put her back on the phone, and you get ready for school. Hey, Jess."

"Uh-huh?"

"I love you, kid. Lemme talk to Daph." Amanda added the last part hastily, the hot lump in her throat flaring, hot tears welling in her eyes. Olivia was freezing to death, but hey, at least Amanda was burning on the inside. She felt as if the heat might be visible beneath her skin, like E.T. and his glowing finger, blazing heart. Ouch. But when she glanced down, she saw only pale white and blue veins. The colors of winter and corpses.

She had ignored the question about Olivia on purpose. She could no more answer it than she could put her hand through the laptop screen and pluck Olivia out, bringing her to safety. But it rang in her ears, repeating like a cave echo that didn't fade away.When's Mommy coming home? We want her to play tea party.

The woman on the screen wouldn't be having tea parties for a very long time, if ever again. Amanda loved to watch her playing like that with the girls. She'd often stood in the doorway to their bedroom, grinning and eavesdropping on the make-believe games that Olivia became so invested in. Dolls were spoken to as if they were real human beings, someone inevitably turned into a four-legged pet, even though two very real dogs were in attendance (they were unicorns, mermaids, trolls—anything but canine), and tiaras must be worn at all times.

Oh, how the captain laughed when she played. The years melted away, and she was no more than seven or eight herself. About the age she had been when her mother sexually assaulted her, holding her down and using a knee to simulate being raped by Joseph Hollister. Olivia's rapist father, who would go on to sexually abuse Olivia as well. God, the fact that she could even laugh at all, that she could love her daughters so wholeheartedly and so purely, was a miracle in itself.

Maybe you only got a certain number of miracles in your lifetime, and Olivia and Amanda had both met their quota.

"Amanda?"

"Yeah, I'm here."

The next few minutes were spent arranging the breast milk handoff, with Daphne making most of the suggestions and, encountered by silence from the other end, confirming them aloud. Amanda would pump, and not leave the bottle sitting out this time. Daphne would wait until Lucy took the two eldest children to school, where a security detail was in place, and then, the babies and their own detail in tow, Daphne would come to the precinct to retrieve Samantha's dinner.

"And under no circ*mstances do I bring the girls past the main lobby, where you will meet me with the milk," Daphne said, solemnly repeating Amanda's warning like she was swearing a sacred oath. She murmured it again, as if she were jotting down an important address. Her boldness around cops didn't extend past Olivia and Amanda, or at least not to the male officers, of which there would be many when she arrived at the precinct. But she was to stay put, taking no chances of exposing the little ones—or herself—to the livestream splashed all over the one-six.

Samantha might not be affected, but little Tilly was almost four, and so sensitive. She showed the most compassion of all the Rollins-Benson children, and seeing Olivia in her current state, even if she couldn't comprehend it, would scar the little girl for life. Amanda couldn't bear to think about that happening. It reminded her of what she said time and again in the squad room, when cases involved a leaked video: once something was on the Internet, it stayed there forever. If Tilly didn't see the footage now, she still might someday. Any of the kids could. They could be forty years old and click a link that shattered their memories of Olivia forever.

But who was Amanda kidding? Those memories had already shattered the minute Carlos Riva forced himself inside of Olivia. Then each of his friends, one after the other, over and over, until she had been raped by six different men, at least twice apiece. More for Angelov and Sandberg Jr. How many times would Amanda have to kill them for it to be even? It didn't seem fair for it to only be the once. They needed to suffer and die, over and over, at least a dozen times. A hundred. Ten thousand. It would never be enough.

"Just be careful, Daph," Amanda said, before they ended the call. She knew sending a uni to the apartment with the milk would be the better option, but she didn't want to lose a single unit of manpower in the search for Olivia, especially not over something so personal. She wasn't squeamish or embarrassed about breastfeeding, but now that her wife, who shared in the feedings—who cherished them—had been so horribly violated for all to see, she felt protective of the act. Like she was somehow exposing Liv further.

Plus, she really wanted to see her kids. Noah and Jesse would have far too many questions, but the babies would have only love. That was something Amanda was in desperate need of right then.

