Despite everything, despite his injuries and the fact that he should have been completely out for the count, Elliot was aware - at least on a superficial level - as he was carried out of the forest. Olivia's voice registered somewhere in his fragmented mind, telling him that he was going to be okay.
He believed her - he had no reason not to.
As he was lifted into the waiting chopper, he caught a glimpse of Mike nearby. Bobby was out of his line of sight but he could see Carolyn, and that reassured him that Bobby, too, was there. None of them had been left behind.
Tears burned his eyes. Bobby and Mike had had ample opportunity to leave him and save themselves, and yet they had risked their lives to help him. It was something that he would never forget, or be able to repay. That was okay, though, because he knew without a doubt, that neither of them would ever expect him to.
The knowledge would remain, though, and Elliot knew that from that moment on, if either Bobby or Mike ever needed help of any sort. He would be right there for them in a heartbeat.
A smile touched his lips, despite the pain he was in. He'd not been abandoned, and no words could describe how good that really felt.
"Is Elliot smiling?" Cragen asked incredulously as he peered down at his injured detective. Olivia paused, gazing down at her battered partner.
"I think so. I guess the pain medication must be kicking in."
Cragen grunted, but didn't comment further. Across the way, Ross looked from Mike to Bobby in bemusement, wondering at how he could feel equal amounts of pride and annoyance with his two detectives.
They had done themselves proud, that was clear - both in the way they'd handled a horrifying situation, and in the way they had clearly stuck by Elliot Stabler. Of course, none of them would know the whole story until at least one of the men was coherent enough to tell them, but going by Mike's stilted words earlier, and by what they'd discovered on the path, it was obvious that there had been a great deal of courage on display.
What had Mike said? He would never leave his brother behind. Somehow, Ross knew without a doubt that Mike was talking about Elliot when he said that. Somehow, at some point over the weekend, Bobby and Mike's relationship with Elliot Stabler had surpassed friendship, and reached the status of brotherhood. That was a bond that would not be easily broken, and Ross was confident that he would never need to remind either Mike or Bobby about how fortunate they were to have found that level of comradeship.
Given what he knew they had already been through together, he didn't doubt that they already knew.
With a small smile adorning his own face, Ross settled back in his seat, quietly confident that all three men were going to be okay.
The first thing that Elliot became aware of again was the irritating glare of fluorescent lights as they burned his retinas. He groaned and shut his eyes again against the discomfort they caused him.
"Elliot? What is it? Are you in pain?"
Probably, a distant part of his brain acknowledged. However, right then he was more bothered by the lights, and tried to say as much. In the end, though, he could only get out one word.
Thankfully, garbled though it was, the message somehow made it across and the lights were dimmed sufficiently to enable him to open his eyes again without suffering that god-awful burn. As his vision cleared, he nearly wept at the sight of Olivia, hovering at his side.
She reached down to close her hand lightly over his, and smiled tearfully.
"You have no idea how grateful I am to see you awake."
Her words registered in his still-fuzzy brain, and he wondered how long he'd been out.
"You've been unconscious for five days, Elliot," Olivia told him, easily guessing what he was thinking. He flinched a little at the revelation, and Olivia hastened to reassure him.
"Don't panic, Elliot. The doctors had you in an induced coma for three days, until you stabilized. You're going to be okay, I promise."
Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to relax. If Olivia told him he was going to be okay, then he would be. He had no reason not to believe her. Gradually, his thoughts shifted from his own hurts and discomfort, to others, and he struggled to voice his concerns to his partner.
It seemed all he could manage at the moment were one word sentences, but bless his beautiful partner - she knew exactly what he was trying to say.
"They're going to be all right," she reassured him. "Mike just has mainly cuts and bruises, and he's a bit battered from fighting Blake. Bobby had a fractured skull, but it wasn't as bad as everyone thought. They'll be in the hospital for around a week. You, on the other hand, have a longer stay to look forward to."
Elliot sighed wearily. He was less bothered by that than he figured he ought to be. Somehow, though, the prospect of a prolonged hospital stay seemed an insignificant concern compared to the relief he felt at the revelation that Bobby and Mike were both all right.
