Some people, all they want to do is sit and watch the world burn.
Elliot's never been one of those people.
But, as he stands in an abandoned building somewhere in Brooklyn that he believes held a cannery, at least at one time, he understands the impulse that has long eluded him. He looks at the pool of accelerant he's poured in concentric puddles, and he sees the evil glint of the tiny light he holds in his hand reflect in the acrid liquid.
All he has to do is drop the lighter – a cheap one, not even a BIC, but a flame's a flame – and in less than an instant, this whole place will go up like a tinderbox.
He casts a look over at the bundle of ropes and fabric that rests just outside the widening pool of accelerant and makes the sign of the cross, out of habit, if nothing else.
In the fractional moment between when he drops the lighter and when it ignites is when he feels the most alive that he has in months.
A gunshot only follows the path its given. The only way to stop it is to deflect it. Ropes and knives go where they're guided. But fire? Fire goes where it damn well pleases, devouring anything and everything in its path. Fire will consume a person, a home, a town, even an entire forest, and still rage onward until it's contained. It's Mother Nature at her most feral.
There's beauty in that, he thinks.
He only has a moment to admire his handiwork, before he has to leave, lest the fire consume him too. And though that may not be the worst thing – he already feels like, no matter all the good he's done in his life, his soul is still doomed to burn for eternity – he's not done yet.
There's more to be done.
"Man, that was sick," one of the young guys in the gang says, Elliot's not sure which one he is: they're all young enough to be his son, impressionable youths seduced by flare and the almighty dollar. "Did you see that? It went up, just like that!"
"You shoulda seen the one I did last month in Flatbush," Elliot says, leaning back with a cheeky grin. All he needs to do to have the young cohorts in the palm of his hand is to utilize some macho bravado; most of his exploits are altered versions of cases from his past, and others – the ones that require witnesses – are "safe places" that the fire department monitors, and any bodies are fresh from the unclaimed deceased persons section of the local morgue. "Lit up like Times Square on New Years' Eve." He spread his hands out in front of his face. "Marvelous."
"Oh, I think I heard about that one," the same young guy replies, and Elliot narrows his eyes. He thinks this kid is named Zak, and Zak is either oblivious or willing to play along with a charade he doesn't know exists, because the fire in Flatbush was long before Zak was old enough to be out of diapers, if even then. "That was you? You should be a legend around here, Ashes."
Elliot snorts and begins to walk away; they'll chase after him, beg for more stories of his exploits, and the more aloof he remains, the more they'll come to him. His ridiculous undercover nickname – the moniker had once belonged to a serial arsonist out of Allentown, who, once he was safely in federal custody, turned informant. It's supposed to be an homage to a man who's apparently quite formidable, but it only feels like an ill-fitting suit on him.
Blaze would have been a much cooler nickname, if it had to be fire-related. If I could have gotten them to let me bring Olivia along, maybe she could have been my Ember.
The longer he's undercover, the more he feels as though he's losing sense of who he is, and why he does what he does. The longer he's under, the more he feels as though he's tumbling from God's favor and Olivia's grace, and he isn't sure which loss stings more.
He wants nothing more than to be cocooned in her soft-spun Egyptian cotton sheets and fluffy down pillows – he's sure she'd indulge herself at least those small luxuries – and waking up with her sleepy, smiling face looking back at him. Her voice, the one thing that could heal any wound of his, would speak in soft, caressing whispers as her fingertips would trace the outlines of his skin, learning which places would light a spark inside him only she could subside.
Under her touch, he'd be matchsticks and kindling; there would be nothing left of him except, well, ashes, and then maybe his nickname would be fitting at long last.
He ducks off in the cover of the night, avoiding the streetlights and hearing his footsteps pound the pavement underneath him, one square of cement at a time.
No one seems to be following him, so maybe the kids have given him the mercy of going off to cause their own mischief. And maybe, in a previous life, Elliot would have cared more about what they're doing, but for now, he considers it a blessing.
He smells the smoke from the distant cannery fire, the one he'd ignited, and he smiles.
Eventually, he finds himself outside Olivia's apartment building, and he uses his burner cell to call her. She knows the procedures, her and Bell had drafted them when he'd insisted that Olivia had to be looped in, or else he wouldn't go. When she picks up, on the third ring, she waits for him to say anything. "Do you have a pen?" he asks.
There's two ways this can go – either she says "I'm in bed," which means she's home and can see him, or "ask my neighbor," which means she's unable to see him at a given moment – and he knows which one he'd rather hear.
"I'm in bed," she says with a sigh, and he wonders if maybe she truly is in bed and had been trying to sleep before his call awoke her, before she ends the call.