She said goodbye to Daphne after several more promises from the little clerk to guard the girls with her life and sic Hamilton on anyone who looked at them funny. Gigi or Frannie would be the better option. Female dogs were more loyal and aggressive about protecting their family, or so Amanda had heard. She'd seen it in action a few times with Frannie, and even gentle Gigi had fought ferociously out there in the woods, before she was even an official Rollins-Benson.

Amanda was considering calling Daphne back to tell her to bring the retriever instead when Dana suddenly sat forward, leaning past Amanda's shoulder and peering intently at the laptop screen. "I think . . . is she—?"

There was no need to finish, Amanda saw it too. Olivia had begun to stir, the mattress rustling beneath her as she attempted to undo her body from the tight knot it had slept in. Though her face wasn't visible, her struggle was obvious, a weak moan accompanying even the slightest progress she made at unbending her knees and straightening her spine. She opened like a strange, arid plant on the desert floor, like the shriveled brown boll of a cotton blossom. The sharp, brittle bolls shredded your hands if you weren't careful picking the cotton, and by the end of the day, you had a blood-red crop to show for it.

"Manda?" she said, her voice thick with sleep and confusion. Failing to sit up or even lift her head more than an inch from the bed, she let it loll back in defeat and turned it gradually side to side on the padding, taking in her surroundings. Several moments passed when she clearly didn't know where she was or what had happened to her.

As painful as it was to see her so disoriented, Amanda hoped she would stay that way. It was better if she couldn't remember, wasn't it? She'd been spared some of the trauma of Lewis and the Mangler by being drugged, and she didn't even know that Dr. Giacomo had groped her breasts while she was passed out on his couch during the undercover op. Amanda hadn't the heart to tell her. Why traumatize her even more?

But it wasn't better, not when reality began to sink in. Amanda watched it play out on Olivia's face, just like she had watched every one of the rapes (except whatever the MAGA hat man had done while the cameras were off), and this was almost as bad. Olivia lay there reliving all the horrors done to her in the past forty-eight hours, wading back into the dark, uncharted waters until they were at her elbows, shoulders, chin.

Then she slipped under completely, sobbing without tears for the next ten minutes straight. She only stopped when exhaustion won out and she dropped back into sleep, heavy as an anchor tossed overboard. One hand clutched at the collar of her shirt, keeping the stretched fabric from sagging too low on her breasts; the other was wedged under the mattress like she'd been interrupted mid-reach. It was strange to see her dodge in and out of sleep so effortlessly, when she sometimes took hours to nod off at home and seldom shut her eyes again after waking.

So acute was her exhaustion, Amanda felt it through the screen, felt it in her own bones. She longed to rest her head on the table and sleep alongside her wife, who was there but not. Maybe when she woke up, this would all be nothing more than a bad dream. The worst she'd ever had. But that couldn't be—the drugs had already put her out, and the nightmare still raged on, all these hours later.

God, she was tired. Several moments passed while she tried to remember what it was she had intended to do before Olivia proved she wasn't in a hypothermic coma. It took a tap on the shoulder from Dana to reorient her, and to remind her that the other woman was even there.

"Sorry." Dana flashed a hand in apology when Amanda jumped. "Why don't you go do the, uh, pumping thingamajig so you'll be ready when your friend shows up? I'll stay here and keep an eye on her."

Amanda nodded dully. She hated that Dana had overheard her entire conversation with her daughter and Daphne. It wasn't as if she was being spied on by the FBI woman, but watching her wife be repeatedly violated made everything else feel like a gross invasion of privacy. She hated it for Olivia, who was intensely private about her personal business, and for herself, because she wanted nothing more than to make Olivia proud, to follow her lead. She hated that she might never get the chance.

There wasn't a lot she didn't hate at the moment.

"Yeah, okay." Amanda stood abruptly, getting a head rush from the sudden drop in blood pressure, and swiped her phone off the table as if she suspected Dana of plans to pocket it while she was gone. She pulled up the live feed on the device, showing it to Dana, lest she get the impression Amanda was entrusting Olivia to her alone. "I can watch from the crib. Shouldn't take me very long. Maybe when I get back you could put a little more effort into finding her, 'steada just playing lookout."

Unfair, rude. Amanda didn't care. She had much more important things to worry about than Dana Lewis' bruised feelings. What was left of her bruised, unconscious wife in hand, she exited interview one and headed for the crib, where at least she would be able to do something useful for her baby.