With that reassurance, though, came a fresh worry. Before he had a chance to even contemplate asking, though, Olivia spoke again.
"Blake is dead, Elliot. He was dead when we got to you."
She didn't divulge the cause of Blake's death. In the last few days, much had happened. Specifically, Bobby had confessed to hitting Blake in the head with a rock to subdue him, and possibly the swiftest investigation in IAB history had cleared him of any wrongdoing. It was, as Ross had said that night on the mountain, a clear-cut case of self defence. IAB had rule justifiable homicide, and cleared Bobby completely.
For his part, Elliot took the news silently and emotionlessly. He felt no remorse, only relief. Blake would never be a threat to anyone ever again.
He was barely aware that he was weeping until Olivia reached down to gently wipe the tears from his cheeks.
"You're safe, Elliot," she told him softly. "He'll never hurt you again."
"Or anyone else," Elliot mumbled through numb lips and a swollen tongue. His thoughts then were with Bobby and Mike, knowing full well what horrific acts Blake would have perpetrated on them if things had gone badly.
"Or anyone else," Olivia confirmed. "God, Elliot, promise you'll never do anything like this again."
He would have grimaced if his face didn't hurt so much. As much as he wished he could make that promise, he knew it was futile, and so did she.
"I know," Olivia said with a sigh. "I know."
"Hey, he's awake?"
She looked around to see Fin entering the room, and she smiled. It was the first time she' felt like smiling for some time.
"Hey, Elliot," Fin greeted him. "Looking good, pal."
Fin, however, shook his head seriously.
"You're alive. Trust me, right now, you couldn't possibly look any better to us than that."
Elliot supposed he could concede to that, and as much as he hurt, he was alive and that felt pretty damned good.
"Elliot's awake," Alex announced as she walked into Bobby and Mike's shared room. It had been with some consternation that the hospital had given them a room together, given their antics during their previous hospital stay - the nurses had long memories, and were justifiably mistrustful. The boys had sworn to be on their best behaviour, though, and had stayed true to their word.
It also helped that neither had the energy to move from their beds, let alone pull any stunts.
"That's good news," Mike murmured with a sigh of relief, and Bobby nodded his agreement.
"Any chance of getting in to see him?" Mike wondered, but Alex shook her head.
"Not yet. Maybe in a couple of days, according to his doctor. He's only just woken up, and they don't want to overload him."
"Fair enough," Bobby conceded. "I hope we don't have to wait too long, though. He needs to know that nothing that happened was his fault."
"Yeah," Mike agreed. "We want to make sure he knows that."
"I'd like to say he won't," Carolyn mused, "but I think we all know better than that. He's going to feel responsible, regardless. I just hope you boys are up to convincing him otherwise."
Bobby and Mike exchanged wry smiles. Oh, they were up to it, and then some. One way or another, Elliot was going to understand that he had no reason to harbor any guilt over what had happened.
Alex and Carolyn exchanged worried looks. They knew those furtive grins only too well, and knew it spelt trouble. Alex leaned in, and spoke in a threatening voice.
"If you clowns even think about taking Elliot on the lam before he's given the all-clear from his doctor, we will let Olivia do whatever she likes to you. Am I making myself clear?"
"Chill, Alex," Mike assured her with a warm, if somewhat amused smile. "We won't do anything like that, we swear it."
Alex snorted loudly and derisively.
"Like we haven't heard that before."
Elliot was feeling utterly and completely morose. Olivia had finally been kicked out of his hospital room, leaving him alone with his thoughts. It was very much the wrong thing to do.
Now, he lay wide awake in the semi-dark room, unable to sleep for the nightmares that plagued him. Whenever he closed his eyes, he could see Blake's face, grinning madly at him. Worse, though, where the nightmarish trails his mind followed when he thought about what could have happened to Mike and Bobby.
He'd had no right to put either man at risk in the way that he had, and he knew no apology would ever be enough.
"Oh, I know that look."
A first, Elliot thought he was imagining Mike's voice, until he finally looked towards the door, and saw both brothers coming in, one after the other.