He's at her door in less than five minutes, counting what seemed to be the most excruciatingly slow elevator ride in the history of elevators. Before he can even lift his hand to knock at her door, the door flies open and a pair of hands grab onto his shirt and insistently tug him into the apartment. "Shh, we don't want to wake the neighbors. Or Noah."
He takes a look at her. She's wearing a matching pajama set in a shade of light-pink, her long hair is tucked up in a messy bun on top of her head, loose tendrils flying askew every which way, and her reading glasses are perched at the tip of her nose.
He's never been happier to see someone in his entire life, and that's including Kathy in the hospital after each of his children's births, or Olivia after any number of their close scrapes, or Olivia after Kathy's attack, or – suffice it to say, Olivia has always been a person he's happy to see, even on the days when he wasn't sure, but now, more than ever.
"You reek," she says, scrunching her nose as the unmistakable smell wafts toward her. "Don't tell me you were playing with fire again tonight."
"I'm not undercover at Build a Bear, Liv," he said. "Although I've heard some awfully fishy things about what can be stuck inside one of those bears besides stuffing and a voice box."
She clasps her hand over her mouth and runs to the kitchen sink to dry heave. "Take a shower, then we can talk."
Admittedly, this is the first time he's come directly from the scene of one of his adventures to see her, but he's still left a little stunned by her reaction. He knows better than to press it, at least not now, so he finds himself in her bathroom, staring at all the products that combined, help to compile the complete image of the woman he so adores.
There are towels in the cupboard under the sink, and the hot water is blissfully warm on every one of his sore, stiff muscles. He watches as the water turns a distinct shade of gray, washing the soot and singed edges off his weary body.
He flips open the caps of the two bottles of body wash he sees, debating between what is obviously Noah's Berry Bonanza Blast and the more subtle option of eucalyptus and vanilla that, upon smelling it, brings back so many powerful memories of their time together. He opts for the latter, hoping that maybe, some of it will continue to linger long after he's gone back under.
It'll be his own personal inside joke between him and God.
As he shuts off the water and lets the steam dissipate, Olivia gently knocks at the bathroom door. "I found some of your old clothes and threw your others in the wash real fast," she says, cracking the door open long enough to drop the neatly folded sweatpants and t-shirt on the floor, as if she didn't want to invade his privacy any more than she already had.
After getting dressed, and privately wondering where she'd gotten these clothes, he walks back into the living room. She greets him with a cold bottle of beer and a smile, before sitting down on the couch with her own cup of tea. "You were lucky, I was still going over last month's statistics when you called."
He pops off the cap and downs half of it in a gulp. "Not lucky. Had to see you."
"Elliot –" Her tone is warning, as if to remind him of what errant sparks can fly when they're in close proximity to each other. She crosses one leg over the other and scoots slightly down the couch toward him. "You told me last time you came over that you were going to try to get out of this."
"Moennig wants me in deeper. One of these days, it's going to have to be a real building, with a real body, and I'm going to have to get someone else's blood on my hands that hasn't done a damn thing to deserve it. I can't keep fudging stories and 'borrowing' from the morgue."
She nods, because she understands – not really, because even though he'd love to have her under, next to him, he knows that's not the kind of person she is. But she understands the beast of undercover work, how it can shape and change a person.
She's done things, things that he'd never understand, under a name belonging to someone else – Persephone, she'd said once – in a world beyond his understanding. And maybe, too, Ashes would be alongside Persephone, and maybe they'd understand each other in the same way Elliot hopes he and Olivia understand each other.
"You know I don't like it," she says, after a pause, "I don't like it, and your kids don't like it, and if you give me the word, I'll pull rank on Moennig and Bell and get you the hell out of there."
"How are the kids?" He hasn't been able to see them, except for Eli and Kathleen one Saturday when they happened to be at the same diner, since the night he went under.
She gnaws on the bottom corner of her lip and sighs, placing her hands on his thighs and looking him straight in the eyes. "You gotta understand, El, they're grieving their mom, and now they don't have their dad, either."
He nods, tears forming at the corner of his eyes. It's some sort of a sick cosmic joke that his wife – the mother of his five children – was ripped from them by an explosion and now he's out there causing more fire and destruction and mayhem in the name of his job.
What if that next body is someone's mother? Or wife?
He shakes his head to clear the nagging thought. "I'm trying, God knows I'm trying, Olivia, but the Albanians are harder to crack than they led us to believe. And how are you doing?" Looking at her, he sees the woman he's loved for so long that he's forgotten what it's like not to love her, and it's remarkable that after all the time they've known each other and everything they've been through, both together and apart, that he's sitting there on her couch.
"Me? Oh, uh," she says, pushing her glasses back up further on her nose with a gentle tap of her index finger, "I'm fine."