. . .

Chapter 23: Come Little Children

Notes:

Posting schedule? What posting schedule? Yeah, it kinda went out the window this week again. Sorry, guys. :/ And I know everyone's getting antsy for some relief for Liv. I'm working on it, I promise. It might not happen all at once, but the wheels are definitely in motion. I don't think trigger warnings are necessary for this chapter, if that helps. Yay, Daph!

Chapter Text

Chapter 23.

Come Little Children

. . .

"Well, Geeg, looks like you're hanging out with us girls." Daphne held her phone out to the dog, showing her the text as if she could actually read the short missive from Amanda:Bring Gigi, not Ham. Daphne didn't need an explanation for the request, and honestly, it was a bit of a relief. She loved Hamilton more than life itself, but the goldendoodle's energy level was off the charts and the thought of trying to keep track of him, plus a three-year-old and a three-month-old, gave her heart palpitations.

The sweet golden retriever was far more obedient, and Daphne knew firsthand just how loyal and protective she was. Gigi had faced off with that madman in the woods and ultimately helped rescue Olivia and Amanda. Daphne might not have witnessed that part, shattered and half dead as she was at the time, but she remembered well how terrifying and strong Thaddeus Orion had been. If the dog could take that on to defend her family, she would stop at nothing to defend the youngest members of her household.

Frannie and the Ham-ster would have to make do until everyone got back, because there was no way in hell Daphne could handle three dogs and two small children on the sidewalks of New York City. She'd be lying dead in the middle of traffic within the first five minutes. And she had already had more than enough close encounters with motor vehicles to last a lifetime.

"Okay, let's find your leash," she said to the golden, half expecting her to trot off and come back with the lead in her mouth. She was smart and well-trained enough to do it, but she was also unfamiliar with taking commands from Daphne, who didn't have quite the presence of an Olivia or Amanda Rollins-Benson. She was lucky to get Hammie to sit while she poured food in his dish, let alone train him to be as intuitive and gentle as Gigi. "Leash, leash, where's the leash?"

"Here, Aunt Daphy." Matilda, sweet little angel that she was, couldn't pronounce Daphne to save her life, but she located the extra-long walking lead for Gigi as if by magic. The little girl had the golden retriever's gift of insight and understanding as well, and she trotted the leather strap over to Daphne, saving her the added steps with her cane. Unlike big sister Jesse, who liked to hide the cane and snicker while Noah and Daphne searched high and low. "'Is is Gigi's."

"Tills, I am claiming you as my other godchild and taking you home with me, how's that sound? You wanna move in with Aunt Daphy and Hambone, and help keep us in line?" Daphne fluffed and bounced the coppery red ringlets that sprung from Matilda's head in every direction, like wild poppies. They were irresistible, those bright spirals, and Matilda was still young enough to revel in the attention. Daphne had learned the hard way that Noah was past the age of tousled curls.

Matilda deliberated for a moment, glancing back and forth between Daphne and Hamilton, who had appointed himself king of the sofa. He lay there now, sprawled on his back with all four legs co*cked at separate angles. Badly in need of grooming, he looked like a shearling blanket tossed to the winds.

"No, thank you," said Matilda, a finger in her mouth as she gave an uncertain shake of the head. The most conscientious soon-to-be four-year-old on the planet. "I stay with mommies and sissies and bubby. You can live with us. Us'll adopted you."

Well, if that wasn't the most charming response possible, Daphne didn't know what was. She had never really considered herself the motherly type, and once she hit thirty-five, kids seemed to be off the table altogether. But spending time with the Rollins-Benson children always made her wonder what could be. Especially sweet Tilly. And baby Sammie was proving just as lovable, even if she did sometimes stare at Daphne like she was contemplating homicide. "I think your mamas might have something to say about that, sweet girl. But I appreciate the thought."

Nodding as though she understood, Matilda gave Daphne's knee a consoling pat. Then she asked the question Daphne had been dreading since she first arrived at the apartment after that frantic phone call from Amanda the previous day: "Where's Mommy and Mama? They come home soon? I want them, please."