Bobby peered around Mike, and nodded sagely.
"Nothing like a hefty dose of guilt to keep you awake at night."
"What are you two doing here?" Elliot asked hoarsely. "The nurses will have your asses Ina sling of they catch you out of bed."
"Nah," Mike said cheerfully. "They're used to us pulling this sort of shit. I think they kinda of expect it now, and we wouldn't want to disappoint them. Right, Bobby?"
Bobby smirked as he dropped into one of the chairs beside Elliot's bed.
"Listen," Elliot said hoarsely, "I am so sorry... Ow!" He helped as Mike reached over and whacked him lightly across the back of his head. "What the hell did you do that for?"
"What did I say?" Mike demanded. "Out on that friggin' trail, after we finally stopped Blake, what did I say to you?"
Elliot stared at him blankly, too taken aback by Mike's unexpected reaction to make a coherent response.
"I think you should take pity on him, Mikey," Bobby said lightly. "In his defence, he was more than a little out of it at the time."
"I barely remember anything that went on," Elliot admitted. "The last thing I clearly remember is when you guys jumped Blake and saved my ass. What happened? No one who's come to see me will say. I think they think I'm gonna flip."
"You fell, Elliot," Bobby told him soberly. "You fell thirty feet. We thought you were going to die."
Elliot uttered a short , guttural bark of laughter.
"That would have pissed Blake off."
"Oh, it did," Bobby agreed with a wry smile. "But believe me when I say we would rather it not have happened."
"We could have gotten right off that mountain if it hadn't been for that... Ow, goddamn it, Mike..."
Mike leaned back after slapping Elliot across the back of the head once again.
"You keep ding that, and he's going to sic Olivia onto you," Bobby advised amusedly.
"I don't care," Mike said. "I'll keep doing it until he stops being a friggin' idiot. Do you really think that was why we were upset at you falling, Elliot? It hasn't occurred to you that maybe we were worried about you? That we didn't want you to die? Because seriously, pal, if getting off that mountain was our only concern, we would have done it and left you behind. It would have been perfectly reasonable for us to assume you were dead. Yes, we wanted off the mountain. No, we weren't going without you. So get it through your thick head - you're our friend and we don't abandon our friends. What happened wasn't your fault, so quit thinking it was."
Elliot's breath came in short gulps as he slowly began to really take in Mike's words. There was one scenario, though, that he had to throw out there.
"But if I hadn't come with you..."
"You would quite possibly be dead," Bobby interrupted. Elliot stared at him in confusion, and Bobby elaborated quietly.
"Think about it, Elliot. You would have been at home when Blake came calling. With the state of mind you were in at the start of the weekend, there's every chance he would have caught you completely unprepared. Even if you were found before he killed you, he still would have done serious damage. But you weren't on your own, you were with us, and because we were isolated, he got cocky and thought he had time to play around. It gave us time to think things through. Yes, we were all hurt. Yes, we wish it hadn't gone like that, but you know what? Despite how I acted to start with, I'm grateful now that Mike asked you to join us, because it meant you weren't on your own, and you had friends to back you up."
"Thank you," Elliot whispered, barely able to speak for the lump in his throat. Bobby reached down and laid a hand oh-so-lightly on Elliot's shoulder.
"You're welcome. Now, hurry the hell up and get well, so we can sneak you out of this hell-hole for coffee and a bagel."
Elliot uttered a short, sharp laugh.
"Isn't that the stunt that got you guys handcuffed to your hospital beds once?"
Mike grinned wickedly.
"Oh yeah. And contrary to popular opinion, it was worth it for the coffee fix."
"Only because we'd been deprived of it the whole time we were in the hospital," Bobby pointed out.
"You thought so too," Mike accused, to which Bobby reluctantly capitulated.
"Yeah, I did."
Elliot sighed tiredly.
"Man, that would have been fun."
"Heal up quick, pal," Mike told him, "and we'll make it a terrible trio instead of a deadly duo."