He knows what that means, and they're treading a dangerous line here. "And what if I don't believe you?"
"I don't know what you want me to say, Elliot." She looks at him, and her gaze grounds him, nails his feet to the floor, makes him not want to move from this spot now or ever again. "Because you want the truth? Or do you want me to lie to you and pretend like everything's great, that the worst thing is that the reported rapes went down month-to-month in my jurisdiction, but up in the other four boroughs?"
"I can take it. Whatever you want to say to me."
Her laugh is bitter and raucous, but somehow, she maintains a steady gaze on him. "I could tell you stories that would make the few hairs left on the top of your head stand up in fright, and they'd all be true, Elliot. Things you missed." She unbuttons the top few buttons of her pajama top, and he sucks in a deep breath. Pockmarked across her otherwise perfect skin are telltale circles singed into her flesh – somewhat faded with time, and that would explain the tube of scar cream he'd seen by the bathroom sink, but they're unmistakably the signs of old burns. "That's what your precious fire did to me."
"That's why you had me take a shower when I got here."
She buries her head in her hand and leans forward, bringing her head to brush against his knee. "I – I can't, Elliot." He wants to strangle whoever lit the match that inflicted her pain; he wants to dance toe-to-toe, even if it's with the devil himself, and bring back her sense of solace. Tonight's not the night to have this conversation, though it'll be a necessary one, he'll save it for a night when his identity hasn't been split in two.
He reaches out his hand to finger a loose lock of her hair. "If I'd known it'd worry you like this, I wouldn't have taken the gig. I would have had them find any other person." He has half a mind to march down to One Police Plaza, even though it has be close to midnight, and demand a reassignment from the Chief of Police himself.
"I worry about you." She looks up at him with glassy brown eyes, ones that look as though they could start to cry at any moment. "I was forced to walk through the fire, and I somehow made it out alive, but not without leaving pieces of me behind in the ashes. Kathy was consumed by the fire, and now I'm afraid you're going to become the fire."
"I'm not going to." Even saying it aloud, it sounds false to his ears, considering he's been worried for days about the exact same thing – when the blaze that's been burning inside his soul would consume him from the inside out and make him into a walking inferno, destroying everything he touches in his path. Including her.
She cocks her head to look at him, her lips slightly parted as if in deep thought. "You can't say that, though."
For a long time, he'd always thought that they were twin flames, keeping each other alight through the darkest of their nights – even when he couldn't see her, he could feel her presence. But she's not only his flame, but also his cool morning rain, dowsing the worst of his impulses and allowing him to see clearly.
Olivia is nothing if not adaptable.
He holds her face in his hands, and gently rubs an errant tear away with the pad of his thumb. "You make me want to try," he whispers, before he brushes his mouth over hers, tasting the lingering traces of chamomile on her lips.
Her lips are soft, and as he breaks apart for a moment to stare at the wonder in front of him, she pulls him back in again with an almost imperceptible nod. The stubble from his beard – the one they'd made him grow for his role – gently scratches against her hand as she rests it against his cheek, and she whimpers slightly, and he can't remember the last time he ever heard Olivia Benson whimper, especially because of something he'd done.
"I wasn't expecting that," she says quietly, as they separate, lips hovering perilously close to each other, ready to dive back in for a third round whenever the signal's given.
He smiles. Like, genuinely smiles, feels the corners of his lips twist up toward his eyes, and looks at her with nothing but reverence and devotion. "You make me want to be better."
She runs a long, elegant fingernail down the column of his throat and audibly sighs. "Unfortunately, I have a 6 am sharp meeting with the new SVU chief and the other borough captains," she says, "that's why I was going over all these numbers tonight."
"I can stay until you have to leave for it," he says. If the meeting was much later, he wouldn't be able to, but he'd be out under the cover of darkness and back into his cover long before sunlight would illuminate all his sins. "If you want me to, that is."
She sucks in her lower lip and pretends to think for a moment. "Would you?"
With a smile, she turns out the lamp light by the sofa and curls into his side. It might not be her cushiony oasis of soft pillows and mattresses that he'd dreamt of, but he'd be able to indulge himself in her oasis for that much longer.
As he allows himself to drift off to sleep holding her against him, he murmurs, "I love you." The words are so whisper-soft, he's not even sure if he's actually said it, or if he's only imagining that he did.
As if in reply, she reaches her hand over and rests her fingertips gently against his heart, before her soft breathing fills the room.
Maybe watching the world burn isn't for everyone, but Elliot knows if he's going to observe it, it's going to be with Olivia by his side.
(And if she wants to toss a match into the inferno, she's more than welcome to.)