It had been difficult enough lying to the older kids and dodging their eerily accurate suspicions ("Is one of them sick?" Noah asked while being tucked in the previous night, "Is it my mom? Is she in the hospital again?"), but looking into Matilda's hopeful eyes, bluer than the horizon where the ocean met the sky, and just as honest, was like lying in church. Walking up to the altar and thumbing your nose at God himself.

Daphne wasn't particularly religious, unless you counted worshiping hot middle-aged alpha females who carried guns, but even she didn't feel comfortable flouting divine authority like that. She tapped Matilda lightly on the tip of her nose, drawing her attention to the approaching fingertip rather than the eyes above. "They're still at work, Tilly Vanilli," she said, affection softening her tone from its usual sardonic glint. Jesse was the only Rollins-Benson kid she traded barbs with; the six-year-old gave as good as she got. "They'll be home just as soon as they can, okay? But I know they miss you so much and want to be with you too. "

That was about as close as she could get to the truth. She held her breath, half expecting Matilda to let out an indignant squawk like Sammie did whenever she realized her mothers had not returned yet, forcing her to make do with Aunt Daphy or Nanny Lucy. The baby clearly had her favorites—namely the ones who put boobs in her mouth instead of plain old bottle nipples—but Matilda showed a bit more decorum, nodding in resignation.

"In the meantime, we'll stop in to say hi to your mama on our way to the park." Daphne ruffled the curly head resting against her leg once more. It sprang up, ringlets bouncing, and Matilda flashed an equally buoyant smile before toddling off to collect her lovies and the little purse she didn't leave home without.

The child loved her accessories. She and Daphne were of the same ilk in that respect. Daphne had so looked forward to turning her favorite little ginger into a fashionista like herself—Jesse was a hopeless case, and thus far, Samantha's interest in clothes extended only to what she could gnaw on or poop in—but the future was too uncertain for such plans now. If Olivia didn't make it out of the predicament she was in alive . . .

Daphne couldn't even finish the thought, let alone guess at what it might entail. She'd only known the captain for two years, and she already couldn't imagine life without her in it. Losing Olivia would destroy Amanda and the kids. The family Daphne had quite unexpectedly found herself a part of, just by sheer dumb luck and the need to let Hammie burn off some of his energy at the dog park, felt as if it were slipping through her fingers. She was determined not to let that happen, although what she had to contribute was hard to say. There were no magic files for her to pull this time, the key to rescuing Olivia contained within, and it was too late to play target, distracting the bad guy while her friends got away.

It seemed the best she had to offer was superb childcare and free housekeeping services, for whatever that was worth. "Not a whole damn lot," she muttered to herself as she latched the leash to Gigi's collar, readied the stroller for Samantha, and stuffed everything she could possibly fit into the diaper bag.

She affixed her brightest Aunt Daphy smile for Matilda when the little girl returned, dragging almost as many provisions with her—you never knew how many dolls and stuffed animals you might need on an eighteen-block trek through the city. The cops assigned to the Rollins-Benson children's security detail probably thought Daphne was a loon, refusing to be driven the short distance to the one-six, rather than stumping her way down the street with a double stroller and a large dog in tow. But those cops would never understand that the city felt safer to her than being boxed in a car; cars were unpredictable, even deadly in the wrong hands. And every face she saw behind a windshield belonged to Orion.

Besides that, the younger kids needed some fresh air. Noah and Jesse had school to get them out of the apartment, to get their minds off their absent parents, but Matilda and Samantha were reliant on fun Aunt Daphne for distraction. Time to live up to her reputation as the spunky free-spirit who didn't let a simple thing like permanent disability get her down.

By the twelfth block, Daphne no longer felt spunky or free, and if her cane got caught in the spokes of the stroller one more time, she was going to scream. Luckily, Gigi was a pro at sensing and alleviating stress, and she paused every other block, making sure Daphne took a moment to breathe and center herself. They were close enough to Bryant Park to see the skinny vertical windows of the library, the horizontal slivers of interior lighting like mismatched rungs on ridiculously tall ladders. Though a relatively low building by NYC standards, its architecture always reminded Daphne of the songStairway to Heaven.

She hummed a few bars of the Led Zeppelin tune until the calliope music from Le Carrousel drowned out the melody. "Horseys!" cried Tilly from her front-facing seat in the stroller, though the small carousel had yet to come into view. Girl loved her horses. Daphne had thought about taking the kid upstate to ride some real horses on her upcoming birthday, but she had the feeling there wouldn't be much celebrating by then. Matilda turned four in just over a month.