"That's awful, Mikey," Elliot groaned, only to falter at the memories of Mike's previous negative reactions to the nickname. Mike, however, was only grinng.
"Now you're catching on."
Elliot looked up at him quizzically.
"Does that mean I have permission?"
"Yeah, pal," Mike confirmed warmly. "You definitely have permission."
"You two really can't help yourselves, can you?"
Bobby and Mike exchanged weary looks as they arrived back at their hospital room to find Ross standing there waiting for them.
"Captain?" Bobby asked in confusion. "What are you doing here? It's nearly midnight!"
"Honestly?" Ross said with a wry smile. "I couldn't get past the duty nurse earlier this evening. She went on with some crap about strict visiting guidelines, and not bending them for anyone. So here I am, at midnight. Though, I have to admit, even though I've heard all of the stories, I really didn't expect to get here to find you gone."
"Well," Mike said as he eased himself back into bed, "can I just thank you on behalf of us both for not alerting the nurses to our absence? We don't really feel like that sort of trouble tonight."
"No problem. Where were you both, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Talking to Elliot Stabler," Bobby answered. "Just like you couldn't get in to see us this evening, they haven't let us go anywhere near Elliot since we arrived here. We needed to see him, so we snuck out of our rooms tonight, when there was a skeleton staff on the ward."
Ross couldn't help the grin that crept onto his face. He knew how frustrated Goren and Logan had been by the hospital staff's refusal to let them visit Stabler. It seemed they had finally lost patience and taken matters in hand.
"Nice. Well, you'll see no objections from me, as long as you don't even contemplate going AWOL from the hospital just for coffee. I'll sneak it in for you myself if I have to."
Bobby and Mike both laughed, much to Ross's gratification.
"How is Stabler?" he asked.
"He'll be okay," Bobby answered thoughtfully. "I don't just mean physically, either. He wasn't doing so great when we went in to see him, but I think we managed to convince him he doesn't have anything to be sorry for, or guilty over. Uh... You probably ought to know that we're not planning to go AWOL from the hospital while we're here, but once we're out of here..."
Ross lifted an eyebrow.
Mike spoke with a grin.
"We promised to kidnap Elliot and take him for coffee and a bagel."
"You might want to clue Olivia Benson in on that," Ross mused, "if you value your manhoods. I guarantee she'll castrate the both of you if you pull a stunt like that and leave her in the dark."
"He's right," Bobby confirmed ruefully. "She'd do it, too."
"We'll let her know," Mike said. "Despite popular opinion, we did actually learn our lesson after the last time. When we say we're going to kidnap him, I guarantee it'll be with the full knowledge of the hospital staff, as soon as Elliot's up to it. So, that said, what are you really here for? Because somehow I doubt it's just a casual visit. Otherwise, it could have waited until tomorrow."
"True," Ross admitted. "I did want to speak to you both, preferably without anyone else around."
"Oh boy, here it comes," Mike muttered. Ross fired an annoyed look at the detective.
"Don't be an ass, Logan. You don't even know what I'm going to say."
Mike had the grace to look embarrassed.
Ross nodded, pacified.
"What I was going to say was that I'm proud of the both of you. Not only did you stick together, you stood by Elliot Stabler at a time when he really needed it. I'm sorry to say that I know plenty of cops who would've cut and run, to save their own skins. You two didn't do that, and I admire and respect you for it."
"We appreciate the sentiment, Captain," Bobby said, "but it isn't necessary. There was no way we were ever going to leave Elliot behind, whatever happened."
"That sort of loyalty isn't quite as common as people think," Ross said. "You two might be proverbial pains in the ass, but you set the bar pretty high. What I'm trying to say is I'm glad you're both in my squad."
Mike and Bobby exchanged surreptitious looks, barely able to conceal their collective surprise.
"Thank you, Captain," Bobby said finally. Ross's eyes glinted.
"I'd like to ask you to reassure me that you won't get into trouble like this again, but somehow I suspect that's a vain hope. So what I am going to ask is to keep looking out for each other."
Mike answered, and Bobby nodded in wordless agreement.
"You can count on it, sir."
To be continued...