Would Olivia be healed enough for a party? Would she even be alive to see her sweetest child reach preschool age?

Yo, I know I'm a giant lesbian and all, and according to some, that's not your cup of tea, Daphne thought, unsure of how to start a prayer, it had been so long (yo was probably a bit informal, but it would have to suffice),but if you're really up there, I doubt you're the hom*ophobic stick in the mud people make you out to be. I know you cared enough to make sure Liv and Mandy Lou got together, so you must be pretty disgusted by what's happening right now. I mean, Liv's one of the best people I know, and I can't imagine you want her to suffer like this. Look, dude—or dudette—can you just help her? And Amanda? For their kids' sakes, if nothing else. Please.

Please just don't let her die.

Amen. Hastily she made the sign of the cross, though she wasn't Catholic. She would have faced Mecca if she knew which direction it was in. Anything to better her chances of being heard and, despite the irreverence of her pseudo-prayer, being taken seriously by whoever was listening. Maybe she could even stop in at one of the churches on her way back home and light a candle for her friends. With Matilda and Samantha along for the ride, she could light two more. Three candles had to be worth something.

"We'll see the horseys after we visit your mama for a few minutes, okay, frilly Tilly?" The precinct had finally come into sight, and Daphne pointed it out to the little girl, leaning over the stroller handle so her hand was visible beyond the canopy. "We're almost there, just a couple more streets to go. Can you hold your horseys that long?"

A giggle from under the canopy was the cryptic reply, which Daphne took as a yes. Samantha hadn't made a peep from her bassinet-style side of the stroller since they left the apartment, but she had no more appreciation for Daphne's sense of humor awake than she did sound asleep. Gigi at least looked up wearing her signature golden retriever grin, and even if it was a pity laugh, it was better than nothing.

"Thanks, Geeger. I'm glad you get me." Daphne rubbed the dog's head and marveled once again at her obedience. Hamilton would have been halfway across the patch of lush green grass by now, chasing a stranger's frisbee, oblivious to the three small humans he was dragging behind him, the big galumph.

With Gigi they made it past the west lawn without a single tug of the leash or a break in their stride. She did release an ominous growl when a man in a red baseball cap stood up from one of the bistro chairs that flocked the lawn like a gaggle of spindly green birds and stubbed out a cigarette under the toe of his sneaker. Daphne didn't scold; the guy left his nasty cigarette butt right there on the sidewalk, he deserved to be growled at.

"Right on, girl," she muttered, sidestepping the smear of ash and tobacco, the paper crumpled up like the body of a dead insect. An exotic white beetle with a corklike abdomen. Or maybe not so exotic, since the ground was littered with their carcasses as far as the eye could see.

Daphne sighed, and decided against plucking up the trash and calling to the man that he'd forgotten his smelly carcinogenic pollutant, as if he'd left behind a set of keys. She'd been a New Yorker for a while now—lobbing sarcasm at perfect strangers was par for the course—but there was no sense in starting something, even if she did have a police convoy tailing her every move. She would save it for a day she didn't have such precious cargo to look after.

The litterbug and Daphne's distaste for smokers were soon forgotten as the park faded behind them, the chatter of a hundred people, tourist and resident alike, and the reeling carousel music dwindling into the background. Another wall of noise went up before them, thick as a concrete slab with a thousand more voices, honking horns, angry drivers and the fumes of countless traffic jams, as they neared the precinct.

Daphne waded into the hot, acrid stew, wishing she had approached from the far less populated rear entrance. It was meant for NYPD use only, with a chain-linked parking lot for the muckety-mucks, of which Captain Olivia Benson was one, and street parking for the lowly officers and detectives (Daphne had it on good authority that Liv often gave up her spot to her lower-ranking wife), but Daphne could have been granted civilian access at a word from Amanda. Especially with a captain's children on hand.

"Aunt Daphy, it's stinky," Matilda cried in dismay, her hand just visible outside the canopy, flapping like a tiny white flag. Mayday, mayday. "I don't like it, please. Mommy holds me now. You hold me now?"

The poor little kid was a lot closer to the ground and the smell that wafted up from the pavement, the way cooked-in odors lingered on stovetop burners and inside microwaves. Not to mention the lungfuls of exhaust she was probably getting with every breath. So much for giving the babies fresh air. There were only a few more streets left to go, and Daphne considered asking her to wait another minute or two, but she couldn't ignore that little hand signaling SOS. Matilda so seldom complained, it felt cruel to ignore her innocent request.

"Okay, Tillybean, let's pull over here and get you resituated," Daphne said, easing the stroller and Gigi aside to make room for oncoming foot traffic. Gigi stood guard next to Samantha's bassinet, which, rear-facing, canopy-topped, and elevated to waist height, kept the sleeping baby from sucking in much of the city effluvium that ambulatory adults and sensitive three-year-olds got by the faceful. "And Sammie, you just do you, girl."

"Need any help?"

It was one of the cops assigned to the kids, Daphne thought his name might be Montero, though he looked vaguely Asian. He seemed to be under the impression that Daphne's cane put her at old lady status, because he offered a hand any time she took a step without it. She appreciated his willingness to help, she really did, but a nice female officer, statuesque, about thirty or forty, would have been preferable.

"Thanks, I've got it," she said in her best deputy clerk tone, perfected by years of working with the public. Amanda always laughed when she turned on that voice.I think you missed your calling as a flight attendant, Daph, the detective liked to tease, of the bright but robotic cadence. Buh-bye, take care, have a nice day, buh-bye now. "She's lighter than some of the court dockets I've carried."

"Oh yeah? Which court do you work in? I don't remember seeing you around."

Great, now he was interested. Next he would be suggesting they meet for coffee someday during their lunch hour. Daphne unbuckled Tilly and hauled the little girl onto her hip, using the stroller handle for balance. She hadn't been exaggerating about the dockets—paperwork in general was surprisingly heavy, particularly when stacked—but thirty-one pounds of toddler, even a light, birdlike thirty-one pounds like Tilly, required some strength. Luckily, Daphne did extra curls at the gym. Keeping up the gun show for the ladies.

"Probably because we were both busy hitting on other women," she said. The sooner they got this part out of the way the sooner they could resume their roles as bodyguard and the guarded, and no, it would not be anything like the Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner version, thank you very much. "I'm gay and sort of . . . involved with another cop. Who's a woman. So."

Involved might be an overstatement. She and Kat were currently off again in their yearlong relationship, which had so many highs and lows she could no longer recall who was mad at whom, and whose turn it was to break down and call the other. Then again, maybe she would run into Officer Tamin at the precinct, strike up a conversation, offer some comfort. The thought of what was happening to Olivia, the memories it awakened of Meredith Ashton, made Daphne miss having someone by her side, holding her hand when things got rough.

"Ah." Montero gave a thoughtful pause. A tinge of humor was detectable when he spoke again, his voice not quite as level as he likely intended. "Well, I'm straight and married. To a woman. You won't catch me hitting on anybody but my wife. So." He smiled and flashed his wedding band at Daphne, her eyes going to that finger and then to him, abashed.

"See, Tilly, this is why I don't interact with the male species." Daphne offered an apologetic smile to Montero before turning back to her unofficial goddaughter. "Your Aunt Daph has no game with the fellas. Now, the ladies I got covered. I've been told I'm irresistibly charming. What do you think?" She gave her shoulder-length hair a toss, striking a supermodel pose from the shoulders up.

Tilly listened intently, almost as if she understood. Then she broke into a wide grin, squeezing Daphne's cheeks between her tiny palms to form even bigger fish lips. "Aunt Daphy, you so silly."

"That does seem to be the popular consensus, at least with most of my exes." Daphne spoke in all seriousness, despite her squished together lips. She opened and closed them like a guppy in a fishbowl, getting a giggle and a kiss from Matilda. "Except they think silly is spelled with a 'B' and an 'itch,' for some reason. Gigi knows what I'm talking about, huh, girl?"

"You might not wanna—"

"Bee and an itch," Matilda repeated in singsong, interrupting the warning from Montero. To the little girl everything was a song, and she made up her own tune now, with the lyrics Daphne had unwittingly provided. "Bee itch, bee itch.